One clear cut age line on the wrinkly face of the arcade motorbike game Hang-On is that it, along with its sister F1 racer Super Monaco GP, advertised cigarettes. That’s right, glimpses of your favourite lung-destroying foes such as John Player Special and “Marbor” (an obvious parody of Marlboro) could be spotted while you were zooming by. Oh, the cravings! Funnily enough, this didn’t shock me as much as the fact that Hang-On originally came out 30 years ago. The first time I played it was through its 1989 sequel Super Hang-On, and that was a title relegated to a multi-game cartridge that was bundled with my Sega Mega Drive.
Though what truly amazed and astounded me was that without Hang-On’s success we might have never had Shenmue. You know, that series which achieved cult status and left people crying in agony for years waiting for its third title. Yeah, that one. Shenmue auteur Yu Suzuki, as part of the team of Sega AM2, had one of his first success stories in Hang-On, along with the classic Outrun. Proof of Hang-On’s importance in Suzuki’s career is blatantly obvious in that in both Shenmue 1 and 2 you can play Hang-On as a mini-game, and in Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, Shenmue’s protagonist Ryo drives a Hang-On cabinet during water sections.
But, what made Hang-On the success that helped skyrocket a man to success? It was a simple bike game, in which you race against the clock trying to get to the next checkpoint to extend your time. Hazards included billboards and other motorcyclists. The soundtrack was undoubtedly great, but only contained a total of three music tracks. Clearly, the basics weren’t what made the game popular. It was the innovations.
One aspect that allowed Hang-On to race ahead was that it was the first game to use only full body movement for all of its controls. The original cabinet was shaped like a motorcycle, and allowed you to twist the bike in order to control the action on screen. This new way to play didn’t just inspire the bike peripherals that would – along with lightgun games – withstand the downfall of arcades; it also made some of the earliest steps into motion control technology. Much like the arcade rhythm title Guitar Freaks introduced us to plastic peripherals, Hang-On did the same with motion controls – bringing innovations to the arcades before they were vehemently embraced by home consoles. A stand-up arcade model of Hang-On was later released and neglected the motorcycle peripheral. It included only handlebars, but the smaller size made it easier to fit into arcades.
The cabinet wasn’t Suzuki’s only trick, and the fact people were playing it on the stand-up model must mean there was something else to the title. Looking at screenshots, it’s easy to tell that Hang-On was a beautiful game for its time. It was one of the first arcade games to use 16-bit graphics and Sega’s “Super Scaler” technology. This technology allowed pseudo-3D sprite-scaling at high frame rates, and the game’s graphics surged far ahead of its competitors. This led to the Sega name being synonymous with cutting edge graphics and to a string of hits, including the very popular (and personal favourites) Shinobi and Altered Beast. Critically, it received positive reviews, with Clare Edgeley in the December 1985 issue of Computer and Video Games stating that Hang-On “is the most realistic racing game to hit the arcades for a long while”.
Hang-On could be said to have been ahead of its time, and Suzuki’s methods pretty much confirm this. The scaling was similar to how textures were handled in later texture-mapped polygonal 3D games in the ’90s. In an interview, Suzuki stated: “I calculated the position, scale, and zoom rate in 3D and converted it backwards to 2D. So I was always thinking in 3D.” This refusal to submit to the limitations of the time would shape Suzuki’s career for years to come, with Space Harrier cementing his place in the game industry, Virtua Fighter inspiring the 3D graphics that would later be used by Sony, and Shenmue marking an important stepping stone that would lead onto massive sandbox games such as Grand Theft Auto 3.
It’s funny to imagine that such ground-breaking innovations used a simple motorbike game as a stepping stone, but what actually became of Hang-On? Like most sports games, there were the arbitrary sequels and ports, and gradual graphics upgrades. The basic Hang-On only received a small few releases outside of the arcade. One popular version was included built-in on the Master System, but it suffered a massive blow to its graphical prowess; a blow that seems all the more tragic due to the importance of the title’s aesthetics. With that being said, it still earned favourable reviews and looked relatively good for a Master System title.
The 1987 sequel Super Hang-On was very popular, and was one of the first titles released on the Genesis. It boasted a more varied and expansive soundtrack; a wide array of stages and an “original mode”, which was deep and included vehicle customization, races without checkpoints, and rivals to compete against. It received a large number of ports, with one bizarre mouse-controlled black and white version released for the Macintosh; more straight forward re-releases have been seen recently on the Xbox 360, PS3, and 3DS. The 360 and PS3 versions added some extras such as leaderboards, time trials, and a jukebox, but the 3DS version is particularly of note here as it included gyro controls that make it perhaps the closest replication to the original arcade game.
A sequel that jumped the series into full 3D, Hang-On GP, was released in 1995 on the ill-fated Sega Saturn, but this was developed by Genki; Sega AM2 released what was considered a superior game: Manx TT Superbike. Hang-On GP was praised for being one of the first 3D motorcycle racing games for home consoles, but many criticized its poor controls, and overall it received mixed reviews. It was also tied to the Saturn, which wasn’t unlike being tied to a rock in a lake; and, looking at the series’ history, there weren’t many places left for it to go. The innovation of the original title was what gave it importance, and to anyone today the series may seem like it’s all but forgotten by everyone except the misty-eyed Sega fans craving their fix of nostalgia. I’d be lying if I said I don’t empathize.
I booted up a copy of Super Hang-On at the time of writing. My success in the game would have made my twitchy thumbed past self weep in jealousy. Although the wondrous progress the game made at its time is lost on eyes accustomed to 3D graphics, after researching what the series accomplished I can’t help but look on it in a new light. Hang-On’s accomplishments harken back to a time in which graphics were improving in amazing leaps and bounds. It reminds me of the wonder of playing my first 3D games, and it fills me with envy for the eyes that got to see progress like this. Sure, we may have virtual and augmented reality, but we also have people boasting that a game has 4K resolution as opposed to 1080p. My eyes often struggle to tell the difference.