This article is written by Howard Jones.
When Starwing was released on the Super Nintendo, many gamers saw this as the end of the Megadrive; no way could Sega’s wheezy old black box host a fluid 3D gaming experience like Starwing. To some extent, this was true; the Megadrive could not handle the data needed to calculate hundreds of polygons on the screen as seen in Starwing, but then again – neither could the SNES, which is why Nintendo developed the Super FX co-processor to bolt onto the cartridge in order to give the console some additional power. In direct response to this, Sega developed its own wonderchip – the Sega Virtua Processor – and shocked the gaming industry by releasing Virtua Racing for their aging console.
Virtua Racing is a formula one racing game in its simplest form; race round the tracks without crashing into the scenery or opponents. The game has three tracks of differing ability, and each track has a “centrepiece” item. The first stage features a big Ferris wheel (bear in mind that this was the early 90’s – creating something large and interesting as scenery wasn’t the norm), the second offers a suspension bridge to race across, and the third is home to a diabolical 360 degree hairpin bend. Compared with the granular upgrade possibilities of today’s racing games, VR seems pathetic; you get only one choice of car. No upgrades, no fine-tuning, not even a hint of a custom spray job.
Despite the lack of tracks, cars and options, the selling point of the game is the technology used to run it. The most obvious set of console games to compare against is Starwing and Stunt Race FX, both on the SNES, and both powered by an on-cart processor. Both titles use their 3D capabilities almost majestically, displaying 3D worlds and items for your perusal and admiration. Not Virtua Racing. Quite frankly, despite running on a console made in the late-80’s, Virtua Racing moves at a frightening speed, throwing polygons around with careless abandon. There is a sense that the Megadrive shouldn’t be capable of doing such things with 3D graphics, and just to twist the blade into Nintendo’s dreams of Super FX domination, Sega had enough magic left in the SVP to include a split-screen two-player mode. Yes it’s true; without any noticeable degradation in quality or speed, you can race your friend in multiplayer mode. That’s twice the amount of polygons running at the same time. Unbelievable.
However, in making the game blisteringly fast, there is a sense of rushed urgency when playing. This is very evident when passing the Ferris wheel for the first time; it seems spindly, and is gone before you can really take it in. The same can be said for the bridge on the 2nd level; I believe that this is due to Sega shortening the visible distance in order to save processing power. Whilst on the subject of limitations, the polygons look washed out (except for the always-vibrant “Sega Blue”) due to the Megadrive’s tiny color palette, something that any amount of SVPs could never address.
Sadly, there is one major downside to Virtua Racing; the controls. It’s always difficult converting analogue controls down to a digital pad, but VR’s turning mechanism is unnecessarily awkward. It’s too rigid, meaning that you end up jerking around corners and smashing into them. It makes the game epically hard to master, and although it can be achieved, it makes it a chore rather than a fun experience.
VR has quite a catchy theme tune which will be buzzing around in your head for a couple of hours, and the sounds are about as good as can be expected for a Megadrive racing game, but then again – who cares? This game delivers a graphical concept, and so the barest of attention has been given to the aural elements. It does the trick and isn’t annoying; that’s a win as far as I’m concerned.
Sega also programmed in a variety of viewing modes, from inside the car to overhead “helicopter cam” mode. This doesn’t add much to the overall experience but is nice to use after you are more confident with the game. Writing in retrospect (and with me currently selling a copy of this game on eBay at the princely sum of 99p), it’s easy to forget the initial pricetag back in ’93. £120. One HUNDRED and TWENTY pounds. That’s Neo Geo prices, not Megadrive!
Virtua Racing is a game to be admired, but not loved. The graphics are simply amazing when considering the platform; it is a near-perfect port of the arcade, and moves polygons at an amazing (if washed-out) rate. However, the awful control system destroys any chance of VR being a real threat to the SNES’ 3D aspirations, making VR a curiousity rather than a true game.
As a footnote, the SVP chip brought hope to die-hard and downtrodden Sega fans; if Virtua Racing was possible, why not Virtua Fighter too? Could 3rd party developers take the SVP chip and use it to port Doom, or even make a Starwing-type game? Unfortunately, the SVP came too late in the Megadrive’s lifetime, and Sega was already concentrating on the ill-fated 32x. Plus, the £120 price tag made this a rich kid’s game, allowing Nintendo’s reasonably-priced SuperFX titles to become even more accessible. Virtua Racing and the SVP chip will remain a glowing example of Sega’s potential in the 90’s; it’s a shame they threw it all away.