The Nintendo Switch has seen a real renaissance for classic-era Sega.
The launch of the Sega Ages collection on the platform has brought a host of the company’s most beloved titles to a whole new audience. Even better, these releases have brought these titles up to date with modern conveniences without sacrificing what made the originals great in the first place; a true example of “enhanced retro” at work.
The latest title from Sega’s golden age to get this treatment is Virtua Racing, so let’s take a look at where this influential title came from… and how the Nintendo Switch incarnation honours its legacy.
Virtua Racing released to arcades in 1992 and was a landmark title for numerous reasons. It was by no means the first polygonal racing game out there — in that regard, it was beaten to the punch by Namco’s Winning Run (1988) and Atari’s Hard Drivin’ (1989) in the arcades and Geoff Crammond’s seminal Stunt Car Racer for home computers (also 1989) — but it did play a pivotal role in popularising the use of real-time 3D graphics rather than bitmaps and scaling sprites.
More specifically, it’s the reason that Sega’s “Model” series of arcade hardware exists; Virtua Racing was originally intended as nothing more than a proof of concept for the first iteration of this hardware, but was deemed so impressive that it was developed into a full game and released to the public.
The Model 1 hardware would subsequently go on to power the well-regarded Star Wars Arcade and Virtua Fighter as well as the lesser-known R360-compatible flight sim Wing War and virtual reality title Dennou Senki Net Merc, and the Model series’ later iterations would bring us a host of all-time Sega classics including Daytona USA, Virtual On and The House of the Dead. Quite the legacy, and it all began with Virtua Racing.
The man behind this new hardware was none other than Yu Suzuki, who had been spearheading technological innovations at Sega — particularly in the field of 3D graphics, or the illusion thereof — since he joined the company in 1983. If you can name an impressive Sega arcade title from the ’80s or early ’90s, then chances are Suzuki had something to do with it, with his most well-known work prior to Virtua Racing including all-time classics Hang-On, Out Run, After Burner and Space Harrier.
Virtua Racing was different, though; while Suzuki’s aforementioned titles had created the illusion of 3D through smooth sprite and bitmap scaling, this was a jump to true three-dimensional, solid graphics. And, while this had been done before in the earlier polygonal titles, Virtua Racing beat them all in terms of polygon count, frame rate, draw distance, scene complexity and the presence of 3D human characters — something which even the most talented 3D programmers had seemingly struggled with prior to this. The aim was total immersion; the abbreviations for Virtua Racing and virtual reality both being “VR” was no coincidence.
Virtua Racing itself can be seen as something of an evolution of Sega’s Monaco GP series, with the quarter-circle rev counter in the top-left of the game screen bearing a particularly uncanny resemblance to that found in 1989’s Super Monaco GP. Structurally, it’s quite traditional; it’s very much an old school “timer and checkpoints” racer, though you do have other racers to contend with, and your position in the pack tends to correspond roughly to how likely you are to finish before time expires.
There are three courses in the game: a beginner’s circuit that features an animated polygonal amusement park as its main distinguishing feature; an intermediate circuit that features a large bridge inspired by Bay Bridge in California; and an expert circuit that features an incredibly tight 180-degree hairpin. This latter structure would have been impossible to create using the earlier “vanishing point” method of drawing roads using converging lines, and was thus a good demonstration of what polygons brought to the table.
The “Virtua” part of Virtua Racing primarily revolved around the fact that the real-time 3D graphics allowed for players to switch between four different views of the action using coloured buttons in the cabinet. The default was a chase camera situated behind the car, which made the game resemble earlier arcade racers, at least in terms of perspective, but players also had the opportunity to use two higher-angle shots to see more of the upcoming track ahead of them as well as a cockpit view in which they could see working instruments and a polygonal driver’s arms wrestling with the steering wheel.
One of the coolest things about the ability to switch camera angles in this way was that the game did so smoothly; when switching to cockpit view, for example, the camera would sweep down and pass through the back of the driver’s head until you were in the driving seat, similarly to how the earlier sprite-based G-LOC had transitioned between its After Burner-style chase camera and its in-cockpit view. When just switching viewing angles is fun, you’re probably on to a winner.
The game could be played solo, but part of the appeal in the arcades was the fact it most commonly tended to come in a two-seater cabinet, which allowed for two players to race one another as well as the clock. Later hardware iterations included a “DX” (Deluxe) sit-down cabinet featuring the first use of a 16:9 widescreen monitor in an arcade game as well as seven airbags beneath the seat that nudged the player around while cornering and braking. But probably the most impressive incarnation of Virtua Racing was its 1993 rebrand as Virtua Formula, which came in full-size, hydraulically actuated Formula One car replicas in front of 50-inch screens. Most of these were subsequently converted into machines that ran Sega’s 1995 Model 2 game Indy 500.
All of these different incarnations of Virtua Racing could be networked together using fibre-optic cables to allow up to eight players to race simultaneously; interestingly, there was also the option to add a separate “Live Monitor” setup for spectators to admire the action from TV-style replay angles, complete with a vague attempt at live commentary by a character known as “Virt McPolygon”.
All this might paint a picture of an experience best had in the sweaty depths of an arcade, and to an extent that would be an accurate assumption, but even leaving all its fancy cabinet gimmicks aside, Virtua Racing was still a very solid, enjoyable game. A core difference between it and its aforementioned polygonal predecessors was that it didn’t forget that the best arcade racers are thrilling and accessible rather than necessarily realistic; Hard Drivin’ and Stunt Car Racer in particular leaned quite hard on the “sim” angle, and as such had much less in the way of immediacy. Hard Drivin’ even had a clutch pedal to contend with, for heaven’s sake.
But no. Virtua Racing was all about slamming down the accelerator pedal, screeching around corners and only braking if you absolutely had to. Its steering was deliberately twitchy and overly responsive, the action was fast and intense and the whole thing moved like the bloody clappers.
This solid core gameplay, as you might expect, makes it eminently suitable for home conversions, as while you lose the sensation of seven airbags gently massaging your buttocks as you plough into the wall on Acropolis for the umpteenth time, anyone can enjoy some good, simple, straightforward racing action. And indeed there have been quite a few home ports over the years, beginning with a Mega Drive port in 1994 that remains a stunning technological accomplishment to this day; a 32X version with additional cars and tracks; a Saturn version with seven new courses and four new cars plus a multi-stage Grand Prix mode; a PlayStation 2 remake called Virtua Racing: FlatOut as part of the Sega Classics Collection compilation; and, most recently at the time of writing, a Nintendo Switch port.
Compared to some of the previous home versions, the Nintendo Switch port is pretty no-frills in terms of basic content: it includes just the three tracks from the original arcade version, and none of the challenges added in later ports. It also provides the option for two players to connect online to race one another, online leaderboards with downloadable replays, and an astonishing eight-player split-screen mode that uses four pairs of Joy-Cons.
Where the Switch version shines is in its “enhanced retro” aspect. The visuals haven’t been fundamentally changed from their original low-poly, untextured arcade incarnations — and the interface elements remain delightfully sharp-edged and pixelated — but they have been upscaled to full 1080p and run at a beautifully slick 60 frames per second, making for an experience which is considerably better than what the original arcade machine’s 496×384 display offered!
The Switch version also allows you to switch from the normal 5-lap format to a 20-lap “Grand Prix” endurance race, during which your tyres will gradually wear out, causing your cornering performance to suffer until you make a pit stop to replace them. There’s no on-screen visual indicator of tyre wear occurring; you have to do it entirely by “feel”, and it’s testament to the game’s excellently responsive controls that you really can feel when something’s wrong.
The Grand Prix mode also seemingly features much more aggressive computer-controlled opponents; you’ll really have to fight to take first place in this style of race, and even harder to keep first place once you’ve got it. Time that pit stop carefully!
The lack of career mode or any sort of long-term structure beyond simply attempting to beat your best times, top the leaderboards or complete the challenging Grand Prix races may put some people off, but interestingly, many of the earlier home ports of Virtua Racing were actually criticised at their time of release for adding too much on top of the simple core of the arcade original. What we have here is what people have apparently wanted for a long time: a simple, straightforward, no-nonsense port of an influential classic.
And it works. This is a game that demands no commitment from you and is ready to play and enjoy at a moment’s notice. Sometimes you don’t need long-term goals and a game structure that requires a considerable time investment to get the most out of it. Sometimes you just want to be a racing driver for five minutes. And that instant, immediate thrill is exactly what this excellent port of Virtua Racing provides.
Also it’s, like, six quid. What are you waiting for?
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