Celica on Desert

Back in the 32-Bit era, arcade perfection was the Holy Grail of game development. It was the question on everybody’s lips: “yeah yeah yeah, that’s great, but tell me – is it arcade perfect?” It’s a strange term looking back, now that consoles have spread their wings and arcades the world over die a slow and painful death, but ‘arcade perfect’ was once the highest praise you could lavish on a home conversion. I’d say we’ve come a long way since then, but by demanding more than mere perfection (and getting it), we’ve eroded away the canal that birthed games like Sega Rally.

Sega Rally Championship for the Sega Saturn is arcade perfect. But it’s more than that – it’s just plain perfect. Some may find this hard to believe approaching it retrospectively – sure, polygon counts and texture maps have improved since then – but mark my words, no rally game since has even touched its handling or track design.

Lancia Stratos on Lakeside

Sega Rally is the poster child for “quality over quantity”, sporting only three tracks (Desert, Forest, Mountain – four if you include the secret Lakeside track) and two vehicles (a sixth generation Toyota Celica, and a Lancia Delta HF Integrale – three if you include the secret Lancia Stratos). The Desert track is the shortest and simplest of the three, giving the player a taste of turns to come, and offering insights into the very different but equally viable behaviours of its two main characters: the long-horned Celica that throws its weight into corners and gains on straights, and the tight-turning Tom Thumb wonder that is the Delta. And yet the Desert has a flavour all its own, of salient jumps and short, sharp chicanes. The Forest track is all business until it reaches its centrepiece, the hairpin right, putting you through the ringer all the way to the checkered flag. And the Mountain track is as wild as a bucking bronco, offering very little reprieve for the unfocused rider.

Delta on Mountain

Today’s game players would baulk at such a limited selection, but I defy them to find three more expertly crafted tracks in any rally game (or indeed, any racing game), or two cars to race on them that ever felt this right. This is not nostalgia talking here – this is the same Sega Rally that kept my housemate and I up nights last week.

It’s a rare treat to have two equally matched Sega Rally players under the same roof, but that is what we have at my house. The thrill of waiting for your opponent to slip, and power-sliding past him to the finish line; the satisfaction of licking the wall on a perfectly executed hairpin turn; the friction of tyres to asphalt, to gravel, to mud; the superbly balanced handling; these are sensations I could never adequately describe or replicate.

Delta on Forest

So here’s to you, Sega Rally, King of Rally Racing. Don’t ever change.

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