Polar pattern: How Namco’s pole position revolutionized racing

Namco’s Pole Position is one of the most influential racing games ever made. It was a true pioneer and ’80s video game giant. Four decades have passed, however, and the primordial buzz of its whining engines has become a distant whimper. Indeed, its 40th anniversary has passed in the blink of an eye.

And that sucks, because before Out Run, before Ridge Racer — and before Hard Drivin’, Virtua Racing, Daytona USA, and all the racers we consider the current tycoon of today’s driving genre. – had Pole Position.

Originally, racing arcade games were mechatronics – similar in spirit to the video games that would later usurp them, but controlled by physical components. Early examples such as 1941’s Drive-Mobile showing a player maneuvering a toy car left and right on a painted spinning drum and 1959’s Mini Drive – from the arcade game maker Japan’s long-discontinued Kasco – requires players to steer toy cars along a rolling conveyor belt. In the late 1960s, however, Kasco and Sega pioneered a new trend in electromechanical arcade racing and introduced video presentation elements with Kasco’s Indy 500 and Sega’s Grand Prix. Namco responded with a string of its own with Racer in 1970, Formula-X in 1973 and F-1 in 1976.

The F-1 even made a guest appearance in George A. Romero's iconic 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead.

The F-1 even made a guest appearance in George A. Romero’s iconic 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead.

With oval tracks and opponents projected on the screen thanks to the clever combination of lights, painted turntables and mounted mini-car modelsthese games may look rudimentary by modern standards but they ultimately laid the groundwork for the look and feel of video games that would later successfully emulate (in fact, electromechanical racing games have immediately obsoleted by games like Pole Position).

The pinnacle of arcade racing was almost 50 years ago.  <br />(Source:, The International Arcade Museum)” src=” 1280&fit=bounds&height=720&quality=20&dpr=0.05″ class=”jsx-2920405963 progressive-image article-image article-image-full-size jsx-2407332289 jsx-3166191823 rounded loading”/></a></p>
<p class=The pinnacle of arcade racing was almost 50 years ago.
(Source:, The International Arcade Museum)

Pole position is not the first car racing video game to appear in video games; some notable examples precede it. For example, Atari’s top-down Gran Trak 10 game in 1974 – which featured a white car-shaped blob weaving through a strip of dots – may not look like much but is considered the first car racing video game. first. The Atari Night Driver’s first-person view followed in 1976, along with Sega’s Road Race. The 1979 Sega’s Monaco GP and 1980’s Namco’s Rally-X were important racers in their own right, as were Sega’s colorful and revolutionary 1981 Turbo. 1982 proved to be the most seismic.

It was the arrival of the Pole Position in 1982 that would prove to be the most seismic.

Created by Galaxian designer Kazunori Sawano, Tank Battalion designer Shinichiro Okamoto and Sho Osugi, the man behind Namco’s electromechanical racers of the 70s, Pole Position changed the racing game. It was unlike any racing game to date, with extremely advanced graphics for the time – thanks to a revolutionary 16-bit processor – and even voice synthesizer.

You know they're serious about curves when they use that much exclamation point.

You know they’re serious about curves when they use that much exclamation point.

Leaving aside the top-down approach, the “Pole” perspective places the player directly behind the vehicle and establishes the now-popular chase cam view we associate with racing games. It’s certainly fair to argue that the Turbo’s third-person view is also noticeable here, but the Turbo’s camera is mounted much higher and further away than the view in Polar Position.

Pole position was also the first racing video game to feature a real-life track, Fuji Speedway, which at the time recently hosted the dramatic finale of the now iconic 1976 F1 season – where James Hunt won the championship from Niki Lauda with a single hit. point. The layout is flat and simple, flanked by lush green grass, a bit like the real thing – but with Mount Fuji in the background, it’s pretty enough. It is also the first to require a player to complete a qualifying round before being able to race; you must finish in about 70 seconds to qualify for the race.

Quickly punishing the slightest misstep, Pole Position is a notoriously difficult experience.

Here, Pole Position stumbles a bit, especially through a modern lens. Quickly punishing the slightest misstep, Pole Position was a notoriously difficult experience on the original non-self-centering wheel and is still emulated as such on modern controllers. Even the previous designer Sho Osugi himself acknowledged him find it very difficultit feels like sitting down watching Twin Peaks with David Lynch and letting him turn to you and admit that he’s a little confused.

One wrong move and you're a blast, making qualifying for the race to survive a rather daunting task.

One wrong move and you’re a blast, making qualifying for the race to survive a rather daunting task.

Maybe we could also stick the boot in a bit for in-game ads, of which Pole Location was a very early proponent. Extreme Location Fuji is surrounded by billboards for some of the kid-friendly, real-world brands like… Marlboro and Martini – so even if you leave the closet without a newfound love of racing, you can still feel like smoke and aperitif. To be fair to Namco, this F1 era is synonymous with tobacco sponsorship, it’s surprising the cars aren’t required to have ashtrays. Fortunately, parents in the ’80s were probably too concerned about Satan’s concealment of the message on heavy metal discs to notice that Namco had filled his pioneer racer with alcohol ads and cigarette.

Those corners are so tight that I can see... yours, if you know, you know.

Those corners are so tight that I can see… yours, if you know, you know.

First released in Japan on September 16, 1982, Pole Position made its way to the United States (where it was distributed by Atari) and Europe later that year. It was an instant hit. Pole Position was not only the highest-grossing video game in Japan in 1982, it was also a huge hit around the world. With millions of dollars in weekly earnings in the United States alone, Pole Position became the highest-grossing video game in North America in 1983 and 1984. Pole Position received several awards at The Game Awards of the Association of Music and Entertainment Executives was recently established, where it won the gongs for Most Played Video Game and Most Popular Video Game. The criteria for those prizes may sound confusingly similar, but keep in mind that Pole Position beat the most played pool machine and most played pool table to claim second place. . It sucks to be you, Cougar Model 32. It’s a pool table. It also just turned 40.

The next pole position is a sequel, a board game and a series of short, 13-episode cartoons that share about…have nothing in common with the game.

The pole position quickly moved to home systems like the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, and was followed by a sequel, a board game and a short, 13-episode animated series that shared almost… no has anything in common with the game (which you’ll know, if you pay attention, it’s about F1 racing, not a family of… crime-fighting guys with talking cars). Then that’s it. Pole Position was succeeded at Namco by the Final Circuit series, and Pole Position was excluded from unusual appearances in Namco’s video game compilations. But something is not pretty because it lasts.

As for Namco, it can be a bit presumptuous to name your riders after a position you only earn by being faster and better than everyone else, but it’s hard to argue that in 1982, Pole Position don’t deserve that.

Luke is the Games Editor at the IGN office in Sydney. You can chat with him on Twitter @MrLukeReilly.


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