“Originally there was talk of using another car from Toyota, but we couldn’t find a good one.”
-Senior Programmer Riyuchi Hattori, Sega Saturn Magazine #4
“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage.”
It is 25th October 1994. Susan Smith reports to police that her children have been kidnapped by an African American carjacker in order to cover up that she’d murdered them. “Baby, Come Back” by Pato Banton featuring Ali and Robin Campbell is the UK no. 1 single. SEGA opens its Sega Rally Championship arcade cabinets across Europe, using the Sega Model 2 board. It’s arguably the most significant racing game ever released.
This is the moment the racing genre came of age to have the kind of legitimacy that inspired this column. It was the first racing game to offer varying road surfaces, with the car’s handling being affected by them. This is now a basic expectation of the genre. The way in which racing games require us to adapt to different environments is part of their challenge and is what makes them so appealing to their fans. The release of Sega Rally Championship introduced this, which makes it the most significant – maybe the only real – watershed for the genre’s history. No other racing games comes close to having such an important impact on the development of the genre, even if only from a technical standpoint. All of a sudden, racing games were about competition, and not every player was as good as the other. All of a sudden… racing games really were about racing.
Before Sega Rally Championship, the two most popular racing titles were Ridge Racer and Daytona USA. Kenji Sasaki had worked on both and wanted to develop a racing game that was different from them in some way. This led him to choose rallying, although actual rallying is a time trial of one car at a time. Sega Rally Championship more closely resembles rallycross, with each car racing together around a circuit. The thinking was that a game resembling real rallying wouldn’t be of interest to enough people, so they took the exciting parts of it and disregarded everything else.
One thing they did directly bring over, though, was the cars. There are three cars in the game: the Toyota Celica GT-Four, Lancia Delta Group A and Lancia Stratros (which is a hidden car that must be unlocked). While Sega Rally Championship was already significant for technical reasons, the choice to include real cars is what made it a game that people actually recognise and remember, even now. The manufacturers provided vehicle data and insight, yet licensed their cars’ inclusion purely on trust, there were no formal terms in place. Any sports car is the face of its sport, and, while the Celica and Stratos are certainly iconic, the Lancia Delta Group A is arguably the greatest rally car of all time on account of it having won the most world rally events, at least to rally aficionados. To everyone else, it’s this game that made it so famous. If the Lancia Delta Group A is in a racing game, it doesn’t matter what the other choices are, which is why it doesn’t matter that there’s only three. And anyway, for an arcade game, you don’t want to spend too much deciding on what you’re going to drive.
Once the format was decided and the cars agreed, the design team drove North America’s Pacific coast to gain inspiration for the environments. This led to the three included tracks: Desert, Forest and Mountain. Each of them was designed specifically to require something different of the player in order to really exhibit the physics engine – the whole point of the game was to show it off as much as possible.
There is, however, a risk that going back to this game now may make it seem a bit primitive and dated – which it is. This happens a lot with art; many works are praised for being so “important” in some way, yet we often find their actual quality to be lacking. Compared to the racing games of today, it is true that it’s a bit simplistic. However, almost all replays of this will be on its various home platform ports. In actuality, the only real way to experience this game is in the same way as it was when originally played: at an arcade cabinet. There’s no better way to play a racing game than by sitting in a mock-up car directly connected to a steering way interface with full force feedback and reactive motion. This will always be the best way. Even with virtual reality, physical stimulus will remain the overriding sensation of the human brain. We all have a favourite arcade somewhere – mine’s a few hundred miles away on a promenade overlooking a beach. And in that arcade, there’s a Sega Rally Championship cabinet: the first order of business upon arrival. It’s a part of me that I leave in that place. That’s what makes it so special. When playing it in an arcade, as it’s meant to be played, all of a sudden, there’s nothing old-fashioned about it at all.
I think that’s also one of the reasons that this is a game which has endured as an attraction for so long amongst people who “don’t really play racing games”: it gives you the basics, because that’s all most people want. As the market becomes over-saturated with racing games, each of them is rushing to make itself unique in ever-more-specific ways, to the point that it gets a little ridiculous. But all of them are adding to something that they wouldn’t have had were it not for Sega Rally Championship. The idea of doing one new thing now may be difficult to value at a time where there’s never been more games, but its value was created by the games it enabled to exist and how much they validated it by copying that single innovation. The small number of cars and tracks wouldn’t be accepted for a modern game, but I think that’s what’s so impressive: that it showed so much dynamism within such confines. That takes real skill.
Sega Rally Championship was a later inspiration to Colin McRae Rally and was included on the Middle-aged Horror Mage-to-be’s list of the top seven best Sega Saturn games. If this hadn’t introduced the first version of real driving physics, inevitably some other racing game would’ve done it. But they might not have done it in such a bite-sized-yet-successful way. If this game hadn’t paved the way for the modern form of video game racing, I have no idea what I’d be doing with my life.
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog, covering the World Rally Championship and generally posting about what he’s been playing, at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.
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Categories: Racing Column