God Bless Sega. You can always count on them to screw it up in the clutch. It’s a miracle they were ever successful in the first place.

Daytona USA on Sega Saturn is a spectacular arcade racing videogame that received no end of grief for its rough visuals, particularly the polygon “pop-up,” low 20 frames-per-second performance (a low frame rate that was supposedly acceptable on Playstation and Nintendo 64, but that’s neither here nor there) and lack of multiplayer modes. In 1997, Sega decided to silence the critics with a “revised and improved” Daytona, and in the process found themselves moving forward and backward at the same time and ending up right smack where they began.

First the good news. Daytona USA: Circuit Edition was programmed by the AM3 studio entirely from scratch, utilizing the graphics engine created for Sega Rally Championship. The visuals are a significant improvement over AM2’s original translation, with a solid 30 frames-per-second performance and notable reduction in polygon “pop-up” that equals anything on the scene at that time. The visuals appear more refined and delicate, as though the artists were using a finer tip brush. The cars were redrawn to more closely resemble NASCAR stock cars. New additions included a new soundtrack, two new courses, multiplayer matches for split-screen, parallel “link up” and even online play, and support for Sega’s analog 3D controller.

If you were one of those poor suckers who complained endlessly about Daytona USA’s rough visuals, this new edition will make you smile. It retains much of the look and style of the arcade and ably demonstrates the Saturn’s hardware powers. It can run with any racing title on Sony Playstation or Nintendo 64 at the time, at least until Ridge Racer 4 dropped and Sony seriously began to pull away for good. The two-player modes are terrific and very welcome, especially if you’re lucky enough to play in link-up or online modes.

Now the bad news. How do I put this kindly? Sega improved the graphics but completely screwed the pooch on everything else.

First, they wrecked the steering and handling. AM2 Daytona’s cars were swift, nimble, and floated on the ground as they raced through the tracks. AM3 Daytona Circuit Edition’s cars drive like cardboard boxes being scraped along asphalt. The idea I always had in my head was, these bastards took the wheels off these damn cars. Worse, the steering lost that immediacy in the digital controls, instead going for a momentum-based scheme that was popular for many home computer games in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s not the left-right that you expect from digital controls, more like slow-moderate-fast as you hold down the steering. The analog controls, meanwhile, are faster and more responsive, but far too twitchy. It doesn’t really feel like analog, only a faster digital. It’s a shambling mess and it drives me up a wall.

Second, the computer cars were completely neutered. One of the great thrills of the original Saturn Daytona was the violent clashes between cars that would slam into one another, shove each other around, and deliberately start massive 20-car crashes. All of this has been taken away. Instead, the cars only randomly shift lanes, darting side to side but without any purpose. The timing isn’t even correct, like the cars are just pasted onto the background.

Third, and this will really irk the fans, Sega wrecked the music. Instead of the catchy, tropical pop songs of the original, Circuit Edition replaced those songs with a collection of late ’80s “L.A. Rock Dude” songs from Mr. Big singer Eric Martin. The songs are not only horribly out of date and about as welcome in 1997 as a bout of the chicken pox, they’re poorly mixed with the backing instruments too quiet and compressed. Sega’s obsession with this style of music works when they present it as semi-parody, as seen in Sega Rally or Crazy Taxi or Ferrari F355 Challenge. It doesn’t work when you play it straight.

I once saw Mr. Big perform at Sega’s stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in ’93 or ’94. “Everybody put your hands together! Clap your hands for Sega! Yaay!” Ugh, I thought to myself, what a bunch of corporate tools. Bill Hicks was right. Mind you, I was a bit grouchier in my late teens and early twenties, but the impression has stuck with me ever since.

The Japanese Circuit Edition fixed things somewhat by restoring the original Daytona songs, but they still sound different and a little off. Maybe it’s just me. In any event, I don’t enjoy having to go to the options menu and manually put the correct audio tracks onto the correct stages. It bugs me.

Fourth, the Saturn mode has been removed. No more 80-lap marathons on the Three Sixty course, and certainly no spectacular pileups. You only get to race the arcade modes with the standard times and number of laps. Isn’t a revised edition supposed to add features and not remove them? What was AM3 thinking? Thank goodness the horses are still available.

Fifth, the new race tracks aren’t very good. Perhaps I’m being grouchy and need my medications before being shuffled off to watch Matlock, but these new courses are lame and unbelievably boring. When Daytona veterans want a new challenge, they don’t want another basic oval track. They want tracks that build upon the originals and push further. Instead, Sega played it safe with boring, dull designs. At least the dinosaur track features a train and some hot air balloons, but have you noticed that it’s really just a remix of Sega Rally’s forest course? Whoops.

I’ve always had a pet theory that the hardware limitations of the 32/64-bit era were the motivation for so many spectacular course designs. Software developers were always mindful of the dreaded “pop-up” effect, and so designed their raceways with endless curves, dips, hills, tunnels and surprises. The goal was to keep you moving and shifting constantly, so that the illusion of a solid 3D world could be maintained. Once the hardware advanced enough where pop-up was no longer an issue, the raceways became boring as mud. Elaborate roller coaster designs gave way to endless straight roads and modest turns. I can already drive on those roads in the real world. They’re called Interstate Highways and they’re unbelievably freaking boring.

Finally, Sixth, AM3 screwed up the crash animations. How the hell could you futz that up? The car now performs some weird barrel roll in midair that doesn’t make any sense. It’s far too floaty and lacks the bounciness of AM2 Daytona. It’s embarrassing.

Racing videogames peaked in this era because of the fantastic track designs as seen in Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Wipeout, F-Zero-X, Mario Kart 64 and the Ridge Racer series. It’s been all downhill ever since.

If you have to own a copy of Daytona USA Circuit Edition, buy the Japanese release as it’s the more refined and polished edition. It’s also fairly cheap, usually less than ten dollars. But then you could just pick up the original Saturn Daytona for that money and have a lot more fun. Graphics, shmaphics.

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