It’s time we had a new port of Pole Position

A lot of classic arcade games have had numerous rereleases over the years — both in compilations such as Namco’s excellent Namco Museum series, and as standalone downloads like Hamster’s never-ending Arcade Archives franchise. One that we haven’t seen for quite some time is Pole Position — the game which, alongside Sega’s Turbo, helped to define the “vanishing point” racer, and indeed pretty much the entire racing game genre up until fully 3D affairs like Ridge Racer and Virtua Racing came along.

One possible reason for this is that Pole Position is a bit of a pain to emulate; its original arcade machine’s control scheme made use of a freely spinning wheel rather than one with hard limits on how far it could go in either direction. While this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to overcome — there have been a few home releases of the original arcade machine over the years, including an excellent PlayStation version with neGcon support — if you’ve ever tried to get the game running in MAME, you doubtless know what I’m talking about.

Pole Position - arcade
Arcade version

Which is a shame, because Pole Position is great. While it is indeed one of the main origin points for the vanishing point racer, it’s also an interesting game in its own right; its focus on score rather than race position gives it quite a distinctive feel from many subsequent racers, and its simple but effective structure remains timeless.

On the offchance you’ve never played Pole Position, the setup is pretty simple: you have a fast Formula 1-style car, and it’s your job to prove exactly how fast it can go. You do this over the course of a qualifying lap and a race; the time in which you complete the former determines a score bonus and your starting position in the latter; the latter, meanwhile, proceeds for a set number of laps, with you attaining a bonus according to how many cars you passed over the course of the race. And, if you actually complete the allocation of laps, you also get a bonus for the remaining time on the countdown.

The focus is pretty much entirely on score. There’s no position indicator, no split times, no pitstops to worry about — it’s just you and the track. And I literally mean “the” track — the original release of Pole Position had just a single circuit, though later releases, both official and bootleg, expanded this with some additional courses to enjoy.

Pole Position - Atari 8-bit
Atari 8-bit/5200 version

Pole Position deliberately eschews realism in the name of making a more entertaining game. Although your qualifying lap technically determines your “starting position”, you’ll still find opponents to overtake at regular intervals ahead of you as you race. And clipping absolutely anything, be it trackside billboard or opponent, causes you to explode in a ball of flames, wasting precious time — though a moment later you’ll be plonked back on the track as if nothing ever happened.

It’s a game that is very easy to learn but tricky to master — particularly when you take on some of the home ports which added ways to tweak the difficulty such as adjusting the number of laps or determining the frequency with which you encounter opponents.

The ports for Atari systems — The Atari 2600, 5200, 8-bit line of home computers and 7800 all saw versions of Pole Position — are a particular highlight in this regard, each offering an authentic-feeling Pole Position experience while bringing their own distinct twists to the formula. And the Vectrex version, while obviously not resembling the bitmap-based original at all thanks to its wireframe vector visuals, is extremely fondly regarded by everyone who has played it.

Pole Position - Atari 7800 version
Atari 7800 version

So why don’t we have a new port, built properly for today’s systems? Namco have previously demonstrated that they’re certainly not averse to the idea of revisiting their classic properties and updating them for a modern audience — so why haven’t we seen something like Pole Position Championship Edition as yet? Imagine some chaotic four (or eight!) player split-screen races on the Nintendo Switch, like Sega did with their excellent Sega Ages version of Virtua Racing a while back. Or how about taking the Pac-Man 99 approach with some sort of “battle royale” racing? Every opponent you overtake ends up on another player’s road or something.

Honestly, though, while an updated version of this classic would be fun, there’s still nothing quite like the original. So I’d be perfectly happy with an Arcade Archives release of the original Pole Position — or even just one or more of the excellent Atari versions for the Evercade, if those folks can get their licensing issues with Namco sorted out.

For now, though, I guess it’s back to that classic Atari 8-bit cartridge with me… not that I’m complaining!

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