I remember it like it was yesterday.
The time: July 1994. The place: Blockbuster Golf & Games, a dearly-departed family entertainment center in Davie, Florida. Me and my dad went there for a day of sun and fun, and as we entered the arcade, the first thing I saw was a set of eight deluxe Daytona USA cabinets, all linked together.
Right then and there, I fell in love. It was nothing like I've ever seen before: the realistic-at-the-time graphics, the gameplay, and especially the music. It was quite the revelation, and I've been a fan of Sega racing games ever since.
Sega's racing heritage started in the 1980's with a little-known game called "Turbo", which was one of the first racers to be played with a behind-the-car view. Hang-On then introduced a cabinet where you rode it like a motorcycle, then Out Run added some style with the convertible Testarossa and the memorable '80s music.
To me, however, the real start of Sega's racing heritage started with Virtua Racing. That it was made was a happy accident- it was meant to be nothing more than a tech demo for their Model 1 arcade board, but the execs liked what they saw and asked Sega's legendary AM R&D Dept. #2 (AM2 to the rest of us) to make a game out of it. Yu Suzuki (the guy behind the aforementioned Hang-On and Out Run, as well as Virtua Fighter and Shenmue) and Toshihiro Nagoshi (the guy behind Monkey Ball and Yakuza, two popular Sega franchises) took the initiative, and thus Virtua Racing was released in Japan in 1992 and the rest of the world shortly thereafter. It wasn't the first game to use 3D polygon graphics (Hard Drivin' did it first, in 1988), but it was fluid, fast, and most importantly, fun. It also set the stage for what was to come.
Daytona USA, which came out a year later, took the Virtua Racing formula, refined it, and took it a step further with 3D texture mapped graphics provided by the Model 2 board. Sure, the original Ridge Racer did texture mapping first, but Daytona USA tapped into the growing interest in NASCAR at the time. Combined with the talent from Nagoshi's team, and probably the catchiest music ever (you probably have it in your head by now), and the end result was Sega's best-selling arcade game of all time. There's a reason why Daytona was a fixture in arcades in the mid-90s: the thrill of executing that perfect drift, with a friend playing alongside, then dropping the hammer down towards the next checkpoint is something that Sega mastered with Daytona, and is something that's hard to replicate.
But that's what they did with Sega Rally. Designed by Tetsuya Mizuguchi (the guy behind cult classics like Space Channel 5 and Rez) and released in 1995, Sega Rally was, shall we say, a little more realistic than other arcade racers at the time. Even then, it still operated on similar pinciples to Daytona- the thrill of the drift, the intense competition, and the memorable music are all there. The hook with Sega Rally is with the licensed cars- driving a Lancia Delta, Toyota Celica, or a Lancia Stratos (if you knew the code) added to the realism and the enjoyment.
Nagoshi followed that up with Scud Race, or Sega Super GT in some markets. It's best described as Daytona USA with real supercars- the Porsche 911 GT2, Ferrari F40, Dodge Viper and McLaren F1 GTR are all playable. Each car handled differently- the 911 was easy to control for beginners, while the McLaren was easy to drift and had the highest speed, rewarding big risk-takers. All this was wrapped up in graphics provided by Sega's Model 3 board, which produced high-quality graphics that were unmatched at the time.
The Model 3 really bought out the best of Sega's arcade racers. Scud Race had little details all over the place, like fire lighting a Mayan temple, or dolphins swimming in a cove as you zoomed past, sideways at 200 MPH. Sega Rally 2 had mud and snow clinging to your off road machine as you barreled into turns with reckless aplomb. And the best of the bunch, 1998's Daytona USA 2, took things to the extreme. Tires burned impressive smoke plumes with each drift, each car got battle scars with each bump and bang, and the background details, especially the pirate ship swing on the amusement park-themed course, are simply unforgettable.
The '90s closed with the Dreamcast-based Naomi hardware, and games like Crazy Taxi and Ferrari F355 Challenge kept things going along. Crazy Taxi has that addictive "one more game" hook, and F355 Challenge has that crazy cabinet with the three-screen panoramic view and the clutch pedal and everything. It was almost like driving the real thing.
I may be waxing nostalgic now, but to me, Sega always did racing games right, and never really stopped. Take, for example, OutRun 2. It still adheres to those mechanics- unforgettable music, pulling off those long drifts, and the competition. The competition aspect is amplified with Sega's Initial D games. Playing against a friend in Initial D is intense, especially if the cars are fully upgraded and both players are skilled with the drifting mechanics. Sega Rally Revo ushered the formula into the Xbox 360 era, and is an underappreciated gem. And then there's Sega Racing Classic, a re-release of the original Daytona, ready to introduce a new generation of players to the beautiful drive.
In this day and age, where arcade racers are ruled by customization, destructible environments, and weapons, sometimes it's best to just look at why Sega's racers are enternally popular: it's all about the long drifts, the friendly competition, and the music.
Here's one last video, of the Daytona USA 2 cars replicated in Forza Motorsport 3, with the music from Daytona 2- Alex