Video game music can be great, but sometimes it’s fun to pair your wine with some different cheese. In Alternate Soundtrack, Derrick Sanskrit matches a video game with an album that enhances the experience.
A staple of the booming 1980s arcade scene, Sega’s Out Run—designed by Yu Suzuki—is a car game steeped in luxury and elegance. With your anonymous driver at the wheel of a Ferrari Testarossa convertible, palm trees whiz by, and your girlfriend’s hair dances in the breeze. The premise is that you’re participating in a cross-country race, plotting a new course for adventure at every fork in the road.
One of the biggest ideas in Out Run was the necessity of shifting gears. First gear can only get a driver so far before the competition leaves them in the dust, but second gear will only slow a driver down when they’re on rough terrain. Players needed to carefully balance the speed and gear of their ride in order to stay in the race, as they do in real life.
Earlier this year, the French DJ known as Kavinsky released an LP with a familiar title, OutRun, and similar thematic sensibilities. In a post-Napster environment, where a musician is only as relevant as the last stray track someone downloaded, many dance musicians find they have little time to dawdle. They must constantly fire on all cylinders, as their career ends the moment the party ends. But Kavinsky opts for a more patient, cinematic sound, and he has built a small but strong following off a series of singles—and one particularly-well placed song in the opening credits of 2011’s Drive. Sure, you can dance to most of this stuff, but there is a somber sense of darkness at times and a carefree declaration of rebellion at others.
Pairing this game and this album is not an original idea. Vincent Belorgey—a.k.a. Kavinsky—has acknowledged that he named his debut LP after the Sega arcade game. There’s even a photo of Out Run designer Yu Suzuki holding the Kavinsky vinyl sleeve. I can almost guarantee that, during the mixing sessions for the OutRun LP, Kavinsky would sit back and play the 1991 Sega Genesis/Mega Drive port of the arcade game while listening to his own demo tracks.
There is the sense in both Out Run the game and OutRun the album that the open road offers a horrible freedom but also that there is an awesome electricity behind the wheel of a Ferrari. The chugging beat of “Blizzard” is the roar of the engine, while the distant chants of “Hey! Hey!” are the roar of the crowd. The blistering heat of the lead guitar through “ProtoVision” leads the youthful rebellion with fists raised to the sky. The ominous strings and bass of “Rampage” create a claustrophobia that is dashed by the free-wheeling swagger of “Suburbia.” And then that swagger is reformulated into the disorienting machinations of “Deadcruiser” with its relentless bass sequencer.
Kavinsky’s instrumentals undulate between the unfettered abandon of the infinite highway and the tension of street racing. Even the lyrics of Kavinsky’s collaborators reflect on the joys and sorrows of the open road. “I come to life in my fast, fast car,” Havoc announces on “Suburbia.” He’s in control of the landscape as he continues, “My Testarossa, same color as Mars. Buckle up, we’re now riding with a star.” Tyson likens a gearshift to the crack of lightning on “First Blood” while SebastiAn croons about the rush of realizing there’s nobody around you on “Odd Look,” both of which describe real sensations that punctuate the game.
Suzuki has long said that Out Run was not a racing game, but a “driving game.” Fixating on speed will run players off the road. Driving with a sense of reason is what wins the day. Kavinsky’s OutRun is much the same, forgoing the ebb and flow of dance records for a consistent sense of forward motion. These songs don’t have bridges that allow dancers to change up their pace and catch their breath. More often than not, they build in intensity across each song and, just as Kavinsky approaches the emotional apex of a tune, the song cuts out, and we move on to the next idea. We shift gears.