In an apps industry rife with instant clones of the most successful games, it's heartening to see an indie tribute to a near-forgotten genre: the sprite-based arcade racer.
To gamers of a certain age, there's a racing title that stands out as one of the most iconic machines of the '80s video arcade: Out Run. A huge success on its release in 1986, partially due to the sheer presence of the game's hydraulic cabinet (which physically mimicked the movements of the player's onscreen Ferrari Testarossa), Sega's Out Run spearheaded a new category of arcade racers and exemplified the company's flashiest games of the period, which used rapidly scaled 2D sprites to rocket the player through a seeming 3D world (other notable titles from the company included After Burner, Thunder Blade, Space Harrier and Galaxy Force).
But come the advent of more sophisticated 3D polygon graphics a few years later, the sprite racers of the '80s began to be phased out, and despite the current popularity of 'old school' gaming styles with 8-bit leanings, pixel-art graphics and chip-tune audio tracks, the racers of the period haven't enjoyed the same retro resurgence as platformers, action games and shoot'em ups. Well-received 3D updates of Out Run have been in existence since 2003's Out Run 2 on consoles, PC and even in the arcade, but for the most part the 2D predecessor and its ilk have been relegated to the emulator crowd.
But one development studio, Oyatsukai.com, based in Japan and led by programmer Davide Pasca, is almost singlehandedly hosting an old-school racing renaissance with its latest iOS title, Final Freeway 2R. Building on the former "experimental" Final Freeway, new sequel Final Freeway 2R is an unabashed recreation of the original Out Run, incorporating cartoonishly pixellated freeways racing by, branching paths, rapidly changing exotic environments, a female (or male) driving companion, a choice of 'radio' station musical soundtracks and over-the-top crashes. Its arcade handling and simplicity might seem completely unrealistic to those more attuned to 3D driving sims, but therein lies the appeal of the 2D racer.
Independently funded for the most part but with significant assistance from the Appbackr crowdfunding platform, Pasca (the group's sole full-time developer) told APC making an arcade racer was something he'd wanted to do for many years.
"I used to dream to have access to a processor powerful enough to scale sprites in real-time. That eventually came, but then 3D quickly took over. I was passionate about 3D graphics as well, but I still had this dream to realise a game like Final Freeway. I postponed it for many years, but I'm glad that I could finally fulfil this dream. Most racing games nowadays are on racing tracks or with incredible stunts and whatnot. But I wanted to focus on something more basic: the experience of driving on a fast American freeway.
"I used to live in Los Angeles and that was an ordinary day on the road (minus the crazy speed and with the traffic jams!). Here in Tokyo, having a car is an expensive luxury and people think of driving as a hobby. So, forget becoming the champion of the world -- it's more basic than that. I wanted to bring back a simpler kind of experience. I actually miss driving on the freeway more than I miss playing Out Run, though to me they are very closely related."
Pasca, who isn't sure if Sega is aware of his Final Freeway titles, almost went to work at one point for the company's famed AM2 team and was actually interviewed by some of his developer heroes during the process.
"It was great to have met some of those true veterans of the Japanese game industry during the interviews. It was a way to connect. At least for me it was! I think that a seasoned Japanese developer can see the FF game series and tell that this is the real deal. My Japanese friends in Tokyo are mostly game developers from that era and they usually test my games and give me some precious insights."
But in an industry strewn with copying and clones (which has in recent months seen high-profile accusations levelled at titles ranging from the overly Mario Kart-inspired Mole Kart, through to glaring Tiny Tower imitations from publisher giants Zynga and Glu), one might wonder where the line is drawn between a respectful homage and an outright clone?
"The App Store and Android Market are rife with horrible clones indeed. These are poorly made and rushed to the market in the hope to steal some thunder. I think that that's a disgrace and I hope that Apple and Google will be more selective in the future. If it's too hard to actually check every single app, then it could be a good idea to have a reliability system for developers. It's great that everyone can publish games and apps, but the app stores out there should try to incite developers to release quality products and penalise those that are in just trying to make a quick buck at the expenses of the users.
"Clone or homage? I think that it's mostly a matter of intent and the quality of a product. We could have made a rip-off of any old popular racing title in much less time if we didn't take the job with pride and with respect towards the titles that have inspired us. Another thing is timing: an app that is hacked up together to look like another app that is currently popular in the market is clearly misleading and can spoil the market for everyone. That's wrong for the customers but also for the fellow developers. We all depend on each other and we should respect each other's work. But I guess that most of those misleading apps are coming from outsiders, so to speak: people that don't relate to other developers and are in it just for the money."
As for what's next for Oyatsukai.com, Pasca says the team is working on updates to their games, including an Android port of FF2R (now in beta phase) and that they would like to do "something involving big robots."
"But for now we just have to make sure that FF2R sells enough. The App Store is more crowded than ever and even being a featured game doesn't help much these days."