Sunday, September 27, 2009
Videogame Classics - Sega Rally Championship
Sega Rally Championship
AM3 for Sega Saturn
The Sega Saturn had its best holiday season in 1995, with the spectacular 1-2-3 punch of Vitrua Fighter 2, Sega Rally Championship, and Virtua Cop. The console was almost immediately written off in favor of Sony's Playstation, and that first months as a Saturn owner was rough. These three games were just about the best to ever grace the console, and immediately renewed our faith. For a short while, Saturn had the best fighter, the best racer, and the best shoot-em-up. And to be perfectly honest, I don't Playstation ever beat these three.
Ah, well, PS-X won out with practically everything else. But there was still a spirit of competition in 1995. We were hoping for a repeat of the classic console war between Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Sadly, it was not to be, but that had more to do with the evolution of videogames into 3D and the rising dominance of polygon graphics. PS-X was the future, while Saturn had one foot planted in the 2D past.
Saturn's reputation is far better today, especially when you can download all those excellent import games that were never allowed to be seen in the US. Probably wouldn't have made much of a difference, anyway, but perhaps Saturn could have build a solid and profitable niche. Who knows?
In any case, Sega Rally is one of Saturn's finest hours. It's easily the best racer on the system, which became very frustrating to fans like me. I have no idea why the graphics engine wasn't ported around and used in a dozen other games. Sega kept to a rigorous pattern of repeating 1995 every Christmas - fighting game, racing game, lightgun game. The fighting games improved, even if they leaned too heavily on the Virtua Fighter brand. And Virtua Cop 2 was simply spectacular - the rail car shootout remains unsurpassed for thrills and spills. But the racing games were far and few between, and they were duds.
Sega Rally is intelligent, brilliant, requires a lot of planning and heavy thinking, and definitely many replays. It's a very short game, like most racers of the 32-bit era, but you always wanted one more try. Rally racing was new, and the thrill of leaping across mud, dirt, water, and pavement was new, exciting. These four courses were densely packed with details, and required different enough skills to always keep you on your toes.
Desert was the easiest, and probably the most fun because of all the mud. There's a series of leaps that land you in puddles that is thrilling, especially when you're fighting against your opponent's car. This is especially fun in two-player mode. It's also greatly improved in "reverse" mode, which was an easy method to squeeze more mileage out of the same racetracks.
Forest stage had all those magnificent trees, a sharp turn in a tunnel, and a rough hard right hairpin. These are all harder to navigate, and all the more satisfying. It's less a battle against the other driver than the elements. This is an excellent example of racetrack design during the 32-bit era. Graphics were not advanced enough to render long horizons without the dreaded "pop-up" effect, where large chunks of the backgrounds would suddenly pop into view. Daytona USA became the whipping boy for this effect. Designers got around this problem by creating winding, churning courses, one that required new thrills every other second. It's a hallmark of Sega Rally, and it's also a hallmark to Psygnosis' Wipeout, which was probably the other truly great racing game of the era.
Mountain stage was the hardest, no question about that. It looked spectacular, with the crowded city streets, the cobblestone bricks, and the towering mountains. There's another nasty hairpin turn that can leave you in the bushes, gasping for air. The streets are also very narrow, which leads to some great jostling among cars. This is a great course for knocking your opponent around, and I can only imagine what it would be like to have more players racing. Four or eight racers would be spectacular. In fact, Sega would be wise to reissue the original Sega Rally with more players. But the franchise has moved on to a few more sequels, none of which ever seem to have the impact of the original. Funny, that.
Finally, there is the Lakeside stage, the bonus track awarded for winning the rally race. It's not as overly punishing as the mountain stage, just endless sharp turns on narrow dirt roads, with hard banks on both sides. Smacking your car into the sides is frustrating, but with enough practice, you can master your timing and sail through without a hitch. If you can make it to the finish in one piece, you've earned some primo bragging rights.
I also love the wonderful autumnal setting, with the leaves turning colors, and the ducks flying about the lake. Sega Rally always looks so spectacular. Every single detail stands out, boldly, confidently. Sega clearly needed to get past Saturn's shaky start; the early games were plagued with glitchy graphics, and the reputation of a difficult console with half-assembled parts was crippling. Sega worked themselves to the bone to demonstrate Saturn's strengths in 3D. Sega Rally is one of the finest examples.
Sega Rally Championship is a hallmark of the classic arcade game. These are the real videogames, purely focused on the immediate moment, concerned only about delivering the thrills and spills. Today's games are obsessed with copying bad Hollywood movies; even the racing games are saddled with cheesy plots and ham-fisted dialog. I just don't see the point in all of this. I'm not playing Sega Rally because I want to reenact the experience of watching bad Vin Diesel movies. I'm playing Sega Rally because I want the excitement of racing a small car across the desert and through city streets. I just want to get my kicks and I want them now.
I've long believed that Sega Rally was the best racing title of the 32-bit era, and while there's some excellent competition - the Wipeout series, Mario Kart 64, F-Zero X, Daytona USA - this one has always been my favorite.