Driving Down Memory Lane with Pole Position

In the early 1980s, arcades were the coolest hangouts with their blinking lights and electronic beeps. One of these arcade machines is starting to turn heads: Pole Position. Developed by Namco, this game is about to set the bar for all future racing games.

The game puts you in the driver’s seat of a Formula 1 race car. You’re not just racing against time; you’re also weaving through other race cars, which is both thrilling and a bit nerve-wracking.

One of the coolest things about Pole Position was its steering wheel, gear shift, and pedals. It felt like you were driving a car, which was a big deal back then. The game’s difficulty increases as you progress, with more cars to dodge and tighter turns to navigate. And the sound effects? They added so much to the experience, from the roar of the engine to the screeching of tires.

Just thinking about it can make you want to find an arcade and give it a go. But before you do, get to know the game more in this article!

Overview

Pole Position is a classic arcade racing simulation game released by Namco in 1982 and licensed to Atari for manufacture and distribution. Running on the Namco Pole Position system board, it became one of the groundbreaking titles from the golden age of video games.

Pole Position was a major success, commercially and critically, as it holds the distinction of being one of the first racing simulations to offer a realistic driving experience. In Japan, it became the highest-grossing arcade game of 1982 and the most popular coin-operated arcade game internationally in 1963. Meanwhile, in North America, it became the highest-grossing arcade game from 1983 to 1984.

Set against the backdrop of Formula 1 racing, the game allowed players to assume the role of a race car driver, navigating a challenging track to get the coveted Pole Position. The title’s name itself is a nod to the prime starting position in a race, and players aim to secure this spot by skillfully maneuvering through the winding circuit.

During that time, Pole Position was renowned for its cutting-edge graphics, featuring a pseudo-3D perspective that can make players feel that they’re in a high-speed race. The game’s visuals were a significant leap forward – providing a more immersive experience compared to earlier racing games.

Development and Release

Pole Position was a collaborative creation born from the minds of Shinichiro Okamoto and Galaxian designer Kazunori Sawano. Namco engineer Sho Osugi significantly contributed to the project as well.

The game was built on Namco’s experience in producing coin-operated driving games in the 1970s, but Okamoto envisioned something far more advanced: a true driving simulation game with a 3D perspective. This ambitious goal led to the use of two 16-bit processors, which, at the time, was a groundbreaking move in the arcade game industry.

The game’s realistic controls were another point of focus. Osugi recalled that it was challenging to make it realistic. Even Namco’s president, Masaya Nakamura, was initially frustrated with the controls, as he found it hard to keep the car moving in a straight line.

The game’s iconic music was jointly composed by Nobuyuki Ohnogi and Yuriko Keino. Meanwhile, the title of the game was chosen by “Pac-Man” creator Toru Iwatani, who thought it sounded cool and appealing.

Pole Position was officially released in Japan on September 16, 1982, and it made its North American debut at Chicago’s 1982 Amusement & Music Operators Association show before a wider release on November 30, 1982. In Europe, it was also released by Namco in late 1982.

After the game was released, Namco’s older electro-mechanical driving games were discontinued because the company saw a future in this new tech, knowing that the old one would be phased out soon enough. And that’s what happened – it became the game that revolutionized the racing genre in the early 1980s.

Gameplay

In Pole Position, players take control of a Formula 1 race car, competing in a high-speed race. The game begins with a qualifying lap that determines the player’s starting position in the actual race. The objective is to complete the race in the shortest time possible while navigating through various challenges on the track.

Players will face a series of trials as they speed around the track, encountering sharp turns, competitors, and the constant pressure to beat the clock. A collision with other cars or track barriers could lead to a spectacular crash, adding an element of risk and excitement to the gameplay.

One of the main challenges in Pole Position is avoiding various obstacles, including other race cars, road signs, and water puddles. The game increases in difficulty as more cars appear on the track, and collisions with obstacles can lead to the player’s car being temporarily destroyed – which can add both fun and challenge. Players need skillful control and quick reflexes to successfully navigate these obstacles.

Thankfully, the controls were simple yet responsive. Players use a steering wheel and an accelerator pedal to guide their virtual race car. There’s also a gas pedal and a brake pedal for accelerating and controlling the speed, and a gear shift to allow players to switch between high and low gears. Players need to master these controls to navigate the track efficiently, which includes sharp turns and straight stretches. The intuitive interface made the game appealing to a wide range of audiences, attracting both seasoned gamers and newcomers alike.

The game is also about time management, as it is about racing. Players must beat the clock to qualify for the race and then complete each lap within a set time limit. The faster the player completes a lap, the higher their score. They must use the car’s controls strategically, and it includes knowing when to accelerate or decelerate and how to take turns without losing speed.

Race Tracks and Settings

The original Pole Position game is set in the Fuji Speedway in Japan and is designed to reflect real-world racing conditions. The track features a blend of straight stretches and sharp turns that require skillful navigation. The Fuji Speedway was a deliberate choice by the developers to offer players a recognizable and authentic racing experience.

Pole Position II, the update to the original game, introduced three new tracks alongside the original Fuji Speedway. These tracks included Suzuka, Seaside (which looks like Long Beach), and a Test circuit (which resembles Indianapolis). Each of these tracks brought a slight variation in color and design, enhancing the overall gaming experience. The sequel also featured “striped” roads to give a greater sensation of speed. This graphic characteristic influenced many racing games in the years that followed.

At the time, Pole Position was known for its groundbreaking, immersive in-game environments. It realistically represented race tracks, coupled with the dynamic sound effects that sounded like the real thing. This attention to detail set this game apart from other games in the early 1980s.

However, unlike many modern racing games, Pole Position does not feature pit stops or car upgrades. The game focuses on the skill of driving and navigating the track rather than on vehicle customization or repair mechanics. This focus on driving skills over upgrades or pit strategies adds to the challenge and authenticity of the racing experience.

Legacy

Pole Position became a cultural phenomenon and a staple in arcades worldwide. After it became successful, it spawned numerous adaptations on various gaming platforms – solidifying its status as a pioneering title in the racing game genre.

This game stood out for many reasons. It was one of the first to use sprite-based, pseudo-3D graphics, introducing a “rear-view racer format” that would become a staple in racing games. It also dabbled in in-game advertising, a novel concept at the time. Notably, Pole Position was the first ever 16-bit video game powered by two 16/32-bit Zilog Z8002 processors.

The gameplay was innovative and engaging. Players had to first complete a time trial on a recreation of the Fuji Circuit before progressing to the main race. Scoring was multifaceted – you earned points for completing the time trial, with additional points for leftover time and passing cars. The main race required players to navigate through traffic and various track hazards over three or four laps, depending on the machine’s settings. Points were awarded for each completed lap, each car passed, and each remaining second after completing all the laps.

The game’s hardware was just as impressive. Available in both sit-down cockpit and standard upright cabinet forms, it featured a non-self-centering analog racing wheel, making the gameplay feel more realistic but also challenging to replicate in modern emulation.

Then, when Pole Position hit the arcades, it wasn’t just a commercial hit; it became a cultural phenomenon. It was the top arcade game of 1982 in Japan and continued to dominate globally in 1983. This success led to a sequel, Pole Position II, released in 1983, along with an animated series and many game ports.

The game’s impact extended beyond its immediate commercial success. It set new standards for the racing game genre, inspiring numerous racing games and establishing conventions still used in racing games today.

Pole Position is widely regarded as one of the most influential video games of all time, particularly in the racing genre. According to Matt Barton, a professor at St. Cloud State University who authors scholarly articles about new media, it ranks among the 25 most influential games ever, making it “arguably the most important racing game ever made.”

In 1984, Electronic Games highlighted its groundbreaking approach, noting that, unlike its predecessors, Pole Position rewarded players for passing cars and finishing as leaders, emphasizing the art of driving.

Flux magazine, in 1995, placed the game at 32nd in their “Top 100 Video Games,” and in 2015, IGN crowned Pole Position at the pinnacle of “The Top 10 Most Influential Racing Games Ever.” IGN praised its superior third-person “chase cam view” over Turbo, its use of a real-world racing circuit (Fuji Speedway), the introduction of checkpoints, and the innovation of requiring a qualifying lap.

The highest score ever attained for the game was achieved by Les Lagier, who had an exceptional score of 67,310 on July 1, 1984. It remains unmatched until today.

Sequels

Pole Position spawned a couple of sequels that aimed to build upon the success of the original game and offer enhanced graphics, gameplay, and new features. Here are the notable sequels to Pole Position:

Pole Position II (1983)

Pole Position II, released in 1983, expanded upon the success of its predecessor with enhanced graphics and additional features. This sequel introduced new tracks and allowed players to choose between two courses: Fuji Speedway and Seaside. The gameplay remained true to the original, emphasizing realistic racing experiences. Pole Position II further solidified the game’s reputation as a driving force in the arcade gaming scene.

Pole Position: Atari 7800 Edition (1986)

In 1986, Pole Position made its way to the Atari 7800, bringing the arcade excitement to home consoles. While retaining the core gameplay, the Atari 7800 edition boasted improved graphics and a smoother frame rate. It aimed to recreate the arcade experience for players in the comfort of their homes.

Pole Position II: Atari Lynx Edition (1990)

The Atari Lynx, a handheld gaming console, saw the release of Pole Position II in 1990. This portable adaptation maintained the spirit of the original games, featuring scaled-down but impressive graphics for its time. The handheld version allowed players to enjoy the thrill of Pole Position on the go, contributing to the game’s enduring popularity across different gaming platforms.

Pole Position: Remix (2008)

In 2008, Pole Position made a comeback with Pole Position: Remix for the iOS platform. This modern iteration retained the classic racing feel while incorporating updated graphics and new gameplay elements. With touch controls and revamped visuals, Remix aimed to capture a new generation of gamers while still paying homage to the nostalgia of the original Pole Position series.

Conclusion

Pole Position was more than just a retro arcade game; it was an experience that shaped the future of racing games. It introduced features like the qualifying lap, the time trials, and the real-life race tracks, which became standard in later games. Even today, Pole Position is remembered as a cornerstone of video game history, as it was a pioneer in delivering realistic gaming experiences.