In the many years before convincing three-dimensional graphics were possible, video game developers had to get creative to realize their vision. When it came to racing games, that creativity typically resulted in a top-down perspective or, a bit later on, layered 2D sprites scaling smoothly enough to create an illusion of depth.
Less talked about are rare experiments like Sega’s GP World, a 1984 arcade game that mixed media in a way that was a bit more common in the ’80s, though one not typically reserved for racing titles.
Many people are familiar with Dragon’s Lair, a game that used animated cutscenes streamed off a Laserdisc, strung together into a series of quick time events, to deliver an interactive experience. Dragon’s Lair was more like playable movie than video game, though it nevertheless proved a hit for a short while until graphical advancements rendered games like it irrelevant.
GP World repurposed the Laserdisc format for a racing experience, though it wasn’t the only title to do so. Williams’ Star Rider managed something similar a year earlier, though it consisted of futuristic motorcycles racing down hand-drawn Tron-inspired pathways. Conversely, GP World was an open-wheel racing simulation that employed actual, recorded footage of race tracks, then let you steer a sprite-based car over top of the feed as if you were actually driving on the asphalt.
What I expect will be particularly relevant to this crowd is that two of the three tracks Sega captured for GP World from happen to be none other than Japan’s Tsukuba Circuit and Fuji Speedway. The last of the trio is a bit more difficult to pin down, as it’s a tri-oval. Fortunately, insights from diligent YouTube commenters and a snapshot of Google Maps point to Mazda’s Miyoshi Proving Ground.
Unsurprisingly, GP World’s gameplay is extremely rudimentary, even compared to what Sega would achieve just a year later with Super Scaler racers like Hang-On and Out Run. The camera angle is fixed to a full view of the road, because there was no way to pan across or zoom into the Laserdisc feed. The car model, which consists of only the first third of the chassis from about the driver’s arms onwards, scrolls from side to side along the bottom of the screen.
You’re on rails for the most part, though the player does appear to have control over speed, which is essentially conveyed by how quickly the recorded footage plays back. Steer off course and you’ll slow down considerably, or strike another car and you’ll explode into a period-appropriate cartoon fireball.
The hardware that enabled games like GP World is especially interesting when you consider how Sega was able to marry the game’s code with the Laserdisc stream so that the track’s boundaries always matched up with what the player saw. From Sega Retro:
Each frame of the LaserDisc footage is coded with a hit detection spot stored in ROM memory. The Zilog Z80 CPU microprocessor reads the number of the LaserDisc frame, and checks the LaserDisc hit spots with the shots fired by the player, and if the coordinates correspond, it instructs the LaserDisc player to display an explosion sequence. For sections where the player must navigate between walls, the walls in the LaserDisc footage are also coded and use collision detection.
I grew up adoring Sega’s racing games, but GP World’s existence passed me by until just a few years ago. Not many racing games used full-motion video used in this way, and while the effect is laughable by today’s standards, it’s very charming and I imagine must have been reasonably impressive at the time, especially to motorsports fans who would’ve recognized the tracks. And the tracks really make this game for me — how cool is it to see onboard footage of Tsukuba and Fuji from 1984? Sure, the video’s quality is poor, though it’s still worth watching if for no other reason than to reflect on how drastically both circuits have changed over the past 40 years.
Given GP World’s age and how notoriously unreliable Laserdisc-based arcade machines were, playing the game on original hardware is nigh impossible today. Thankfully, people have emulated it and uploaded their experiences to YouTube, and this is one classic racing game I’d personally rather watch than play.