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Where Horizon Chase got its retro-futurism

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

From Gran Turismo to Grand Theft Auto, players often master the best racing games from behind the spoiler of an unlicensed Corvette. Horizon Chase stays true to form: As the player skids and swerves to keep from wrecking her cherry-red hot rod, the music swells to what sounds like a guitar solo from a lost Guns N’ Roses album.

Reproducing the distinct digital driving experience of the late 80s to early 90s, the game supplies players with a constant nitro boost of nostalgia. Just don’t call it old-fashioned.

That’s because Aquiris Game Studio designed Horizon Chase to be retro in the best possible way. This meant overhauling the less desirable aspects of older games while still maintaining its reflective outlook.

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“[The game is] like a reality where half the computer graphics evolved to be what they are today, and the other half were left frozen in time,” said Amilton Diesel, the team’s Technical Art Director.

Part of the reason Aquiris Game Studio has a knack for crafting new games that feel endearingly old is because of their location: Brazil.

“16-bits systems were probably the most popular video games in Brazil so far,” Diesel said.

This phenomenon was a product of necessity. Because steep tariffs and government regulations kept new game consoles from penetrating the market, the vintage systems had a much longer shelf life than they did in the rest of the world.

“I’m not a big fan of pixels.”

An official version of Sega’s 8-bit Master System, for instance, was released in the country as late as 2006, although the system has been discontinued in North America since 1992. This gave Brazilian developers a unique perspective that goes beyond mere nostalgia.

Diesel sees videogames as the perfect medium for exploring the “retro-future”—not the future as it came to pass, but as it might have happened if you went back in time, stepped on a microchip, and set off an unforeseen chain of events. The retro-future is the space in which “having flying cars but not mobile phones can still somehow make sense,” he said.

In the case of Horizon Chase, it is a sly hybrid of the racing games kids loved at the beachside arcade and on their Xboxes as adults.

“What we did was basically deal with the same limitations of developers working on the Super Nintendo,” Diesel noted, saying that the team then added modern techniques and a new art style.

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While they are extremely fond of the art design in early racing games—the wide open skies, the snakelike scrolling of the highway, how the signs on the roadside flickered by—creating a sleek experience on mobile phones required the developers to update some things.

“I’m not a big fan of pixels,” Diesel said, referring to the hundreds of grainy little dots that old games were drawn with.

“Modern devices call for something better, like polygons with pure and vibrant colors. They have the power to create the perfect ‘computer world.’”

This posed a dilemma: creating an old-school racing game without pixels is like ordering a steak without the red meat. Pixels were fundamental to the way these racing games were created.

He stitched together the outdated pixel techniques with present day polygons.

Prior to the mid-90s, game hardware was too limited to show a car zipping toward the horizon, so game developers had to fake it. Games like Out Run and Pole Position were made up of pixelated images (think of those iconic palm trees) which got larger as the player scrolled toward them. This created an optical illusion that the user was cruising through 3D space—even if, in reality, it was closer to a programmable LED sign.

This seems archaic by today’s standards, but it was also fundamental to the design of classic racing games. Diesel couldn’t just take Out Run and give it a fresh coat of paint. To do so would undermine all the qualities that made those games special in the first place.

Instead, using great care, he stitched together the outdated pixel techniques with present day polygons.

“Triangles and illusionism put together in the form of computer graphics are my real motivation,” he said.

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A bit of deception is involved as well. Like any classic racer worth its salt, “Horizon Chase is essentially a 2D game,” Diesel explained.

“It may look like a 3D game, but if we try to rotate the camera a few degrees, everything breaks. The sky, tracks, cars — they all break.”

It was this careful manipulation of the artwork that makes Horizon Chase authentically hum. Diesel said being able to stitch together these graphics was the most challenging and rewarding part of tackling this project.

“All of this was done to capture the look and feel in exactly the same way it was 23 years ago,” he said.

For players who miss burning rubber in retro-graphics glory, those drives into the sunset with the 80s rock blaring are surely worth the effort.