North American promotional flyer
Pole Position[a] is an arcade racing video game that was released by Namco in 1982 and licensed to Atari, Inc. for US manufacture and distribution, running on the Namco Pole Position arcade system board. It was the most popular coin-operated arcade game of 1983, and is considered one of the most important titles from the video arcade's golden age. Pole Position was released in two configurations: a standard upright cabinet, and an environmental/cockpit cabinet. Both versions feature a steering wheel and a gear shifter for low and high gears, but the environmental/cockpit cabinet featured both an accelerator and a brake pedal, while the standard upright one only featured an accelerator pedal.
By 1983, it had become the highest-grossing arcade game that year in North America, where it had sold over 21,000 machines for $61 million ($162 million in 2020), in addition to earning $450 ($1192 in 2020) weekly revenues per machine. It was the most successful racing game of the classic era, spawning ports, sequels, and a Saturday morning cartoon, although the cartoon had nothing in common with the game. The game established the conventions of the racing game genre and its success inspired numerous imitators. Pole Position is regarded as one of the most influential video games of all time and "arguably the most important racing game ever made."
In this game, the player controls a Formula One race car, and has to complete a time trial lap within a certain amount of time (between 57 and 120 seconds) to qualify for an F1 race at the Fuji Racetrack. After qualifying, the player races against seven other CPU-controlled cars in a championship race (but if they do not qualify, the car will stay on the track until the timer runs out). The player must also avoid going off the road so that they will not crash into the billboards.
Pole Position was the first racing video game to feature a track based on a real racing circuit. It was also the first game to feature a qualifying lap, requiring the player to complete a time trial before they can compete in Grand Prix races. Once the player has qualified, they must complete the race in the time allowed, avoiding collisions with CPU-controlled opponents and billboards along the sides of the track. The game's publisher, Atari, publicized the game for its "unbelievable driving realism" in providing a Formula 1 experience behind a racing wheel. The game's graphics featured full-colour landscapes with scaling sprites, including race cars and other signs, and a pseudo-3D, third-person, rear perspective view of the track, with its vanishing point swaying side to side as the player approaches corners, accurately simulating forward movement into the distance.
Pole Position was created by both Shinichiro Okamoto and Galaxian designer Kazunori Sawano. Namco electro-mechanical game engineer Sho Osugi also assisted with development. Based on Namco's experience with producing coin-operated mechanical driving games in the 1970s, notably F-1 (1976), Sawano showed Okamoto rough sketches of his idea, who liked the idea and began production of a video racing game. Okamoto wanted the game to be a true driving simulation game that allowed the player to execute real-world techniques, and for it to use a 3D perspective. He also chose to add the Fuji Speedway into the game to make newer players recognize it when they first played. Music was jointly composed by Nobuyuki Ohnogi and Yuriko Keino.
Development of the game lasted for three years. Okamoto recalls the most challenging part of development being to produce the hardware needed to run it, as the game was too "ambitious" to run on older hardware. The development team used two 16-bit processors to power the game, which Okamoto says was an unheard of concept for arcade games at the time — for a while, it was the only video game to use a Z8000 CPU. Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani chose the name Pole Position as he thought it sounded "cool" and appealing, and shortly after filed a trademark for it. The controls also posed to be a challenge, as Okamoto wanted them to feel realistic and to match up with the gameplay — Osugi remembers Namco president Masaya Nakamura becoming frustrated with them, having difficulty keeping the car moving in a straight line.
The game's arcade cabinet, a sit-down "environmental" machine, was chosen due to their popularity at the time. The development team had long fights over how fast the gear-shift should be, until it was ultimately decided to simply be either high or low speed. Pole Position was officially released in Japan in September 1982. In November, it was licensed out to Atari Inc. for release in North America, while Namco themselves released the game in Europe a year later in March. After its release, Osugi stated that all of Namco's older mechanical driving games were discontinued, as the company saw the future of arcade racers in the form of video games.
The game is an early example of product placement within a video game, with billboards around the track advertising actual companies. However, some billboards were specific to the two versions, such as those of Pepsi and Canon in the Namco version, and those of 7-Eleven, Dentyne, Centipede, and Dig Dug in the Atari version, which replaced such billboards as those of Marlboro and Martini & Rossi, who (although they were prominent motorsport sponsors at the time) would be found inappropriate in the American market for a game aimed towards children. Other billboards appeared in both versions.
Atari, Inc. released Pole Position for the Atari 8-bit family, Atari 2600, and Atari 5200. Ports for the Commodore 64, VIC-20, Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, and ZX Spectrum were released under the Atarisoft label. Though the original used raster graphics, GCE published a version for the vector-graphics Vectrex system.
In Japan, Game Machine listed Pole Position on their June 1, 1983 issue as being the second most-successful upright arcade unit of the year. Electronic Games reviewed the original arcade version in 1983, writing that it "keeps the action on track from start to finish" with "challenging play", noting that the gameplay is "reasonably faithful to real life" Formula One races. They also praised the sound effects and "solid, realistic graphics", stating it has "very rich color images" and "dimensional depth to the graphics." They gave it the 1983 Arcade Award for Coin-Op Game of the Year, stating that, for "the first time in the amusement parlors, a first-person racing game gives a higher reward for passing cars and finishing among the leaders rather than just for keeping all four wheels on the road, thus making driving an art." They also praised the "beautiful graphics" and "breathtaking" scenery as well as "the two-heat format for the race itself."
Computer and Video Games also reviewed the arcade version in 1983, writing that it "is simply the most exhilarating driving simulation game on the market." They compared it favorably with Turbo, stating that, while Turbo "featured better landscapes", it "can't match the speed, thrills and skill behind this new race game." They said Pole Position's "graphics are sophisticated and believable", noting that cars "turning corners are shown in every graphic detail of the maneuvre", and praised the gameplay, concluding that "trying to hold a screaming curve or overtake" offers "thrills to compare with the real racetrack."
InfoWorld stated that Pole Position for the Atari 8-bit "is by far the best road-race game ever thrown on a video screen", with "bright and brilliant" graphics, but that the Commodore 64 version "looks like a rush job and is far from arcade-game quality". When reviewing the Atari 5200 version, Hi-Res in 1984 found "the playability of the game to be limited and the graphics to be the strongest aspect of the game". The magazine preferred Adventure International's Rally Speedway to both Pole Position and Epyx's Pitstop.
Entertainment Weekly called Pole Position one of the top ten games for the Atari 2600 in 2013. In 2015, Pole Position topped IGN's list of The Top 10 Most Influential Racing Games Ever. They stated that it had "a drastically better-looking third-person view" than Turbo, was "the first racing game based on a real-world racing circuit (Fuji Speedway in Japan)", "introduced checkpoints, and was the first to require a qualifying lap", and that its success, as "the highest-grossing arcade game in North America in 1983, cemented the genre in place for decades to come and inspired a horde of other racing games".
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In the mid-1990s Pole Position made a comeback on Windows PCs when it was included as part of Microsoft Return of Arcade, and later appeared on the PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Dreamcast systems in Namco Museum Volume 1. Since that time, Pole Position has been included in many subsequent Namco Museum releases. Fuji Speedway was renamed to "Namco Speedway" in the Museum releases and the plug-n-play versions, except in Namco Museum Virtual Arcade which renamed it to "Blue Speedway", and the 2004 Ms. Pac-Man plug-and-play TV game released by Jakks Pacific and developed by HotGen Studios, which changed the billboards to advertise the four other featured games.
A version of Pole Position was released for the iPod on January 21, 2008.
Pole Position II was released in 1983, and featured three additional courses in addition to the original Fuji track. It features slightly improved graphics, as well as a different car color scheme and opening theme. Several new billboards were also introduced.
While many considered the three-screened racer TX-1, released in 1984 by Atari and designed by Tatsumi to be a sequel to Pole Position II, the true sequel arrived in 1987 with the release of Final Lap - which may be considered an unofficial Pole Position III. Final Lap would later spawn a racing-RPG spin-off for the TurboGrafx-16 video game console called Final Lap Twin in 1989 - as well as three directly-related arcade sequels, Final Lap 2 (in 1990), Final Lap 3 (in 1992), and Final Lap R (in 1993).
On September 14, 2008, a version of Pole Position was released for iOS devices called Pole Position: Remix. The game features upgraded graphics and several different control methods, but remains similar in content to the original. This version of Pole Position also features the tracks from Pole Position II and a new track called Misaki Point. The game has since been removed from the App Store.
Pole Position is played by the characters Daryl and Turtle in the motion picture D.A.R.Y.L. and is one of the first times in the film where Daryl — a seemingly normal boy who is actually an android — displays some of his superhuman abilities by earning an amazingly high score in the game.
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