I have a soft spot for Out Run on the ZX Spectrum. I was probably blinded by my love for the arcade version and my desperation to own it in some way that made me enjoy playing it so much on the ZX Spectrum. Even looking back on it now, it was a valiant effort at porting the arcade version in to a tiny 48k, 8-bit machine. And the game is actually much better on the 128k machine with no multi-load to interrupt gameplay and even a couple of in-game sound tracks that play alongside the sound effects.
And yet, even at the time there was that nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. It ran quite slowly until the third stage where I thought my machine had broken when I first played it, as it slows even further to a near stand-still due to the attempt at remaining faithful to the arcade’s tunnel section. And you always had to explain to friends why the road was green…and hope that they didn’t make it to stage four when it turns bright magenta! But that’s the best you could do on a Spectrum, right?
Well no! Just two years later, Chase HQ appeared on the ZX Spectrum and showed what Out Run could have been. It was fast, the graphics were beautifully drawn, and even retained sampled speech from the arcade on the 128k version! And tunnels? Not only did they fill the screen but the developers even changed the pitch of the sound as you drove through them! But maybe best of all, the road was either concrete grey or desert sand yellow, which meant that your friends no longer asked why you were driving on grass…or began laughing when someone reached stage four!
But as good as Chase HQ was, it was still predominantly monochrome. And I always felt that there probably could have been a little splash of colour given how fast it all moved – colours jumping in 8×8 blocks would look fine at Chase HQ speeds. So I thought it would be interesting to see what might have been with Out Run – what could it have looked like if the graphic artist had worked around the colour clash limitations.
The picture shown here is my version of an in-game screen (shrunk back to 256×192 here, and shown larger at the top of the page). I’ve only spent about a day on it and I’ve adhered pretty closely to the original graphics so as not to end up with a completely different looking game. I’m sure it could be done better than this, but it’s interesting to get a glimpse of what might have been!
For those interested in what I did, a little explanation follows…
First I took a ZX Spectrum in-game screen shot at 256×192 resolution and increased that in Photoshop to 2560×1920 so I could actually see what I was doing!
Next I had to consider both the working pixel size and how colour clash worked. I selected two square brushes to match the sizes of a single blown-up pixel and an 80×80 block of colour (at the new high resolution). Then I went to the view menu and turned on the grid option, altering the grid dimensions in the preferences menu so my screen was divided in to 80×80 sections. This made it easier (but still a bit fiddly) to lay down blocks of colour and pixels so that they didn’t break the colour clash rule and aligned correctly.
Next I took some Chase HQ and Out Run screens for misc roadside items, mountains etc and re-drew these at the larger scale and coloured them in. I tried to keep different objects on different layers so I could work on them separately.
The first thing I wanted to do was have a concrete road to match the arcade version, so I took my cue from Chase HQ for the look of that. I think it already improves the game!
I was never sure why Chase HQ left the mountains the same colour as the sky. Probably because of the line that would have been created between the top of the mountains and the sky. So to get around that issue, I added a layer of silhouetted mountains behind the FG mountains which allowed me to colour the FG a sandy yellow and use the black colour to separate the yellow of the mountains and the blue of the sky. It works quite well I think and doesn’t look like a tactic to avoid colour clash. I also worked a couple of shades of yellow in to the mountains just for a bit of variation.
I figure that objects would be flying towards us pretty quickly as in Chase HQ, so having FG objects jump in blocks of 8×8 pixels wouldn’t notice. In fact, in Chase HQ I’m sure FG objects jump in at least blocks of 8×8, so there is no reason not to colour them! Here I admit that my alignment of the trees and signs in the final image might have broken the colour clash rule if you measure it all out carefully (I could do better if I spent another day on the image), but the trees and signs themselves do adhere to the colour block rule within the sprite itself, and it’s only their on-screen placement that might be a few pixels out here and there. But in principle, this image is possible. The trees were the most awkward object to work with as the palms taper to a point and that doesn’t work so well with large squares of colour, but I think I did OK with them. For further levels it’d be better to stick to buildings and other square objects!
I decided to leave the sky as it was. With more time I probably would have gone for an IK+ sort of thing, but actually I quite like the banding of the Spectrum Out Run sky. At the very least I’d shift it all up a bit and add a nice yellow sun to the sky and some fluffy white clouds as that wouldn’t cause any colour clash issues against a plain cyan sky.
I decided to move all the HUD graphics to the top of the screen. These could look much better, but I wanted to concentrate time on the game graphics themselves so I left them much as they were and just realigned them and compacted them. I did recolour the speed indicator which looks much nicer I think (again, there may be a few pixels of error there, but it’s possible to lay it out like that).
Finally, the biggest issue of Out Run on the Spectrum for me what that the iconic red Ferrari Testarossa was green or whatever colour the BG was! Considering that the car doesn’t move, and the screen instead moves around it, there was no reason I could see not to make it red (at least no reason colour-wise). The shape is a little problematic for the blocks of colour, but I always felt that the car itself was well drawn so I didn’t want to alter it too much and just add colour to what was there. There are some compromises, but I managed to paint it red and even add some different colours to the lights, the Ferrari badge and even your girlfriend’s hair! For my efforts I also gave myself a personalised number plate!
Over-all I’m pretty happy with this effort as it was my first attempt at taking an old Spectrum screen and trying to add colour. Now I’ve had a little practise, I could do better (I’m thinking of looking at Robocop next) and also iron out the small errors I can see where the colour clash rule has been broken. But if this was the game I’d bought back in 1987, I would have been ecstatic…and would never had to explain away that green road!