Matthew Koester is a writer, artist and journalist based in Illinois.
“Choose Your Car”
Since its creation, the racing genre has always aspired to an idealized driving experience. Sega’s classic Outrun used idyllic coastal imagery, a ferrari and a blonde woman to create a yuppie power fantasy. Kart racers abstract racing into something silly and fantastical. The Forza and Gran Turismo games offer players realistic access to luxurious vehicles and reality-based, beautiful courses.
Cruis’n USA is not like these games. Released in 1994 to arcades and 1996 on Nintendo 64, the game is a transitional arcade racer that cribs the Cannonball Run-style continuous cruise of Sega’s 1991 Rad Mobile for a series of high stakes races through the continental United States. Somewhere along the way, however, it gets lost. The idyllic race it promises never really comes to pass. The starting section in California stretches into nearly half the game. What follows is something that questions the idealism of such a cruise through repetition and violence.
Cruis’n USA is not an ideal driving experience. It’s not interested in the delicate harmony between a drifting motorist and the street; it’s barely even interested in driving. Cars turn with extremely tight angles that render most curves trivial and braking more or less optional. There aren’t any advanced techniques really, besides that flooring the accelerator can make a little flame come out of your car’s tailpipe. The best speedrunners have learned to avoid the road entirely. While the in-game speedometer claims speeds over 150 miles per hour, the game never bothers to play as if that’s actually what’s going on.
Arcade racers often make up for mechanical simplicity with outlandish stage designs and action, but Cruis’n isn’t committed to that either. Its courses have some weirdness for sure, like the tunnel of money in Washington D.C. or the leap over the Grand Canyon, but there are few crazy jumps or collapsing setpieces. The locations in the game are all taken from real-world locations, starting at the Golden Gate Bridge and ending in D.C., and are meant to be played sequentially from West to East. There are landmarks and cities, but the game is mostly long stretches of highway with gentle turns and long deserted landscapes.
Cruis’n is a game between eras. Arcade games had already begun the transition to 3-D with titles like Virtua Racer by the time Cruis’n began development, and the game’s technical specs had a clear edge over Sega’s flat-shaded classic. Cruis’n lacks the calibrated driving and careful track design of VR, but unlike Sega’s classic, it has multiple playable cars, 14 tracks and textured polygons. In 1994, when it launched in arcades, it was a trailblazer. By 1996 when it was ported to Nintendo 64, it was considered dated and shallow.
Often the phrase “plays like a dream” is used as padding in reviews to talk about games. This is fine, but in my experience most of my dreams have only a fleeting sense of control or lucidity. Things are both extremely specific and ambiguous, collapsing space between ideas and objects, time and location. When I awake from them, I often have a vague feeling or thought more than an actual understanding of what happened. It all passes.
Often, I dream of driving and being unable to steer or brake. There’s seldom a real crash or disaster, but there’s a teetering on the edge of danger, a general sense of dread and frustration. In that sense, Cruis’n USA plays like a dream.
Its presentation is a collage of 3-D low-polygon assets and photograph scans of scantily-clad women and boys. Played on its home console port, the frame-rate fluctuates erratically between 15 and 20 frames per second, and the whole game is covered in blurry anti-aliasing. The biggest challenge for the driver comes from the draw distance, as the game’s courses appear to be conjuring themselves out of thin air in front of the player. There are three available camera views, the most jarring being a first person view that seems to place the camera a bit too low to be a cockpit view, almost as if the player is not a driver, but a living car.
Developer Midway’s forte has been games that ignore the inhibition typical of their genre. Mortal Kombat added deadly force to the fighting genre; NBA Jam threw away most of the players and rules of Basketball, leaving in their place a high-speed mix of fouls and dunks. Cruis’n USA creates a racer where the violence of the road is mundane.
Collisions in Cruis’n USA are far from the punitive spinouts found in other racers. There’s little reason or rhyme to them. Sometimes they result in long, flying hits, and sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t matter if these collisions are from the side, back, or head-on, or if they’re made against a racecar or a fire truck. Bystander cars litter the game’s tracks, with seemingly inebriated drivers even weaving in and out of traffic. Other racers treat collisions as a mark of poor play, but in Cruis’n, they’re inevitable, even tactical.
In multiplayer, players will often deliberately cause dangerous traffic jams to thwart enemy cars. Crashed cars can crash into more cars, and the AI is seldom prepared for this. Consequently, stages like Chicago, with its tight tunnels and closed-in, congested roads, actually incentivize creating this kind of chaos.
The cars in Cruis’n USA cannot be broken down. They will always keep driving, no matter how many hits they take. The drivers can never be seen through the textures on the windshields, although sometimes a shrieking woman’s voice can be heard, shouting “We’re gonna crash!”
“Woah, Death Valley!”
The central “cruise” of Cruis’n USA is played over a series of linear streets and highways, mostly in rural or highway settings. After the first two tracks, which take the player over the Golden Gate bridge and down the hills of San Francisco, the game enters a long period of desert stages, with only Beverly Hills and the Redwood Forest as stops.
The supposed prestige of many of the game’s locations are undercut by their own execution. The great trees of the Redwood Forest are flat assets, and can be run down by the player’s car. The Grand Canyon is reduced to what amounts to a bump in the road. Half of the San Francisco stage is spent in a tunnel. For all the supposed vastness of the American frontier, a huge plurality of the game is spent in California. A woman’s voice will remark “Oh, the redwoods” or “Check it out, the Grand Canyon” at the appropriate time, but it’s easy to miss the landmark altogether on first playthrough.
The locations of Cruis’n USA lack human pedestrians, except for a crowd of sexualized women and “beefcake boys” who stand at the end of races. When a player gets first place, a bikini-clad woman will dance with a trophy for them. These races end in what appear to be near-collisions: the celebrating tailgater crowd is behind the finish line, but just barely there at all.
As the player travels through the natural and urban locales, the environment is often a victim of the player. In the arcade version, players can plow through and gore livestock, and in first-person view the player can splat bugs on their windshield. While trees can often be knocked over, telephone polls can’t.
For all of the romantic language that’s been attached to it, driving is seldom the joyous experience that racing games try to capture. Automobiles are powerful and dangerous, so drivers must constantly be vigilant. The default mode of driving is a mix of anxiety and boredom. Vehicles isolate motorists from their real surroundings, which are abstracted by the new, powerful steel exoskeleton the driver wields. The body is now a zooming husk.
Some games have sought to capture the mundanity of driving. Penn & Teller’s Desert Bus is famously a sort of proto-truck simulator that plays over eight real hours of a straight road. Cruis’n USA is not Desert Bus, but it does have the same sense of tedium and claustrophobia. A cruise through the USA, alone or accompanied with a friend, feels meditative. There are few surprises and the path is straight. There are no forks in the road, and only a couple shortcuts. The distance the game covers is both endless and short; the Beverly Hills race takes as long as another race that stretches from Arizona to South Dakota. In this blurry, surreal take on the nation, Cruis’n feels flat, shapeless. You never know the places you go. You can’t turn down their side streets or meet their people.
“Welcome to the Hall of Fame”
In a world where the United States’ position as self-appointed center of the world is dissolving further every day, Cruis’n USA is a reminder of a bygone time. Despite general prosperity, this was a time of disillusionment with America from the younger Generation X, who were marked by ironic detachment and cynicism. Midway were masters of courting this generation. Mortal Kombat was a bloody game, but also deeply silly. The same could be said of their classic Rampage. Cruis’n is a game that is clearly tongue-in-cheek in its presentation, from its eye-candy characters to its easter egg decapitated head. Still, Cruis’n is a commercial product, a title that clearly wants to trade in on American pride with its locales and slate of unlicensed classic muscle cars.
The game was a legitimate hit in America for that reason. Like MK, it trades on technological innovation and shock value to hit for an arcade crossover audience. The game was a regular for years at bowling alleys and restaurants, and the N64 port sold well. For all the waxing nostalgic online about Ridge Racer and Daytona, Cruis’n was America’s racer, the game of the people. All the things that made it disposable also made it approachable. There’s no technical chops needed to jump in.
Generation X was by apathy. They were said to be channel surfers, slackers, disaffected with the world, but not necessarily politically motivated as a result. Living in the Post-Reagan era of post-Soviet neoliberalism, they lived in a rare time where Americans weren’t facing existential threats and the economy was strong. Their president famously womanized and played saxophone on television. Social services were gutted. Disillusionment bred apathy, not enlightenment. The end of Cruis’n comes suddenly, after the long slog of the west the east coast is reached quickly, and the game’s difficulty peaks early around Chicago. Washington D.C. sends you through a tunnel of 100 Dollar Bills with Hillary Clinton’s face on them. Finally, you reach the White House.
At the end of the arcade version, Bill, with Hillary and an unnamed woman in his arms, congratulates the player cartoonishly from a hot tub on top of the White House, in a gag that escalates in each of the games sequels, with Bill later showing up in space in the same hot tub.
Playing Cruis’n USA, one thinks about the game as an artifact of its host country. What kind of accomplishment is it really to beat a game as indifferent as Cruis’n USA? What kind of race is this anyway? It seems to be legally permitted; there’s no police threat like in the Need for Speed games. There’s no prestige like in Daytona USA. Why do we do anything? What good is any of this stolen land? What’s all this freedom good for when the whole game is one straight road? Eventually, you end up at the seat of power, and the man in charge is a joke.
It feels like a video game adaptation of an underwhelming road trip, topped with gratuitous, yet weightless violence. It’s a shallow, liminal, linear racer, a concentrated trip through America, shrinking massive regions into 100 second chunks. For all these bumps in the road, forward momentum is unavoidable. You can’t actually reverse or turn around in Cruis’n USA. Like the modern-day tide of apocalyptic weather, you move forward, not backwards, twirling towards freedom. Then you repeat the journey to unlock a better car.
In the face of collective disaster, we are individually weak. Certainly many people now know that our lifestyles are destructive to the Earth, but whatever we do, as individuals, to address this will not address the other 7 billion. CO2 is jumping at higher rates than almost ever before. People have to make money though. People have to get to work and to the grocery store and power is abstract and faraway, so we make traffic. We cruise on into and past collapse. Cruis’n USA then, is a fume of this apparatus, a fossil of fossil fuel culture. And today I find myself crossing the Golden Gate Bridge one more time.