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

So…Shenmue III eh?

After years of waiting, years of trepidation, years of wanting…Shenmue III is finally happening.

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The second sequel to one of the most loved game series is coming, all thanks to a hugely successful kickstarter.
With a target of $2,000,000, the Shenmue III kickstarter not only hit it’s target but even surpassed it in only a few hours of being launched.
Currently sitting at $3,201,562 as I write this…and still climbing. This is living proof of how popular Shenmue really is.

But before we talk about Shenmue III, let’s have a quick refresher on what Shenmue was/is and catch up with the story so far…

Shenmue cover

Shenmue: Was the brainchild of Sega legend Yu Suzuki and the Sega AM2 development team. Released on the much loved Sega Dreamcast in 1999.
A martial arts inspired RPG with a (at the time) amazing world to explore and interact with along with some of the best character models seen.

Beginning in the winter of 1986 in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Japan. With you taking on the role of Ryo Hazuki, who returns home and witnesses his father, Iwao Hazuki, battling with a man known as Lan Di.
Lan Di orders Iwao to hand over the “Dragon Mirror” and when Iwao refuses. Ryo intervenes after his father is felled in combat, but Ryo ends up getting injured by Lan Di. Ryo is threatened with death which prompts Iwao to reveal the location of the “Dragon Mirror” underneath a nearby cherry blossom tree.

Lan Di’s henchmen recover the mirror and Di mentions a man called Zhao Sunming, who he says was killed by Iwao in Mengcun. Lan Di and Iwao Hazuki engage in combat. Iwao Hazuki is defeated and Lan Di allows Iwao to die “like a warrior”. Lan Di then finishes the fight with a fatal blow and leaves.
Iwao dies in Ryo’s arms shortly after, which fills Ryo with the desire for vengeance. After a few days of mourning and resting up from his injuries, Ryo begins his journey to track down Lan Di to avenge his father’s death.

Ryo’s first clue is a black car that some of his neighbors saw on the day of his father’s murder.
Though his leads are thin on the ground, Ryo slowly makes progress in his investigation by interviewing people all over Yokosuka…and asking for sailors. Just as he is about to run out of leads, Ryo discovers a letter from a man named Zhu Yuanda which suggests that he should seek the aid of a certain Master Chen, who works at the New Yokosuka Harbor.
Through Master Chen Yaowen and his son Chen Guizhang, Ryo learns that a local harbor gang known as the Mad Angels is connected to Lan Di’s crime organization, the Chi You Men. Ryo also learns that the “Dragon Mirror” stolen by Lan Di is part of a set of two stone mirrors. After further investigation, Ryo locates the second mirror underneath his father’s dojo, dubbed the “Phoenix Mirror”.

So Ryo takes on a job at the New Yokosuka Harbor in order to find out more about the Mad Angels gang, and eventually he causes enough trouble that the gang kidnaps his friend and love interest, Nozomi Harasaki. Ryo rescues Nozomi, but makes a deal with the Mad Angels leader, Terry Ryan, to beat up Guizhang in exchange to take Ryo to Lan Di.
Ryo fights Guizhang in a grueling battle, but after realizing Terry betrayed him by attempting to kill them, Ryo then teams up with Guizhang to defeat the seventy strong members of the Mad Angels gang.
Upon defeat, Terry reveals to Ryo that Lan Di has left Japan for Hong Kong. With the aid of the Chen family, Ryo is arranged to take a boat to Hong Kong to track his father’s killer, Lan Di. On the day of his departure for Hong Kong, Ryo is suddenly attacked by Chai, a low ranking Chi You Men member who has been following Ryo throughout the game with the goal of acquiring the “Phoenix Mirror” to gain the favor of Lan Di. Chai injures Guizhang’s leg when Guizhang saves Ryo from getting crushed by a giant steel beam sent by Chai.
Ryo engages in a battle with Chai and bests him. Guizhang, who planned to accompany Ryo to Hong Kong, urges Ryo to go ahead without him so he could rest up and heal from his injury. Ryo is instructed by Master Chen to seek out the help of a master of the Chinese martial arts located in Wan Chai named Tao Lishao.
Ryo boards the boat alone and sails off to Hong Kong in pursuit of Lan Di, concluding the first chapter of Shenmue.

Shenmue II cover

Shenmue II: Made by the same team as the last game and relased in 2001 for the Sega Dreamcast and later ported to the Xbox.

Picking up from where Shenmue left off, Ryo arrives in Hong Kong and searches for Master Tao Lishao, as he was instructed to do by his friend, Master Chen Yaowen. After a long and difficult search, Ryo finally finds Master Tao Lishao, who as it turns out happens to be a woman named Hong Xiuying; but she is unwilling to assist Ryo in what she considers a futile quest for vengeance.
The two part ways, but Xiuying continues to watch Ryo’s progress and they continue to cross paths throughout the game. Ryo later discovers another individual, Ren Wuying, who may be able to assist him in locating Zhu Yuanda. Ren Wuying is the leader of a street gang named The Heavens. A young boy who holds Ren in high regard named Wong and an adventurous woman named Joy also befriend Ryo and assist him in his investigation.
Ren decides to assist Ryo in his quest after discovering that there are large sums of money tied up in the mysterious and ancient “Phoenix Mirror”. Ren also informs Ryo that Zhu Yuanda is hiding in Kowloon.

Ryo arrives in Kowloon and begins his quest to locate Zhu Yuanda, who is hiding there from Lan Di and the Chi You Men. Several confrontations ensue between Ryo and his allies and the dangerous Yellow Head organization, who are aiming to kidnap Zhu Yuanda on behalf of Lan Di.
Following several clues, Ryo and Ren finally find Zhu Yuanda; however, the meeting is cut short when they are ambushed by the Yellow Head leader, Dou Niu. Zhu is kidnapped but eventually Ryo discovers that Zhu Yuanda is being held at the Yellow Head Building. Ryo heads to the building to save him, along the way, Wong and Joy are captured.
Ryo saves Joy via a fight against a powerful martial artist named Baihu. Joy tells Ryo that Wong is taken to the 40th floor of the Yellow Head Building.
Ryo arrives at the rooftop of the building and discovers Lan Di hanging from the ladder of a helicopter. But before Ryo could attempt to engage with Lan Di, he discovers Dou Niu holding Wong hostage. Ryo saves Wong and engages with Dou Niu in a climactic battle with Lan Di looking on. Ryo eventually defeats Dou Niu and is able to prevent Lan Di from receiving a captured Zhu Yuanda, but Lan Di escapes.
Everyone gathers at Ren’s hideout, Zhu Yuanda reveals to Ryo that the reason Lan Di killed his father was that Lan Di believed Iwao killed his father, Zhao Sunming. It is also revealed that Lan Di’s real name is Zhao Longsun. Zhu also provides information regarding the true purpose of the “Dragon” and “Phoenix Mirrors”. The mirrors will lead to the resurrection of the Qing Dynasty.
Ryo is advised by Zhu to continue his search in Bailu Village, located in Guilin and that Lan Di is headed there as well. Ryo parts ways with Ren, Wong and Joy as he continues his journey to Guilin alone.

After shortly arriving in Guilin, Ryo encounters a young woman named Ling Shenhua. She previously appeared to Ryo through several dreams throughout the first game. As the two talk, Shenhua reveals her family is connected with the legacy of the “Dragon” and “Phoenix Mirrors”.
Shenhua leads Ryo to a quarry on the outskirts of the village to meet with her father, but he is nowhere to be found.
The game ends in a cliffhanger, with Ryo and Ling discovering a cryptic note and sword, which Ryo combines with the “Phoenix Mirror” and inadvertently sets off a device revealing a huge depiction of the two mirrors.

Shenmue III

Shenmue III: Is going to be directed by Yu Suzuki and said to pick up and resolve the cliffhanger from Shenmue II and finally finish the story the fans have been waiting 14 years to see.
Set to be relased on PC and Playstation 4 with an estimated release date of December 2017. (seems a bit “optimistic” if you ask me)

Shenmue III’s kickstarter is great news as Yu Suzuki is asking for feedback from the fans, so we could shape the way Shenmue III turns out.
Even though the target has been suppased, it’s still very much worth investing as there are still plenty of pledges available and the more money this kickstarter gains…the more can be spent on the game.

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