Thanks to some quirk in my college’s financial aid policies, visit this the spring semester disbursment of my living allowance money came on or around my birthday on March 13. It worked out great for me, but was hell for anyone attempting to purchase a birthday present. I’ve always been a tricky person to buy presents for, and having the means to pick up whatever I wanted made the task that much more difficult for my friends and family members.
When the time came around to pick up my Spring 1993 disbursement check, I already knew what my birthday gift to myself was going to be: the Sega CD peripheral for the Genesis console. The clunky and chunky unit carried a hefty price tag — $300, twice the MSRP for the core Genesis system — which was not short money even for my scholarship-subsidized deep pockets. I justified my pending purchase by telling myself it would double as a music CD player, replacing the ten-pound, first-gen, skip-prone Discman I had been using in that capacity.
The plan was in place, my will was resolved. All I needed to do was wait for my excess check to arrive on March 12, until Maura — who picked up on the “need a new CD player” part of my spiel and not the “and a bitchin’ new game platform” part — gave me a Sony boombox as an early birthday present.
“You said you needed one, and now you don’t have to spend your own money.” It was a surprisingly generous gesture, and the most she’d ever spent on a gift in the year-and-change we’d been dating. So what could I do but say “Wow! I love it! Thank you so much!”
I suppose I still could have picked up a Sega CD unit, but the loss of my main justification derailed my previous determination. It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium — and the advent of Sega CD emulation on the PC — that I got to sample the platform’s base-splitting stable of FMV-heavy offerings.
So while I didn’t treat myself to a Sega CD unit for my twenty-first birthday, I did pick up a marked-down copy of Mindscape’s Outlander after my money finally arrived.
The post-apocalyptic driving game was originally envisioned as a Mad Max game (hence the driving wheel on the right-hand side in the above screenshot). The licensing deal fell though during development, however, necessitating a some minor cosmetic changes and a hastily cobbled backstory about rescuing a kidnapped scientist.
Though Outlander’s core concept — a hybrid of the vehicular combat and side-scrolling shooter genres — is solid and even ahead of its time in many places, the execution was hampered by the technological limitations of the era. The driving sequences are choppy, even by the standards of its scaled-and-rotated contemporary peers, to the point where the action feels filtered though the viewing slits of a zoetrope.
The side-scrolling combat sequences are a smoother affair, but no less problematic. The events are triggered when the player parks the vehicle on the shoulder of the road (either in a designated settlement or the barrens in between) and serve as the resource-gathering component of the game.
Get out, punch and shoot some mutant bikers, score the power-ups and refills needed to continue on the road to nowhere. It’s a neat little innovation, but one hampered by the game’s overall difficulty level. What should have been a cost-gain decision informed by need and skill becomes a sucker bet where the odds — in the form of landmines, irradiated food, and cheap hits — are strongly stacked against the player.
This uncharitable difficulty curve caused me to give up on Outlander after a few brutal hours of play, though my brother (who has far more
tolerance for punishment persistance than I do) did manage to eventually beat it and experience the game’s anticlimatic, “edgy” ending.
Though the mix-and-match playstyle of games like Outlander have been rendered obsolete by the technological realization of fully integrated “sandbox” gameworlds, there are times — like when a strategic tap of the brakes sends a tailgating biker flying over the hood of the player’s car — I long for a rebalanced and graphically updated version of the game.