The classic game appreciation section: Sega Rally

You may find it hard to believe, but before Rez, Child of Eden and Space Channel 5, Tetsuya Mizuguchi made a straight-faced arcade racing game. Looking at it now, it's hard, if not impossible, to see any of his trademark idiosyncrasies in it. The music isn't linked to the action, the cars are as close to photorealistic as possible… it's nothing like his recent work. Ah, but one trademark remains – sheer, genre-smashing brilliance. Let me tell you about the wonder that is Sega Rally.

In 1995, there were only a handful of major racing games in the arcades. Sega's own Virtua Racing had kick-started the rush to make realistic racers, followed by the texture-mapped Daytona USA and Namco's Ridge Racer. But if the latter two games set the benchmark for the arcade generation that followed, Sega Rally represents the pinnacle.

Above: Sega Rally's stars - the Lancia Delta and Toyota Celica, immortalised forever in this landmark racer

Who taught you how to drive?

The game's greatest achievement is its physics engine. You could argue it's too slidey and that everyone crashes the first time they attempt to navigate that right-hander by the zebra because the car's movement over loose gravel is exaggerated slightly. But this is an arcade game – as with Daytona, Ridge Racer and OutRun 2, the car handling has been exaggerated deliberately to make it fun, although Sega Rally keeps its roots in the real world way more than any other arcade racer I can think of.

You can lose control of the car simply by putting two wheels on a bump and turning away from it. The gravity and inertia here is exemplary. Let go of the controls on a hill and the car will roll down it until it hits an incline, whereupon it will slow to a halt and then start rolling back the other way. It's possible to spin the car with too much welly under acceleration and there's no such thing as the 'perfect' line. The track surface undulates so subtly, there's always a new option to try.

For instance, there's the three days I spent practicing on the Desert track for the World Record run a couple of years ago. Even after over a decade playing the game and all this ultra-concentrated practice, I still feel like I'm only just learning the track. I only feel like I've scratched the surface of what's possible on it.

But, as with all of Sega's classic coin-ops, this depth that lasts decades is just a bonus that comes way after you get over the initial, unforgettable thrill of just playing the thing. When I sat down at an arcade cabinet in the Hollywood Bowl, Taunton, in 1995, I just couldn't believe my eyes. Perhaps the impact wasn't as great as the first time I played Virtua Racing, but in terms of excitement, it's right up there. Mizuguchi and his team took the Model 2 technology, wrung it for every drop of power it had and then created something supremely playable. This is a game design masterclass.


Track and feel

The track design is ludicrously good. There's every kind of corner in the game, except perhaps for dramatically cambered banked curves. Let's look at the first track again:

Above: 'Zebra corner' (left) is harder than it looks before you hit the drift-tastic right-hander in the mud

The first two turns are deliberately shallow and wide, to allow you time to get used to steering in this 3D space. As I mentioned, the first challenging corner has that 3D, animated zebra for you to ogle when you inevitably crash into the wall by him. After the next turn, you're presented with three jumps in close succession, each one leaving your car slightly more off-balance, leaving you feeling like you're teetering on the edge of control.

Above: The jumps may look tame in terms of height, but the brief moments of traction are superbly weighted

After that, it's a drive through a dark, leafy wooded section, splashing through puddles and navigating a flat-out chicane - the close walls giving a superb sensation of speed. But then you emerge into a wide open space, where zebra and a 3D, animated elephant roam. The contrast is superb. You then drift around a long, wide corner – sufficiently shallow to allow gamers to fly through it with the accelerator flat on the floor, but just tight enough to make it the time attack lover's best and worst friend.

Above: This niche is carved into the apex about two-thirds round. Can you find the line to hit it? 

As you power out of it and towards the finish line, a helicopter swoops down low overhead, kicking up so much pixelly dust you can barely see the track in front of you. And then "Fiiiiiiiiiiii...nish nish nish!" it's all over. Packing so many moments into a 55-ish second experience is no mean feat, yet it's seamless in its execution. Ridge Racer's seaside drive is comparable, certainly, but that's just one track. Rally packs this much noteworthy content into each of its four tracks.

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  • RareHero - March 20, 2012 5:33 p.m.

    When you say you'll never master these tracks, you're right. I've been playing Sega Rally since I was four. I'm nearly 20 now, and I still learn new things every time I put it in my Saturn. Sadly though, I've never been fortunate enough to play the arcade version.
  • GR_JustinTowell - August 22, 2013 7:51 a.m.

    Wow - really? You must fix that as soon as you can. Sega Rally at 60fps is glorious!
  • thecresta - July 28, 2011 8:29 p.m.

    Another of my all-time favourite games, and another great read. Cheers Justin! I remember having a competition with a friend at school. Each evening we had to beat each others best single lap time on Desert. It went on for days, shaving milliseconds off our personal bests resulting in a lot of air-punching. He accepted defeat in the end after I managed a seemingly impossible lap time. I forget what it was now, but I'm pretty sure my name should be in the Guinness Book of Records... ;)
  • mothbanquet - July 25, 2011 2:48 p.m.

    This was the first game I got for my Saturn and I never tired of it. The first thing I remember thinking was how I'd never seen a game that moved so smoothly before in my life. The 60fps was a huge boon for the game and it made sliding round those corners an utter joy. Oh, and yes, the game over music was possibly the only one ever to make me smile.
  • Spybreak8 - July 9, 2011 6:45 p.m.

    I never played it so no nostalgia for me.
  • Cligedy - July 8, 2011 11:29 a.m.

    I was just thinking about this recently. The glut of content in modern racing games means you never really get to master a track or specific car. That was a huge part of the appeal back then, not collecting cars, but just getting better. That is certainly lost now and I personally miss it. Also, Sega Touring Car was fun, but hard as hell on Saturn. Now let's reminisce about Test Drive LeMans on Dreamcast!
  • philipshaw - July 8, 2011 11:05 a.m.

    True classic for sure, awesome feature Justin
  • snipes101 - July 8, 2011 4:05 a.m.

    Are there any plans to bring this to XBLA or PSN? This article made me wanna play this.
  • raptorak - July 8, 2011 1:10 a.m.

    Actually the game is 60fps on the saturn if I remember correctly :) Sega Rally and Guardian Heroes are the best games on the Saturn imo (although I LOVE Daytona - why hasn't there been an update?). And I fully agree with the Stratos being unbalanced - Sega Saturn Magazine UK had a competition going where you got free saturn games for a year for the fastest time from desert, forest to mountain (no resets had to be a complete run!) with the celica or lancia. I spent a week doing it, all with my Dad's old VHS camera, and finally I got the fastest time (by a full 10 seconds!), sent off the tape, and what did those ****ers do? They changed the damn rules to allow the Stratos =/ (and my VHS got lost in the mail anyway LOL)
  • CanadianBeaverHunter - July 7, 2011 9:31 p.m.

    Good feature. When this came out in the mid-90's, it was definitely one of the top 3 racing games I'd ever played.
  • Sticky - July 7, 2011 6:58 p.m.

    We had a double arcade machine at work upto April, it was sad to see it go. Every Monday and Friday Me and my mate used to have to "TEST" the machine. Had a call from work asking if we'd finished. We were on it for 45Mins Straight.
  • Imgema - July 7, 2011 5:33 p.m.

    Even though i can play the Model 2 version on the the Model 2 emulator, in an even higher resolution than the real arcade itself, i still find something oddly attractive about the Saturn version.
  • sternparez - July 7, 2011 4:52 p.m.

    That's really weird how Sega Rally is only 4 years younger than Sonic!
  • nebno6 - July 7, 2011 4:12 p.m.

    Worth pointing out this was ported to the PS2 as part of the Japan Sega Rally PS2 game on a separate disc, and works with my driving force GT.
  • Pytor - July 7, 2011 3:56 p.m.

    Sega Rally has to be included in my top racing games ever, arcade, simulation or anything in-between. Love it!
  • Arucard04 - July 7, 2011 3:42 p.m.

    I never played this game but I really like this article.
  • XSgtShootemupX - July 7, 2011 3:22 p.m.

    I recently had a trip to Alton Towers with my college. Everyone was going on about the rides they went on and how amazing they were. I spent the day boasting about how I had first place on Desert by 5 seconds. No one gave a crap :( I texted my Dad who's currently working in Scotland. He was proud. They just don't make 'em like they used to
  • tomthespesh - July 7, 2011 2:46 p.m.

    Whenever I see the arcade cabinet for this I have to play it. It's still my favourite racer on the old arcade machines.
  • moh82sy - July 7, 2011 2:41 p.m.

    Another great feature by Justin Towell.
  • WTeen8 - July 7, 2011 2:31 p.m.

    ........GAME OVER YEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH! Sorry, I couldn't pass up a chance to say it....


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