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Cruis'n Blast

Raw Thrills: Industry legend Eugene Jarvis on what makes a great arcade racer

Raw Thrills - Industry legend Eugene Jarvis on what makes a great arcade racer

Eugene Jarvis has been President of Raw Thrills for over 22 years, so when it comes to making enjoyable arcade – literal arcade – racing games, he knows a thing or two.

Modern arcades are more about ticket-winning than video games. But in between the UFO catchers and Pac-Man air hockey tables, there’s still traditional gaming fun to be had.

Not so much from the old guard, though. In fact, on holiday this summer, I was frankly disappointed by Sega’s recent arcade fare, particularly Daytona 3 Championship USA.

But I did notice one trend. Every modern coin-op I truly enjoyed sported a big red emblem on it: Raw Thrills. The same company that brought us the superb Cruis’n Blast on Switch last year. So what’s the deal with this company that’s arguably taken over the coin-op mantle from Sega and Namco, and what is it that makes their games so fun?

Normally, I would answer that question myself (I could write a book on it), but it would be much more interesting to ask someone with decades of experience in making hit video games, namely Raw Thrills’ CEO – Eugene Jarvis.

Eugene Jarvis and Sam Dicker, Designing Defender, 2014 - Michael Dunn, Flickr
Eugene Jarvis and Sam Dicker, Designing Defender, 2014 – Michael Dunn, Flickr

Yes, the same Eugene Jarvis who brought us Defender and Robotron 2084 in the early 1980s. He also directed the arcade hit Cruis’n USA (for Nintendo, no less!), back when everyone was joining in on the 3D arcade racer phenomenon kickstarted by Sega’s Virtua Racing and Daytona USA, as well as Namco’s Ridge Racer.

But while other pretenders to Sega’s arcade crown have since fallen by the wayside, Eugene’s team has gone from strength to strength and started to claim the arcade space as their own. So what makes a great arcade racing game?

“Years ago, Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, said a great video game has to be Hot, Simple, and Deep, and I think it rings even truer today for modern arcade racers,” said Jarvis.

“Hot as in great graphics, cool music, effects, theme and gameplay. Simple as in intuitive and responsive controls and handling; accessible gameplay with minimal frame lag, and maximal frame rate. Deep as in many vehicle and track choices; multiple routes, shortcuts per track, cool power-ups, collision and trick dynamics, and imaginative race strategies.

“You have to be compelled to play it again and again.”

Raw Thrills, Fast and Furious Arcade

This is indeed exactly what made the best arcade titles of the ’80s and ’90s so great, and why you’ll often find this writer talking about ‘fun the first time you play it and the thousandth time you play it’.

But Eugene is adamant that the experience should never be diluted – something that rings true when you pick up Cruis’n Blast on Switch, which we recommended in our review.

“In our 24/7 TikTok, YouTube, mobile gaming world it is a battle for human attention and mind share,” explained Jarvis.

“The only sin is to be boring (or be bored). So a good racer has to bring it on full throttle with nonstop insane action. I think to be great the game should be purpose-built solely for the short-form arcade experience.

“Racing ports from console, mobile, or PC to the arcade almost always end up as disastrous compromises.”

Cruis’n Blast Nintendo Switch review

It’s really hard to come up with a list of console-to-arcade ports, let alone good ones. The one that springs to mind is Sega Rally’s 2007 redux, which was ported to arcades as Sega Rally 3, before being ported back home again as Sega Rally Online Arcade.

It lost something at both stages of its journey. The other that springs to mind is the original GRID, which gained a 60fps frame rate when it was ported to arcades, but it hardly entered the public consciousness.

No, an arcade racer needs to be arcade through and through. But how has Eugene and the Raw Thrills team managed to make a success of what is perceived by many to be a dead market?

“The key is passion and focus,” he tells me.

“Also team continuity, and the combination of hot young driven creatives, and geezer experience. We’ve avoided the monetary temptations of console and mobile because we love the visceral immediacy and emotional high of the arcade experience.

“If we were just out for cash, we’d be ponzi blockchain crypto bros peddling gaming NFTs!”

He jests, but there’s truth to that. And let us not forget that Gran Turismo 7 still has the same core team Polyphony Digital has always had, making even the most modern PlayStation 5 racer feel like the same Gran Turismo we’ve known and loved since 1997. Such stability makes for a solid continuation and – importantly – progression of ideas and style.

Raw Thrills Nitro Trucks and SuperBike 3 arcade machines

Walking around a modern arcade, you can see the features that run through Raw Thrills’ catalogue. Larger-than-life environments, solid frame rates, bright colours and unrealistic special moves. But what does Eugene make of sim racing? Has he ever tried it?

“Being supremely ADHD, I find simulators kind of a drag. They brag about their “Real Physics”, and insanely anal calculations of things like tire temperature and wear effects on the coefficient of friction, or the physical effect of fuel shifting in a tank on vehicle centre of mass, but the talk just seems to cover up an extremely sterile and soulless experience, for all but hardcore competitors.”

Obviously, here at Traxion.GG we are those ‘hardcore competitors’ and love our sim racing. But this opinion is probably why Eugene has made a success of his games for so long.

Even looking back to 1982’s Robotron 2084, the game is overwhelming with how many things are moving, flashing and bleeping. There’s no time for seriousness, it’s all about maximum action and maximum fun. So with that in mind, what are Eugene’s personal favourite arcade racing games?

“I loved the classic racers back in the ’80s like Final Lap, OutRun, and Hard Drivin’. These games can seem crude and primitive on replay today, but for their time were brilliant.

“The ’90s were the golden age of arcade racing, and Daytona was the king of the hill for purists with its great handling, track design, and solid 60hz frame rate. Rubber banding was subtle and kept things reasonably competitive, but as a single-player experience Daytona became boring with only three tracks and pathetic opponent AI.”

Outrun

Of course, I would argue I’m still not bored of Daytona’s single-player mode after nearly 30 years of regular play, but let’s carry on…

“Gotta say I’m partial to the Cruis’n series (who would’ve guessed?). I love the multitudes of tracks, crisp handling, crash dynamics, and the great variety in rival racers AI.

“It’s amazing how intelligently tweaked random number-driven behavioural AI turns artificial stupidity into artificial intelligence. I love the bare-knuckle, two-lane roads with the drama of oncoming traffic (sadly absent in most racing titles). Each pass attempt is a death-defying challenge. Try Death Valley in Cruis’n USA; Japan and China in Cruis’n World. The rubber banding, while forgiving, really kept races close, but skill still predominated.”

It’s interesting to hear about random number generation being used for AI, but even more so hearing rubber-banding being described as a good thing, seeing as it’s got such a bad rep in-game review circles. But its worth is real in the arcade, allowing the person in last place to have extra engine power in order to get back in the race.

A 15.99 fastest lap on 777 Speedway? Yep, that’s my mum racing with all the catch-up.

So what’s next for Raw Thrills? Any more Switch ports coming?

“We have some amazing arcade games like Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead, and SuperBikes 3 that would rock out the Switch,” said Jarvis.

“There would be complications with licensing with outside IP, and to be real, we’re just having too much fun in the arcade right now to make it a priority. Getting the Cruis’n Trilogy (USA, World, and Exotica) on the Switch is my current console crush project.”

That is a very tantalising prospect. But there’s more:

“We’re going to introduce our latest arcade racer at IAAPA Orlando this year. Full motion sim, dual 65″ UHD screens. Fast and Furious Arcade. If it doesn’t blow your mind, you don’t have one!”

As far as we’re concerned, that should be the ethos for every arcade racer.

We’d like to extend our sincere thanks and best wishes to Eugene Jarvis for speaking to Traxion.GG

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