Virtua Racing (Sega, 1992)

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Virtua racing is, in my opinion, one of the landmark titles in the history of arcade racing games. Although quickly overshadowed by the flood of more advanced titles that would soon follow, at the time of its release in 1992 it towered head and shoulders above the other early 3D games in the arcades and would prove an important stepping stone not only for Sega but also for the other companies looking to make the jump to 3D.

Despite its success and importance to the genre, Virtua Racing wasn’t actually designed to be released from the outset. It was originally just an internal project to test the capabilities of the new Model 1 arcade platform which was under development at the time. It was only after becoming  popular with Sega’s staff that it was turned into a full game

The game’s design is credited to Toshihiro Nagoshi who would later go on to design Daytona USA and produce a host of other Sega titles such as Planet Harriers, Scud Race and Yakuza. The lead programmer and producer was Yu Suzuki who was also the lead designer for the Model 1 itself.

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Virtua Racing was by no means the first 3D arcade racing game but it represented a huge leap forward in the genre both in terms of technology and gameplay. Atari and Namco had been producing 3D driving games for a number of years such as Hard Drivin’ and Winning Run but compared to Virtua Racing their hardware was primitive and as arcade games they were sluggish and lacking in high-speed thrills. They were more like driving simulators than fun games.

Despite being the most advanced racing game at the time and being a good earner for arcade operators, Virtua Racing is generally not considered to be a big financial success from Sega’s point of view due to the high cost of manufacturing the hardware. The Model 1 platform was expensive and only a small handful of games were made for it but it paved the way for the much more popular Model 2 which played host to a selection of great racing games such as Daytona USA, Sega Rally Championship and Manx TT.

I was fortunate enough to get to play this game in the arcades as a child. It was always very exciting to go into an arcade and see a Virtua Racing machine. In those days it simply wasn’t possible to play a game like this at home, Super Monaco GP on the Megadrive was about as close as I could get. Even playing  Geoff Crammond’s venerable and ground-breaking Formula One Grand Prix on my brother’s Amiga couldn’t compare to the thrill of Virtua Racing.

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So how does Virtua Racing hold up after such a long time? Obviously its wow-factor has diminished somewhat after over 20 years. The graphics are pretty crude, there are no textures and the models and environments are very simple but none of that really hurts the game in my opinion. You can still clearly see what’s going on and Sega’s blue skies and bright colours will never go out of style as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, what really matters is how it plays. Virtua Racing still provides a very solid, if basic, racing experience. It’s smooth and uncomplicated to control, there are no fancy handling tricks to master. It’s a game all about being precise and controlled. It’s simple but provides plenty of scope for skilled players to shine. Each of the 3 tracks has its own characteristics and challenges which keeps them distinct and memorable. I would love to see them re-used in a modern game because well designed tracks are timeless and will always work no matter how far technology progresses. I really prefer a good purpose-built racing circuit over a street course or open world.

If anything is lacking from Virtua Racing it’s music. For whatever reason, either stylistic or technical, you only get a jingle when passing a checkpoint rather than continuous music. I like the jingles but I would rather have a full length song and I’m glad they ditched this idea with their later games.

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If you want to play Virtua Racing today you have a couple of options. It’s emulated in MAME but it isn’t perfect. The graphics are a little glitchy which is a bit distracting but it’s still playable and in widescreen no less if you select the deluxe cabinet option. There were ports to the Megadrive and 32X but as impressive as they are for their consoles, they’re far from arcade perfect. The Saturn version reviewed very well when it came about but is maligned by players for being more of a remake than port of the game. The generally accepted best home version is the Sega Ages release for the PS2 which was a standalone game in Japan and formed part of the Sega Classics Collection in the USA and Europe.

The PS2 and MAME versions are as good as we’re going to get right now unless the we see a very unlikely HD re-release by Sega. Hopefully somebody will take another look at MAME’s Model 1 driver and bring it up to date so we can have an arcade perfect version of the game without the distracting glitches we currently have.

Bonus video – All three tracks, played in MAME.

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