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What modern racing games should learn from Sega’s past

I reviewed Codemasters’ Dirt 2 for GamesRadar back in 2008 and awarded it 8/10. Looking at it now, even if you dislike the ‘Dudebro’ presentation, it’s a harsh mark for a game that deserves a 9 or even a 10 compared to today’s racers. But in this article, rather than focus on why the genre has moved backwards over the past 10 years, I want to examine why I was giving one of the greatest racers of modern times 8/10 in the first place. What was holding me back from 9 or 10? It’s because I know how good racing games should be. I grew up playing Sega.

F355 Challenge

The most obvious thing about Sega racers is how they move. From sprite-scalers like OutRun to sims like F355 Challenge, the sense of motion alone is exciting. In 2D games it’s the environmental objects, smoothly growing from tiny specks on the horizon to screen-filling works of art that are there and gone in an instant. In 3D it’s the clever use of a virtual camera lens that distorts the geometry slightly, making the approaching corners look like you’re moving slowly, while the ground rushes under the bonnet smoothly, giving you not only that rush of speed but also a constant feeling of locomotion.

Amazingly, this sense of fluidity is present even when frame rates don’t hit traditional arcade speeds. Both OutRun and Virtua Racing ran at 30fps in arcades and yet both were the most visually impressive racers ever seen at the time of their release. Today, Assetto Corsa has this same feeling of fluid and solid motion, but not the flair. And so many racers lack flair altogether.

What do I mean by flair? I mean an artistic slant to idealise or romanticise reality. Modern racing games tend to go for extreme realism, but the great thing about video games is that they can be better than real life. In the 1990s, AM2 mastered this better-than-life art like no other studio, leaving formative memories emblazoned with blue, blue skies.

Ironically it was technical limitations that led to such incredible art styles, as limited colour palettes and diminutive texture resolutions meant that graphics had to adopt ideas of iconography, not photography, convincing gamers’ minds it was asphalt and grass verges you were running past, not stretched and blurred squares of grey and green.

The result? Sega’s racers still look fantastic today, sometimes needing only HD resolution to look near enough brand new. Compare that to PSone’s Gran Turismo or N64’s Mario Kart. Both games are classics, but they look comparatively ugly when viewed in the harsh light of 2021.

Daytona USA Sega

But hey – stylised visuals and nice movement are great, but perhaps they’re antiquated ideas or just not appropriate when sim racing is so much more popular than retro racers and intends to replicate reality, not present an idealised version of it.

We didn’t see F1 drivers playing Daytona USA over lockdown (for shame). But even with ultra-realistic visuals, one area of the racing genre that’s definitely flatlined since Sega’s heyday is track design. It’s such an integral part of any racing experience and yet feels almost completely overlooked in so many modern games.

Methodically crafted driving experiences are regularly eschewed in favour of simple waypoints placed in open-world environments, and even the few racers that still include fictional tracks like Gran Turismo Sport haven’t managed to match their own classics like Trial Mountain – a track that was designed at a time when Sega was still direct competition and people would still notice poor track design.

And while replicating real-world racetracks in 4K is admirable, I don’t think anybody reading this website would argue that real-world, modern racetracks are better than those from the ’80s and ’90s. There’s a need more than ever for fictional racetracks, and nobody made consistently superb fictional circuits than ’90s Sega.

Sega Rally Track Design

But what made Sega’s track design so good? Its development teams channelled the small amount of processing grunt available into exacting, curated, experiences that were almost certainly storyboarded during development as a sequence of amazing scenes. If you were to take a lap of the Sega Rally Forest stage, it could be drawn out like a visual novel.

The long right-hander through the trees with the birds flying away as you approach, the climb towards the tunnel with its tricky left-hander. The long left/right chicane (again valuing slow, smooth motion with the mud flashing by quickly beneath the camera) and down the hill to the hairpin. And this kind of moment-by-moment collection of unforgettable snapshots are scattered throughout Sega’s ’80s and ’90s output.

Dinosaur Canyon’s steep banked AM2 corner, OutRun’s tunnel, Virtua Racing’s Bay Bridge and tunnel, Crazy Taxi’s San Francisco hills.

Crazy Taxi Sega

By comparison, modern games are banal. They’re spectacular without spectacle. I’m not saying you need arcade-style lighthouses, helicopter and jet planes everywhere – just some impressive vistas, lines leading you away into the screen and well-paced, unrushed layouts that give the player time to soak in what they’re seeing and enjoy the act of driving.

And I say that because track design is clearly about more than visuals alone. Every corner in Sega’s classic output is there for a reason and not a single turn is wasted. That may sound like hyperbole and you could argue that any corner poses some sort of challenge from a gameplay perspective, but compare that same Forest track in Sega Rally to the comparatively featureless ‘under construction’ area of the long course in Ridge Racer, which feels like it was shoehorned in because one track wasn’t enough.

RidgeRacer

Or compare it to the first Need For Speed Underground, where corners feel like they’ve been put in there reluctantly, like they’re a necessary evil. Most can be taken without slowing down at all, and if you do hit the wall, you just carry on without losing much speed.

Sega racers make the act of cornering the reason you play the game, punishing you with lost time if you do badly and rewarding you not only with better lap times but a tangible feeling of serenity when you get it right. It’s a massive, key difference. And I have to say too many modern games feature generic city streets as racetracks, with long straights separated by right-angle corners. It’s laziness branded as realism.

Which brings me to my last point. Great racetracks are always great racetracks, but there’s a crucial consideration that modern games dismiss. If you’re designing one for a video game, the only way you can be sure of the player’s experience is if you restrict vehicle choice to ensure everyone’s getting the experience you intended.

Sega did this every single time. Driving a track like Dinosaur Canyon in a 25mph go-kart would not give the same experience as that majestic, slip-streaming stock car. If you’re a track designer, the player experience is completely out of your control as soon as you give the player the option of faster or slower cars. It doesn’t mean the game engine’s bad or the art design or anything else is out of whack. It just means that any experience you intended the player to have is unavoidably looser.

You can’t be the director of a film and deliver the emotional impact you desire if you let the audience choose the actors and how fast the film rolls. It doesn’t matter how good the actors are, nor how impressive your sets; it’s no longer the film you saw in your mind when you drew it out on the storyboard. And that’s why modern racers so often fall short in my estimation. Yes, mic drop.

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