When thinking of arcade based racing games, for most people, only one company comes to mind: Sega. From the domination of early title Out Run through Virtua Racing, Sega Rally and other evolutions of perfecting the genre, Sega have been there every step of the way, not forgetting what many predict to be the highest grossing of all arcade titles ever, Daytona USA.Already famous in Europe for the success of the 8-bit Master System and Mark III in Japan, Sega gained widespread popularity in the home console market with the release of their 16 bit console. Known as the Mega Drive in Europe and Japan, thanks to popular sport titles and the legendary Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega finally conquered the North American market, renaming the product as the Genesis.The fact Sega had such a hard time breaking the American market with their home console division is steeped in irony, as most do not realise that the company was actually an American start-up, created in 1940 as Standard Games. Standard Games was formed to create arcade style amusement machines for the American armed forces, and were quickly renamed Service Games, or Se-Ga for short. Arcade games in the 1940s of course contained no computing power, but by the 1960s, the sophistication of the machines gave them the appearance of a “video game” long before such things were possible. In 1968 Sega released Drivemobile, their first racing simulator machine. Drive mobile had a simulated “screen” with a scrolling backdrop, and included a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, scoring system and sound effects, setting the mould for arcade based racing games from that moment on. Other Electro-mechanical games from the company included Grand Prix (1969) and Night Rider (1970).Arcade cabinets that could truly be described as “video games” appeared in the 1970s, using TTL-based discrete logic boards long before CPUs were used for arcade games. Sega produced several popular arced racing titles in this time, including Moto-Cross in 1976 which would be re-branded as Fonz using the character licensed from the popular Happy Days television show, one of the first arcade franchise licences. Other TTL based race games from Sega included Manx T.T. (1977) and Monaco GP (1979) which would both go on to have far more advanced and successful sequels in the future.
1979 saw the release of Sega’s first racing game with a CPU based standard system, Head On using the VIC Dual board, but they really set new standards with the superior VCO hardware the following year with Turbo. Sega’s Turbo was revolutionary and brought many innovations that are still used in racing games today, including the first use of a third person perspective with colour graphics, scaling sprites, multiple landscapes, different times of day, and varying weather conditions. Course design was highly varied for the time, and was the first to introduce hills to the terrain of a game, and also first to mix city, beach and countryside racing, and to use bridges and tunnels. By this time Sega had expanded to Japan for development of games, and in 1984 CSK bought the company, making it temporarily a Japanese only brand. The company would eventually set up a separate “Sega of America” division, but this was mostly for their console efforts and the majority of their arcade games would continue to be developed in Japan.
While Turbo was ground breaking in many ways, the following year rival company Namco developed a more popular racing game, Pole Position. This game was more polished looking and smoother to control, but was missing many of the features of Sega’s game. Sega’s arcade division invented a board with far more powerful “Super Scaler” sprite technology and 16-bit CPU to create a smoother pseudo 3D effect, first utilising it with 1985’s Space Harrier, and a highly successful motorbike racing game Hang-On.
The true successor to Turbo used an upgraded version of the Space Harrier board, and in 1986 Sega perfected the 2D Sprite Scaled arcade racer with the hugely successful Out Run. Out Run took the polish and smoothness of Pole Position and added back the missing features from Turbo, with many varied colourful landscapes and wildly undulating terrain. The new graphics engine allowed far bigger, smoother and more colourful sprites than had been seen before and punters around the world flocked to race an open topped Ferrari through sunny beach roads. Two innovations that Out Run introduced that go a long way to explaining its sustained popularity are the ability to tune your radio at the beginning, essentially making the background music a stand out feature, and adding forks in the road to allow multiple paths to complete the game. Courses were not simple circuits, but instead vast terrains which would eventually lead from one area to another in a continuous road race.
A pseudo-sequel to Out-Run was released in 1989. Turbo OutRun was a more serious affair, and was less popular than it’s predecessor, however it did introduce race rivals and the concept of trying to impress the girl riding in the car with you, both of which would be used as features in the well received Out Run 2, eventually released in 2003 as a high-tech homage to the original classic. In between these releases was OutRunners, which was a fun high action game developed for the System Multi 32 hardware, but it’s 1992 release date meant the 2D sprite scaled graphics were starting to look old hat, as Sega had moved on to 3D hardware.
Until 1992, the original Out Run arcade machine was still the most popular and profitable arcade racing game around, an impressive feature considering it’s 1986 release. Sega finally topped this success with the release of it’s highly impressive Model 1 arcade architecture, powering the highly popular Virtua Fighter, Star Wars Arcade, and Virtua Racing. Virtua Racing was the first truly successful arcade racing game to utilise “real” 3d graphics, using polygons. Rival Namco had created Winning Run in 1988 and Atari released Hard Drivin’ the following year, but Sega chose to wait until the power of the technology existed to really create something hugely impressive. The amount of polygons used in Virtua Racing is actually higher than several Model 2 games, including Daytona USA, but the lack of texture mapping means that these could be thrown around to an impressive degree by the Model 1 hardware. It introduced multiple camera views that could be swapped at will, including a helicopter style massively overhead view, which really showed just how many polygons could be handled at once by the machine, all whilst maintaining an incredibly smooth frame-rate, insuring a realistic experience unlike anything the public had experienced before.
The release of Virtua Racing was an event, with impressive deluxe racing cabinets introducing wide-screen variations and all cabinets being able to be linked to allow up to 8 people to race simultaneously. Around the world it was a common sight for arcade owners to run tournaments and “real” Grand Prix events using linked machines, and Virtua Racing is credited with convincing most within the games industry that Polygonal graphics were the future of the games industry. Unfortunately a flaw in most of the monitors shipped with the machines meant that they burned out out after a few years, and Virtua Racing cabinets are not anywhere near as common a sight as they once were, but the legacy of the game can be seen in nearly every racing or driving simulator since released. Home conversions at the time were pale comparisons, not able to match the arcade technology, but Sega’s 16-bit system did receive it’s only game to incorporate Sega’s SVP chip, the intended rival to Nintendo’s Super FX which debuted with Star Fox. A more accurate conversion was the 32X version, which although it has a lower poly count, had an accurate reproduction of the game-play and handling, and even added extra vehicles and courses.
1993 and 1994 saw the face of arcade racing games change forever with the limited then wide release of Sega’s Daytona USA. The game was the first to utilise Sega’s Model 2 hardware, meaning smooth 60fps, fully texture-mapped polygon graphics. Even thought there were slightly less polygons on screen than in Virtua Racing, the texture mapping meant a level of detail never before seen in arcade gaming and Daytona USA’s graphics were a real pull for crowds, and the catchy attract music sang “Daytonnnnaaaa” ensuring that no-one visiting an arcade in the 90s could fail to remember the title of what would become predicted to be the highest earning arcade based video-game of all time. Daytona USA’s handling, especially the drift mechanics, and the genuine huge improvements to lap times made possible by mastering manual gear changes over automatic would give a learning curve and a level of balance not before seen in racing games, and which many feel has never been mastered. Like Virtua Racing before it, up to 8 cabinets could be linked, and multi-player Daytona races remain popular in arcades even today.
With the huge popularity of Daytona, the home console launch of the Sega Saturn was highly anticipated. Unfortunately a combination of the console being underpowered compared to the top of the range arcade machine and the rushing of the product to the market meant that the home console version was not up to par, especially when compared to the rival Playstation’s version of Namco’s Ridge Racer, an arcade racer which paled in comparison to Sega’s offering in the arcade, but was technically far superior as a home conversion. Sega partially redeemed themselves with Daytona CCE for the Saturn and the updated Daytona USA for the more powerful Dreamcast. Both these games were excellent but still didn’t quite recreate the feeling and experience of the arcade perfect Daytona.
Sega’s arcade racing division went from strength to strength with the enormously popular Sega Rally adding different handling for different types of terrain, and repeating everything that made Daytona such a classic. As the hardware improved, There were well received sequels to both Sega Rally and Daytona, and technically excellent offshoots including Scud Race, the hugely popular Crazy Taxi, and eventually an amazing “true” sequel to the original Out Run. However, to this day, Daytona USA remains the crown jewels in Sega’s racing collection, and its enduring popularity is evident in the recent arcade re-release Sega Racing Classic, and an HD online conversion for Xbox 360 and PS3 finally meaning that console gamers can experience the ultimate in arcade racers at home.