The classic game appreciation section: Sega Rally

Four is a magic number

Four tracks doesn't sound like much these days, especially when you consider you had to get really good if you wanted to even sample the last one. Gran Turismo was released in the same generation, and that had about a million tracks. Er... comparatively (*cough*). But while GT1 hasn't aged at all well if you load it up today, Sega Rally's courses are good enough to convince you to put up with mid-nineties crap-o-vision graphics.

They each offer something unique. Desert is all about nailing the perfect flat-out line around the course. Forest is about keeping your speed up through the tunnel, long chicane and hairpin, before keeping the car straight over the series of small jumps round the back of the course. Mountain is about perfect powerslides and inch-perfect driving through the village. Lakeside is an excericise in precision driving like nothing else, thanks to the walls that fair stop you dead when you touch them.

Above: The other tracks, (from left) Forest, Mountain and Lakeside, taken from the Japan-only PS2 version

Everyone will have a favourite - I remember being on holiday in France in 1997 and seeing a French guy playing Mountain over and over, filling the high score table with his name. It was his thing. Of course, I took great delight in having a go when he wasn't looking and putting my name at the top, then watching his reaction when he realised he was demoted to 2nd. He gesticulated at the screen, saying "Qui est le JUS'?". Ah, good times.


And three's a crowd

Likewise, the scant choice of cars is a blessing, not a curse. The secret Stratos looks great, but clearly unbalances the game, so it's actually a relief that it's hidden so well. No, the Lancia Delta and that gorgeous, beautiful Celica are more than enough. When everyone's using just one of two well-matched cars, there's no arguing over best times being achieved because a 'cheap' vehicle was used. And, while you can tune some aspects of the cars' handling, there are separate scoreboards for tuned and non-tuned lap times.

In the arcade or at home, both of the main cars are supremely controllable. Even on a digital Saturn pad, the addition of a 'soft brake' button means you can feather the brake to get the back end to step out… it's driving heaven. There's even support for the Saturn Arcade Racer steering wheel (right), although the lack of pedals and any kind of feedback make that a viable option only if you can avoid the walls in the first place.

While most devs seem to think 'more content = better game', the opposite is often true. You'll never master these four tracks. Never. And it doesn't even really matter that there aren't any global leaderboards – your greatest rival here is yourself. Rookie or ace, there's always a challenging time to beat. The one you just set. Stick a memory card in the Saturn and you can even save your best replays in their entirety and try to beat the ghosts on another day. And, incredibly, there's even a 30fps split-screen two-player mode too.


Screeching to the converted

The conversion to Sega Saturn is also something that shouldn't be underestimated. Until Sega Rally came along, Daytona USA was indicative of the kind of quality home console fans could expect from their new box of tricks. The game was great, but technically, it was abysmal. Look at how small the window showing the game is. Letterboxed at the top, bottom and at the sides:

So imagine everyone's delight when Sega Rally came along, running at 30fps and running at full screen. Coupled with Virtua Fighter 2, it showed that Saturn could do incredible arcade conversions of the fabled Model 2 arcade board. So what if the castle on the Mountain track was a flat picture on the Saturn version? Everything else was friggin' 3D and moving like sex. And, in case you haven't heard, sex moves really well.

I remember the day I got my Saturn in autumn, 1996, and loaded up the 'Bootleg Sampler' that Sega had packaged in with the machine. It featured a very early demo of Rally with lower-res textures, slower game speed and (amazingly) a rotation effect on the background image. Even in this far-from-perfect state, it was still sensational.

Above: The 'Bootleg Sampler' version (left) looks odd compared to the finished retail version (right) 

However, when I took that disc out and loaded the real thing, it was like wiping a smudge from sunglasses. It was sharper. Faster. In fact, it seemed faster even than the arcade version. The Bootleg Sampler shows how most Saturn games were converted - playable enough, but a bit flaky. The finished Rally disc is result of a painstaking conversion process, not only from arcade to console, but also from NTSC to PAL.

The UK version even had some extras that the US version didn't. There's a no-HUD cheat, extra replay views and even a secret ghost mode where you can race against the best effort from the game's developers. The challenge offered by that one is not to be taken lightly. They're rally good (groan).


My dear friend, Rally

Sega Rally means so much to me. It really is My Dear Friend Rally, as the victory song's title suggests. But there is a bittersweet end to the story. I had the good fortune of meeting Mizuguchi a couple of years ago and nearly shook the man's hand off, gushing "If it wasn't for you, I would not be doing what I do now". After I had calmed down, we spoke at length about games and music. Then came the bombshell.

He told me that while he was making Sega Rally and working on Saturn, he wished he was working on a PlayStation game. It was a bit like that Simpsons moment where Bart can pinpoint the exact moment Ralph's heart breaks in two. But it doesn't matter. Fact is, Mizuguchi did make Sega Rally for Sega, it's still the best racing game of the 32-bit generation (I've thought long and hard about that, but I stand by the claim) and it kept alive that spark of excitement that Sonic 1 had lit four years previously. I owe so much to this game and I do 'feel the heartbeat at the line'. I really do.

07 July, 2011

Enjoyed this? Well, you're in luck. Not only will be writing regular features about our personal favourite old games, you can also hear us talk about one old game on TalkRadar UK every week. You can also read Justin's appreciative Sonic 1 article here.


  • 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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