Friday, June 17, 2016

“Hang-On,” Then Let Go

Apparently my late Uncle Richard owned a motorcycle, but I don’t recall actually ever seeing it. It’s just as well: I’ve always viewed motorbikes less as badass beasts of streets, and more as potential harbingers of injury to my frail skull, my tiny, crunchy bones, and my squishy genitals. And you can’t even put a baseball card in the spokes. 

That’s one of the reasons I was never interested in Super Hang-On, one of the earliest offerings of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive library. The cover, featuring a biker leaning off his sweet, high-powered hog to make a hairpin turn, was plastered all over Sega promo materials. Even for a guy who had never played the game, the iconic image screamed “Sega!” before the actual Sega Scream ads were even a glimmer in Sonic’s over-caffeinated eyes.

Nearly a decade after its 1989 release, I finally got my hands on Super Hang-On as part of the “6-Pak,” a Genesis cartridge crammed to the brim with SHO and five of Sega’s other early hits. Super Hang-On had motorcycles and passwords and I had a new copy of Tekken and not a whole lot of patience, so I wound up playing Streets of Rage for an hour before going back to the rugged, dangerously sharp polygons of the 32-bit era.

Earlier this month, I picked up the Sega Vintage Collection on PlayStation 3 for a fiver. For the second time in my life, I had gotten a copy of Super Hang-On as part of a package deal. And, for the second time, it was the gaming equivalent of licorice jellybeans, sinking to the bottom of the metaphorical bag as I stabbed my way through Revenge of Shinobi and punched many a hapless octopi to death in that Master System classic, Alex Kidd in Miracle World.

But when I loaded up Super Hang-On, this time the arcade version from 1987, and went poking around in the options menu, I found something mind-blowing.

You could play in 3D. Delicious, old-school, red ‘n’ blue, three-freaking-dee. Images of Rad Racer on NES flooded my mind. That game was in 3D too. And it was the most child-abusing, soul-rending “3D” I’ve ever seen, staining many a youthful afternoon in salty, salty tears. 

Still, I figured I’d give it a try, and dug out the only pair of 3D glasses I owned. At least if Super Hang-On looked less like a game and more like someone spilled a bucket of red and blue paint on a burn victim, I’d be appropriately viewing it though Nightmare on Elm Street glasses.

I want you to go grab your 3D glasses. C’mon, I know you have a pair of them. Go dig ‘em out and put ‘em on. Seriously, I’ll wait.

You ready?

Take a look at this.

Click on it for full screen!

This photo is nice, but doesn’t do the game justice. SHO’s 3D mode is awesome! The road has some serious depth, the background objects pop and bob with the action, and playing for more than 10 minutes gives me a headache like I was just punched in the jaw by the Mighty Thor. It’s just as 3D was meant to be!

At its core, Super Hang-On is just Outrun on two wheels. But SHO has something Outrun doesn’t: a turbo button! Well, unless you’re playing Turbo Outrun, which also has a turbo button, as the name would imply. But SHO has a turbo button IN 3D.

Super Hang-On immediately reminded me why I used to play racing games, before Gran Tourismo made everything SUPER REALISTIC down the thread count of the driver’s underpants; before “drifting” – applying the breaks to make the car slide around corners – took the fun out of all 200-plus horses. SHO adheres to a simple concept that’s been lost in modern gaming: just go fast.

I shredded the streets of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the good ol’ US of A to the sound of 10,000 rockin’ angels with Casio keyboards. Just listen to this! It’s like a Sega Genesis is making sweet, electric love to your earholes.

I made a CD with this song looping for like 10 minutes and it’s in my car’s radio AS I TYPE THIS. I’m not even a little embarrassed.

Super Hang-On is a blast, but like most old school racing games, it wasn’t long before I’d seen everything it had to offer. I nabbed the game’s dozen trophies in under 45 minutes and could do half the courses with my eyes closed. But as I went to shut off the game, I noticed a “trials” option tucked away in the main menu. It’s really more of a time attack mode, with players completing one of the four courses as fast as they could.

But there was a fifth course available, one you can’t even play in the main game: “World.” It was all 48 stages stitched together into one long race.

I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve wanted to drive to Europe, but that pesky Atlantic Ocean always gets in my way. Let me tell you, that ocean is cold in more ways than one.

“OK,” I thought, “I’ll play until I run out of time.”

But then something happened that was straight out of my younger self’s idea of a dramatic sports movie, potentially starring Pee Wee Herman and Don Knots, as they were the only two actors I knew by name in 1987: I wasn’t losing. I was blasting through epic bends, shooting past rivals, weaving between rows of 300 identical signs of Marilyn Monroe. Fourteen minutes and 23 stages in, I wasn’t fooling around anymore.

Those last few stages had me scared. Before hitting up the World course, I had made several unsuccessful bids at the 18-stage Europe level. Could I handle it?

By stage 47, my mantra had changed from “go fast” to “just don’t hit anything.” The last few stages had given me barely enough time to complete them. And going into the final stage, I didn’t have much room for error.

A familiar feeling washed over me, from an era without save states or second chances. In about 40 seconds, I was either going to finish Super Hang-On’s toughest trial by the skin of my teeth or watch helplessly, agonizingly, as the clock wound down to zero with the finish line in eyeshot.

I only had one choice: I had to go fast AND not hit anything. For a few seconds, I was back in tune with my twitch reflexes from two dozen years ago.

Finally I saw the finish line with ten seconds left, an eternity in Super Hang-On. But thankfully, I only need four of them. The journey of 32-plus minutes came to an end with my victory and six seconds to spare.

That was a week ago and I haven’t played Super Hang-On since. For a guy like me, most of my great video game memories have a flipside – the day the fun died. An unbeatable level, a bugged trophy that just wouldn’t pop, the final 20 percent of a game slogged through out of duty, not desire. I had unknowingly crafted the perfect swan song for Super Hang-On and I’m not willing to mess that up. So to quote the song “Mr. Blue” by Electric Light Orchestra, “Never mind. I’ll remember you/I’ll remember you this way.”

Uncle Richard would be proud. 

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