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Remembering… Sega Rally

It was the camera! There, I said it. The absolute and unequivocal reason Sega Rally was the best arcade racer of all time comes down to one of the most overlooked aspects of the genre. How we view the on-screen dramatics has such an impact on our overall interpretation of our performance. Sega Rally has a loose and forgiving camera, a camera which allows you to both moderate your distance from the clipping point of an apex and yet allow you enough time to admire how sumptuous your drifting technique had become. It was a patient camera which was in no rush to snap back behind the rear spoiler in an attempt to stoically ruin all your fun. Others may argue that Sega Rally’s greatness was due to a composition of equally important characteristics which built towards a particular degree of greatness present in none but the upper echelons of racing games.

Rubbish – it was the camera.

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Sega Rally has become the benchmark for arcade racing, a genre which is much more complex and well balanced than given credit for. Unlike simulation games, arcade racers need to rely on the enjoyment of the core mechanics to add longevity as opposed to the statistical quagmire imposed upon the player in other titles. On the surface, Sega Rally has two cars, three tracks and very little else. Initially things look fairly bleak. The graphics are a-typical of Sega: blocky and colourful, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sonic the Hedgehog was reading the pace notes in the Lancia Delta. It’s not until you crest the first sweeping left-hander do you notice the intuitive and responsive controls that just lean on the right side of floaty, but can be adjusted with little more than a twitch of the wheel. The early courses deliver you from one corner to the next with little challenge, feeding you along the racing line and mopping up your mistakes with wide tracks and positive camber. It was difficult not to look cool playing Sega Rally.

The game had very few options to play with or adjust. Tinkering with suspension travel or toe angle was out of the question. In actuality there was little to separate the two vehicles at all. A slight difference in the handling/speed equilibrium was mooted on several occasions, but it was never really noticeable. Vehicle choice came down to one decision – which car looked cooler. The Celica was shapely and slim: an iconic representation of rallying perfection for a pre-pubescent race fan. Posters of the Celica hung off bedroom walls and groups of lads lustfully cooed when one growled past in the street. The Delta looked like a Volkswagen Polo and was sponsored by Martini – my Grandmother drank Martini. I favoured the Toyota.

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Sega Rally’s major competitor for my adoration in the local arcade was Daytona USA. Streamlined and professional, Daytona stood out from the pack thanks to its linked cabinets and garish, Americana aesthetic. It was a show-off and a bully and it had an awful camera. After much deliberation, I began to favour Sega Rally. Daytona felt stale, forced even. In justification of my decision I would claim that Daytona USA was like playing with Scalextrix, whilst Sega Rally was like playing with a radio control car. It had fewer boundaries and greater scope for mistakes and creativity. I imagine I was largely an unpopular child, especially whilst in an arcade.

I had an unbridled passion for Sega Rally, which became truly relentless one Christmas when I received the arcade conversion for my Sega Saturn. I became a compulsive recluse whose motor functions had been reduced to quick flicks of thumbs and index-fingers. My addiction to time trails was utterly debilitating. I had no good reason to crave perfection and I had no ultimate goal but to better my fastest lap. I forget what eventually broke me from my trance (possibly Die Hard Arcade) but Sega Rally had left an indelible blotch on my concept of greatness. From that moment on I became a more focussed gamer, no longer too impressed with the aesthetics and design of a game but utterly fixated on gameplay. I was irrevocably altered by Sega Rally.

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In the years that followed and long after I’d sold my Saturn (foolish, foolish boy!) I tried to fill the void left by Sega Rally, in many ways I’m still looking. Colin McRae Rally came close, but it lacked the impact and urgency I required. The courses were long and almost impossible to learn, meaning perfection was never particularly viable. Oddly I did find my lust for speed quelled slightly by the Wipeout franchise. With an utter disregard of the combative element of the career races, I headed directly to the time trial mode. A perfect lap was not only attainable, but recognized and encouraged by the game. Thrust pads dotted along the track not only gave your craft a sudden boost of speed, but acted as a map of the racing line. Studious adherence to these markers became a passion of mine; a commitment to my dedication to the cult that was arcade racing. To think that all of this self-flagellation happened before the invention of achievements and trophies is now quite bewildering to me.

Due to the quality of the conversion, Sega Rally became the poster boy for the Sega Saturn. The image of the eternal dual between Delta and Celica has been engrained in videogame history: an icon for the purity of arcade racing. Its popularity in the arcade was undoubted and was the smartest way to blow a fist-full of pound coins in twenty minutes. However, this riotous rush of adrenalin wouldn’t always satisfy the home console market and as time wore on gamers began to crave depth and longevity from their racing games. Gran Turismo was in many ways the antithesis of Sega Rally despite its obvious attempt to satiate the arcade racer scene. With Gran Turismo my thirst for speed could be united with an encyclopaedic knowledge of modern-day car design and insightful reams of academic race theory. Times had changed, but my teenage exuberance for racing had remained. Throwing a car round a track was not enough for me any more; I demanded statistics, data analysis and the utter symbiosis of the composite parts which make up the ultimate driving machine.

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Sega Rally remains one of my gaming highlights. Whilst more impressive in an arcade environment, the Saturn conversion is still regarded as one of the smoothest transitions from cabinet to console to this day. As consoles became more and more technologically advanced, so did gamers expectations of the compatible software. This lead to a great divide in the racing genre: a divide which is still present in one form or another today. What I’m sure all racing fans can agree is that the pure racing heart at the core of Sega Rally was carved out by a collection of supremely talented individuals. Understanding the enjoyment of shaving a hundredth of a second off a personal best is not an emotion shared by everyone. Those whose heartstrings begin tugging at even a whisper of the Lancia Stratos, however, can be safe in the knowledge that they are not alone in their love of Sega Rally.

With three tracks, two cars and one great camera arcade perfection was achieved. Who else but Sega?

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011. Get in touch on Twitter @RichJimMurph.

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