Namco’s Pole Position is one of the most influential racing games ever made. It was a true trailblazer and an arcade titan from the 80s. Four decades down the track, and the primitive hum of its wailing engines has become a distant whine. In fact, its 40th anniversary just passed with barely a whiff.
And that’s just a shame, because before Out Run, before Ridge Racer—and before Hard Drivin’, Virtua Racing, Daytona USA, and all the racers we consider the current kingpins of the racing genre today—there was Pole Position.
The best racing games ever
At the very beginning, racing arcade games were electromechanical – similar in spirit to the video games that would later usurp them, but powered by physical components. Early examples such as 1941’s Drive-Mobile saw players maneuver a toy car left and right on a painted, spinning drum, and 1959’s Mini Drive – from the long-defunct Japanese arcade game maker Kasco – asked players to navigate a toy car along a rolling conveyor belt. In the late 1960s, however, Kasco and Sega pioneered a new spin on electromechanical arcade racing, introducing video projection elements with Kasco’s Indy 500 and Sega’s Grand Prix. Namco responded with its own string of Racer in 1970, Formula-X in 1973 and F-1 in 1976.
With oval racetracks and competitors beamed onto a screen thanks to a clever combination of lamps, painted spinning discs and tiny, attached car modelsthese games may look primitive by modern standards, but they ultimately laid the groundwork for the look and feel that video games would later emulate (so well, in fact, that electromechanical racing games were immediately rendered obsolete by games like Pole Position).
Pole Position was not the first car racing video game to appear in arcades; a number of notable examples predate it. For example, Atari’s top-down Gran Trak 10 in 1974—which featured a white, car-shaped blob weaving through a ribbon of dots—might not look like much, but is regarded as the first car racing video game ever. Atari’s first-person shooter Night Driver followed in 1976, along with Sega’s Road Race. Sega’s Monaco GP in 1979 and Namco’s Rally-X in 1980 were important racers in their own right, as was Sega’s colorful and revolutionary Turbo in 1981. However, it was the arrival of Pole Position in 1982 that would prove the most seismic.
Created by galactic designer Kazunori Sawano, Tank Battalion designer Shinichiro Okamoto and Sho Osugi, who were behind Namco’s electromechanical racers in the seventies, Pole Position changed racing games. It was unlike any racing game to date, with hugely advanced graphics for the time – thanks to its revolutionary 16-bit microprocessor – and even had synthesized speech.
Eschewing the top-down approach, Pole Position’s perspective placed players directly behind the car and established the now ubiquitous chase camera view we associate with racing games. It’s certainly fair to argue that the Turbo’s trailing third-person view is also worth noting here, but the Turbo’s camera was mounted far higher and further away than the view in Pole Position.
Pole Position was also the first racing video game to feature a real track, the Fuji Speedway, which at the time had recently hosted the dramatic finale of the now iconic 1976 F1 season – where James Hunt won the championship from Niki Lauda with a single . point. The flat and simple layout, flanked by lush green grass, bears little resemblance to the real thing – but with Mount Fuji in the background it was good enough. It was also the first to require players to complete a qualifying lap before they could race; you had to finish in around 70 seconds to be eligible to enter the race itself.
This is where Pole Position stumbles a bit, especially through a modern lens. Quick to punish the slightest wrong move, Pole Position was a notoriously harsh experience on the original non-self-centering wheel, and remains so emulated on modern controllers. Even designer Sho Osugi has previously admitted he found it very difficultwhich feels a bit like sitting down to watch Twin Peaks with David Lynch and having him turn to you and admit he’s a little confused.
We could probably stick the boot in a bit for in-game advertising as well, which Pole Position was a very early proponent of. Pole Position’s Fuji was heavily flanked with billboards for a handful of real, kid-friendly brands like… Marlboro and Martini – so even if you left the enclosure without a newfound love of motor racing, you could still come away feeling a smoke and an aperitif. In fairness to Namco, this era of F1 is so synonymous with cigarette sponsorship that it’s a surprise the cars weren’t required to be equipped with ashtrays. Fortunately, parents in the 80s were probably too preoccupied with Satan hiding messages on heavy metal records to notice that Namco filled its pioneering racer with alcohol and tobacco ads.
Pole Position was first released in Japan on September 16, 1982, and arrived in the United States (where it was distributed by Atari) and Europe later that year. It was an immediate hit. Not only was Pole Position the highest grossing arcade game in Japan in 1982, it was a huge hit worldwide. Grossing millions of dollars each week in the United States alone, Pole Position became the top-grossing arcade game in North America in 1983 and 1984. Pole Position won several awards at the newly established Amusement & Music Operators Association Game Awards, where it collected most played video games and most popular arcade games. The criteria for these awards may sound astonishingly similar, but remember that Pole Position crushed the most played pinball machine and the most played pool table to secure the latter. Nice to be you, Cougar Model 32. It’s a pool table. It has also just turned 40.
Pole Position quickly migrated to home systems like the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, and was followed by a sequel, a board game, and a short-lived, 13-episode cartoon series that shared about… nothing in common with the game (as you I know, if you have mind you, was about F1 racing and not a family of… crime fighters with talking cars). Then that was it. Pole Position was succeeded at Namco by the Final Lap series, and Pole Position was relegated to occasional appearances in Namco’s arcade collection packs. But a thing is not beautiful because it lasts.
It might have been a bit presumptuous of Namco to name the racer after the spot you only earn by being faster and better than everyone else, but it’s hard to argue that 1982’s Pole Position didn’t deserve it.
Luke is the games editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can chat with him on Twitter @MrLukeReilly.