You don’t need a driver’s license to sample some of the most exciting automobiles on the wildest roads and racetracks—just access to a video game. While today games are ubiquitous and playable on consoles, computers, your phone, and even inside your (real) car, they were still coming into their own in the 1980s, when you often needed a pocket full of quarters and an afternoon free from parental supervision to visit an arcade to enjoy them. Sound quaint? Nope. Some of the most exciting software out there was aimed at capturing the driving experience, so whether you were racing for glory, drifting for adrenaline, or ramming other digitized cars for justice, you probably played one of these five memorable titles from the decade that kickstarted car and racing games:
When Sega’s OutRun cabinet hit arcades in 1986, it kicked down a lot of doors. With an immersive sit-down, hands-on-the-wheel experience, it was one of the first titles to strike a great balance between semi-realistic driving feel and full-on arcade fun.
Inspired by the movie Cannonball Run, OutRun placed players “in” a Ferrari Testarossa convertible with a blonde passenger to zoom down oceanside drives and along twisting mountain, desert, and canyon roads, instead of in a race against a pack of rivals. Players steered and swapped between low and high “gears” to maximize speed. Each race stage led to another, more difficult course, until you finally completed one of five “final” goals, each with a unique cut scene.
OutRun also introduced the idea of selectable driving music in the arcade format, and the rad-era music it had to offer has enjoyed a recent renaissance among electrowave and vaporwave enthusiasts. OutRun was Sega’s most successful cabinet of the 1980s, and it’s such a timeless bit of fun that updated versions of the game are still sucking down pocket change today.
Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road
The arcade cabinet for Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road is definitely a confusing thing to behold. There are three steering wheels waiting for players—but four tiny trucks bounding around a tight dirt course on the screen. Who’s behind the wheel of the fourth truck? Creatures of the ’80s know all too well: the Ironman himself. Even if you bring a couple of buddies along with you to play, you’re going to have to face off against Stewart, and he’s most likely going to beat you.
Super Off Road appeared in 1989, and it was a refreshing break from most of the era’s other driving games. Its odd, anti-point-of-view axonometric presentation of the driving action demanded players engage in complex depth perception calculus as they piloted tiny Baja rigs while looking down at them as if from a helicopter. On the plus side, the game linked small bags of cash and nitro strewn along the truly challenging array of tracks to upgrades you could “purchase” between races, adding a strategy element missing from other contemporary titles.
The game would later get picked up by Nintendo for release on the Super NES, but a deal with Toyota to license its truck and brand imagery would sideline Stewart in favor of Mickey Thompson.
What happens when your video game loses its license to kill? Scrub any mention of James Bond from the screen and release it anyway, which is what Bally Midway did in 1983 with Spy Hunter.
An in-game car that kinda, sorta looked like the Lotus Elise from 007 flick The Spy Who Loved Me that had the ability to occasionally transform into a boat was only the tip of Spy Hunter‘s James Bond mimicry. There were also gadgets such as helicopter-destroying missiles, bad-guy-spinning oil slicks, and machine guns. These upgrades could be reloaded by driving into an 18-wheeler that would meander on screen every so often, a gift from the game’s off-brand “Q” division.
In place of the classic duh-duh-da-dahh Bond 007 soundtrack, players grooved to a sweet rendition of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn,” and Spy Hunter was conveniently available for almost every major home video-game system of the decade. Such was the game’s pop-culture appeal that it was included as a hidden Easter egg in Microsoft Office 2000, whereby the game appears in an Excel spreadsheet after you input an elaborate series of file-saves and keyboard-stroke combos. Very sneaky.
Released by Namco the year before Spy Hunter, Pole Position pioneered the format that would later come to underpin nearly all future arcade racing games. This was the software that introduced the high/low gearshift, the steering wheel and gas-pedal setup, and the third-person point of view, where the player’s vantage point hovers just behind the car they’re driving. This would only become familiar years later.
Gameplay in Pole Position was simple enough, as it asked you to haul a Formula 1 car around Japan’s Fuji circuit without tagging your opponents or leaving the track. The near-3-D look of the graphics and the speed of the action look quaint today, but they were unprecedented at the time. And the use of a real-life racetrack (selected in order to help newcomers feel comfortable with the game) had never been done before.
In the ’80s, “Cop with a Porsche” is the sort of high-minded plot concept that launched a hundred terrible action-movie scripts, yet it also spawned one spectacular driving video game: Chase H.Q. This game may look a bit like OutRun, albeit with a cop involved, right down to the familiar driving perspective, steering wheel, and high/low shifter. The gameplay, however, added an extra dimension: Not only did you have to make it to successive in-game checkpoints in your rad Porsche 928, but you also had to run bad guys off the road in the process. Because you’re a cop. With a Porsche.
If you’re still following us—we know, this is high-brow stuff—during the course of the game, players were asked to hunt down (in order) a Lotus Esprit, a Lamborghini Countach, a Porsche 959, a Ferrari 288 GTO, and another Porsche 928. Apparently, in the game’s fictional town, criminals are as singularly interested in driving rad exotics as the cops are. Pro tip: Use your turbo boosts for maximum ramming speed to ensure your in-game quarry never escapes the long arm of digital justice.