Monday, 17 November 2014

Retro Review - Sega Rally Championship (Arcade, Saturn, PS2, PC)

Sega doing what Sega do best!

There have been many, many arcade racing games over the years, but some stand the test of time better than others. For every amazing and instantly gratifying title that can still be enjoyed 10 or more years after its original release, there are a hundred other bland, generic and instantly forgettable games out there. While racers on home consoles have evolved over time to offer more depth, more cars, more customisation, more tracks and more content in general, it's the simpler, less complicated arcade racers that hold up in the all important fun and replayability stakes. Each Gran Turismo or Forza game automatically renders its predecessor void as they focus heavily on realistic visuals while games such as Daytona USA and Outrun 2006 never lose their appeal. It's no coincidence that I use two Sega games as examples, as they are truly the masters of the genre. Almost every racer they have released has set the bar for the time, provided more thrill and spills than anything else out there, and provided a template for others to imitate, yet never better. The aforementioned Daytona USA and Outrun 2006 are two of the best games in their genre, but it is Sega Rally Championship that gets my vote for, not only best arcade racing game of all time, but racing game overall.

(Arcade - via Model 2 Emulator)

Two cars and three tracks. Yep, that's all you get. But it matters not one iota, as what is on offer here is pure perfection, tuned and tweaked to provide the most pure and perfect arcade racing experience you can have. The two cars, the Lancia Delta (HF Integrale) and Toyota Celicia (GT-Four ST205) both look, sound and handle brilliantly and have enough subtle differences to make driving each one a whole new experience. After selecting your preferred vehicle you begin on the bumpy sand and mud filled Desert stage before heading along windy mountain roads, more mud and tight hairpin bends in the Forest course. Then it's a twisting trip through villages and, you guessed it, more mud as you careen through the final Mountain stage. 

(Arcade - via Model 2 Emulator)

Each of these tracks is a perfect example of expert level design, with every nook and cranny feeling totally essential to the rollercoaster ride you take through the jumps, puddles, tunnels, twists and turns. Even better, if you place first, you get a brand new track to race on, the beautiful, yet devilishly tricky, Lakeside. If you manage to successfully traverse the incredibly tight corners of this final stage and place first you are granted a brand new car, selectable the next time you play. The Lancia Stratos (HF) is just as iconic as the two cars that adorn Sega Rally flyers and advertisements and is a welcome addition that will take some serious practice to master thanks to its rather erratic handling and high speed.

(The original two-player Coin-Op - if you see this anywhere, play it!)

Sega Rally Championship is an absolute blast to play due to, not only the cars and tracks themselves, but the wonderful physics and handling of the vehicles. Your car drifts around corners in such a satisfying manner that it makes you feel like a true pro every time. The feeling of weight you experience when hitting one of the many bumps and lift off from the ground is second to none and wrestling with the wheel to keep yourself facing the right angle to the approaching corner is what arcade gaming is all about - pure excitement and adrenaline. The different road surfaces play a part too, with mud and sand feeling different from the smooth tarmac found on the Forest and Mountain stages - the transition from a muddy track onto the tarmac is extremely gratifying and feels, one would imagine, just like real rally driving. Sega rally offers two viewpoints, behind the car and a full screen, first person viewpoint. It all comes down to personal choice, naturally, but for my money the outside view wins every time - these cars deserve to be seen and look ace drifting around corners and launching off bumps in the road, spraying dust and mud in your face as they do so. 

(PC - running on Windows 7 64-Bit)

The coin-op cabinet came in both single and dual variations, allowing for some seriously competitive and tight races against your buddy if you were lucky enough to chance upon the double seated cab. Sadly, with the death of the arcades and the sheer age of Sega Rally Championship, you are very unlikely to come across one these days. If you do see one out in the wild, be sure to sit down and put a few coins in it as it's still the most enjoyable arcade driving game out there (second only to Daytona USA). Luckily, however, there were a selection of console and computer ports that brought all the thrills and spills to your own home, in some cases providing an even greater experience.

(Sega Saturn)

The first port was for Sega's 32-bit Saturn console. Released in 1995 and built from the ground up, the Saturn port was a real showstopper, especially after the rushed and rather dismal Daytona USA port. The visuals, while not in the same league as the original, were fantastic, with a slightly grittier look than its arcade parent. Sega were also thoughtful enough to reposition the timer to a less distracting position and also remove the unnecessary progress bar featured in the Coin-Op. The music was one of the biggest improvements made, with the arcade tunes replaced with CD quality remixes. These powerful guitar tracks are incredibly catchy and suit the game to a tee. Anyone who has played Sega Rally Championship will remember the quirky voice acting in the game. These incredibly upbeat and tongue-in-cheek samples elevated the games sense of fun even further and in the Saturn port they sound even better. The iconic "Fiiiii-nish" and "Game Over, Yeeeeah!" are of a much higher quality than before, providing even more of a laugh. Honestly, there isn't a person on this planet who won't raise a smile at these wonderful voice overs.

(Sega Saturn - two-player split screen)

The game retains the same three cars as the coin-op, though this time the Lancia Stratos remains unlocked and selectable once Lakeside is beaten in first place. There is an additional time trial mode, complete with ghost opponent, and a brilliant split screen two player mode. There are also a wealth of customisation options for each car, allowing you to fine tune its performance to suit your play style. You can then save these customisations (along with other changes in the options) to the Saturn's memory for next time. The Saturn version was a big success and rightly so. It's the best game for the system and, despite it's rather ropey visuals (by today's standards and compared to the PC version), it remains an utter joy to play. I would even go as far as to say that it is worth owning a Saturn for this alone (a 60Hz model, of course!).

(PC - running on Windows 7 64-Bit)

In 1997 Sega released Sega Rally Championship for the PC. Essentially a port of the Sega Saturn version, the PC version looked very similar (but with a slightly cleaner look), featured the same excellent remixed soundtrack, contained the time trial and split screen modes and featured the same customisation options. There was also a rare version released with direct 3D support that improved the visuals further. You can now download a patch online to mod your existing Sega Rally installation to this version, and there are also other user made mods out there to further enhance and improve stability and function on modern PCs. With this setup, combined with an essential Xbox 360 controller, the PC version of Sega Rally Championship is my favourite of all the versions. Be sure to own a copy of the original disc in order to get the awesome soundtrack playing alongside the action!

(PC - running on Windows 7 64-Bit)

Sony's PS2 received an arcade perfect port in 2006 when it was bundled as a free bonus with the fairly mediocre Sega Rally 2006. Unfortunately, this amazing freebie was only given to Japanese gamers, leaving the rest of us to pay expensive import prices. These days, however, copies often appear on Ebay for around £20 and I fully recommend you grab one if you see it (and providing your PS2 plays Japanese games). I would usually recommend emulation as an option (especially as PS2 emulation is pretty damned good these days) but as far as I know Sega Rally 95 is currently not compatible with any emulator out there. The game itself is, of course, brilliant, but is slightly outshined by the wonderful Saturn and PC ports, which are just slightly more enjoyable to play and contain the far superior soundtrack. The language barrier is not an issue and you can save your settings (including changing the difficulty and number oif laps) and high scores to a memory card. It is the sole reason I have my PS2 still plugged into my TV. 

(PC - running on Windows 7 64-Bit)

So far, so good, right? Well Sega saw fit to release two other ports that were not so good. Both on handheld machines, the Gameboy Advance port was the least offensive of the two being some what playable, but it's like experiencing the arcade original after suffering a debilitating head injury. Sure, it takes a good stab at replicating the original version - it even adds new modes and extra courses. But it's a waste of your time when you could be playing the console versions instead. The second version, on Nokia's forgotten N-Gage, is an absolute travesty which I refuse to even speak about. If you must witness this abomination then simply check it out on Youtube and then immediately try to forget what you see. Let's all pretend these versions don't exist and move on to the next paragraph, quickly.

(PlayStation 2)

As if it isn't clear enough already, I adore Sega Rally Championship. I have been playing it on a regular basis for nearly 20 years and still enjoy it as much today as I did when I first played the Sega Saturn port back in 1995. It is one of the easiest games to pick up and play and has, shockingly, never been bettered by any other racing game, including the extremely disappointing sequels. Sega Rally Championship provides instant satisfaction and enjoyment and will keep you coming back time and time again due to the sheer joy in throwing these weighty vehicles around the sublime courses, with the added incentive of shaving precious milliseconds off of your track records. So, if you have never played Sega Rally Championship and have a penchant for arcade racers then I simply insist that you get hold of one of the versions and discover this fantastic game for yourself. It's another shining example of Sega at the top of their game, and another reason why they will be remembered for all time as both the pioneers and masters of the arcade racing genre. I cannot recommend it highly enough!


Title : Sega Rally Championship
Developer : Sega
Year : 1994
System : Arcade
Ports : PS2, Saturn, PC, N-Gage
Genre : Arcade Racer

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