Pole Position

Datafile

Company: Namco
Year: 1982
Platform: Arcade
Controller: Steering wheel, gear level and pedal.

Foreword

The emotion and adrenaline of auto racing, where is easy to think only of the pilot, made this sport a natural candidate to make a videogame about. In Japan, the sport popularity is high and motivated the company Namco to try “racing” at this particular track. The fin product was a videogame who trail blaze the genre.

Game

Looks like during the 80s there were less trouble to put announcements in videogames.

Being an auto racing videogame, the premise is quite simple: try to race the track (which you can see in the title screen) in the fastest time possible.

If the videoplayer can do it iin less than certain time, it starts to compete in the main competition. In the event of getting an extraordinaty time, the videoplayer starts in the better position. Hence the name of the game, since Pole Position is the phrase to indicate that situation in auto racing.

A milestone at the time, the videogame sometimes was offered in a pilot cabin of a race car to give a full sentsation of driving a race car. Because the controls were a steering wheel, a gear level, a pedal to accelerate and other to brake. In some versions, there was only one pedal, so braking was done literally by not accelerating. The gear level only offered two gears, which the videoplyer must master to know how to take curves.

Of the few times I properly made a turn in this videogame.

A really nice and funny detail, at the time, is that as you advance in the tracks, you can see signs at the side of the road, with real sponsors of auto racing. Canon, Pepsi and Marlboro, among others, appear this way.

Ah, but they have impact, because you cn crash with them when getting out of the road, and the videoplayer can lose valuable seconds trying to qualify for the next stage.

Of course, being a videogame of auto racing, it would be illogical not having rivals against to race. And crash with them. Specially when these good fellows suddenly change lane for no apparente reason unless crashing you. It’s part of the hurdles the videogamer faces when running in this game.

Other Platforms

Atari 2600

Yep, that yellow brick is another car.

Perhaps the most known port to a home console, and actually, the one I played the most. Atari took the task of distributing the arcade game in North America, and in a logical way, created ports for its line of home consoles in 1983. Neither home console had the capabilities to replicate the feeling of using a steering wheel and a gear level. So, the control schema had to be changed.

In this case, the car is always accelerating, letting the decision to change gears to the videoplayer moving vertically the joystick. Moving the joystick horizontally, the car moves left or right to take turns or avoid rivals. Finally, the fire button is used to brake.

This control may be counter-intuitive at first, but for a port of an auto racing to a home console it works fine. The sensation of speed and advancing toward the track is the same, and it’s really exciting advance to reach the goal line. The rivals look a bit strange, actually, they’re very different from the videoplayer’s car, but in the end, that is not a problem.

Atari 8Bit

Now, the rival cars look like cars.

The Atari line of home computers were a bit more powerful than their home console line, and were better to grasp the feeling of the game. So, graphically, this port is better looking. Actually, the control schema change a bit: moving the joystick horizontally still moves the car to take turns or avoid rivals. But changing gears is now executed by pressing the fire button instead of moving the joystick vertically.

In my opinion, this change is less intuitive than the control schema of the Atari 2600, and I was a bit disoriented at first. But gradually I was getting more adapt to use it, and finally found it better. Actually, in this port I was able to get better times and advance more of all the different ports of this videogame.

Atari 5200

In this version, it’s really hard to advance straight.

OK, the great console with the polemic controller. For all the readers in this blog not familiar with this console, the joystick do not center automatically. So, if you moved the joystick to the left, it remains in the left (with the apropiate effect in the game) when you release it. Until you move it to another direction.

This was disorienting to many videoplayers at the time, and literally made many videogames more difficult than they should be. But other videogames were really good at grasping this particular control schema. And in an auto racing video game it works really well.

The control schema changes again, precisely to get the more juice of the controller, with its two buttons at the top. One of the buttons is used to brake, and other to accelerate. Actually it does not have more changes when compared to the other Atari ports. The graphics remain the same than the 8bit version, because as we have already writte before, the Atari 5200 can be considered an 8bit computer adapted for use exclusively for videogames.

Commodore 64

The game really looks good in the Commodore.

Atarisoft was the branch of Atari with the task to port videogames distributed by Atari for consoles and computers of the competition. Well, I think is a good move of getting some money from the competition. This branch published a lot of titules for the computer Commodore 64, and in 1984 was published this videogame for this personal computer.

In my opinion, it’s a really good port, which arrives early in the computer lifespan. It’s highly probable that the full potential was not explored yet. This title appears as a cartridge, just like the same as many early games for this personal computer. My performance was not so bad, as I exepected. The control schema is exactly the same as the one from Atari 2600, which is not strange, considering the Commodore 64 was able to use one-button joysticks.

DOS Computers

Van Gogh would be proud of this sunset painting.

Namco released in 1984 a port for personal computers compatible with MS-DOS. It’s interesting that move, because it was uncommon to publish videogames for that particular platform at the time.

Specially because the most common monitors for those computers only used two possible palettes of only 4 colors. In this case, the chosen one was the one with red, green, yellow and black. Such combination of colors portray an sky fit on a surreal painting.

The control schema, had to be done only with the keyboard, because apparently at the time it was not common to attach a joystick to the computer. So the videoplayer had to define keys to all the functions in the game: one for changing gear,s other to brake, other to accelerate and two for moving horizontally the car. With the modern features of some emulators, it was possible to reassign those keys to buttons of a gamepad.

The final result, was an interesting experience playing with the gamepad, but the pace of the game is considerably slower than the other ports.

Intellivision

I think the road looks better in black.

OK, I assume that due to licensing issues it was not possible to develop this game earlier for the Intellivision, but by 1987, I don’t think it was a wise idea by then. Considering that there were available more advanced consoles in the market, with more modern auto racing videogames. Even so, the company INTV ported the game for their console.

The port, actually is quite good, and probably if published three years before, would have been an excellent addition for the already great sports library for the Intellivision. But considering 1987, it was obsolete. I don’t consider it a bad game, only considered obsolete when released.

I think that it’s worthy doing a “test drive” of the game with an original Intellivision controller, because I think the experience would be like playing the Atari 5200 port with the Atari 5200 controller.

Others

The game was also ported to the following platforms:

Legacy

The game had an official sequel, Pole Position II, with slightly improved graphics, and the roadsigns showed different companies. Aside from that, it did not add something new to the genre.

Actually if there were only one oficial sequel, both Namco and Atari, with ties to the game, were involved in future auto racing videogames like TX-1 and the series Final Lap. These games can be considered “spritual” sequels of Pole Position. I’m still considering if I’m going to make entries about them in the future.

Finally, the videogame was famous for its difficulty, in any of its ports. This was used as a plot device in the movie D.A.R.Y.L. where the fact that the protagonist is able to get an outstandishly high score (It was the port for Atari 8bit) gave a clue that something was not normal with him.

Epilogue

In my hometown it was a huge hit seeing the pilot cabin to control the videogame, and it quickly became a fan favorite. I was always really bad in this kind of videogames, so very rarely (even now, when I replayed it to write this entry) I was able to get past the qualifying phase.

I did not have the Atari 2600 cart, but during early 80s, it was very common to see in my hometown, instead of conventional arcades, homemade cabinets connected to barebones Atari 2600 and a Black-and-White TV to play them like arcades. There were a few locals with this videogame in particular, and it’s fair to write that it was very popular. Until the arrival of an offer of the Atari 2600 with some cartridges including Enduro, a worthy successor in this console, which will surely have its own etnry.

References

Sport Icon designed by Smashicons of FlatIcon licensed by CC 3.0 BY.

Console Icons taken from Retroarch.

Arcade cabin image taken from Arcade Crusade.

Atari 5200 controller image taken from Progetto-Snaps.

EstadioRetro

Informatic guy and fan of retro videogaming. Mexican and spanish. I like to drink good coffee. My favorite sport is baseball, but I like to watch others.

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