Post Script

Cut adrift: the sad demise of the true ar­cade racer

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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

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