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In 1994, the technology finally existed for racing games to have tracks that actually vaguely resembled the cities they claimed to be based in, rather than just putting the same generic 2D skyline in the background whether the track was supposed to be Chicago or Miami or London. With Cruis’n USA being one of the first racers to have such graphical horsepower, and being developed at Midway, it was the perfect opportunity for Chicago to finally be seen in a racing game in recognizable fashion.
The early portion of the track is oddly industrial, with warehouses and tall smokestacks lining the road. In fact, other than the slightly Chicago-looking overpasses you drive under, you’d be hard pressed to identify the city if you didn’t already know where you were. It’s not until shortly after the first checkpoint that you see a sign for “Chicago Loop” and then you drive under the iconic Board of Trade building that the landmarks begin to appear. But don’t blink, or you may miss them: Right after that, an image of the entire rest of the Chicago skyline, Sears Tower jutting up from the middle, shows up in a single 2D image (that you can also drive under, inexplicably) for only a couple of seconds before its gone from view. The next part of the race is a long stretch through one of Chicago’s trademark tunnels, followed by the staple of any Chicago driving or chase scene – between the supports of the “L” tracks. Though taking your eyes off the road here is not advised, other Chicago skyscrapers and building do flash by if you happen to catch them. And they may even repeat a couple of times. Then it’s down a small hill, where you find the shirtless fist-pumping man and bikini-clad ladies that greet you at the end of every successfully completed Cruis’n USA race.
Chicago has gone on to make appearances in many other racing games – Burnout 3, Project Gotham Racing, various Need for Speed titles, et al – and the results look better and more authentic as the years go on and tech improves. The visuals in Cruis’n predictably haven’t aged well – the N64 port especially, which NEVER looked all that great to be begin with – and time has been even more unkind to the gameplay. But its interpretation of Chicago definitely impressed for the time, and will always stand as one of the first times Chicago was ever rendering so clearly and recognizably in polygon form. Multiple Sears Towers and all.