Sega Rally Championship (Sega AM3 for Sega Saturn)
The Sega Saturn had its best holiday season in 1995, with the spectacular 1-2-3 punch of Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally Championship, and Virtua Cop. The console was almost immediately written off in favor of Sony’s Playstation, and that first months as a Saturn owner was rough. These three games were just about the best to ever grace the console, and immediately renewed our faith. For a short while, Saturn had the best fighter, the best racer, and the best shoot-em-up. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t believe Playstation ever beat these three.
Ah, well, PSX won out with practically everything else. But there was still a spirit of competition in 1995. We were hoping for a repeat of the classic console war between Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Sadly, it was not to be, but that had more to do with the evolution of videogames into 3D and the rising dominance of polygon graphics. PSX was the future, while Saturn had one foot planted in the 2D past, which found itself suddenly out of fashion.
Saturn’s reputation is far better today, especially when you can download all those excellent import games that were never allowed to be seen in the US. Probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference, anyway, but perhaps Saturn could have build a solid and profitable niche. Who knows?
In any case, Sega Rally Championship is one of Saturn’s finest hours. It’s easily the best racing title on the system, which became very frustrating to fans like me. I have no idea why the graphics engine wasn’t ported around and used in a dozen other videogames. Sega kept to a rigorous pattern of repeating 1995 every Christmas: fighting game, racing game, light gun game. The fighting titles improved, even if they leaned too heavily on the Virtua Fighter brand, and Virtua Cop 2 was simply spectacular — the rail car shootout remains unsurpassed for thrills and spills. But the racing hits were far and few between, and most that were released were disappointments: Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition, Manx TT, Sega Touring Car Championship.
Sega Rally is intelligent, brilliant, requires a lot of planning and heavy thinking, and definitely many replays. It’s a very short game, like most racers of the 32-bit era, but you always wanted one more try. Rally racing was new, and the thrill of leaping across mud, dirt, water, and pavement was new, exciting. These four courses were densely packed with details, and required different enough skills to always keep you on your toes.
What makes this videogame special is the vehicle’s handling. No other videogame captures the nuances of driving on multiple surfaces so perfectly. Racing over concrete is different from racing over dirt or mud; the tires and suspension react differently, the steering requires different levels of pressure. You can almost feel the grooves in the dirt as you blaze through a medium turn. Most racers never bother to capture the full experience, pretending that a car has one large, imaginary wheel under the middle of the chassis. You can tell the difference (it’s the one thing that annoys me about Excite Truck on Nintendo Wii). Only Sega AM3 got it right,
Desert is the easiest course, and probably the most fun because of all the mud. There are a series of leaps that land you in puddles that is thrilling, especially when you’re fighting against opposing cars. This is especially fun in two-player mode, and is also greatly improved in “reverse” mode, which was a common method to squeeze more mileage out of the same racetracks.
Forest stage has all those magnificent pine trees, a sharp turn into a tunnel, and a rough hard right hairpin nearby a mountain. Each of these challenges are harder to navigate, and all the more satisfying. It’s less a battle against the other drivers than the elements. This is an excellent example of racetrack design during the 32-bit era. Graphics were not advanced enough to render long horizons without the dreaded “pop-up” effect, where large chunks of the backgrounds would suddenly pop into view. Daytona USA became the whipping boy for this effect. Designers got around this problem by creating winding, churning courses, one that required new thrills every other second. It’s a hallmark of Sega Rally Championship, and it’s also a hallmark to the Psygnosis masterpiece Wipeout, arguably the other truly great video racing game of the era.
Mountain course was the hardest, no question about that. It looked spectacular, with its crowded city streets, cobblestone bricks, and towering mountains. There’s another nasty hairpin turn that can leave you in the bushes, gasping for air. The streets are also very narrow, which leads to some great jostling among vehicles. This is a great course for knocking your opponent around, and I can only imagine what it would be like to have more players racing at once (multiplayer is strictly limited to two cars). Four or eight racers would be spectacular, in fact, Sega would be wise to reissue the original Sega Rally with more players. But the franchise has moved on with several sequels, none of which ever seem to have the impact of the original. Funny, that.
Finally, there is the Lakeside stage, the bonus track awarded for winning the rally race. It’s not as overly punishing as the mountain stage, just a series of endless sharp turns on narrow dirt roads with hard banks on all sides. Smacking your car into the sides is frustrating, but with enough practice, you can master your timing and sail through without a hitch. If you can make it to the finish line in one piece, you’ve earned some primo bragging rights.
I also love this stage’s wonderful autumnal setting, with leaves turning colors, and ducks flying about the lake. Sega Rally always looks so spectacular. Every single detail stands out, boldly, confidently. Sega clearly needed to get past Saturn’s shaky start; the first wave of videogames were plagued with glitchy graphics, and the reputation as a difficult console with half-assembled parts proved crippling. Sega worked themselves to the bone to demonstrate Saturn’s strengths in 3D. Sega Rally is one of their finest examples.
Sega Rally Championship is a hallmark of the classic arcade racer. These are the real videogames, purely focused on the immediate moment, concerned only about delivering the thrills and spills. Today’s games are obsessed with copying bad Hollywood movies; even the racing games are saddled with corny plots and ham-fisted, poorly acted dialog. I honestly don’t see the point in all of this. I’m not playing Sega Rally because I want to reenact the experience of watching the Fast and Furious movies. I’m playing Sega Rally because I want the excitement of racing a small car across deserts and through city streets. I just want to get my kicks and I want them now.
I’ve long believed that Sega Rally was the best racing title of the 32-bit era, and while there’s some excellent competition — the Wipeout series, Mario Kart 64, F-Zero X, Daytona USA — this one has always been my favorite.
Oh finally, before I forget: “Game Over, Yeah!” Is the best ending music in the history of videogames. I’ll probably request that it’s played at my funeral. I’ll bet money some of you will as well. Be honest.