Saturday, 5 June 2010

Daytona USA

Watching Daytona USA on a full-size cabinet was a personal arcade epiphany to rank alongside playing, in a café in Pakistan, Street Fighter 2 for the first time (admittedly a brief moment, as I recall simply hammering buttons without any awareness that there might also be a necessity for learning some actual moves), or even this one time when half of my Year 6 class, whilst on a bowling trip, watched in awe as I got halfway through Virtua Cop on just one measly credit. In that bygone age, circa 1994, when the idea of playing arcade-perfect conversions at home was about as likely as ever seeing Mario and Sonic sharing disc space, Daytona USA felt truly revolutionary - a massive step over what had come before.

I can now understand Daytona USA’s impact in boring technical terms, but at the time its effect was purely sensory; games can throw all manner of impressive specifications at you, but all too few still have the power to stop you in your tracks and make you simply watch. So whereas now I can tell you that Daytona USA was the first title to use Sega’s iconic Model 2 hardware, back then all I would be able to articulate, possibly as a series of excited, geeky exclamations, was the fact that this game looked unlike anything many of us – and the only cabinet in my town would regularly attract a crowd of spectators - had ever seen before. Running at an astonishing 60fps, the use of full texture-mapping lent the game’s visuals a solidly colourful, vivid aesthetic; a far cry from the more recognisably videogame-esque likes of Virtua Racing and Ridge Racer, which looked bland and almost abstract by comparison. The gorgeous flat screen of the premium machine obviously helped accentuate these qualities, but underneath this not-insignificant bonnet was the engine of a true racing classic.

Then there’s the music – because you can’t discuss Daytona USA without mentioning the ridiculous, unmistakable music – and, for example, the wonderfully camp opening chorus of “ROLLLLLLING START!” Namco’s Ridge Racer, very much Daytona USA’s nemesis, directly helped push Sega’s team to greater technical heights, as composer Takenobu Mitsuyoshi explained in an 2008 interview with GameSetWatch: “During the development of Daytona USA, Namco released Ridge Racer. We received executive orders from Sega that we had to make something better than Ridge Racer, so the team really hunkered down, taking on the spirit of a sports team, to create the best possible graphics and music.” Ridge Racer may been the purer game, but it didn’t have someone singing “Game over...yeah!” in the style of a David Brent-approved lounge singer EVERY TIME you failed to complete a course.

Even though my brother and I would look forward to family shopping trips (Daytona USA was the centrepiece of the Sega-branded arcade which, rather improbably now, took up significant space on the top floor of Debenhams) just so we could stand in the presence of Daytona USA, I never had any real urge to sit in the car-shaped cabinet and actually play this wondrous creation. For a start it looked too daunting, the sole preserve of moneyed guys in their mid-twenties with significantly more bravery and hair gel than my own 11-year old self possessed; one hand on the steering wheel, one on the gear shifts, they would relish the attention that playing Daytona USA brought them, a showmanship driven by gaming that would only really make sense to me several years later. Then, and perhaps more importantly, there was also the fearful prospect that playing Daytona USA would somehow puncture this perfect graphical bubble, that suddenly being put in control of these visuals that I had admired from afar for so long would reveal the whole game to be an ill-designed mess, reducing its magical aura as a result.

Although the aforementioned Ridge Racer would usher in the real home console revolution with its debut on Sony’s Playstation, it was Daytona USA’s appearance on Sega Saturn that confirmed everything I had previously thought about this ‘unbridgeable’ gap between what I could play on my TV and what could be played in arcades on machines that seemed to cost more than a house. Funnily enough I remember not being too disappointed by the Saturn Daytona; it was, after all, an approximation of the game I fondly remembered even though it ran less than half as fast as the arcade game, and had one of the worst draw distances in videogaming history.

This somewhat curtailed and undeniably rough outing is now put down to the Sega Saturn’s rushed launch, and things improved with the Championship Circuit Edition, which was an updated version of the original game developed by Sega-AM3 (the second-party outfit responsible for my favourite home conversion of all time, Sega Rally, also on the Saturn). While technically it was the better of the two games, even finding the space to fit in a split-screen two-player mode, by this time – late 1996 – the Saturn already felt like a dying console. The ‘Wipeout effect’ had already taken hold of mainstream consciousness while the Nintendo 64 was, for UK gamers, just a few months around the corner. As a result CCE proved to be somewhat symptomatic of the Saturn overall: overlooked and underappreciated.

Daytona USA would end up getting the fabled ‘arcade-perfect’ treatment that I had thought impossible all those years ago, in the shape of Daytona USA 2001 for Dreamcast. It’s an irony though that by now console games were regularly - relatively speaking - outpacing the achievements of the arcade, while in terms of game design the year of Daytona USA 2001’s release saw the likes of Halo, Grand Theft Auto 3 and Gran Turismo 3 effectively lay the blueprints for much of the decade ahead; suddenly we were a long way from SegaWorld in Debenhams. The Dreamcast version of the game is a mixed experience – while the handling is extremely sensitive, the visuals are, even today, slick and pleasingly evocative of the original arcade machine, what with the lack of screen tearing, slowdown and the ability to actually see the track ahead. Daytona USA 2001 is in many ways the ideal end to this series’ arc, finally bringing to the living room the visual quality of the original whilst retaining just enough flaws to preserve the memory of seeing that machine for the first time. It also features the track Circuit Pixie, which is as pure a distillation of the Daytona racing brand – no fussy turns, pleasingly wide stretches of tarmac and regular overtaking – as there has ever been. In this respect Daytona USA 2 is almost an anomaly: it’s still, almost 10 years later, technically astounding, yet seems to retain little of the nostalgic appeal.

Playing the Dreamcast version again reminded me of the innate pull that the original game exerted on me all those years ago; being transfixed by Daytona USA is a moment that is as influential in shaping my passion for videogaming as all manner of Zelda and Mario adventures. In hailing successive games for their graphical achievements we are all perhaps subconsciously looking back to that first encounter with our own Three Seven Speedways, in disbelief and awe of what we’re watching and the subsequent possibilities for the future of videogames contained therein.

Here’s a postscript: A TV and hi-fi retailer now occupies the space in Debenhams where the arcade used to be. The horse cheat in Daytona USA on Sega Saturn made me cry with laughter the first time I used it. I did eventually get over my fear and play Daytona USA in the arcades; it’s still one of the few games my friends and I will actively look out for should we pass the odd random games centre. And yes, I have mastered the art of holding the steering wheel and gear stick with separate hands.

YouTube video of the horse in Saturn Daytona USA, just to prove that I'm not making it up: link.

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