Friday, January 17, 2020

Game 143: Pole Position

Pole Position was probably the first video game I’ve played in my life. It wasn’t in an arcade, but at the Museum of Science in Boston, where it was on temporary display as part of a showcase on motorsport physics. It wasn’t a life-changing experience – that honor goes to seeing Super Mario Bros. on the NES for the first time – but it is the earliest memory I have of playing a video game of any description.

Today, emulating Pole Position is a tricky proposition thanks to the controls. Gamepads simply do not work well with this game in MAME. I had considered getting a USB steering wheel, but abandoned that idea when I realized that many early arcade driving games, including this one, don’t use conventional steering wheels.

An actual automobile steering wheel turns lock-to-lock, and through mechanical, hydraulic, or electronic mechanisms, controls the angle of the wheels. Turn it all the way to the left, and your wheels will be pointed as far left as they’ll go. Center the wheel and your wheels point forward. USB steering wheels work the same way, though typically with a tighter lock-to-lock angle than a consumer wheel. But a Pole Position wheel spins freely, with no locks, and the wheel measures the direction and speed of its spin rather than its position from the center. Consequently, it feels more like you are moving the car left and right than that you are steering it, but furthermore, a standard locking steering wheel is not a good fit for these controls.

So, what to do? The best option, from what I can tell, is to buy an Ultimarc SpinTrak with a steering wheel attachment, but this is an expensive option considering I’d only play a handful of games with it, and even then I would need to mount it on something. I opted to use my existing SlikStik Tornado. It isn’t a perfect solution; it’s got very low friction, which is great for Tempest but not so great for steering, can’t be gripped with both hands, and since I don’t have any foot pedals I’d have to use pushbuttons for the gas and brakes, which deprive me of the fine control that analog foot pedals would provide. At least the spinner turns without any locks.

Fortunately, Pole Position does not require a lot of finesse. There are only two gears, high and low, and I used a pushbutton to toggle between them. I only found one turn in the circuit that I couldn’t pass at high speed, and I switched to the low gear for that one. It probably would have been better to let up a bit on the gas, but with pushbutton controls there’s no such thing as “a bit.” Shifting to low gear seemed like my best option.

Apart from that one hairpin, I can blow through at top speed.

Luck did play a role in my performance – easy turns can become hard ones depending on what the other vehicles do. I did manage to get good enough to consistently pass the qualifying round and complete one lap, though my best attempt ended just barely short of completing a second lap.

GAB rating: Average

It’s an interesting experience, and one that I wouldn’t at all mind trying on a proper 360-degree steering wheel if given the chance. The steering feels nice on a free-spinning device, and I can only imagine feels even better on a proper wheel. The pseudo-3D graphics are the best I’ve seen to date, completely blowing away Sega’s Turbo of the previous year, and faster and more pleasing than the sparse vector 3D seen in Atari’s Battlezone. But I still find the gameplay a bit simplistic. One of my earliest posts was about two very similar racing games from 1976, Night Driver and 280 ZZZap, and felt Night Driver was the superior game in spite of fewer bells and whistles.

Night Driver has the more engaging driving engine. 280 ZZZap just doesn’t let you do much except navigate turns by steering hard and slowing down if you have to. The stick shift only has two positions, and the only times I ever had it set it to the low position were for the first few seconds after starting or crashing. The course does not twist and turn as Night Driver's do, and it’s almost impossible to oversteer. In short, 280 ZZZap is simplistic and too easy compared to Night Driver.

With some minor edits, I could say almost the exact same about Night Driver and Pole Position, only that Night Driver was six years old by the time Pole Position came out. Pole Position’s course is really just a bunch of turns of varying sharpness connected by straightaways, and your car doesn’t so much turn as it moves left and right. To be clear, it is a step up from 280 ZZZap – curve physics are more sophisticated and therefore more satisfying, there are other cars on the road, and the graphics are obviously vastly improved, but I can’t help but be disappointed that the gameplay hasn’t advanced to the same extent as the graphics.


  1. And unfortunately the driving experience doesn't improve much until the advent of true 3D graphics, because the pseudoprojection used in games like these doesn't allow for very nuanced physics.

    The map shown at the beginning is just an artist's illusion. It doesn't relate to the world model inside the game in any way, which is effectively just a single straight line with sections where your car gets pushed left or right. So you aren't actually *turning*, the game just applies a sideways force on your car proportional to your driving speed and steepness value assigned to these sections. And the steepness determines how much each successive scanline the track graphic is offset on the screen left or right to create the illusion of a curving road.

    1. I've gotten a USB steering wheel recently (won't help much with this game, sadly), and been playing around with a whole bunch of games and wondering, what was the first 3D projected driving game where you actually "turn?" If it isn't Night Driver, then it gives a more convincing illusion of it than Pole Position does.

      Atari's Hard Drivin' seems like a solid candidate. Sega's Power Drift predates it by a few months, but I'm not quite sure if that counts - its courses do appear to be proper circuits (albeit janky looking with absolutely everything being a disjointed scaler object), but the turning physics is really weird. I think the actual turning is done automatically, but this also puts a big lateral force on your car that you have to negate by steering. It's not possible, for instance, to turn the car around and drive through the course backwards.

  2. Sadly, no emulator will bring the full arcade experience for this game. Along with OutRun, this game in the fancier sit-down arcade cabinets had vibrations to the seat from the rumble strips on the road. Looking back, I should have been more impressed at the time.

    1. I think you may be confusing Pole Position with something else, as the sit down cabinet does not produce any vibrations or similar feedback. In Out Run the steering wheel vibrates/provides feedback and in the sit down version the cabinet also turns and shakes.

    2. Quite possibly. I remember there was at least one other driving title that provided vibration feedback, but this one was likely slightly too old.

    3. Could you be thinking of Hard Drivin? That came a bit after Out Run, but definitely had steering wheel feedback.

    4. Don’t remember playing that one, but it’s possible.


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