OutRunning the Synthwave

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stantongrouse

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Edited By stantongrouse
Ah, exactly how I remember my journey to school.
Ah, exactly how I remember my journey to school.

The 80s were a strange time. As a person who grew up in that decade, I have a somewhat difficult relationship with the nostalgia and reverence for certain aspects of that period of time that creeps into modern media, particularly music and games. I got very into synthwave music a few years back, partly down to the rabbit hole that the Drive (film) and Hotline Miami soundtracks sent me down. I found the scene around that music interesting, but most threads and forums viewed or remembered the 80s in a different way than I did. Firstly, I remember the 80s as being particularly brown era – accented with the odd orange and green. Certainly not the Miami Vice-esque, perma-sunset, neon wonderland the r/outrun thread is filled with. And synth music was more often the realm of the not-so-funky studio/tech person rather than the personas formed by the new, new, new wave out there now.

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The last few years have seen mass production line formed of racing games, or racing looking rhythm games, that embrace this imagined version of the 80s. Be it the drifty point to point format of OutRun, lap-based loops or even plain old avoid-the-crap-in-the-road type, there’s a plethora of amped up neon sunsets slapped on and shipped out for our enjoyment. And I have a boatload of them (thankyou random humble bundles and previous Steam sales). So, I thought this weekend I’d slip on some wrap-around shades, fasten up that clear plastic tie and climb into my unreliable and horrid to drive DeLorean and head off into some unfathomably pink sunsets. I’ll be marking each one with the clear and unfoggy categories of Racing (marked in OutRuns), Music (marked in Harold Faltermayers) and Miami Viceness (Tubbs out of five, I ain’t no Crockett fan unless it’s his theme music) which will rate the neon colour code everything in the synthwave genre seem to have to adhere to.

Surprisingly hard to drive and hit F12
Surprisingly hard to drive and hit F12

Riff Racer – I’d already clocked up a good amount of playtime with this. Riff Racer does that thing of trying to straddle a couple of different game genres and not really being a great version of either as a result. Its rhythm game portion is how it uses music stored on your PC to generate the track, the look of the level and the pulse of the game. Its racer content is a drift and avoid the stuff type of affair. The problem it has is that the controls are far too analogue in nature to be a true rhythm game and the generated tracks are too hit and miss quality-wise to be a great racer. Alongside this it feels like a phone game and as it was developed as an iPad/PC duel release that’s understandable. Riff Racer is soft and squidgy when it should be razor sharp and this isn’t good when the game is asking the player to do some pretty tight turning and weaving. That all being said, I really enjoy playing this game – particularly when using some relaxing synth music to generate the tracks. The difficultly drops and the pulsing rollercoaster tracks become great vessels for some focused music listening instead of a frustrating challenge. I shouldn’t like this as much as I do, even then it is one of those games that’s hard to recommend because while I get a kick out of it the plasticky feel will be a bit much to overcome for most people out there.

Racing – 2 OutRuns out of 5

Not quite perfectly functional, but not so bad as to be unusable.

Music – 0 or 5 depending on your setup.

How much do you like your own music? How much of your music makes fun tracks? These are important questions that Riff Racer will try and answer.

Miami Viceness – 3 Tubbs out of 5

Ramps up the Miami Viceness but falls onto the ‘maybe this is just Tron’ a bit too much.

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Horizon Chase Turbo – Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (a 1990 release but I’m overlooking that) was not only one of my most played Amiga games but one of the games from that time I played have the most in total. When I saw there was a spiritual successor/homage to it out there I was onboard. Getting back into a Lotus style game that runs like my memories of Lotus rather than how Lotus actually runs (which whenever I pick it back up give me a little nudge of how very forgiving most of my game memories are) sounded like an excellent idea. The controls were a jolt after the fluffiness of Riff Racer, as was the concept of a lap but that was an easy enough hurdle to overcome. It’s a case of the game having very much its own physics and handling balance and once that clicks, it all feels right. Horizon Zero Chase Dawn Turbo is a tight game all around and once I was in it, despite the lap format, it felt more like a prototyped OutRun game that was developed between 1 and 2 with some of the other un-numbered OutRun games. The first proper DLC for this, Summer Vibes, only echoed this influence by playing like an OutRun 2 cover version, or tribute album. The game does a great job of ramping up the difficulty like a good arcade racer should – I got a bit snagged up by the old hit restart, hit restart, hit restart when chasing those first places that got away from me on the last turn. But the races are short, and more importantly fun, so it’s not so much of a hurdle to have to overcome, that and the game doesn’t hide things away with win only progress. For a game that has a retro vibe but runs like a newer one it relishes in some features that feel so 80s/early 90s that I almost expected the single player mode to use the spare multiplayer split screen section to a pit crew animation or map to save on the CPU drain. Driving through fuel cans isn’t such a common feature of racers these days, but makes the game have that sense of nostalgia that is more in tribute of its influences than blindly following them. The soundtrack is excellent and is gifted to us by Barry Leitch, who worked on Lotus 2 and Top Gear (the console version/remake of Lotus Esprit) and some of my other favourite 16bit era game soundtracks. The span of the music, and the locations massively detract from a continuous synthwave aesthetic some of these other games go for, which is almost certainly to its benefit unless you are a fully signed up member of the r/outrun club. This is a good game, so good I squidged it into a blog list it barely meets the grade for.

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Racing – 4 OutRuns out of 5, with one added Lotus Esprit

One of those games that if you come to it straight off another racing game it will feel odd but it is quick to find the groove again.

Music – 5 Harold Faltermayers out 5

I love this music – it’s not heavily synthwave (huge crowds cheer), but it is truly great.

Miami Viceness – 2 Tubbs out of 5

There are a couple of stages that get the vibe but this is much more Sega Blue Skies than anything else.

Such amazing drift I flew off the track
Such amazing drift I flew off the track

Synthwave Dream ’85 – I worry this game might have hooked me up to some kind of bitcoin mining program without me knowing it, that’s the vibe the game and Steam page give off. It is quickly apparent that this is an endless runner (driver?) style of thing with two settings, Dream and Nightmare. The further I got, the more I played, the more this this seems so… …limited. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I love me some basic games – but this, at £8 ($9.99), one of the more expensive games on this list and it just doesn’t seem to have the content for the price. It handles okay, it looks alright, but it’s just quite boring. I guess there is a very fine line between chill and boring and Synthwave Dream ’85 just about manages to sit on the wrong side of that line. It was also the first of the games on this list I’ve tried that really goes to town with those broken, low quality CRT effect on everything. And I mean everything. They can be turned down, but seemingly not off. I am a person not too troubled by these effects but not being able to turn that stuff off seems weird, especially as it looks like it could be a nice crisp looking game without that gumpf on top. Which leads to the weird controller support. Some menus work with it, some don’t and that becomes a bit tiresome with how often they are a part of the playing experience. This with the other issue that the UI is muddy to navigate at times make the game’s quality feel pretty low. Conversely, the driving isn’t the worst, the controller at least works well for that. The music isn’t bad at all either. Good enough that I looked up the composer – I now follow a Ukrainian Synthwave producer. So, it’s not all bad. Also, my use of an image of the character of Ed Traxler from The Terminator on my Steam profile has never felt so right being used in game.

My alter ego, home at last
My alter ego, home at last

Racing – 2 OutRuns out of 5

The car moves and has drift functions but fun driving it ain’t.

Music – 4 Harold Faltermayers out 5

I’d not had Ukraine down as a synthwave creative node, but it seems it might be.

Miami Viceness – 4 Tubbs out of 5

Miami is made up of glowing blue lines and red vector mountains, right?

Over and over and over and over, like a monkey with a miniature cymbal...
Over and over and over and over, like a monkey with a miniature cymbal...

OutDrive – Ahhhh, the intro was so promising! Bad animation, in good way, setting up the fantastic premise of your car being connected to you girlfriend/passenger’s heart – drive steady, keep her alive. So far so good. Then I couldn’t get the game to play for more than 6 secs. The first 6 or 7 attempts can be levelled at me, I repeatedly used the controller when apparently there is not controller support. The rest – down to the game. I couldn’t work out what the dilly-o was going on, passenger dead, passenger dead, passenger dead, over and over. After a bit of a scour of the Steam discussions it first seems that I wasn’t alone in this but also there are definitely people playing more than 6 seconds of the game. I returned, tried again but still no luck. Although now I felt that there was a strange zoom on the playing area that maybe meant I was missing a key bit of information that was game showing me. I will return to OutDrive at some point but there are more games to try and not enough time for faffing.

Music – 3 Harold Faltermayers out 5

I can only really mark the music as that is about the only bit I got to experience. It was okay but by this point I’m getting a bit synth-by-numbers-ed out.

We'll drift again, don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll drift again some neon day...
We'll drift again, don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll drift again some neon day...

Slipstream – Do you like original OutRun? If yes, you will probably like Slipstream. So much so I am surprised the developer didn’t have to get some kind of sign-off from Sega. Slipstream does for OutRun, What Horizon Chase Turbo does for Lotus Esprit, it polishes your memories. I mostly played OutRun on a Master System, I eventually got to play a good chunk of the arcade version, but the 8-bit version was the mainstay of my Ferrari Testarossa Spider driving time (very thankful it was not on the Spectrum like my cousin had to put up with). Slipstream polishes up that 8-bit to 16-bit look to within an inch of its life and further ruins my memories of how old games run. Currently it also holds the unofficial framerate record for my PC , my slightly potato PC managed a 1000 plus frames a second according to NVidia (never sure how true these things are). Much like the aforementioned Horizon Chase Turbo, this is a game so lovingly crafted it’s hard to pick at it. It does all anyone wanting more OutRun could want.

Racing – 4 OutRuns out of 5

It is basically OutRun, feels good.

Music – 4 Harold Faltermayers out 5

Good enough for me to have saved it on Spotify.

Miami Viceness – 3 Tubbs out of 5

It’s there, you just have to find the night stages.

As a British person the straightness of this road is troublesome for my brain.
As a British person the straightness of this road is troublesome for my brain.

Retrowave – The advantage Retrowave has over OutDrive is that it works, its advantage over Synthwave Dream ’85 is that it feels a bit more like a proper game, but only just. What Retrowave is, is an old LED driving game simulator with added nice graphics. The gameplay is mostly what I remember from my off-brand LED F1 handheld thingy from the 80s – a stupid amount of really slow traffic and a car that increasingly speeds up until my reactions are not good enough that I can squeeze through the tiniest of diagonals to get through. In some respects, this game is quite rough but it costs buttons and for the price is actually pretty well constructed; it just makes some odd production choices. For example, the default driving view looks almost completely down at the road. So, the nice pink sun and all those cool lines are not even visible until the player alters the view – and the ‘c’ key does that, nothing on the controller. Aaaaaand this default view is even harder to play than the horizon view. It is all so very strange. However, there’s a nice range of courses, you can adjust the direction of the traffic, add some extra obstacles and even quite a short race will add some bucks to put towards a series of almost certainly not licenced 80s supercars. Would I recommend Retrowave? Yes, but for no more than the couple of quid it currently costs, it has a couple of hours’ worth of enjoyable play in there but not much more.

Low lighting, check. Neon glow, check. Inexplicable lines across a cardboard sun, check.
Low lighting, check. Neon glow, check. Inexplicable lines across a cardboard sun, check.

Racing – 2 OutRuns out of 5

We’re into the feeling of dodging rather than driving around things here.

Music – 3 Harold Faltermayers out 5

A good collection of (hopefully) licenced music, I just wasn’t good enough at the game to hear too much of it.

Miami Viceness – 4 Tubbs out of 5

It feels like this game was designed by some r/outrun committee.

At this point I can only see in magenta, cyan and yellow.
At this point I can only see in magenta, cyan and yellow.

Neon Drive – So these last three are primarily rhythm games that use the r/outrun look and vibe on a car-based skin, rather than actually being racing games. I started with Neon Racer which from the outset seemed much more polished product than a few of the other games on this list I’d played. The gameplay is closer to an Audiosurf style game than even Riff Racer’s racing-come-rhythm style. The car pops nicely in and out of one of three lanes and a combination of tetrominoes, and later cars, hurl themselves at the player in time to the music. At points in the level the view shifts from the more standard behind the car POV to a top down one. This makes for a sense of variety that some of these games have been lacking. There really isn’t a great deal more to say about this one, it is a good game that centres on a particular music and stylistic scene. Is it good enough to entertain those that are not in the scene? Probably not, but with this much neon and synth I don’t think the makers were expecting to.

Aerial view-tastic
Aerial view-tastic

Racing – 1 OutRuns out of 5

The car in this game is purely a visual thing, the handling is akin to Frequency or Amplitude.

Music – 4 Harold Faltermayers out 5

The style doesn’t waver much but it’s a well-stocked jukebox.

Miami Viceness – 5 Tubbs out of 5

There are no synthwave assets this game hasn’t used.

Note the disclaimer at the bottom of the screen. Also I lost control two seconds later on this straight road
Note the disclaimer at the bottom of the screen. Also I lost control two seconds later on this straight road

Rhythmic Retro Racer – While Riff Racer tries to straddle the racer and rhythm genres by being a bit of both, early access game Rhythmic Retro Racer splits the two types into two modes in the one game. Unfortunately for Rhythmic Retro Racer it is now a made up of an average rhythm game and a very poor racing game. The racing style sub-game’s handling is like Bambi on ice – it feels like the game is trying to find a smooth drifting style of driving but the levels are all out of whack somehow. There is a disclaimer at the start of this mode regarding the early access state of the driving and I hope that they manage to get it together as there are some things around this game that seem really interesting. The menus hark back to the Megadrive/Genesis Collection 80s bedroom motif and the look of both the game modes is beyond a lot of other games in this price category. And the rhythm game itself is perfectly adequate, which might seem like a back handed comment, but is meant earnestly. When compared to some of the other games I tried in close proximity Rhythmic Retro Racer has a bit more fine tuning needed under that glowing hood. Given the early access state, this might happen, that or it will end up in giant the Steam scrapyard of abandoned early access games that didn’t capture a big enough audience.

Racing – -1 OutRuns out of 5

By adding driving and making it terrible it’s worse than no driving at all.

Music – 4 Harold Faltermayers out 5

Synthy arpeggio after synthy arpeggio.

Miami Viceness – 4 Tubbs out of 5

All the glow and strange coloured suns a game could ask for.

This feels like a still from a G1 Transformers advert
This feels like a still from a G1 Transformers advert

Music Racer – Finally, the last one! Aside from probably ruining my love for synthwave music and the r/outrun aesthetic forever, it has been enjoyable cruising the various neon highways and Music Racer was a good game to end it all on. Feeling a bit burnt out on the random synthwave from the previous games I took the offer of using music from my own collection to power the level generator and re-calibrated my brain to try and ignore all the different control schemes I’d had to work through recently. Music Racer has a lovely UI, more friendly and well rounded in design than Riff Racer, which is cut from similar cloth. While I didn’t get the chance to unlock too many of the level skins to experience them all, their cover screens point to a nice amount of variety, albeit within the aesthetic most of these games have be gunning for. The handling of the level generation from the music feels balanced and has made the challenge such that the first run on a song lets you be good enough to feel accomplished but just keeping that perfect score out of reach without taking a couple more attempts. After a solid seven levels of weaving and collecting to some of the, frankly borderline, synthwave music I’d picked I felt that had I not gorged on just so much this weekend already I’d have probably lumped a few more hours into this. Maybe after a long soak in some acoustic instruments or maybe a shower of some stoner metal and then a long stare at a pastel coloured wall I might feel up to picking this back up.

The last glowing thing I want to look at in some time
The last glowing thing I want to look at in some time

Racing – 2 OutRuns out of 5

Dodging but in a driving sort of fashion.

Music – 0 or 5 depending on your setup.

Much like Riff Racer there are a few tracks to show off the game but it’s only really as good as your digital music collection.

Miami Vice-ness – 4 Tubbs out of 5

I have lost the will to write the word neon again.

With my journey over I feel I have learnt several things. Firstly, I totally understand why many people have felt that this aesthetic is overused and getting a bit hokey now, something I hadn’t but then had only dipped my toes into previously. I’ll still enjoy it, I make music that sometimes falls into this genre myself and I’m sure that I will return to that at some time but mixing things up is good for the soul. I have concluded I should probably stick to what I'd been previously doing, applying r/outrun style paint jobs to my cars in much better racing games. Which leads me to the knowledge that I plan to play a lot more of Horizon Chase Turbo and Slipstream. I’ve missed having easy access to OutRun 2, so they will keep me afloat until I hook up my 360 again. And finally, I have also learnt that having periods of time with restricted social contact, not having any writing work coming in and an underactive brain means I write excessively long blogs. If you actually got to the end of this, I thank you and hope you managed to have a much more varied game diet over your weekend!

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ZombiePie

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I know you mention it in passing, but I feel like Audiosurf and Audiosurf 2 should be mentioned in this conversation because they were, in a lot of ways, pioneers of this 80s aesthetic resurgence and in general, Synthwave before Synthwave was a thing.

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stantongrouse

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@zombiepie: Good shout, I thought about having them in here but I didn't quite get to them. With how rough some of these games where I really wish I had now. I'll do a separate dive into those - I have them both in my Steam library. Played the heck out the first one way back when but for some reason I don't seem to have played much of the second one at all. Once my neon aversion therapy is completed I'll get onto them!

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umryan

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Cool list, thanks for posting.

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stantongrouse

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@umryan: Thanks, it has been good to set myself a few gaming tasks during all this. Thank crikey for escapism.

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Nice blog idea. I've been down the synthwave rabbit hole myself since I first played Hotline Miami and fell in love with the soundtrack and garish aesthetics. I knew there were a couple of these neon tinted arcade racers on Steam, but not this many.

I played Slipstream recently and had great fun with it. It's very arcade-y and simplistic and I dig the deliberately retro and pixelated graphics. My only minor nitpick is that I wish the individual songs on the soundtrack were tied to a specific track to give them more of a unique identity.

Neon Drive just looks awesome and was pretty fun to try and master. It's kinda annoying though that some sections are rhythm-based and some are absolutely not, even within the same track. I get that they want to mix up the perspective (cause it looks damn cool when it happens), but I wish they stuck with either one of the alternatives.

OutDrive is just a boring endless runner that gets old after about 10 minutes.

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stantongrouse

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@tordah: Good to know about OutDrive, I'll probably take thanks in that I couldn't get it working properly. Thanks for reading!