Cut adrift: the sad demise of the true arcade racer
They will tell you Forza Horizon 3 is the best arcade racer of its generation. And they’ll be right, to a point: with its bright blue skies, winding roads and cheery presentation, Forza Horizon 3 is the closest facsimile of the classic arcade racer that either Xbox One or PS4 have yielded to date. Yet this is also a game where you can spend two hours nudging sliders this way and that to optimise the performance of one of hundreds of perfectly recreated licensed vehicles.
Stick all the assists at the maximum and, sure, you won’t spin out if you take a corner too quickly. But this makes Forza Horizon 3 an accessible driving game, not an arcade racer: even at its easiest, it’s light years away from the era when no one really knew what the brake button was even for. When you just took your finger off the gas at a hairpin, steered hard in, slammed the accelerator back down and watched as your car swung elegantly around the bend, perpendicular to the horizon. Ridge Racer, OutRun, Burnout and so on: whatever happened to those games? We rather liked them.
It’s telling that even the current crop of retro homage-payers have little interest in reviving this dormant subgenre. You can’t move for pixel-art sidescrollers these days, but in among the morass of Kickstarted nostalgia plays are few classically styled driving games. There’s the SEO-optimised The 90’s Arcade Racer, successfully funded three-and-a-half years ago but still unreleased. There’s the cheery, blocky neon of Drift Stage, which hit its funding target 18 months ago and is currently sat in alpha, its developers prepping for release on Steam’s Early Access. Beyond that? Pickings are slim.
At least the indie scene is having a go; at the other end of the funding scale, interest is nil. PS4 was the first Sony console to launch without a Ridge Racer. The creators of Burnout quit Criterion to set up on their own, leaving their former co-workers to make a VR mission for Star Wars Battlefront. And OutRun was dead long before Sega said it was done taking risks and would focus on proven successes such as Sonic and Total War.
As Sega’s situation makes clear, the death of the true arcade racer is primarily a financial concern. OutRun Online Arcade, the series’ swansong, was removed from console download stores when Sega’s licensing deal with Ferrari expired in 2011 (a similar fate was met by the Steam release of OutRun 2006: Coast2Coast). Clearly Ferrari is still in the licensing business; Forza Horizon 3 is proof of that. But Sega ran the numbers and decided that the cost outweighed the benefit, and chose not to renew the deal. A few years later, as part of a cataloguewide push into the potentially lucrative free-to-play space, Namco launched Ridge Racer for Vita. Sadly, it didn’t quite get freemium right: you had to pay for the barebones game and all its DLC. It was panned, it tanked, and it was the last we saw of Ridge.
Yet the fact that Namco realised it needed to tinker with a classic formula speaks to the fact that this isn’t just a business question, but a creative one too. What does an arcade racer look like in the year 2016? Our expectations – not just of racing games, but of games full stop – have changed tremendously over the past half-decade or so. We prize realism and fidelity; we expect progression systems, social hooks and endless distractions. Perhaps the reason no one makes arcade racers any more is that Burnout Paradise – with its open world teeming with activities, its multiplayer and its twitchy, drift-focused handling – was a creative dead end. There was nowhere left for its kind to go. Modern console processing power offers little to the likes of Burnout or Ridge Racer. But to a Gran Turismo, a Forza or a DriveClub? More lavish car models, with painstaking modelling of the interiors. Deeper customisation options. Ever-more accurate physics models, the feel of a car changing according to the surface of the road beneath it, complicated further by adverse conditions. Arcade racers have about as much use for a dynamic weather system or physically based rendering as they do a differential setting. Amid the push for realism, a genre of games that exists to subvert the harsh reality of guiding a supercar through a chicane has no place on store shelves.
Given all that, we should be grateful that Forza Horizon 3 exists at all. While there are obvious financial benefits to catering for racing fans of all stripes and skill levels, Horizon’s broad appeal is clearly a design decision first and foremost. It’s the work of a studio that understands that the genre in which it plies its trade has become too serious, and that sometimes even the most committed petrolhead just wants to wind the windows down, turn the volume up and chuck a fancy car a little recklessly around the streets.
In it we find hope. If it succeeds – as it certainly deserves to – perhaps others will take its lead: just as Gran Turismo put the massmarket sim racer on the podium, maybe Horizon will spark a revival of the true arcade racer. The Burnout series’ creators are working on a driving game. It’s hard to imagine EA letting a successful IP lie idle for long, so perhaps, once Criterion’s Death Star sortie is done, it will be allowed to go back to what it does best. And maybe Bandai Namco will look at Playground’s work and wonder if there’s a future in Ridge Racer. We can’t quite see Sega getting the chequebook out and putting OutRun back on the road, but you never know. This relentlessly upbeat game has a knack for bringing out the optimist in us.
It’s the work of a studio that understands that the genre in which it plies its trade has become too serious