OutRun, The Teenager And The Commodore 64 Port

Sega’s classic OutRun is easily one of my all-time favourite games and it turns 35-years-old this very day. Its sense of speed and thrills as you tear around Europe in a blood-red Ferrari Testarossa, sunglasses-wearing dude with his blonde girlfriend by his side. That awesome soundtrack that you can still hear in your head thirty-five years later… even without playing the game itself. OutRun was the eighties encapsulated in an arcade game. As I said, it is one of my all-time favourite games. I couldn’t tell you how much pocket money I spent on the arcade cabinet while on family holidays, where I would always make a beeline for the nearest arcade.

OUTRUN ARCADE

When it was revealed that OutRun would be coming to the home computers of the day, I was beyond excited. It was going to be released for the Commodore 64, we had a C64… I had to have OutRun on it. I would’ve been about 10-years-old at the time when OutRun came to the microcomputers of the day. I never really understood how gaming and ports worked back then, I was expecting OutRun from the arcade on our Commodore 64. Of course, the C64 was way too underpowered to handle an arcade-perfect conversion (which I never grasped as a kid) and when I did finally play Sega’s mighty racer on our computer… I was mildly disappointed. It didn’t really look like the arcade version, it wasn’t as fast (depending on the version) and it most definitely didn’t play as well either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the home ports of OutRun were bad… okay, some were yes. Just more of a case that 10-year-old me didn’t understand why my C64 version didn’t look like the arcade game that I loved so much. If you look at reviews for the home ports back then, you’ll find a lot of average to slightly above average scores. I’ve been playing the C64 version of OutRun recently now as an adult, it’s really not that bad at all. Pretty damn good in fact. Of course, it is limited given the hardware but it is a fairly competent racer all told.

It was while I was researching my book MicroBrtis and the Ocean/U.S. Gold chapters in particular when I began to uncover the story behind just how that Commodore 64 port of OutRun came about. Pretty much the work of one man… well one boy actually. The-then 17-year-old Martin Webb. A story that I feel could do with being covered as it is a wonderful insight into those early days of British gaming. Oh yeah, Martin Webb was a Brit.

Anyway, Martin had already programmed a few titles before he got the OutRun gig. These games were made for the Texas Instruments TI-99 home computer and they were sold mail-order via Martin’s home in Shropshire. It was his father, Dennis Webb who managed the home-based business as well as managing Martin too. While Martin would take care of the programming of the games, it was Dennis who’d handle the graphics. The father and son team really worked out well, they called their company, Intrigue Software and sold quite a few units. However, game sales on the TI-99 began to dry up when home computers such as the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 hit the market.

C64 BOX

Martin Webb favoured the C64 and taught himself how to code on it. As the market grew, it soon became clear that father and son could no longer fund the publication of their own games, they needed a big player in the industry to sell their games. It was an idea that Dennis Webb was not too keen on, he had always handled the business up to this point and he really didn’t relish the idea of a big-name company taking over. The relationship between father and son soon became taut and arguments between the two would often break out. Dennis, more than often, would push his teenage son much further than he ever really should have. It all really came to a head when Martin ran away from home. His father went driving around to find him and eventually brought Martin back.

Still, Dennis finally began to see Martin’s point. They were running out of money fast and perhaps getting a more experienced company to sell their games would be a good idea. Martin created a game called Snap Dragon (AKA Karate Chop) for the C64. It was a beat ’em up thing… and it wasn’t very good, very average. Still, it did show that Martin could program on the C64. Ocean Software were a pretty big publisher in the C64 days and Martin set his sights on selling his game to them. A meeting was set up and Martin showed off his new game. Ocean turned it down because they were working on the C64 port of the arcade hit, Yie Ar Kung-Fu (released under the Imagine label that Ocean owned at that point… read my book!). Ocean didn’t feel like putting money behind another beat ’em up, so they turned Martin away. However, the publisher, Bubble Bus Software, bought the game from Martin for £5,000. Not a bad payday in 1987.

SNAP DRAGON

Martin developed another game for Bubble Bus Software, Max Torque. This was a blatant rip-off of Sega’s classic bike game, Hang-On. After that, he started work on a clone of Sega’s OutRun. using assets from his Max Torque game and basically swapping out the bikes for cars. To try and avoid any legal issues, Martin used a Porsche for the star of his car game over the famed Ferrari used in OutRun. When his OutRun clone was finished, he needed to find a publisher. Bubble Bus Software wasn’t exactly one of the big names and while they were paying, they weren’t paying all that much. The money began to dry up again and Dennis once more became abusive towards his son. Arguments often evolved into physical fights as Dennis continually pushed his teenage son to code more games. Their relationship was hanging by a thread.

The Webbs sought out a bigger, better and more established publisher for future games. They went to U.S. Gold. Martin showed off his OutRun clone to U.S. Gold boss, Geoff Brown and a handful of programmers. Martin had added a dashboard and steering wheel HUD to his rip-off as he wanted it to look the like OutRun arcade cabinet. As his hand-drawn Porsche sprite raced over the roads on the game, Geoff Brown and the programmers were very impressed that a 17-year-old kid had programmed a rather speedy looking racing game all on his own. Still, as impressed as U.S. Gold were, they couldn’t buy Martin’s racing game from him to publish.

Geoff took Martin into a separate room to talk to him alone, away from his overbearing father. In that room was a sit-down OutRun arcade cabinet and that was when Geoff Brown hit Martin with the big news. U.S. Gold had very recently signed a deal with Sega to produce the homeports of the arcade version of OutRun and here was this teenager with a prototype of a game that had pretty much exactly what U.S. Gold needed. Effectively, the OutRun port that U.S. Gold had signed up to do partly existed. An hour later and Dennis Webb was signing a contract for Martin to convert OutRun to the Commodore 64. The Webbs were given a £20,000 advance and Martin returned back home and set about turning his OutRun rip-off into an actual, fully licensed OutRun conversion.

OUTRUN ARCADE CAB

The first things Martin programmed were the high-score table and the radio where you select the music. These had to be in the game as U.S. Gold requested them. Also, once he had those in place, Martin knew how much memory he had left to squeeze the massive OutRun arcade game onto a C64 tape. Martin’s clone didn’t have and hills in it, but OutRun did. That was a bit of an issue and programming in hills would take up much-needed memory. Martin got around this by simply moving the horizon in the background up and down. The next big issue was the roadside graphics. The arcade version of OutRun was famed for its very impressive sprite/texture scaling capabilities. This made the game buttery smooth, fast and highly detailed. There was no way that the C64 could replicate what the arcade could do with ease.

Martin had to decide to go for either detailed graphics that looked like the arcade version (or at least as close as he could get them on a C64) or speed. Speed was what made OutRun such a popular game in the first place. Yeah, it looked nice and all, but if the arcade game had been a sluggish racer, it wouldn’t have been as impressive as it was. Martin knew he had to compromise on the graphics to make the game as fast as possible. A lot of the smaller details were dropped and the roadside objects were big, chunky graphics that, truth be told, were not all that pleasing to the eye. Still, Martin’s OutRun conversion may not have been a graphical powerhouse, but it was fast for a racing game on the C64.

OUTRUN 64 SCREEN 1

Martin didn’t have OutRun’s source code, no design documents to work from either. He was given access to one of the arcade cabinets (U.S. Gold sent him one which he had in his garage at home) and played it for hours on end. He’d record footage of the game on a camcorder and made copious amounts of notes. He strived to make the roads/tracks in his game look and feel just like the arcade version. Put the turns in the right place, hills where they were, etc. But due to the limitations of the hardware, Martin did have to use a few ‘cheats’ as some stages are the same as others, just with different colours, etc. But there was one feature from the arcade that was missing, the forking road/choice of route. Martin did try to implement it into the game, but it was just too problematic. The Commodore 64 just could not handle a multi-loading/branching system that could be played on the fly as in the arcade. He could’ve made the game stop and then have to load each selectable route. But as most games were on cassette tapes at the time (there were disk versions), that would’ve broken up the flow and speed of the game. Plus, being on a tape would mean having to fast forward and rewind the tape to the correct loading spot each time… and that would just be a pain in the arse.

So, as there was no branching system, you just loaded which of the routes you wanted to play (load route A or route B as an example) and then it played out like a single race. Wanted to try a different route? You’ve had to restart and load up one of the other pre-set routes. Still, all stages from the arcade version were included in the C64 port (with some limitations), which was pretty damn impressive for the time. However, having to program every possible stage really was difficult for Martin, who had turned 18-years-old by the time the game had been finished, and was still very much a youngster under immense pressure, mainly from his father.

Speaking of which, Dennis Webb handled the graphics for OutRun and added little Easter eggs onto the licence plates of the cars by including the initials of himself, Martin and friends. The Porsche from Martin’s OutRun clone/prototype even makes an appearance too.

OUTRUN 64 SCREEN 3

The awesome arcade music was pretty well re-created for the C64 byJason Brooke. Though the game only had two of the three tunes from the arcade. However, the game came with an audiotape of the original arcade music, so you could just pop that bad boy into your hi-fi (look them up kids) and enjoy arcade-perfect music. The Commodore 64 version of OutRun got fair to middling reviews when released. A lot of mid to high-60% scores. Still, the above-average reviews didn’t really matter as, despite the game being released on the 10th of December 1987, it actually became the biggest selling game of the year. That’s pretty impressive for a game that was only on the shelves for a few weeks of that year. Around 250,000 copies were shifted across all formats over Christmas (one was mine). Martin and his dad made plenty of money too. Their first royalty payment was for £17,000 and it had been said that they made about £80,000 total, that’s in 1980 money too. It was the most amount of money the father and son had made from a game.

U.S. Gold were so happy with Martin’s conversion that he was flown out to Chicago to work on the NTSC version of the port, to be published by Mindscape. The US version is arguably better, the graphics are more refined, it runs faster and it has an actual route selector, so no more having to reload a new game if you wanted to play a different route. Quite amazingly, the US version only took around two weeks to program too. The Euro version took closer to six months. While in the US, Martin was headhunted by Nintendo, but his father was too protective of his ‘asset’ and soon put a stop to Martin working for anyone else. When he got back to the UK, U.S. Gold gave Martin another arcade conversion to do, Atari’s RoadBlasters. As this was another arcade racer, Martin just reused and tweaked assets from his OutRun conversion and did the job with relative ease.

ROADBALSTERS 64

Though they were doing well and being offered more jobs, the relationship between father and son was breaking down. While in public, Dennis would always praise and show respect to his son. But behind closed doors, it was a very different story. More arguments, more fights as Dennis pushed his son further and harder to keep programming games. Martin was old enough to move out by then, so he did. He packed his bags, left the family home and the games industry allogether.

Martin now lives in Brazil and has his own cloud software company. He still likes to talk about the ‘good old days’ as he did right here in 2020. He also comments on some of the YouTube videos covering the home ports of OutRun too (he replied to me and gave info for this very article). Still, as upsetting as his past may have been for him in regards to his relationship with his father (that he doesn’t like to talk about these days), Martin did bring one of the biggest arcade games home for so many gamers back in 1987, me being one of them. I still remember that cold Friday Christmas morning, opening my presents. Mom had got me (and my bothers) a copy of OutRun on the Commodore 64, bliss. A game that brought me so many hours of enjoyment and for that, I deeply thank Martin Webb.

OUTRUN 64 SCREEN 2

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