8-Bit Chronicles: Pole Position

Prepare to qualify.
pole position

Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.

Today’s review is based upon the original Japanese arcade iteration of Pole Position as featured in the PlayStation 3 re-release of Namco Museum Vol. 1.

My dear readers, after analyzing some dozen-plus games hailing from Gaming’s Golden Age, I’m now officially left gasping for breath as a fish out of water. Yes, there were games that pushed me to the breaking point — I haven’t yet forgotten the brutalizing tears Gradius induced upon me — but as I weathered merciless bullet hells cynically designed to consume quarters and unrefined platforming/side-scrolling action games evident of a burgeoning developer learning the ropes, I steadied on for the sake of amateur game historian. And yet, here I am: meeting my match with none other than the industry’s most influential racing game; meaning, Namco’s Pole Position from 1982. Tell me: what worse fate might there be to be a fragile water-breather futilely flopping on the tire-grounded pavement, left to the mercy of daredevil speedsters going for the gold?

Here’s the stunning thing about all that: My struggles with Pole Position didn’t stem from difficulty — repetitive practice eventually yielded numerous top scores within my PlayStation emulated copy — nor was I experiencing virtual wig-out in the form of, say, a seasoned 2D veteran tripping out in Super Mario 64‘s open 3D environments; no, it was because I just didn’t, well, get it. There I was: readying my engines on countdown, all ready to prove myself on the race track…only to zip and bump along on an empty course before time ran out. Er, what just happened? Where was the actual racing? What of my dreams in basking within the Namco Grand Prix limelight? Had time reduced Pole Position to a mere prototype of the modern racing era — a pseudo-3D tech demo awing players accustomed to the crude pixels decorating their arcades?

pole position

That sign’s as legible as the in-game announcer.

As it turns out, Pole Position operates on a bit of a different scale than your average game of Mario Kart; true to its name, the game opens with a qualifying lap, meaning your goal’s to slot into a opening position before starting the actual race. Between shifting gears and making turns, no mistakes can be afforded — simply sliding off the course will certainly cost a top spot, and you can forget about qualifying if a clumsy turn escalates into a fiery car crash. Pole Position has no time for losers: Only the best of the best may apply.

There’s more than one reason why all this flew over my head — us Aspies have a tendency to live under very thick rocks, for one, and as racing’s not a genre I typically dabble in (let alone as an actual sport), I never stopped to think about what the term “pole position” actually meant. Yet my temporary embarrassment eventually ceded to natural curiosity: Exactly how many modern racing games do feature qualifying laps? With some quick research on my end, I discovered that while games such as F1 2020 offer such options, what I found most interesting was how eSports racing tournaments enforce admission via pole position! As outlined in this recent Overtake article, iRacing competitions such as VCO Cup of Nations and W Series eSports League 2020 determine pole positions via varying types of qualifying/elimination rounds, whereas this fall’s Aramco’s 2020 F1 Esports Series is all set for 45 hardened racers to qualify straight home their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet one of the many tentpoles Pole Position erected onto gaming’s racing circuit — the modern conventions of the racing game are, more or less, all present. Recognizable tracks? Fuji Speedway of Shizuoka, Japan is ready for burnt rubber. Checkpoints? Crashes might cost you the race, but at least you’ll start right where you left off.  The plastic steering wheel so celebrated even in today’s modern racing games? Pole Position certainly wasn’t the first to include this peripheral — Atari’s Gran Trek 10 beat it to the punch nearly a decade earlier, and even Namco’s own F-1, an electro-mechanical contraption involving fancy projections mimicking the player’s movement via dioramas and plastic miniatures, did the same  — yet both this and its 1981 rival in SEGA’s Turbo featured gear-shift pedals immersed arcade-goers further into the virtual racing circuit.

pole position


And time trials? They are the game. In kicking off the two-minute race, drivers are expected to make use of the gear shifts to speed up or slow down at opportune moments; for instance, incoming turn? Beginners might be more inclined to play it safe by switching to low gear, yet as observed in this mistake-free run, veterans rocket away at top speed underneath Mt. Fuji’s looming shadow and effortlessly weave themselves amidst the congested course; their steadfast confidence, hard-earned from years of muscle-memory, only dare to slow down at treacherous hairpin turns. Yours truly wishes he could approach the pixelated Fuji Speedway with such spirit: further obstacles in post-qualifying laps such as tire-slowing puddles and careening cars had me throw in my racing hat at 5h Place.

As explained in this John’s Arcade video, the unavoidable deterrent of screeching tires is what grades our performance. True to real life racing, we might flinch at the cement’s ghoulish howl — and believe me: much as I relish in the eternally-preserved nostalgia of 80s gaming sound, there’s no denying the limited channels of gaming yesteryear can readily translate into shrieking Satanic babble at the drop of a hat — but now that our feet are on the pedal, they’re our harsh coach: our lesson in navigating the best turns as we juggle a delicate balance of movement and position. Pole Position‘s one course might be limited by today’s standards, but for this ancient progenitor, it exposes the brilliant duality to Pole Position‘s qualifying laps: To the fledgling gamer, the sheer awe of controlling a car in pseudo-3D is a life-defining revelation; to the experienced veteran, it’s a cutthroat competition for the high score.

Chris Lindsey of St. Louis, Missouri’s National Video Game and Coin-Op Museum has some ideas on why Pole Position gripped the gaming masses; for one, the game committed itself to realism. “Racing games before Pole Position tended to have a top-down perspective in which you floated over the course, which wasn’t terribly realistic,” Lindsey said. “Pole Position‘s eye-level point of view gave it a great deal of realism, and this point of view became a standard for racing games that followed.” Citing the game’s pervasive “peripheral cues”, players were thrilled by signs and billboards passing along the screen as buzzing car engines passed by their vehicles. On-top of the game’s relative absence in violence — fiery explosions aside and all — the boundaries of audience gender blended in the face of all-encompassing immersion behind the wheel.

pole position

Hello, blatant product placement!

Many often attribute Pole Position‘s design to Toru Iwatani of Pac-Man fame, but while he had some invaluable contributions — not the least in the actual name, which he thought “sounded cool” — Pole Position‘s creation is truly owed to Shinichiro Okamoto (Xevious) and Kazunori Sawano (Galaxian). With most of the English-speaking community’s resources hinging upon Japanese interviews, details on Pole Position‘s development remains limited, but there’s enough to paint a full picture of the game’s vision. Upon Sawano’s proposal of a racing game inspired by Namco’s previous mechanical driving games such as the aforementioned F-1, Okamoto solified vision of a “driving simulation game” that could execute real-world techniques. Even with the game designed with Japanese audiences in mind — Fuji Speedway was designed for newcomers to recognize — this pledge to vehicular authenticity is what truly forged the game’s universal appeal.

Albeit not one easily realized: For a game featuring only one racetrack, development took a laborious three years — the hardware at the time couldn’t handle the ambition of Sawano and Okamoto’s concepts, and the team often quarreled over the controls’ commitment to balancing game speed and realistic play. (Reportedly, even Namco President Masaya Nakamura expressed frustration with keeping the car steady.) The solutions involved were a blend of basic accessibility and eye-grabbing appeal — the gear shifts could simply alternate between high and slow depending on the player’s situation, and in a move practically unheard of at the time, the game utilized a Z8000 CPU powered by 16-bit processors; in other words, you could very well say Pole Position might’ve been the first 16-bit video game! (Meaning, yes, Pole Position‘s a tad out of place in a column dubbed “8-Bit Chronicles”, but we are here to celebrate the early-mid 80s!)

Capitalizing upon cockpit cabinets’ newfound popularity, Namco smartly supplied such Pole Position units in addition to standard upright units — while both featured gear shifts and a steering wheel, only the environmental model supplied a brake pedal accompanying the accelerator and a brake pedal. A perfect set-up for the game’s key immersion, what else should come swerving in but Pole Position‘s pseudo-3D graphics — passe today, yet state-of-the-art in 1983 thanks to the use of sprite-scaling: the appropriate size adjustment of distant objects, be they off-road signs or incoming cars.

Upon Pole Position‘s immediate success, Namco shifted gears from its previous business in mechanical racing games, envisioning video games as the future of arcade racing. As Pole Position was initially licensed out to Atari in the States, there did arrive some changes; billboard product placement, for one. As always, The Cutting Room Floor’s a useful resource for all the differences; in Japan, Pole Position advertised brands such as Pepsi and Marlboro, whereas Atari took the opportunity to showcase their game line-up. Meanwhile, the garbled “PREPARE TO QUALIFY” — one of several voice clips stunning prehistoric arcade-goers — was, naturally, originally voiced in its native language. (Today’s gamers might be a little less impressed, approaching these compressed clips as nothing less than translating an ancient language; as one comment illustrates in this video, one line could be interpreted as “quit driving you qualified for soap”)

While the best Pole Position home conversions are often cited as either the later Atari ports or Vectrex (as best illustrated by this Retro Core video — exactly which Atari version is the best is up for contention, but Vectrex features this monochrome 3-D look that’s way cool), we’re left to ask: what’s the best way to play an arcade-perfect Pole Position release today? Word has it that the original arcade units are prone to fried dgee connectors — the bane of preservationists and collectors alike, and a price far too steep for casual players. As it happens, my version of choice in PlayStation’s Namco Museum Vol. 1 features a bizarre peculiarity: no announcer! As my previous Namco Museum game in Pac-Land was based on the Japanese version, I initially deduced said voice clips were a Western addition, but quick research on my end proved otherwise. Why this is the case remains a mystery, but the last collection to feature Pole Position — Xbox 360’s Namco Museum Virtual Arcade — featured a refurbished (if not entirely new) voice recording that originated in early-aughts ports. In any case, finding an exact pixel-by-pixel, sound-by-sound conversion for retail would be all but impossible: With Namco retaining the publishing rights, most of the billboard advertisements were scrubbed in favor of mascot placements.

The most successful arcade game of 1983, Pole Position sold over 21,00 units that year alone and was quickly followed up by a sequel in Pole Position II. Arriving in that very same year, the game supplied three additional tracks in Suzuka International Racing Course and two made-up courses based on Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Long Beach’s 1982 United States Grand Prix West circuit. Meanwhile, a Saturday Morning Cartoon debuted in 1984; while infamous for having nothing in common with the original game, it’s not as if DIC had much choice given the game’s paper-thin context, and so that’s how we ended up with a traveling spy family operating under the guise of a racing stunt show.

And yet, neither a vapid, forgettable cartoon nor a full-fledged sequel usurped the legacy of the original game. The enduring favorite of high-score enthusiasts — and might I add the 1984 world record remains undefeated to this day — Pole Position is living proof that the thinnest of packages or the simplest of ideas can endure the ravages of gaming history so long as they’re beholden to rock-solid constitutions. I walked away from Namco’s famous racer knowing it likely won’t end up as one of my arcade go-tos — such is the fate of any game mimicking real-world conventions — yet I emerged satisfied all the same, for it’s the first arcade game thus far to humble and bewilder me: speeding over faux boundaries of time and personal preference for the sake of that eternal, invigorating rush in mastering control.

(By the way, I couldn’t find a good screenshot for this, but uh, what’s up with the “But Clyde!” sign? I’ve read it might be a reference to the 80s Pac-Man cartoon?)

Screenshots courtesy of the International Arcade Museum.

Anthony Pelone
Eating, breathing and living video games on a daily basis, Anthony is particularly fond of the Nintendo variety, but is by no means a console warrior. Somewhere in the midst of his obsession with cat pictures, he finds the time to pen about his favorite hobby. Having previously written for over three sites, Anthony remains dedicated to spreading the gospel of EarthBound.

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