In Japan, the PlayStation 2 era was a fantastic time for budget-priced, arcade-style releases.
D3 Publisher is the indisputed master of janky but charming budget fare in this period of gaming history thanks to its expansive Simple Series, but they didn’t keep this knowledge and experience to themselves. They actually collaborated with Sega on a project dubbed “3D Ages” (“Sega D3” backwards) which ultimately resulted in the Sega Ages 2500 collection — a range of games that retailed for 2500 yen each (about £17.50 in today’s money) and encompassed a variety of remakes of Sega’s classic arcade and console titles.
We didn’t see a lot of these games in the West, but we were fortunate enough to get a cool compilation of them bundled together on a single PS2 disc in the form of the Sega Classics Collection. So let’s take a look at exactly what’s on offer, beginning with Monaco GP.
First released in 2003 as volume 2 of the Sega Ages 2500 collection, Monaco GP was developed by Tamsoft as a reimagining of Sega’s classic 1979 arcade machine of the same name. Although primarily known for brawlers such as the Senran Kagura series and action RPG Neptunia spinoffs today, Tamsoft was a mainstay of the budget games development scene throughout the PS2 era, often working with D3 on both Simple Series and Sega Ages 2500 titles.
The original Monaco GP was an interesting piece of gaming and technology history: while resembling what we recognise as an arcade machine today, it was one of Sega’s last arcade releases that actually didn’t have a conventional central processing unit, instead making use of logic circuits and custom ROM chips. It also displayed the player’s score and time remaining on LED displays around the screen rather than as part of the game view itself, giving the whole cabinet a very distinctive look and feel, even today — as well as making it nigh-impossible to emulate and create an “arcade-perfect” experience.
The gameplay of Monaco GP was extremely simple. Unfolding from a top-down perspective, all you had to do was avoid other cars and obstacles in an attempt to survive as long as possible. Your initial aim was to score 2,000 points before a timer expired, at which point the game became more difficult and you gained a stock of “lives” instead of the timer. You can crash as many times as you like while the timer is ticking, but once your lives appear, you can only explode your car that many times before your game is over. This structure would later be lifted almost completely wholesale by Bally Midway for their 1983 title Spy Hunter.
Despite being based on primitive hardware, Monaco GP had some interesting elements to it. While the road itself was completely straight, variety was added through its constantly changing width, patches of ice (indicated by a blue road surface) and dark tunnels, in which you could only see by the light of your car’s headlights. Once the timer expired, the game also added additional hazards to the mix such as narrow bridges, truly challenging you to maintain control of your car in increasingly difficult circumstances.
Tamsoft’s reimagining of the game for the Sega Ages 2500 series is surprisingly substantial. Not only does it include a version of the original arcade game with enhanced graphics (and a score multiplied by a factor of 10 from the 1979 original for some reason), it also provides a new mode with additional mechanics and controls as well as a multiplayer mode for up to four participants using the PlayStation MultiTap. Sadly, it does not provide a direct port of the original arcade game as seen in an earlier Japan-only Saturn-based Sega Ages release, but there’s plenty here to enjoy regardless.
The game’s Arcade mode can be played with either Classic or Original variants. Classic mode mimics the original arcade machine with a mostly straight road (albeit with a few lateral shifts to the left and right) and crashes that are immediately fatal. Original mode, meanwhile, adds 45- and 90-degree corners to the mix, which must be steered around using the shoulder buttons on the controller. This is less confusing than it might sound — you are given plenty of advance warning of impending bends, and your car “snaps” around the corner immediately rather than you having to “turn” as such. You can also take a few hits before exploding in Original mode, making it a bit easier to survive once the timer expires.
Also new to the Original mode are collectible items on the track. Stars increase your speed, score you points and provide you with a temporary boost if you collect five in a row while at your normal top speed. Item boxes, meanwhile, provide you with various benefits — or sometimes hindrances — such as a turbo boost, the ability to make your car larger (and thus easier to barge other cars out of the way) and a powerful jumping ability.
If you want a bit more of a traditional race than the score-based affair that is Arcade mode, you can also play the Original variant as a simple one-off Time Attack or as a Grand Prix, where you compete in a series of two-lap races against the clock. The final of each difficulty tier sees you facing off against a challenging Rival opponent; beat them as well as the timer and you unlock their car to make use of in the other modes from that point onwards.
The 15 tracks on offer have a nice amount of variety to them, each having their own “theme” of scenery surrounding the track as well as unique twists on the base formula. The “Sea” track, for example, as well as being a lot twistier than some of the earlier courses, unfolds on a raised causeway with no barriers, meaning failing to respond to a corner quickly enough — or mistiming a jump! — will see you landing unceremoniously in the ocean.
It would have been easy for Tamsoft to churn out a straightforward version of Monaco GP with enhanced graphics and call it a day. But the PlayStation 2 release actually has a good amount of substance and longevity to it, making it more than just a simple quick-hit arcade experience — although it can, of course, be enjoyed in that way too.
What we ended up with here is a very interesting — and, dare I say it, unique — take on the arcade racing genre that remains fun to play today, paying respectful homage to the original while bringing it rather more up to date with its more modern mechanics.
It’s a good start to the Sega Ages 2500 range, in other words — and a fine addition to the Sega Classics Collection release we got here in the West.
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