The last game in our Indy 500 season is one of Sega’s lesser-known arcade releases from the 1990s. Indy 500 is an open-wheel racing game with an official license from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the look and feel of mid 1990’s Indy car racing. It was released in 1995 and made use of the Model 2 arcade platform.
This game was released in the year of Jacques Villeneuve’s controversial win. On lap 190, the race leader, Scott Goodyear jumped the restart from a yellow flag period and overtook the pace car. Race officials handed him a stop and go penalty which he ignored on his team’s advice, thinking they could file a protest after the race. Although Villeneuve crossed the line in second, Goodyear’s refusal to stop for his penalty meant that his laps had ceased counting after 195. This put him in 14th place and handed the win to the future F1 world driver’s Champion.
This was the last Indy 500 before the open-wheel split which saw the formation of the Indy Racing League as a rival organisation to CART, the main sanctioning body of Indy car racing since the early 1980’s. This period of inter-organisational conflict spelled the end of the glory days of American open-wheel racing in the eyes of many fans.
There isn’t a clear lineage between this game and Sega’s previous open-wheel themed racer, Virtua Racing, but it’s tempting to draw a comparison between the two. On the surface, they’re similar games but Indy 500 has a few new mechanics that distinguish it from its forerunner. The first is drafting, running closely behind other cars to reduce drag and increase your speed. This is something that Daytona USA also made use of but Indy 500 emphasises it much more heavily. The other extra mechanic that this game has over Virtua Racing is tyre degradation. You will gradually lose grip over the course of a race, making the car more likely to slide while cornering. It could be my imagination, but rough handling appears to speed up this process .
There are three tracks to choose from. A licensed version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and two fictional tracks, Highland Raceway and Bayside Street. These appear to be based on 1990’s CART series staples, Leguna Seca and Surfer’s Paradise respectively. The track selection as a whole is reminiscent of Daytona USA which also offers an oval, a road course and a street circuit. The representation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the game is easily recognisable. I suppose it would need to be if wanted to carry an official license.
The graphics are good and definitely comparable in quality to other big-name arcade games of the mid 1990’s. The overall style is as bold and colourful as you would expect from Sega. A nice blue sky, lots of track-side objects and bright primary colours everywhere. I would say that in terms of presentation, most games on the Model 2 platform have aged quite well, particularly the racing games. Although the graphics have held up very well, the music is maybe the weakest point of the game. There’s nothing especially wrong with it but it’s not really memorable and that’s something Sega normally excel at. I have read that Indy 500 was originally intended as a Model 3 game but hardware delays led to it being released on the older hardware. I’ve not seen any sources on that however so I wouldn’t take it as gospel.
Like most of Sega’s racing games from this period, it’s not too hard to reach the finish line in Indy 500 but winning is much more of a challenge. To produce good lap times you have to drive very smoothly and take advantage of the drafting mechanic as much as you can. On the Indianapolis course in particular, you’re absolutely not going to win unless you can move in and out of the slipstream effectively and take corners without scrubbing off too much speed.
Indy500 is a fast, challenging and stylish game that perhaps doesn’t sit alongside titles such as Daytona USA as an all-time great but it still deserves a lot more recognition. Sega made a lot of games around this period that seem to have drifted into obscurity. So many games on the Model 2 platform either never made it to home consoles or were just forgotten with the death of the Sega Saturn. Indy 500 is one of those that never made it into the living room. Currently, the only way to play it is in a particular emulator. This is a barrier to entry that not everyone will want to cross but those that do want to seek it out won’t be disappointed.