I worry that my reviews of Data Discs vinyl game soundtrack releases tend toward hyperbole - but, as the company's latest release demonstrates, those superlatives are in no way unjustified. Out Run remains perhaps the most iconic and unique racing soundtracks of all time, and Data Discs has absolutely done it justice with their sixth SEGA LP release.
In fact, this is very nearly a perfect music collection. If not for a single significant packaging flaw, this might be Data Discs' best production yet - no mean feat, coming hot on the heels of the exceptional Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack.
Let's talk about that packaging issue first. As with all of the SEGA vinyl reissues, Data Discs has forged into the publisher's archives to find original artwork and high-end sources. However, for Out Run, its being a 30-year-old arcade title rather than a home release means there was little original artwork to begin with, and what few illustrations may have existed may no longer be stored in SEGA's vaults. So, as they did with Out Run's fellow vintage arcade racer Super Hang-On, Data Discs has instead presented original arcade pixel graphics in an elaborate die-cut jacket. In this case, the die-cut takes the form of a large window into which owners can slide two different reversible screenshots, showing off the various locales and times of day in which Out Run races take place.
The problem is in the presentation of the screenshots themselves; for some inexplicable reason, they're not presented with crisp pixellated fidelity or retro-style scanlines. Instead, they appear to have been scaled up quickly in Photoshop, turning the lovely game graphics into a blurry, cheap-looking mess. The pixel graphics on the Super Hang-On sleeve were slightly soft, but not like this; but all three interchangeable scenes (as well as the outer die-cut jacket) suffer from the same blurriness, so it doesn't appear to be a misprint. It's a strange design choice, and while it may not bother most people, more particularly collectors will likely find it detracts from an otherwise appealing package.
And it's a great package! For the first time, Data Discs has included liner notes by one of the composers (in this case, Hiroshi Kawaguchi). The overall color scheme has a pastel look based on the arcade logo, with band of white flanked by sunset pink and mint pink; it's not the palette most people associate with the game, but it totally captures the mid-'80s Florida roadtrip vibe Yu Suzuki was going for with the game - think Miami Vice. The record itself comes in three different color variants, but by far the best is the translucent banded design that imitates the logo gradient. It's a gorgeous design that fits perfectly with the laid-back vibe of the music itself.
Of course, as always, the music is the real star here, and I love how Data Discs has mastered it. As usual, they've gone to the original source (the game hardware) to create all new recordings. Since the arcade soundtrack to Out Run consisted only of three tunes and a game-over theme, though, the entire second side is supplemental material. The producers could have gone the same route as with Super Hang-On and released a smaller set of tunes on a 45rpm record, but instead Out Run is more like a "complete works" production that runs as a slightly shorter-than-average 33rpm disc.
The album contains seven tracks in total. The first side of the record includes the four arcade compositions, while side B consists of a single track from the SEGA Genesis port of the game and two of the newly composed tunes from M2's 3D Out Run for 3DS. Being slaves to fidelity, of course, the M2-commission pieces were composed with the original arcade hardware. That means the Genesis track is the only one that doesn't quite fit, with slightly heavier bass and duller drums; unless you knew the 3DS tunes hadn't originated with the arcade game, you'd never be able to guess they had been composed several decades after "Magical Sound Shower."
A big part of what makes Out Run so unique is its unconventional thematic approach to the idea of racing. As Hiro mentions in the liner notes, Out Run was meant not to be an intense F1-style racing experience but rather an attempt to capture the feeling of driving down a highway in the summer, with the top down on your sports car, the wind in your hair. The soundtrack reflects that, offering up not the intense driving beats of typical video game music but rather a chill, relaxing mixture of fusion jazz and salsa. This philosophy is further reflected in the track titles - "Splash Wave," "Passing Breeze," "Cruising Line" - presenting an idyllic, romantic vision of driving.
Fittingly, Data Discs has mastered these tracks to be longer than you usually see on video game soundtrack. Typically OSTs consist of 60- to 90-second loops that repeat once and fade, but Out Run's compositions run longer and have more complex arrangements, with mood shifts, bridges, and unique passages. Despite containing only seven tracks, one of which is a simple game-over ditty, the Out Run LP runs more than half an hour altogether, with most tracks clocking in at around six minutes apiece. Between the laid-back vibe of the tunes and the fact that they're given room to stretch and breathe, Out Run is probably the most chill racing game soundtrack ever released on vinyl; the only thing preventing it from being a perfect collection of music to turn on and tune out is the fact you have to flip the record every 18 minutes or so.
Magical Sound Shower
Arcade: One of the most iconic SEGA compositions ever - right up there with Sonic's Green Hill Zone - the opening cut for this record has a mellow calypso feel. Right away, that sets it apart from typical racing music. When the steel drum breakdown kicks in at the 2:30 mark, though, you know you're listening to something truly unique in the medium.
Arcade: An even more laid back piece, with a feel akin to jazz. Think Burt Bacharach, or some big band, with multiple shifts in style. The track picks up when the solo section kicks in, but soon returns to its lighter demeanor.
Arcade: By far the closest things to a typical video game music composition on the record, but it's still a far cry from Mario-esque calliope or Final Fantasy bombast. "Splash Wave" features a measured melody line over top of the driving beat, which helps mute the intensity of the rhythm section and create a cohesive connection to the rest of the record. It's also the most intricate of the original arcade compositions, with multiple passages and a fade-out on an isolated rendition of the original melody.
Arcade: A simple reprise of the melody from "Splash Wave." There's not much to this piece, but it contains a wonderful FM synthesis rendition of electric piano - the video gaming '80s in a nutshell.
Step on Beat
Genesis: Due to the nature of the Genesis sound chip, this piece has a heavier rhythm line. The sound quality has a very slightly staticky sensation to it - not an artifact of the mastering process, just a difference in output between expensive dedicated arcade boards and an inexpensive all-purpose console.
3DS: Again, you'd never know this was composed and recorded 28 years after the original arcade game. The sound is faithful almost to a fault, and so too is the composition itself. It comes off almost as a pastiche of "Magical Sound Shower" - but it was meant to fit seamlessly
Camino a Mi Amor
3DS: The album ends on a slightly different note; where the other tracks on the album tend to feel relaxed and upbeat, "Camino a Mi Amor" has a somewhat intense minor key feel to it, with a lot of heavy lifting done by a countermelody that lurks beneath the bright lead instrumentation. Still, with its heavy Latin influence and a memorable bridge section - not to mention its arcade-faithful FM synthesis sound - it fits right in with the rest of the record.
As with other Data Discs releases, Out Run is available for purchase through the company's web site, though it's likely to pop up at other internet retailers as well for those who balk at the cost of shipping from the U.K. [Disclosure: Our review sample was provided by the record label.]