Daytona USA (1995, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

For detractors, Saturn Daytona was symbolic of everything that had gone wrong with Sega: the hubris, the arrogance, the lack of vision, the overconfidence. Compared to the Sony Playstation, which in 1995 could seemingly do no wrong, Daytona was a shambolic shambling of a mess, like a prize fighter who arrived at the title match half-asleep and stumbling drunk.

Let us clear the air all the complaints. This version of Daytona runs at 20 frames-per-second, one third the performance of the arcade. The graphics are rendered in a modest resolution, with thick lines, chunky vehicles and smudgy colors. No multiplayer option was available, only single player. And worst of all, the draw distance was surprisingly short, causing entire chunks of the environment to “pop up” during a race. Alongside Virtua Fighter’s glitchy polygon graphics, here was convincing proof that Saturn was a wreck of a machine, and nowhere near the sleek and polished performance of the Playstation.

This game quickly became Sega’s whipping boy among detractors in the press and the industry. Namco’s Ridge Racer on Playstation, meanwhile, was smooth, fast, quick on its feet and nearly identical to the arcade. It was a showpiece for Playstation’s 3D graphics and demonstrated the future of video games. In the arena of public opinion, there was no competition which game was better.

I’ve been hearing that schpiel since 1995. And to that, I say: you’re outta yer damned minds.

Back in those days, I often made the comparison to Velma and Daphne. Daphne was the pretty one, the popular one, the girl who always got to sneak away with Fred in the back of the Mystery Machine van. But Velma was the smart one, and she had greater depth. She’s the girl you really wanna take home.

Daytona USA is rough around the edges, there’s no denying that. It’s also a spectacular arcade racing game that captures the feel of its coin-op cousin better than any home translation that followed. The cars handle like greased lightning, fast and nimble and always bouncing. There’s a great sense of speed and momentum in the movements, and a great sense of traction to the handling. Even the way the cars bounce on their suspensions feels just right. Powersliding is slightly challenging but an essential skill to master, and once you’ve made your way through a few races it becomes second nature.

There are three great gameplay features that Ridge Racer could never touch. One, Daytona’s cars can take damage, from minor bumps and scrapes to full-on smashed frames. Two, the damage affects the cars’ handling, which forces you to change your driving tactics (there’s no time for a pit stop, so forget about that option). Three, there are crashes. Lots and lots of spectacular crashes.

One of the great thrills of Saturn Daytona is learning how to deliberately cause car crashes that turn into 20-car pileups. If can hit a car in just the right way and the right angle, you can cause him to swerve just a little, and if this happens in a very large crowd of cars, can trigger a massive chain reaction of crashes and collisions. My favorite moments in Daytona involve tackling that final turn at Sonic Mountain while dodging cars that are falling out of the sky in all directions. The trick is to play at the highest difficulty level and the highest computer AI level. Now the cars won’t merely try to outrace you, they’ll try to kill you. Game on.

Has there ever been a more perfectly balanced trio of race tracks than the once found in Daytona USA? Each course features subtleties and surprises, moments where you can sit back and relax, others where you must hit just the right spot at just the right speed. The “easy” track has that second turn that can surprise you if you’re not paying attention, and Sonic Mountain which requires a powerslide right into the inside edge of the road. The “medium” track has a nasty s-curve just before entering the tunnel that easily end in rollover crashes, and a series of three powerslide turns waiting on the other side. The “hard” track is my absolute favorite of them all, requiring all of your skills and techniques to win. You’re never more than two seconds away from danger at all times. It took me forever to master all the powerslide turns on the second half, as you hop from one highway to the next while driving around the pier.

Arcade mode is endless fun, but Saturn mode is where all the real action takes place, as you can unlock many hidden cars with their own performance and handling stats. Some work better than others, and I remember deliberately crashing at least one of them so they could drive better. And the best “hidden” car of them all: the horses. Have you ever raced a better vehicle than these horses? Of course not.

Finally, one cannot mention Daytona USA without praising the music, which is glorious, catchy and cheesy all at once. It’s completely absurd and yet you’re singing along with a stupid grin on your face. It’s pure Sega. You should get yourself a Nakamichi cassette deck and start making mixtapes.

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