Here’s a little feature concerning older games which I hope to regularly update in weeks to come. Good, bad or ugly – if I find an old game interesting, you can bet it’ll end up here at some point. First up, Sega Rally Championship.
Hardware: Sega Model 2A
Sometimes, I forget that Sega Rally is over a decade old. I remember when the game was new and fresh, and in just about every arcade that you could visit. What finally made me accept the game’s age was a recent issue of the UK magazine Retro Gamer, which placed the game at #1 in its list of the top 25 racing games. Of course, a large part of the reason for this lack of perceived age could well be due to the enduring appeal that allowed it to claim the top spot – even now, it’s possible find a Sega Rally machine in the wild (and it was less than two years ago that I last did so myself). That’s pretty stunning when you think about it, because Sega Rally was released into an arcade market which was already saturated with quality racing games.
Sega Rally started off life as a game for the Model 1 arcade board. At the time, Model 1 had been Sega’s flagship arcade technology, powering some stunning 3D games by AM2 such as Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter. However, in 1993 Sega’s long-time rival Namco released Ridge Racer on the System 22 arcade board. The System 22 board was also designed to run 3D games, but with one crucial graphical improvement: texture mapping. Where Sega’s Model 1 games had polygons with flat colours, Ridge Racer had images overlaid onto the polygons in order to create a more detailed image. Of course, this game of technological one-upmanship didn’t end there, and in 1994 Sega hit back with the Model 2 board and AM2’s Daytona USA, which was ridiculously successful. Production of new games quickly switched to the newer technology, with Sega Rally moved to Model 2, and the artwork redrawn to take advantage of the improved technology. Upon release in 1995, Sega Rally faced a tough climate for new racing games. As well as the continuing dominance of Daytona USA, the game faced Namco’s sequel Rave Racer in the same year.
Why did Sega Rally do so well? Because it is a wonderful game. The premise is simple: choose either the Toyota Celica or the Lancia Delta, and then get through three different point-to-point stages before the time runs out. The only things to stop you are 15 other cars and your own skill. It sounds like a piece of cake, but things are never that simple, and the complication is that the three courses you drive can be deceptively fiendish. Unlike contemporary racing games which stuck to tarmac surfaces, Sega Rally accounted for the effects of the road surface upon your car’s handling. There’s a genuine difference between driving on mud and on tarmac, and with the surface constantly changing due to the nature of rally driving, you’ll need to learn more than just how to handle your car if you want to succeed. Of course, the three courses in Sega Rally are among the most memorable of any racing game, from the wide, sweeping corners of the Desert stage to the narrow town roads of the Mountain stage. Every individual turn is burnt into your memory (no doubt assisted by the co-driver’s instructions) and repeated plays allow you to discover the optimum method of tackling each one. That matters, too – the time limit is tight and one or two seconds saved by slight improvements on the Desert stage can ensure that your slightly rubbish Mountain run doesn’t prevent you from reaching the finish line.
The 15 other cars are there for more than just eye candy, too. At first your concern will be simply beating the track, and the first time you finish will probably see you coming in sixth or so. However, it is possible to beat them and if you do finish first your reward is the hidden Lakeside course, which has some nightmarish chicanes that can ruin your day. Of course if you can’t make the grade, failure is made almost worthwhile by the game over theme, which even out-mads the decidedly odd ditties contained in Virtua Racing and Daytona USA (“Game over, yeeeaaahh!”). Round off the loveliness with a competitive two-player mode, and add the simple casual appeal of powerful cars sliding around in the mud, and Sega Rally becomes an all-time arcade classic.
Following success in arcades, Sega Rally received a critically acclaimed Saturn conversion and later a PC conversion. It went on to spawn one arcade sequel, 1998’s Model 3 Sega Rally 2, as well as two console-based sequels – Sega Rally 2006, a Japan-only Playstation 2 game which included the original Sega Rally as a bonus for first print buyers, and the UK-based Sega Racing Studio production Sega Rally Revo (simply Sega Rally outside of North America) for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC in 2007. The game’s producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi went on to acquire a cult following for console games such as Space Channel 5, Rez and eventually games such as Lumines from his independent studio Q? Entertainment. While Sega Rally has been absent from the arcades for ten years, the recent Super Challenge test was based on the modern Sega Rally engine which suggests a coin-op future for the series.
Next week – Strider