Sega Rally Championship (Sega Saturn)

Sega Rally Championship for Sega Saturn

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.

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Gunstar Heroes (Sega Genesis)

Gunstar Heroes (Treasure for Sega Genesis)

Gunstar Heroes is just about the best videogame ever made for the Sega Genesis. It certainly symbolized everything that made Genesis so cool: terrific music, speed, innovation, and style, style, style. There is more style and clever ideas crammed into this game than in many consoles’ entire libraries, and I’m sure that sounds like some cheesy cliché, but this time it’s very true. Gunstar is the rightful heir to the greatest of all the run-and-gun shooters, Contra, filtered through 1990s pop culture, Japanese anime, channel surfing, and way too many explosions.

Here is a videogame where you face off against a giant bouncing cell with an enormous happy face. Here is a game where you venture through a giant dice maze. Here is a game where a villain, trapped on a burning train, hurls his own soldiers at you. In one of the early levels, you battle against suicide bombers, soldiers who set fire to houses, killer bees, flying drones, thugs who grab you from behind, and a creature, made entirely out of boxes, who attacks with the dragon punches and foot sweeps from Street Fighter 2.

That crazy sense of humor has since become a trademark quality of the game’s developer, a small Japanese studio named Treasure. The developers originally hailed from Konami during the 8- and 16-bit eras, and a number of them worked on many classics, although exactly which ones remain clouded in mystery. It’s commonly believed that they were responsible for Castlevania 4 and Contra 3 on the Super Nintendo (Gunstar’s first level is something of a homage to Contra 3), and possibly Bucky O’Hare in the arcades. I’ve heard assertions that some of these developers even worked on the original Castlevania and Contra, but I’m a little more skeptical. It’s all a part of the legend, I suppose.

In any case, these folks grew unhappy with having to churn out sequels and brand-name tie-ins. They wanted to break out and pursue their own original ideas. They wanted something new. So this small collection of programmers and artists left Konami and founded Treasure. They immediately set to work, churning out a number of games on Genesis; Gunstar Heroes was their first title.

Treasure immediately made an impact on the industry; with their first game, they demonstrated a technical brilliance and mastery of the Genesis. Truly Konami let some of their best talent slip out the door. Treasure also built up a fiercely loyal fan following, from fanzines (like mine) to magazines like Diehard Gamefan. To this day, you aren’t really considered a hardcore gamer if you don’t passionately love Treasure’s games.

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