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Pole Position - The Atari Times

Pole Position

Gentlemen, start your engines!, part 2
by Darryl Brundage

June 4, 2014
(Note: the 'start your engines', part 1 title is in reference to my 2600 Indy 500 review. What, me being too lazy to come up with an original review title? No, it's a reference to the Atari racing legacy, is all. Ok, so maybe it's a little bit of both :P )

Pole Position was another one of the several arcade games that was actually made by Namco but distributed by Atari (like Dig Dug), although that was here in the States; everywhere else in the world, Namco distributed it.

This racing game featured great graphics for the time, yet was simple to play. Basically you start off in a warm-up lap to determine what your "pole position" (i. e. starting position) will be in the next race. Do poorly enough during the race, and you won't place at all, the game will end once time runs out. Do a bit of a better job and you'll get a decent position, which means you'll have fewer cars to try to navigate around at the beginning as you put the pedal to the medal (and make any insurance agent and/or endorsement company nervous) and you'll earn a bonus from your starting position.

Getting back to that first race, though, the game is viewed in a behind the car perspective, which was great to see back then, with the excellent scrolling and all with no slowdown. It was also a clever view to witness as well, as billboards on the sides of the road were advertisements for other Atari games (which, luckily this was before those annoying REAL LIFE advertisements in games started up, none of the 'this is your brain on ____' [insert illegal drug here] stuff or anything of the sort). You had to dodge the other drivers' cars, billboards on the sides, and puddles on the track (actually those start showing up on the second race), although I never found the latter to not be much of a deterrent though, and that has nothing to do with my occasional, "accidental" runnings over of innocent pedestrians in real life, no siree.

(And speaking of which, where the heck do these puddles COME from? It's not raining, and it's mighty suspicious how there's conveniently just one puddle of water that appears here and there. I guess Namco employed that mischievous being, the Puddle Fairy, and put him to work in this game.)

Anyway, once you've advanced to the next race, you speed through the same track and attempt to make it back to the starting position; do so before the clock runs out, and you'll be rewarded with 50 units of time added to try to get to the start position all over again, not make it in time and it's game over, you'll earn a bonus for all the cars that you passed during the race, then you're demoted to running a go-kart track from there. After all, it can be a tough race, what with navigating through those curves (especially the one with the billboard totally in the way of a really nasty turn on that one curve), it's tougher to squeeze in between a couple of cars in your way (as it takes several seconds before getting your replacement car and speeding back up in case you hit one), and it's toughest of all to your ego to stop and have to ask for directions in case you get lost.

Making things easier are the great controls though, as pretty much nothing could beat that steering wheel for turning, and a gear shift to switch from lo to high gear (plus I think the cockpit version of the game had a brake pedal too). The graphics and 3-D aspect were fairly spectacular for back then, and I think the sounds were good too if I remember correctly, I'm just not absolutely sure since I didn't play this a whole lot back in the day (more on that later), so I'm not giving them a rating (and downloading and running a ROM doesn't do you any good if you can't remember aspects of a game in the first place now, does it?).

Since it was reportedly the biggest earner of 1983, there was the obligatory sequel of Pole Position 2 released, with four tracks included, and these games were of course ported around to the home consoles, with this appearing for the Atari 2600 and 5200, and Pole Position 2 as the pack-in for the 7800. I'm no expert on the ports, but I think they fared pretty decently altogether, as I only played the 5200 version at a Sears once, and the cars looked pretty horrid on the 2600 version (which I also played), but I think they fared pretty decently, play-wise, and a version even came out for the Vectrex console too, since it could handle 3-D and scrolling pretty well, and I'm sure this has appeared on all kinds of modern compilations since. (Later edit: I've since played the Vectrex version on an emulator; say what? They really changed it around, the track's totally different, having long winding curves. Dunno what's up with that...)

And speaking of which: I originally thought I would never do a review on this game ever, although I didn't have anything against it, I've just never been real big on racing games that much, and didn't play it enough to figure out how to deal with that nasty curve with the billboard that you're going to crash into a lot (yes I know, just switch to lo gear for a few seconds, then switch back). Plus with the gameplay being over with too soon, I wanted my quarters or tokens to last longer than only a couple of minutes since I was a poor kid back then.

HOWEVER...all these years later, Pole Position finally got its due from me: I got the Jakks Retro Arcade Featuring Pac-Man unit in late 2009, containing four Pac-Man games, along with Mappy, Dig Dug, Galaxian, and several other games...including this one. And dang if I didn't start playing the hell out of it too, especially if I have a few minutes to kill before there's something I need to do, and that fills in those previously empty minutes very nicely indeed. So now I'm really wanting to play the original with those arcade controls once more, blast it. Oh well.

So, it's been nice to get reacquainted with this classic and give it it's due, even though I'll never earn any racing money from it in real life. Or get to smooze with some bikini-clad lady giving me my racing trophy for doing well after a race.

Ah crud...

Pole Position

(c) Atari

Title screen?
Feel the wind in your hair!
Pole Position
System: Arcade
Publisher: Atari
Genre: Driving
Graphics Score: 90%
Sound & Music Score: 0%
Gameplay Score: 85%
Control Score: 100%

Final Score: 85%

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