How to go on a road trip without leaving your house

It’s summer, when the videogame release calendar turns to dust and we’re ostensibly supposed to go enjoy the great outdoors. Instead of doing that, we’re taking a stroll through the halls of videogames to find its greatest parallels to summer’s best parts. After that, maybe, we’ll go for an actual walk or something. Unless we stumble upon a ‘summertime walking’ simulator for the Oculus Rift, in which case mission accomplished.

By the age we started taking family road trips that I can recall, it’s clear videogames had already infiltrated my thinking process. Along the long expanses, when the sides of the roads became repeating trees, signs and posts, I would plot my finger on the window and slide it up and down as if it was Super Mario on fast-forward. Other moments I’d be absorbed by neon signs or gaudy black-and-pink strip club billboards. Other moments I’d be lulled to a sleep in motion by my parent’s Woody Allen cassette. A drive between Toronto and a Boca Raton condo is one with a few days and nights and motels stocked with pamphlets for roadside attractions you won’t even pass by.

All to get to a city full of retirees, the Nickelodeon channel and a now-closed Wilt Chamberlain themed restaurant. As every dad has uttered at one point in their life, it’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there.

This is an excuse utilized for roadside excursions of every shape. If you luck out, the destination will be an old man’s house turned into a “toy museum,” wall to wall with an assortment of collectibles that looks like an obsessively assembled clamshell mould. Most of the time it will be a farm with very little to do for an impatient child and which will try to sell you crafts by the exit. That child would rather play Game Boy. Indeed, the road trip—whether ambling or parent-enforced—is inextricably linked with videogames. You don’t get to play the destination. Like Pops said: It’s how you get there.

You will travel to Vegas, Chicago, Atlantis and the Moon and you may as well be doing circles in Winnipeg for all the difference it really makes. 

There’s only one thing you want to see in a racing game when you reach your destination: how quickly did you manage to do it? Otherwise, that’s when the game ends. Your speedster shuts off, it’s on to the next race or the opening menu. Despite this inherently anti-arrival structure, there’s a meaty folder of racing games fixated on the road trip, racing through a series of magically pointless destinations.

The Cruis’n games, from World to Exotica to the good ol’ USA, exist on a planet where roads are formed by the paths enclosed by invisible walls. You will travel to Vegas, Chicago, Atlantis and the Moon and you may as well be doing circles in Winnipeg for all the difference it really makes.

Midway displays a bewildering restraint in their New York City level, which never gets too close to any famous landmarks. A thrown voice shouts “New York New York!” and the Statue of Liberty looms behind the finish line. It’s mostly just a winding underpass with so many hills there must have been some glaring oversights in its construction.

In Beverly Hills, the Hollywood sign is underwhelmingly close to the ground. Most countries are only distinguishable by their flags. If the locales are so superfluous, then why bother? Well, traveller, that’s because you’re going fast. You’re crashing into every passing truck. You’re doing Hazzard jumps off every spot of construction. While the globetrotting did make for an easy excuse to wring two sequels, what we talk about when we talk about Cruis’n is breaking the speed limit and 90s photo-rendered bikini babes.

While even in a nostalgic filter, Cruis’n feels at best an [wavers hand parallel to the ground] “okay” game. A really low-risk racing series to goof around with. But it wasn’t the only series to rocket through vistas, and by far isn’t the one to do it the best.

While Cruis’n certainly meditates, or at least reuses assets, longer from each pit stop, a videogame that feels the most like warping between postcards to previous family road trips is one that takes place in the exact opposite vehicle. I am speaking of the beautiful moments that I spent drifting down seaside roads in my make-believe Ferrari with a make-believe supermodel girlfriend in OutRun Online Arcade.

For those who haven’t had the chance to play it—which it hurts me to say you have been deprived of forever, since it was taken offline in 2011—this version of OutRun has you seatside with your sweetheart on a drifty joyride. Over a dozen locations on the same course, with gradually leaning difficulty, the game is Around the World in 16 Minutes.

Like Cruis’n, and unlike Mario Kart, OutRun Online Arcade also has limited engagement with its surroundings, but it is far more romanticized, memorable. (I also happen to think the mechanics feel a lot tighter.) The big redwoods are pierced with light instead of just dirt-red polygon towers, the waterfalls boom out a wall of noise. There’s a bitter and sweet celebration of the open road: that humankind-be-damned has laid pavement through jungle, ice, big trees and stone, and aggressively built pipelines and dams within them too.

Unlike Cruis’n, OutRun has an informal system to reward you. Each intersection gives you a split-second decision to take the high road or the hard road. Go easy on yourself and you’ll drive through national parks and over bay bridges, nice places. Go hard and you’ll see a night’s sky light up with meteor showers, an Aztec temple and thread around Times Square, crazy places. It’s a great effect when you transition between areas, the sky wipes and new surroundings spring forward like a Gondry pop-up book. If you want to play a game that feels like gulping all your vehicular summer adventures into one time-attack, there are few greater.

The big redwoods are pierced with light instead of just dirt-red polygon towers, the waterfalls boom out a wall of noise. 

My parents would never do drifts along the interstate. I doubt you’d be able to convince them to do donuts in a parking lot. One time my dad was nervous to park at a motel because there was a suspicious amount of bunny rabbits in the grassy area around it. We were not a daredevil family. You can say it was about the trip all you want, but I was sleeping or falling asleep for a lot of it. I’m sure the fireworks wholesalers I missed were a lot like the ones I saw awake. I was in it for Universal Studios Orlando.

In videogames, you won’t get to go to Universal Studios Orlando (actual that’s not entirely true, there is a videogame literally about going to Universal Studios Japan). You don’t get to settle into your destination, you don’t get to relieve yourself at gas stations, you don’t get to try local candy bars. You do get to dash through places, and you get to do it excitingly. You get to drive recklessly through souvenir t-shirts, and coupled correctly with engaging game mechanics makes for the greatest impossible fantasy road trip we can revisit. The lack of these things is at least one of the reasons Desert Bus was never actually published.

Header image via Michael Kappel