3D had already been done many times before Virtua Racing came along – just look at Atari’s arcade game I, Robot or The Sentinel‘s tense puzzle-action on various home computers, both displaying colourful worlds made of filled polygons as far back as the 1980s – but it was Sega’s 1992 Model 1 racer that marked a true turning point in gaming history. The game redefined what mattered, what was possible. Virtua Racing wasn’t a wild experiment, something so unique everyone could see it was an evolutionary dead-end before it had even been finished, nor was it a great idea locked away inside prohibitively expensive arcade cabinets nobody outside a handful of people would ever get to play.
Virtua Racing was the future, now.
And somehow, the game knew it. Tunnels and bridges are placed just so, casting shadows on the racers passing through them in a way that simply wasn’t possible on any other hardware. The birds milling around the Bay Bridge track’s start line, patiently waiting to take off in unison as the lights turn green, serve no purpose other than to inspire awe. Dedicated camera buttons encourage players to give them a curious prod, which in turn quietly prove that none of the on-screen action is being faked – and also suggests that controlling (as limited as it was) a working camera in a 3D environment was literally as easy as pushing a button. Legendary developer AM2 didn’t just want this to look good, they wanted it to look easy.
Even at home and years later Virtua Racing, in its budget FlatOut form on a once-rival manufacturer’s hardware, is an astonishing sight. The rawness of its bare flat-shaded polygons possess an “honest” quality to them more natural looking digital landscapes with their complex textures and smoothed edges lack, as if we’re somehow peeking behind the wizard’s curtain and getting a little closer to the silicon and circuitry powering these sights than we would otherwise be.
The number of tracks boasting this fantastic retro-future look has been doubled over the arcade original, with FlatOut offering six different locations to race through. Better still, the three additional tracks are truly new and not pulled from either the 32X or Saturn remakes of the game. Considering the small scope and very real restrictions the Sega Ages 2500 Series developers were working under these extras look and feel remarkably authentic, each one packed with beautiful sweeping curves past unique architecture and tight bends designed to challenge even the most skilled [Virtua] racers. Small and easily excised flourishes from the arcade game survive intact – “shards” of grass appear should you skid onto the sides of the track, heavy braking leaves thick grey lines in the asphalt, and the trackside detail remains as dense as it always has been. Some subtle new touches have been added too: a few minimalist texture “cheats” save a few triangles here and there, and there’s now a slight sheen to the car’s paintwork that delicately updates the iconic angular look without making any attempt to soften those stark shadows or bright colours.
There are even a few new vehicles to drive, from sensible variations on classic Formula 1 racing cars to an old-timey Bentley(ish) model, and they can optionally all be steered using the GT Force wheel – a premium racing wheel for the PlayStation 2 with true force feedback (as opposed to simple rumble) and dedicated pedals.
I wanted one so bad. I still want one. I should buy one today. If you have one, I am jealous of you.
However you choose to steer your car, you’ll soon realise how “wrong” the handling is when compared to other PlayStation 2 racers or even the likes of Stunt Car Racer. This is racing to rules – like Ridge Racer – and Virtua Racing always obeys its rules no matter what. Crashes are rote animations played out in response to any and all “we see you’ve lost control of your vehicle” situations, the car pirouetting in the air before landing flat on the floor facing the right direction in a way that defies both physics and common sense. Tapping another car causes a very specific sort of spin. Hitting that bend at that speed and at that angle will always feel like silk.
There are plenty of modes to experience this merrily 90s style of unrealism in: Arcade mode is virtually untouched, right down to the course select screen. The new Grand Prix mode offers a slightly more involved challenge, asking players to race through every course and earn points as they go based on where they finish. This championship loops over several times at increasing difficulties until the credits roll (thankfully you can take a break pretty much whenever you need to, as the game saves your progress after each race). Finally there’s Free Play, which works exactly as you’d expect it to – pick a track, then alter various settings to your liking, and then race to your heart’s content.
Two of Free Play’s settings affect the time and the weather. The first can be flipped between day and evening, the latter fine or cloudy. No combination of these have any impact on the race conditions, but they do manage to make even Forest’s familiar surroundings look fresh and new, with evening’s deep orange sunsets looking particularly good on every track. Cloudy avoids adding an N64-like fog and instead makes everything dull and grey – not a look I’ve ever hoped a Sega racing game would have, but if nothing else it makes me appreciate the other two options even more.
FlatOut is a wholly successful attempt to bring an arcade classic home and then carefully augment it with worthwhile features that expand on the original experience without chipping away at the core game’s appeal. It’s fair to say that the (very welcome) Switch port of Virtua Racing by M2 renders this version of the game (and the arcade version too) largely obsolete. This isn’t as perfect a home port as that is – not that this ever had the time, budget, hardware, or additional years of expertise to make that possible – but on the other hand I’m willing to bet that won’t be as accessible as this is almost twenty years after its debut either.