In the early 1990s, arcades were the pulsating heart of the gaming world, a melting pot of innovation where the newest, shiniest titles beckoned with the siren call of their high-definition graphics and booming attract modes that home systems could only dream of replicating.
It was here, amidst the smoke filled and chiptune filled arcades, that Sega’s Virtua Racing roared into life and irrevocably shifted the landscape of racing games and gave gamers a heads up of what was the future held.
A Trip Down Memory Lane: The History
Released in 1992, Virtua Racing was not just another arcade racer; it was a trailblazer. This was Sega at its best, showcasing what its formidable Model 1 arcade hardware could do. It was one of the first fully 3D polygon-based racing games, a hi-tech departure from the sprite-based racers that had dominated the scene.
At the development helm was Yu Suzuki from Sega’s AM2 division, a name synonymous with Sega and its golden age of arcade titles such as OutRun. The idea was to create a racing experience that was as close to real as possible, pushing the boundaries of the current gaming technology. And push he and his team did.
Virtua Racing was rightly seen as a technical marvel, presenting players with a racing simulation that boasted a solid framerate, something that hampered prior attempts by others games and polygonal graphics that was a revelation at the time.
Virtua Racing came in various sized versions from a small stand up cabinet to gargantuan multi linked, multiplayer full (ish) scale Formula 1 experience (as Virtua Formula) it made a huge impact and was for many, myself included the first thing to throw coins into when visiting the arcades.
Revving Up the Industry With Virtua Racing
The impact that Virtua Racing had was spectacular. It laid down the gauntlet for what was expected in racing games, prompting the industry to look to 3D graphics as the future. It wasn’t just about the visuals, though. The game’s force feedback steering wheel, which vibrated with the virtual road’s texture, was a new and fresh sensation, giving players a level of realism and tactile feedback that had never been experienced in a video game.
The choice of three tracks gave an extra level of replay with Big Forest being the easiest with long straights and turns, then for seasoned players there was the intermediate course called Bay Bridge.
Finally, for the expert and skilled players there was Acropolis with its myriad of twists and turns throughout.
Automatic gear changes was highly recommended when starting out, however the big yellow flappy paddle manual gear option was always tempting to do just so you could experience what it would be like being a real Formula One driver.
For beginners this would inevitably bring the game over screen far more rapidly as it took time to get used to which is something that this game didn’t give much of thanks to its anxiety inducing time limit to reach checkpoints round the track.
Virtua Racing also pioneered the concept of real-time dynamic camera switches, allowing players to change views as and when they wanted to. This feature would become a staple in future racing games like Daytona USA and Scud Race and even on non Sega games like Crusin’ USA took inspiration from it as did pretty much every arcade game since, allowing for an immersive experience that gave players control over their in-game perspective and allowed them to find the perfect viewpoint that suited their playstyle.
It was also incredibly good fun because everyone likes pressing buttons!
Check out Virtua Racing in all its glorious flat shaded polygon goodness!
Virua Racing’s Quirks
Despite its breakthroughs, Virtua Racing wasn’t without its quirks. For starters, the game was expensive to produce due to its cutting-edge technology, which was reflected in its price to play as arcade operators investment in the game would have been far larger than the standard arcade titles of the time.
Being a Formula 1 themed simulator you only had one car to drive which made sense at the time but can feel a tad boring and repetitive today.
Pitstops were fun and new to see, especially as the pit crew looked like they should belong on a Benetton fashion shoot. It wasted time (and your position on the track) which was the main currency of the game so you did it once for the spectacle and never again.
The controls were also an area where Virtua Racing showed its pioneering spirit. They were unforgiving, demanding precision and practice, a far cry from the ‘pick up and play’ approach of many modern games. This was racing at that was pretty raw and unfiltered, a challenge that arcade-goers had to get used to pretty quickly or the game over vocals would blast out across the arcade if you crashed in to too many other cars on the track. At least we got some cool crash scenes if players really stacked it.
Working out how not to veer off the track into barriers was also a challenge and took a fair few attempts (read spending money) to work out the optimum way of positioning the car around the corners and through the chicanes. Once you get accustomed to it, it then becomes great fun.
From Arcade to Living Room: The Virtua Racing Home Experience
Virtua Racing eventually made its way to home consoles, most notably the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. This version was a technical achievement in its own right, requiring the Sega Virtua Processor (SVP) chip to handle the complex 3D Polygons – it was Sega’s answer to the Super FX chip used in SNES games like Starwing/Starfox.
While the home versions couldn’t quite match the arcade’s graphical prowess, they remained a testament to Sega’s commitment to bringing the arcade experience home. The Mega Drive/Genesis version, in particular, was a major wow moment for home gamers, allowing a whole new audience to experience Virtua Racing from their bedrooms or living rooms.
The later Virtua Racing: Deluxe version on the ill-fated Sega 32X added new courses and new vehicles to the mix which added a new ways to enjoy the admittedly short lived arcade experience.
It even made it to the Saturn which was developed by Time Warner Interactive instead of Sega which unfortunately wasn’t held in high regard.
A great home version came out on the PlayStation 2 in 2004 which could handle the polygons with ease and for current consoles its available on the Nintendo Switch.
Its a crying shame that Virtua Racing never came out on the Dreamcast as this would have been the perfect Sega platform for it and would have been right at home alongside Sega’s other arcade home releases such as Crazy Taxi.
Virtua Racing’s Legacy
The legacy of Virtua Racing is etched in many gamers minds still. It was the definitive progenitor of the 3D racing genre and blew the socks off earlier 3D titles such as Hard Drivin’. It helped pave the way for its Model 2 successors like Daytona USA and even started a series of games with its styling in non-racing titles like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Cop and many more.
Today, Virtua Racing stands as a classic, its a fascinating time capsule of ambition and innovation. It’s a reminder of a time when Sega was at the top of its game, pushing boundaries and giving gamers a preview of things to come.
In todays world of photorealistic graphics and VR simulators, Virtua Racing may seem quaint, but its impact on the history of gaming is undeniable.
It’s a cornerstone in the history of racing games and gaming in general. The look and style, once cutting-edge, has a charm that has stood the test of time, a charm that was on the cusp of a revolution, one that Virtua Racing helped put into pole position.
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