During the Twitch countdown for the Shenmue III Kickstarter with Yu Suzuki, it covered a few of his games including Hang-On which he had created to offset the “dark” arcade scene by bringing in something bright and fun for audiences. He was also something of a car and bike fan. As he mentions in an interview with Martin Robinson over at Eurogamer, he noted that he “adored” bikes, mostly “off-road bikes — like motocross, enduro racers, Paris Dakar…” and during his research to find out why those races were so popular, came up with Hang-On.
Hang-On was a pioneering game in several aspects most notably its pseudo “3D” sprite effects to simulate the speeding road, signs, and the other bikers that you were racing against. The game ran on the same hardware that would also run Yu Suzuki’s next hit, Space Harrier, which continued his obsession with 3D that would eventually see him design later icons such as Virtua Fighter and Shenmue. According to the arcade hardware museum over at System 16, it was the same hardware that would also run Enduro Racer and, eventually, Super Hang-On.
Even though the games were 2D pretending to be 3D, Yu Suzuki’s design approach began with envisioning everything in 3D — doing all of the calculations and so forth — before translating all of that back into the hardware, helping plant the seeds for Sega’s own continued pursuit of better 3D.
But Yu Suzuki wanted to extend the experience from the screen and right into the player’s hands. Three different cabinets were created for the game — a sit down cabinet with handlebars that were used to control the bike onscree, a stand up version, and a mammoth bike cab the player could sit on and actually control the bike with their body creating an early motion controller for a video game (the monitor was set where the windshield should be).
In contrast to the complexities underlying the technology and presentation of Hang-On, the actual game was pretty simple to pick up and play. All the player had to do was steer, accelerate, and slow down when they had to and try not to crash their bike. Each leg of the race was timed and as the player made it to checkpoints, that time would get extended. Scoring began as soon as the player started ending only when time ran out and pausing whenever they crashed.
Hang-On became hugely popular in the arcades and was ported across a number of platforms. It was ported to the Japan-only MSX and PC-88, Sega’s SG-1000, and later, the Sega Master System. it would also be a staple of Sega collections like Sega Smash Pack 2 in 2000 for Windows and kick of a series of spinoffs and sequels from Super Hang-On in 1987, Hang-On GP ’95 for Japan, Hang-On GP for the USA, and a ’96 version for Europe. It has also featured as Easter Egg references in a variety of Sega games such as Sonic Riders and, of course Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue series as a playable mini-game.
Yu Suzuki’s success with Hang-On would pave the way for the legendary designer’s efforts with Sega to bring more 3D hits to the arcade as well as push the envelope on the tech needed to bring it closer to realism. Even today, Hang-On manages to hold up fairly well — its still a challenging racer whose tough courses were made to keep those quarters coming as was the norm with many arcade classics. It doesn’t have “real” 3D graphics or an orchestrated soundtrack, but like many amazing games from the past, it reminds us that it really doesn’t need them to be fun.