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.
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.
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).
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.