V.R. Virtua Racing (1995, Time Warner Interactive for Sega Saturn)
I had a lot of fun playing Virtua Racing on Sega Saturn. I was a big fan of the arcade version, and while the home translations on Genesis and 32X had their quirks, they never quite captured the whole experience for me. This third attempt is much better, and I spent many chilly afternoons in the snowy winter of 1995. I wasn’t sure how well the experience would hold up when I played again for this review, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was still hooked. If I only had more time to kill, I’d definitely be on the couch, working my way through another marathon race or two.
V.R. Virtua Racing on Saturn wasn’t programmed by Sega, but instead handed to Time Warner Interactive, otherwise known as Atari Games/Tengen. These folks were some of the greatest American videogame designers of their era, with an endless supply of classic hits on arcade and home systems. For this home version, they wisely expand the arcade experience with a new career mode that offers a total of ten courses and five vehicle classes. You begin the lowest circuit, and after accumulating enough racing points, you can graduate to the next class, where the vehicles are faster and the drivers more aggressive. You begin with kart racers, which is surprisingly fun, then move up to stock cars, 1960s race cars, prototype cars and then the Formula-1 cars from the arcade.
You are free to choose any of the ten racetracks in career mode, and each race lasts ten laps. This feels almost torturous when you’re starting out with the karts, especially when you have already pulled ahead of the pack before the end of the first lap. It’s a bit monotonous here, but I promise that the action seriously picks up speed when you graduate to the stock cars. From that point forward, you’ll need those ten laps to catch up with the lead drivers. Heck, you’re going to struggle just to maintain a respectable position in fifth or sixth place. The rival cars are relentless and you’re going to have your hands full keeping them off your back bumper.
The track designs in this game are simply spectacular, and TW/Atari did an exemplary job understanding what made the original Sega courses work and built on those strengths. The Alpine course is my personal favorite, with a nice tunnel after the first turn and a series of corners you can just powerslide through like lightning. The Surfer, DIablo and Metropolis courses are also quite excellent, offering a fine balance in difficulty, twists and turns, dips and hills, and little touches like polygon Moai heads and snowmen that lie off the side of the road.
It’s really the steering and controls that make Saturn Virtua Racing shine. There’s a certain method to proper digital controls in racing videogames, with the right combination of traction and responsiveness, of being able to make a turn at top speed while knowing when to let your finger off the gas pedal and when to tap the brakes, and these programmers just nailed it. I also greatly enjoy the moments when you can send your vehicle flying over a hill, leaping over opposing cars. You can see the seeds of the San Francisco Rush series in these moments. Speed, precision, and just a little bit of good luck, it’s all here.
The polygon visuals are a little rough and painted with thick brushstrokes, much like Sega’s Daytona USA that same year. Because of this, it can be difficult to see the track ahead with in the two closest viewing angles. The third angle, which puts the camera above the back bumper, is the best one to use. Don’t bother with the others. Fortunately, the frame rate is solid without any choking or stuttering, and the polygon “pop-in” is kept at a respectable distance. That said, I would really like to see Sega offer a modern remake with true high resolution graphics and 60 frames per second. Okay, just release it on Dreamcast like you should have done and we’ll never ask for another thing again.
For me, Virtua Racing sits in my Saturn racing top three, alongside Daytona USA and Sega Rally. Thankfully, you can score a physical copy for little money, and the Japanese version is identical to the US one, even down to the English text and voiceovers. This title was given respectable reviews in the prozines back in ’95, but hasn’t kept up with most Saturn fans over the years. Yes, the graphics could have been a bit more refined, but once you’ve committed to the career mode and graduated to the second and third classes, you’ll be hooked for life.