Sunday, 6 April 2014

Looking back: Virtua Racing

I must have been around ten at the time, on holiday in England. I'd gone to an arcade with my dad that evening, by the seaside in Sunderland. Seaside breeze refreshing the warm indoor air each time someone opened the huge glass doors with a a great ocean view. 1993 would be my guess, the year when the brand new Sega racing arcade machine arrived.

There were people crowded around it and an employee answering questions. Before me stood a scaled Formula 1 car body with a huge screen mounted at the front. Displayed, was a simple and clean 3D world. Visually it looked like a typical virtual reality game of it's time; no textures, just plain shaded polygons in various colours. I was only accustomed to seeing 2D racers at the time, scaling their sprites to give an impression of depth. It was something about how the game's 3D made the movement and rotation so much better and believable than 2D racers.

It just blew my young mind.

Just like you were really travelling through a virtual landscape. What I witnessed was something I will never forget; Virtua Racing. Sega's and the worlds, first commercially successful, fully polygon racing game. The version I witnessed was the top model housed in a deluxe, hydraulically powered, F1 chassis cabinet with a 50 inch screen, released a year after the initial 1992 launch in Japan.

Although this game left me with such an extraordinary impression, I never actually got to play it! I had to envious, but proudly, watch my dad play. Why, you may ask; my feet didn't reach the pedals...

Virtua Formula in all it's arcade glory, see it's SegaSonic logo!
A mor common twin arcade cabinet.
An 8-player setup featuring the live broadcast screens just visible on top.

A history lesson then; this was Sega's AM2 department's first try in polygon gaming. Gone were the 2D scaling sprites that had developed from the hugley successful OutRun (1986) up to advanced 32-bit racers like Power Drift (1988) and Rad Mobile (1990). The latter two using scaling and rotation of 2D sprites in such a manner they appeared almost 3D. Virtua Racing though, was different, it was entirely built from polygons. Even the pitcrew were polygon models! Both Namco and Atari had beaten Sega to the arcades with polygons, however they were far less advanced, contained sprites and were commercially not successful like VR. This was the game that would break the ice for 3D gaming and make it widespread. A new era in gaming began.

"Virtua Racing is regarded as one of the most influential video games of all time, for laying the foundations for subsequent 3D racing games and for popularizing 3D polygonal graphics among a wider audience." Wikipedia

The main producer behind the title, Yu Suzuki, is probably one of the most important people in gaming history. His diverse, technically impressive and ground breaking games have earned him much fame in the business. Apart from being behind one of the most loved franchises in history, the Shenmue games (brought to fame on the Sega Dreamcast), he was the man behind timeless Sega arcade classics such as 
Space Harrier (1985), Hang-On (1985), OutRun (1986), Afterburner (1987),  and Virtua Fighter (1993). To mention a few. The latter was a fighting game, also in full 3D, developed as an idea from the the fully animated pit crew in Virtua Racing.

After Virtua- Racing and Fighter, Yu Suzuki would go on to develop Daytona USA (1993), which would become the most successful arcade game ever developed. Further defining and influencing racing games for years after, even today we see those very foundations laid by Daytona USA being used in racing games.

Sega's master mind, Yu Suzuki. His games broke many boundaries.

Daytona USA was born from the Model 2 arcade board (ed. board, is referring to the main hardware board of an arcade cabinet, a generation of board was often used for a variety of titles) it featured fully textured polygons. Virtua Racing however, was a whole board generation before Daytona and as such is often forgotten.

VR ran on the Model 1 board to Sega, the first fully polygon capable board they produced together with what would later be a part of Lockheed Martin (yeah, the fighter jet manufactures!). Sega shifted from it's advanced 32-bit 2D sprite boards, which were superior compared to the 16-bit home consoles at the time, to Model 1. This board did not allow textures on the polygons, and as such, gave both Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter 1 a very clean and distinct graphical appearance, making them unique.

With a distinct arcade approach to handling, the game required a drift technique for cornering the fastest. There were various camera angles to choose from and a typical short list of tracks. Three in fact, each representing a difficulty level. Up to eight player cabinets could be combined for multiplayer races, featuring a special "live monitor" screen with a replay shots hosted by a sports announcer named "Virt McPolygon" during races. Built clearly for sports like events to be held in the arcades. Alhough here in Europe we mostly saw the twin and singleplayer cabinets. 

So does VR's simplicity hold up any interest today? I took the PS2 port out for a spin the other day. This version does have some slightly more detailed cars and 60fps (the arcade original only ran 30fps, though 60fps was mainly standard across arcade games before and after). I personally think it looks like a cool designed indie game by today's standards! I also own the downgraded Mega Drive/Genesis version, the one and only game on the system with a built-in enhancement graphics chip. Though this version is a fair more choppy and downgraded compared to the original, it still shows how immediate and simplistic the game is to get into.

The gameplay holds up well, even today. The controls and feeling of the car feel precise and have a nice drifty feeling to them. It's a testament to how good Sega were at creating racing games and made the jump from their 2D racing classics into 3D. Sega would the following year do with Daytona USA what Nintendo later did with Super Mario 64 in the platform genre; making a 3D game which redefined the genre and a traditional 2D series, and withstand the test of time. VR however may fall into the shadows, but will always remain an important new direction for Sega and be the true kickstart for the 3D push in gaming. A change that would change it forever, firstly for the arcade marked, but quicker than expected for Sega into the home market with Sony's PlayStation. But that's a history lesson for another day.

I'll give you  this great video of the PS2 version of VR in HD and let you enjoy the smoothness and basic polygon graphics of the early 90's. Put the video in HD and fullscreen, then tell me; doesn't it look, play and animate fantastic in it's own simplistic way? This will give you some sense of how it was to look at in 1992/1993:

Sega may be different and a shadow of it's mere self now, but make no mistake, their contribution to the development of the racing genre is, with no doubt, one of the most important and boundary breaking of all time. Virtua Racing was a key piece of this development and shouldn't be forgotten.

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