Kirby’s Dream Land and Alone in the Dark were brand new and completely unknown games, Zool (that Chupa-Chup hawking Ninja of the Nth Dimension) was parading around like the Amiga had found an answer to Sonic the Hedgehog, Alisia Dragoon left a very positive impression on a young Kimimi, and…
Virtua Racing heralded the dawn of a new arcade era.
Which feels like something of a hyperbolic statement for a game that’s had to wait twenty seven years to receive an excellent no-ifs-no-buts-no-compromises home port, all previous releases either being technically impressive but cut to the bone (that’ll be the Mega Drive’s “Dad I need £70 for a racing game” release) or in the case of the “sort of better but not really” 32X, Saturn, and PS2 ports not quite capturing the magical Sega essence of the arcade original. The fact that the 32X itself couldn’t even sell as many units as Atari’s Lynx during its doomed life and the 32-bit console era kicked off with a head-to-head battle against nothing less than Sega’s Daytona USA and Namco’s Ridge Racer (even if that initial Daytona USA port left something to be desired) certainly did Virtua Racing no favours, leaving any later ports of the game looking shamefully basic at a time when every magazine was busy running features on the importance and futuristic marvel of texture-mapped 3D graphics and real-time lighting effects in console games.
Back in the nineties this left Sega’s arcade racing game in an awkward place: It was too advanced for home consoles when it was the hottest game on earth, yet when more powerful hardware did come along a few years later they still weren’t enough to do the Model 1 original justice. Those naked flat-shaded models so proudly shown off in arcades across the world left no wriggle room for creative textures to mask or distract from the lack of raw polygons, never mind that nobody really wanted a lowly untextured racer on their cutting-edge £400 console even if it had been a perfect recreation anyway.
Imagine being left behind for being too advanced?
While it may have taken a very long wait, a Nintendo console (this will forever feel just a little strange to me), and nothing less than M2’s almost inhuman efforts, 2019 sees Virtua Racing finally receive the port it has always deserved – and of course it was never enough for a team famed for their attention to detail to simply dump a working ROM on the system and run off into the night which is why the graphical options on this release are…
Don’t panic! There may be none of the stretch/fill/CRT settings you’d find in many of their other releases but that’s because the game’s already as perfect and authentic as it can be, even on the Switch’s widescreen display. Here’s a handy fact for you: Although uncommon, Virtua Racing had a deluxe arcade cabinet variant that featured a “Wide Vision” display as well as those little airbags in the seat to simulate movement as found in other fancy Sega cabs, so that’s the version of the game you get here (minus the airbags, of course). You could say that as the 4:3 CRT Virtua Racing twin cabinet was the most common setup that should’ve been at least an alternative visual option if not the default, but it feels like a rather weak argument to me because Virtua Racing as presented here not only accurately mimics the very best original version of the arcade game but more importantly it just feels right, from that eye-catching attract sequence and the once-unique camera-changing VR buttons to the way I could still hit every turn in exactly the right spot in Big Forest on my first try, like I’d never been away.
Then, like beautiful icing on an already faultless cake, M2 added online racing, local eight player splitscreen, leaderboards with attached video replays, and a range of digital and analogue steering/acceleration configurations to suit just about everyone. Oh and a selection of screen layout options for those multiplayer sessions too – find it more comfortable to sit opposite rather than next to your friend while you race? M2’s got you covered.
So it’s authentic and then some – but is it still fun? There’s only one car and three tracks after all which in most modern racing games wouldn’t even be enough to fill out a beginner cup never mind be considered a complete premium arcade experience.
Except nobody could argue that those three tracks weren’t all unique, visually stunning, and perfectly tuned to the skill level they represent. I’d even go so far as to say the tracks have individual personalities; the way the angled sweeping curves of Big Forest’s second half give way to the wide right turn before the start/finish that invites you to bask in the glorious animated fairground that sweeps into your view, Bay Bridge’s narrow turns and imposing grey walls softened by the bobbing coconut trees and lazy windmills, the distinctive hairpin turn that rests at the very heart of the Acropolis track, the long straights before and after daring you to keep your foot down on the accelerator pedal for as long as possible.
This is what elevates Virtua Racing above the competition, that marriage of great track design with small details that absolutely don’t matter to the performance of the race itself but breathe so much life and excitement into the game that it just wouldn’t be the same thing without them. Nobody forgets zooming through the bright orange suspension bridge on Big Forest for the first time or doesn’t feel a tingle down their spine when the car’s engine noise suddenly takes on a different tone as you rush through Bay Bridge’s tunnel.
Those big expressive moments are just what you need to catch the eye of someone wandering around a noisy arcade and show off just how much more powerful your hardware is compared to everything around it (and justify the cost to the arcade’s operator). But there are plenty of smaller details that prove just how much craft and talent went into the game too – the birds that mill around on Bay Bridge’s starting grid before flying away at the start of the race, the way checkpoint flags flutter in the breeze against a Sega-blue sky, the sheep that run away if you mistime one corner on one track and end up on the grass. All of these things bring a lot of warmth and a particular identity to a style and genre that you would normally expect to lack these artistic flourishes.
And in some way the game needs those touches because Virtua Racing may make it look like you’re controlling an F1 car but in practise the handling’s not even close to pretending to be realistic, so anyone hoping to reminisce over Sonic-themed Williams cars or Geoff Crammond simulations needs to be wooed by other means. The good news is that what it lacks in realism it makes up for in, well, being “game-y”; there are clear and distinct responses in your car’s behaviour when you brake, turn, and crash, making for a readable and exhilarating ride for anyone regardless of their previous knowledge and experience with either F1 racing or the racing genre as a whole.
So there’s not much quantity in Virtua Racing but what is there has undoubtedly been polished to within an inch of its life, every last CPU car livery and pointy tree fussed over until it looked right, every turn tested until the tracks flowed like silk. This is a game that was always meant to live in arcades and in those spaces you need to create maximum interest in the shortest amount of time possible, that isn’t going to happen if starting a race involves comparing tyre compositions, race length options, and drilling down through a vast array of track types and weather conditions (not forgetting that your paying racing partner is going to want a say on those things too). So one track, three cars, and a very large map overlay means a quick glance and some vague memories will always point you in the right direction but you’re still not going to get anywhere near the top of the leaderboards unless you put in some serious practise either.
To my mind Virtua Racing is the purest form of 90’s arcade gaming; it’s noisy and bold and there is no way I can see that attract sequence without my mind wandering off to scan for a free seat and check my pocket for spare change. But while the game may look and feel like a fixed point in history you don’t have to be aware of its previous significance to appreciate or enjoy it, the raw-thrills racing still feels as fresh and accessible as it ever did.