Retro Rated: Pole Position

Developed by:Namco
Format played:Atari 2600



Damn the internet.

I had this whole intro planned out in my head. I was going to say, ‘Hey, remember that great cartoon called Pole Position that used to be on Saturday mornings before your mum and dad got up? It had a red car and a blue car, just like that old Milky Way advert, and they would go on adventures and stop crimes or something and I only ever remember watching the same two episodes. Remember that? Great, wasn’t it. Yeah, it’s nothing like Pole Position the game.’

That’s what I was going to say. Then the internet happened. Or more to the point Wikipedia. You see it turns out that the Pole Position cartoon was actually derived from Pole Position the game, under license from Namco. So even though it bore no resemblance to the game that inspired it, they are kinda related. Which made my intro rather redundant.

So yeah, damn you, internet. And damn you, Wikipedia!

Anyway the game itself in many ways represents the starting point, the primordial soup if you will of sprite based racers. Fans of anything from the Lotus games to Outrun to Ridge Racer and everything in between owe a sturdy nod to this trail blazer.

Taking control of an F1 car, you must first qualify via a time trial lap, completion of which gets you into the race proper and the chance to barrel round the Fiji circuit.

Any racer on a single button joystick is faced with that gut wrenching decision of whether to accelerate with the fire button or with the rather clunkier solution of ‘up’ on the joystick. As an added complication here though your car has a choice of two gears, so that takes up one option. But instead of forcing you to try and wrench your car round the circuit with your hand at impossible angles, the game dispenses with both methods, instead accelerating to top speed automatically. The fire button then acts as brake whilst up and down switch your gears. There, simple.

Speaking of simple, that’s the best way to describe the graphics. There is only one track which veers gently this way and that but with nothing like a sharp turn or tricky chicane. Scenery is featureless with no roadside obstacles, your only punishment for leaving the confines of the road a drop in speed. Whilst your car doesn’t look too shabby, other vehicles are shuffling yellow blobs that meander across the track, a cross between a Space Invader alien and something you might find at the bottom of your pack of Shreddies.

But for all that, it’s great fun! The track may be basic but it’s still a challenge to reach your time targets and keep the lap going. The other cars may look a bit funky but they add to the challenge, a collision with any of them seeing your car explode rather harshly into a flaming wreck. Sound is fab too, your engine purring nicely whilst other cars whizz past in a deafening roar.


Conversion Capers

Atari did a great job in converting this to its home console but the arcade original is markedly different.

The basic structure is the same – qualifying lap and single track – but the devil is in the detail. As you would expect it is graphically in a different league but the track itself is an altogether different beast. The arcade version offered a true replication of the Fiji track, the first such game to do so, and so driving round the circuit offers a proper challenge of tight, twisting bends and long straights, putting the Atari’s more limited interpretation firmly in the shade. Trackside is littered with advertising hoardings, not only giving the game more of the big race feel but also acting as an added obstacle, the wreck resulting from any collisions a gruesomely spectacular fireball of death.


Bottom Line

An absolute classic game that all modern racers should bow down and pay homage to.

Converted superbly to the humble home system, this is a prime example of overcoming graphical and technical limitations. Simple and limited it may be but this remains a fun, challenging drive.

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