A Little Love Letter to Sega’s ‘Virtua Racing’

Above: ‘Virtua Racing’ screenshot courtesy of Sega.

I didn’t see Virtua Racing in the arcades themselves, but man, did I ever pore over screenshots of it in the pre-internet games press of the time.

In 1992, the 16-bit console competition was reaching maximum heat, with the twin mascots of Sonic and Mario leading their respective platforms in all-out playground warfare. Each console had its definitive victories—on the Super Nintendo there was Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II, all amazing, while the Genesis had ToeJam & Earl, Strider and Castle of Illusion, which were all distinctive to the console and hugely acclaimed. The flagship Mario and Sonic games were pretty awesome, too.

But this was something else, something from the future that home systems of the time couldn’t quite see clearly, just yet. A 3D, polygon-graphics racing game that looked, for the time, completely gorgeous, way beyond what earlier experiments with such visuals, such as Hard Drivin’ (which I had the misfortune of playing on the Amiga—I mean, look at it[1]), had offered. This was a Sega arcade racer, designed by Hang-On and Out Run creator Yu Suzuki. That kind of pedigree guaranteed, to the (just about) pre-teen me, that this game was categorically not going to suck.

But then it did.

I never personally saw Virtua Racing in its coin-op, double-wheel cab guise, but I did pick it up for my Mega Drive, when the port arrived in 1994, two years after its arcade debut. Sega AM2’s super-fast and just-as-smooth production had been squeezed onto the 16-bit system by way of the Sega Virtual Processor, an in-the-cartridge chip that did for the Genesis what the Super FX Chip had for Nintendo’s Star Fox and Stunt Race FX.

But while those SNES titles looked crisp, their polygons solid, the first home port of Virtua Racing appeared weirdly grainy and washed out, its already flat textures somehow drained of any life they barely clung to in the first place. It was fast, sure, but terrifically compromised in all other departments. And the overly demanding handling, oh my—it was to racers of the period what Dark Souls-style combat is to action-RPGs today. Mistime a braking point, and you died.

Above: Look at how focused I am on winning in ‘Virtua Racing’ on the 32X, during Waypoint’s 72-hour launch stream. Everyone else is chatting, I’m driving. I regret nothing.

A while later, long enough after the PlayStation’s launch for such an investment to be deemed completely pointless, I picked up a 32X, second hand. With it came five games, one of which was the mushroom-like Genesis add-on’s own port of Virtua Racing, with a “Deluxe” added to its title. And here’s where all of that on-paper promise that I’d seen in 1992 burst brilliantly into on-screen excellence, and I really fell for the game.

It’d earned that “Deluxe”—Virtua Racing on the 32X had three selectable cars versus the original’s one, offering Stock and Prototype designs beside the F1 model (which, sadly, still sounded like a swarm of mildly irritated wasps). It also had five tracks instead of three, “Highland” and “Sand Park” circuits bolstering the beginner, intermediate and difficult courses, here named “Big Forest”, “Bay Bridge” and “Acropolis” respectively.

And how I charted those tracks, learning every turn, using the scenery to mark when to execute maneuvers—a fairground to the left, we’re turning hard right; a windmill to the side of the track, beware the additional shift to the right after the bend ahead. The Stock was my chosen weapon for finding my way around each, its back-end-swinging drift a fine means of taking tight corners, before moving on to faster, sleeker rides.

What the 32X version of Virtua Racing showed me, clearer than any double-page spread of intriguing screens, was just what those extra 16 bits meant for gaming.

Granted, there wasn’t much else on the 32X that rivaled Virtua Racing for my attention—I enjoyed its limited port of DOOM (look, here I am playing it[2]), and raced through that a few times, but Virtua Fighter wasn’t a great deal of fun played solo, and Star Wars Arcade was straight boring. But all the same, I had a stack of Genesis games—well, Mega Drive ones, because I’m British, but let’s not fight—to go back to, plus all manner of other teenage-years distractions. And yet it was this racer that ate up so very much of my free time between revising for exams and taking out adolescent frustrations on a football down the local dog-shit-everywhere park.

What the 32X version of Virtua Racing really showed me, clearer than any written review or double-page spread of intriguing screens, was just what those extra 16 bits meant for gaming. The Genesis port had stuttered, but on its power-enhancing unit, as unsightly and ultimately destined for failure as it was, Virtua Racing achieved its zenith. To me it’s the best home version of the game, and I’ve played all four (and still own three of them, the Saturn port excepted). On the same base system, a whole new game was born—faster, sweeter looking and sounding, and with a great deal more depth and longevity to boot.

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