A Meditation on Racing Videogames
I’ve been on a videogame kick recently, so I ask if you will indulge me once again. The post on the Saturn, and my memories of Daytona USA and Wipeout specifically, stirred my thoughts about the racing game genre.
I own a few racing videogames.
It hadn’t actually occurred to me quite how many racing games I own until I tried to gather most of them in one place to get this picture. I also have several groups of games not shown here:
- A whole era of PC racing games from 1997-2005 or so like Rally Trophy, Motorhead, Rallisport Challenege, Colin McRae 3, and others I don’t have the boxes for at my apartment.
- A whole group of PC racing games like Midtown Madness that I just have in jewel cases from thrift stores.
- More recent purchases like Dirt 2, Blur, Fuel, and Grid 2 that I only own digitally.
I’m not really a big car guy or even someone who really enjoys driving in real life. It’s not really the cars that draw me into racing games.
I think what it comes down to is that I love playing videogames but I hate the “instant death” mechanic in most types of games.
That is to say that if Mario falls down a hole, he’s dead and you have to go back to the start of the level. If a Cyber Demon’s rocket hits Doom Guy he’s dead and you go back to the start to the level. In the vast majority of games the punishment for failure is that you the player are ripped away from whatever you’re doing and you lose progress in some way.
Racing games are in many ways the opposite of this. If you go off the road or hit a wall generally you lose time and you’ll probably not win the race, but the the priority is to politely get you going on your way again. Even in games like San Francisco Rush, where you can hit a wall and explode, you are quickly thrust back into the race somewhere further down the track. It’s like if you spilled a glass of water at a nice restaurant and the waiter quickly comes over to mop it up and replace your drink. You and he both know you just did a silly thing but he wants you back enjoying yourself as soon as possible.
That does not mean that these games are “soft”; it’s just that they don’t believe that constantly slapping you across the face is good value for money.
I mentioned in the Sega Saturn post that I don’t tend to like 2D games. The vast majority of racing games operate from an inherently 3D perspective that places the camera either behind the car or on the car’s bumper. In the pre-3D era there were attempts to do racing games with 3D-ish perspectives using 2D graphics, and I own a few such as Pole Position II, and Outrun.
It was difficult for 2D games to draw a convincing curving road so these games tend to make the player avoid traffic rather than attempt to portray realistic driving.
Racing games as we know them today trace their ancestry back to arcade games like Namco’s Winning Run (1988) and Sega’s Virtua Racing (1992) that were among the first to use 3D graphics and be able to draw a road in a more realistic way.
When consoles started using 3D graphics a nice looking racing game was a surefire way for console makers to show off their technology. A nicely rendered car on some nicely rendered road with some glittering buildings behind it is much less likely to trigger the uncanny valley than a rendering of a human. I think we can all agree that games like Gran Turismo 5 have come closer to real looking car paint than any game has come to real looking human skin.
Throughout the 1990s racing games exploded into several distinct sub-genres:
Arcade style games are the direct descendants of Virtua Racing and Winning Run, which is where the sub-genre derives it’s name. These days, these games are seldom released in arcades. Arcade-style racing games are not expected to have realistic handling but instead have handling designed for fun more than thought. The brake peddle/button in many of these games is a mere formality. Early on in the 3D racing era companies like Namco and Sega added drift mechanics to their games where you could toss the car around corners at speed rather than braking realistically. Arcade racers like Daytona USA and Ridge Racer were very popular in the 32-bit era (Playstation, N64, Saturn) but the arrival of mainstream simulation racers drew attention away from these games in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which sadly meant many people overlooked the fantastic Ridge Racer Type 4). The arrival of Burnout 3: Takedown in 2004 reinvigorated the sub-genre by allowing you to knock other cars off the road rather than just trying to pass them.
Beginning with games like Driver, free-roaming racing games left the predefined track and let the player roam though cities and other environments. Crazy Taxi (1999) combined the arcade-style with free-roaming forcing the player to memorize routes through a large city in order to pick up and deliver fares. Test Drive Unlimited (2006) allowed players to drive around the whole island of Oahu. Burnout Paradise (2008) put the frantic Burnout style of arcade racing into an open city.
Kart racing games (named after Super Mario Kart) tend to have arcade style handling but in most cases have a recognized character like Mario or Sonic sitting in a tiny car. In Kart racers it’s expected that you can driver over or through symbols/objects on the track to pick up weapons, which you can use to slow down or otherwise befuddle opponents, or drive over speed pads which give you a nitro boost. In Kart games the strategy of using the weapons is as important or more important than your ability to guide the car. The Kart racing genre is 90% Mario Kart and 10% everyone else. If you’ve never played them, I recommend Sega’s two recent kart racing games: Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and it’s sequel Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
Futuristic racing games are a close cousin to Kart racers because they also allow you to pick up weapons on the track to hurt opponents. Generally futuristic racing games have more realistic graphics than Kart games and a cyberpunk/dystopian visual atmosphere accompanied by a electronica soundtrack. Wipeout is the patron saint of futuristic racing games.
Simulation racing games seek to exactly simulate the handling characteristics of a real car. Games like the Gran Turismo series, F355 Challenge and the famous Grand Prix Legends take great pride in the way they have exactly replicated real tracks and the handling of real cars on those tracks. There are actually people who have become real drivers after learning in these games. Gran Turismo popularized the idea that mainstream simulation games should have dozens of realistically rendered sports cars that need to be collected by the player. In Gran Turismo the incentive to race is to collect cars. Today Microsoft’s Forza series and Sony’s Gran Turismo are the kings of mainstream simulation racing.
There is another sub-genre that doesn’t really have an established name that is somewhere between the simulation and arcade styles of handling. I like to call it sim-arcade. The Dreamcast’s Metropolis Street Racer is an early example of this type of game. Codemasters’ Grid and Grid 2 are more recent examples. In sim-arcade racing games you still have to think about your line and braking correctly for the turns but it’s not quite as anal about it as the simulation games. A lot of people confuse this style for the arcade-style because they assume that any game that is not full-on simulation must be arcade style. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t have to use the brake except to trigger a drift, you’re playing an arcade style racing game. If you have to actually brake for a turn and you’re not playing a sim, it’s probably this sim-arcade style. There can be a arrogance among simulation players that more realistic games are better but I tend to really enjoy the sim-arcade style.
Descending from 1995’s Sega Rally Championship rally racing games are intended to replicate rally driving on off-road surfaces. The actual sport of rally racing takes place as a series of time trials cars drive individually but some of these games allow players to drive against other cars as well. The Sega Rally games take a more arcade approach to handling while Codemasters’ Colin McRae Rally and Dirt games take a more balanced approach somewhere between sim and arcade. Today Dirt 3 and Dirt Showdown basically own this genre.
I wish I could say that the current state of the racing game genre is as rich and vibrant as it was in the past. There is a crunch going on in the videogame industry where game budgets are increasing faster than sales and the large videogame publishers increasingly feel they can’t take risks about what their customers will buy. I suspect that racing games have become labeled risky niche products while military-style first person shooters like Call of Duty and third person action games like Assassin’s Creed are commanding big budget development dollars.
In 2010 when Disney and Activision put out well-advertised arcade-style racing games (Split/Second and Blur, respectively) sales were abysmal and the excellent studios behind those games (Black Rock and Bizarre Creations, respectively) were closed. The fact that both games looked superficially similar, which confused potential customers and the fact that both games were released in the same week up against the blockbuster hit Red Dead Redemption does not seem to have entered any executives minds as to why sales were poor. A chill seemed to descend upon the arcade racing subgenre after that with only Electronic Arts carrying the torch after that with their Need for Speed games.
The videogame playing public, it seems, are sick of just going around in circles and developers can’t seem to figure out what to do next.
Lately developers have been keen to invent shockingly dumb and bizarre plots to justify racing games:
- In Split/Second the game is supposed to be some massive reality TV show where the producers have conveniently rigged and entire abandoned city to explode while daredevils race through it in order to provide interesting television.
- In Driver: San Francisco the main character is actually having a coma dream where he believes he can jump into the consciousnesses of drivers in San Francisco and complete tasks in their cars. I wish I was making this up.
Racing games, like puzzle games, are probably better off without plots.
Still, I think racing games need a kick in the pants in order to stay a relevant mainstream genre.
In other genres, like side-scrolling shooters and platformers the influence of indie developers are helping those genres find the souls they had lost under the weight of big budget design by committee. I’m hoping something similar happens with racing games. I am extremely enthusiastic about the 90s Arcade Racer game on Kickstarter that is a love letter to the arcade racing games that Sega made in the late 1990s (Super GT/SCUD Race and Daytona USA 2) that they were too stubborn to release on consoles.
This is my Sega Saturn, which I bought used at The Record Exchange (now simply The Exchange) on Howe Rd. in Cuyahoga Falls in October 1999.
I know this because I saved the date-stamped price tag by sticking it on the Saturn’s battery door.
The Saturn was Sega’s 32-bit game console, a contemporary of the better known Nintendo N64 and the Sony PlayStation. It lived a short, brutish existence where it was pummeled by the PlayStation. In the US the Saturn came out in May 1995 and was basically dead by the end of 1998.
The Saturn was the first game console that I truly loved. Keep in mind that I bought mine after the platform was dead and buried and used game stores were eager to unload most of the games for less than $20. If I had paid $399 for one brand new in 1995 with a $50 copy of Daytona USA I might have different feelings.
The thing that makes the Saturn intensely interesting is how it was simultaneously such a lovable platform and a disaster for Sega. It’s a story about what happens when executives totally misunderstand their market and what happens when you give great developers a limited canvas to make great games with and they do the best they can.
When you look at the Saturn totally out of it’s historical context and just look at on it’s own, it’s a fine piece of gaming hardware. Compared to the Sega CD it replaced the quality of the plastic seems to have been improved. The Saturn is substantial without being outrageously huge. The whole thing was built around a top-loading 2X CD-ROM drive.
It plays audio CDs from an on-screen menu that also supports CD+G discs (mostly for karaoke).
It has a CR2032 battery that backs up internally memory for saving games, accessible behind a door at the rear of the console.
It has a cartridge slot for adding additional RAM and other accessories like GameSharks.
There were several official controllers available for it during it’s lifetime.
The two I own are the this 6 button digital controller:
And the “3D controller” with the analog stick that was packaged with NiGHTS:
You can see the clear family resemblance to the Dreamcast controller.
My Saturn is a bit odd because at some point the screws that hold the top shell to the rest of the console sheared off.
That’s not supposed to happen. All that’s holding the two parts of the Saturn together is the clip on the battery door. Fortunately this gives me an excellent opportunity to show you what the inside of the Saturn looks like:
Despite all of this, my Saturn still works after at least 15 years of service.
I should explain why I was buying a Saturn for $25 at The Record Exchange in 1999. You might say that several decisions by my parents and misguided Sega executives led to that moment.
My parents never bought my brother and I videogames as children. I’m not sure if they thought games were time wasters or wastes of money. Or, it could have just been they didn’t have any philosophical problem with them but they were uncomfortable buying a toy more expensive than $100. Whatever the reason we didn’t have videogames. Considering how many awful games people dropped $50 on in the pre-Internet days when there was so little information about which games were worth buying, I can see their point. I also know now that there were plenty of perfectly good games that were so difficult that you might stop playing in frustration and never get your money’s worth out of them.
Instead, videogames were something I would only see at a friend’s house…and when those moments happened they were magical.
I can’t speak for women of my generation but at least for a lot of males of the so-called “Millennial generation” videogames are to us what Rock ‘n Roll was to the Baby Boomers. They are the cultural innovation that we were the first to grow up with and they define us as a generation. If you’re looking for particular images that define a generation and I say to you “Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock” you think Baby Boomers. If I say to you “Super Mario Bros.” you think Millennials.
By 1996 or so I was pretty interested in buying some sort of videogame console, but I was somewhat restricted in what I could afford. The first game system I bought was a used original Game Boy in 1996. However, shortly after that my family got a current PC and my interests shifted to computer games: Doom, Quake, etc, which is what eventually led to the Voodoo 2.
By 1998 I noticed how dirt cheap the Sega Genesis had become so my brother and I chipped in together to buy a used Genesis (which I believe we bought from The Record Exchange). I quickly found that I did enjoy playing 2D games but I was really enjoying the 3D games I was playing on PC.
Sega did an oddly consistent job of porting their console games to PC in the 1990s, so I had played PC versions of some of the games that came out on Saturn in the 1995-1998 timeframe including the somewhat middling PC port of Daytona USA
So in 1999 when I came across this used Saturn for a mere $25 at The Record Exchange, I was eager to buy it.
But why was the Saturn $25 when a used PlayStation or N64 was most likely going for $80-$100 at the same time?
As I noted in the Sega Genesis Nomad post, Sega was making some very strange decisions about hardware in the mid-1990s. At that time Sega was at at the forefront of arcade game technology. Recall that in the Voodoo 2 post I said that if you sat down at one of Sega’s Daytona USA or Virtua Fighter 2 machines in 1995 you were basically treated to the most gorgeous videogame experience money could by at the time. That’s because Sega was working with Lockheed Martin to use 3D graphics hardware from flight simulators in arcade machines.
At the same time as they were redefining arcade games Sega was busy designing the home console that would succeed the popular Genesis (aka the console people refer to today as simply “the Sega”). Home consoles were still firmly rooted in 2D, but there were cracks appearing. For example, Nintendo’s Star Fox for the Super Nintendo embedded a primitive 3D graphics chip in the cartridge and introduced a lot of home console gamers to 3D, one slowly rendered frame at a time. Sega pulled a similar trick with the Genesis port of Virtua Racing, which embedded a special DSP chip in the cartridge (you may remember this from the Nomad post):
Sega decided on a design for the Saturn which would produce excellent 2D graphics with 3D graphics as a secondary capability. The way the Saturn produced 3D was a bit complicated but basically it could take a sprite and position it in 3D space in such a way that it acted like a polygon in 3D graphics. If you place enough of these sprites on the screen you can create a whole 3D scene.
I can see in retrospect how this made sense to Sega’s executives. People like 2D games, so let’s make a great 2D machine. They also must have considered that 3D hardware on the same level as their arcade hardware was not feasible in a $400 home console.
However, Sega’s competitors didn’t see things that way. Sony and Nintendo both built the best 3D machines they could, 2D be damned. One would expect their did this largely in response to the popularity of Sega’s 3D arcade games.
The story that’s gone around about Sega’s reaction to this is that in response they decided to put a second CPU in the Saturn. I have no idea if that’s why the Saturn ended up with two Hitachi SH-2 CPUs, but it would make sense if was an act of desperation.
Having two CPUs is one of those things that sounds great but in reality can turn into a real mess. A CPU is only as fast as the rest of the machine can feed it things to do. If say, one CPU is reading from the RAM and the other can’t at the same time, it sits there idle, waiting. There are also not that many kinds types of work that can easily be spread across two CPUs without some loss in efficiency. If the work one CPU is doing depends on work the other CPU is still working on the first CPU sits there idle, waiting. These are problems in computer science that people are still working furiously on today. These were not problems Sega was going to solve for a rushed videogame console launch 19 years ago.
The design they ended up with for the Saturn was immensely complicated. All told, it contained:
- Two Hitachi SH-2 CPUs
- One graphics processor for sprites and polygons (VDP1)
- One graphics processor for background scrolling (VDP2)
- One Hitachi SH-1 CPU for CD-ROM I/O processing
- One Motorola 68000 derived CPU as the sound controller
- One Yamaha FH1 sound DSP
- Apparently there was another custom DSP chip to assist for 3D geometry processing
That’s a lot of silicon. It was expensive to manufacturer and difficult to program. The PlayStation, which started life at $299, had a single CPU and a single graphics processor and in general produced better results than the Saturn.
Sega had psyched itself out. Here the company that was showing everyone what brilliant 3D arcade games looked like failed to understand that they had actually fundamentally changed consumer expectations and built a game console to win the last war, so to speak.
When the PlayStation and N64 arrived they ushered in games that were built around 3D graphics. Super Mario 64, in particular made consumers expect increasingly rich 3D worlds, exactly the type of thing the Saturn did not excel at.
Sega had gambled on consumers being interested in the types of games they produced for the arcades: Games that were short but required hours of practice to master. By 1997-1998 consumers’ tastes had changed and they were enjoying games like Gran Turismo that still required hours to master but offered hours of content as well. 1995’s Sega Rally only contained four tracks and three cars. 1998’s Gran Turismo had 178 cars on 11 tracks.
Sega’s development teams eventually adapted to this new reality but it was too late to save the doomed Saturn. Brilliant end-stage Saturn games like Panzer Dragoon Saga and Burning Rangers would never reach enough players’ hands to make a difference.
By Fall-1999 the Saturn was dead and buried as a game platform. Not only had it failed in the marketplace but it’s hurried successor, the Dreamcast, was now on store shelves. That’s why a used Saturn was $25 in 1999.
The thing was that despite the fact that the Saturn had failed, the games weren’t bad, and since I was buying them after the fact they were dirt cheap. I accumulated quite a few of them:
Oddly enough, my favorite Saturn game was the much criticized Saturn version of Daytona USA that launched with the Saturn in 1995.
The original Saturn version of Daytona USA was a mess. Sega’s AM2 team, who had developed the original arcade game had been tasked with somehow creating a viable Saturn version of Daytona USA. The whole point of the game was that you were racing against a large number of opponents (up to 40 on one track). The Saturn could barely do 3D and here it was being asked to do the impossible.
The game they produced was clearly a rushed, sloppy mess. But it was still fun! The way the car controls is still brilliant even if the graphics can barely keep up. I fell in love with Daytona. Later Sega attempted several other versions of Daytona on Saturn and Dreamcast but I vastly prefer the original Saturn version, imperfect as it may be.
Another memorable game was Wipeout. To be honest, when I asked to see what Wipeout was one day at Funcoland I had no idea that the game was a futuristic racing game. I thought it had something to do with snowboarding!
Wipeout was a revelation. Sega’s games were bright and colorful with similarly cheerful, jazzy music. Wipeout is a dark and foreboding combat racing game that takes place in a cyberpunk-ish corporate dominated future. I still catch myself humming the game’s European electronica soundtrack. The game used CD audio for the soundtrack so you could put the disc in a CD player and listen to the music separately if you wished. Wipeout was the best of what videogames had to offer in 1995: astonishing 3D visuals and CD quality sound.
From about 1999 to 2000 I had an immense amount of fun collecting cheap used Saturn classics like NiGHTS, Virtua Cop, Panzer Dragoon, Sonic R, Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally, and others…As odd as this is to say, the Saturn was my console videogame alma mater.
Today I understand that something can be a business failure but not a failure to the people who enjoyed it. To me, the Saturn was a glorious success and I treasure the time I have had with it.