Game of the Month: April 2018
Daytona USA - Arcade / Saturn / PC / 360 / PS3
If there's one genre of games that have endured since the dawn of video gaming then it's driving/racing games. Very few types of videogames can match them for intensity, excitement, recreation of a real life subject matter at a level most won't ever experience and most importantly a showcase of technological jumps in the industry as a whole. Driving games grip you, they take hold hold and just don't let go, an interactive roller coaster ride that feels slightly different every time because of the sheer number of variables on offer.
From the early days of top down arcade cabinets with simplified graphics with steering wheels as your controller they have constantly drawn huge numbers of players to them. Those of you reading this who were actually there in the arcade halls of the 1980's and 1990's will remember huge queues as people waited in line to be the next lucky person to play whilst crowds watched them, next to the fighting game genre no other type of game was as fun to watch as it was to play.
At the top table of developers for driving/racing games was the legendary company of Sega, who somehow managed to always raise the bar of what came before and in turn inspire other famous arcade game makers to essentially copy them. Sega, for many years where the developer that took the risk, invented something entirely new or refined an existing concept and then shortly afterward saw others, like Namco, come along and steal the thunder. In the early 1990's both companies seemed to be making the same games as they took it in turns to one-up the other in both experience terms and especially in graphics. It was a wonderful time to visit the arcade and it seemed like every other month or so something else took it's turn to drop your jaw and rock your world to it's very core.
For the Month of April 2018 we thought it was way past due, time wise, to sit down and take a look at one such moment where Sega took everything that everyone knew about driving games and arcade cabinets and threw the rule book out the window. A game of such monumental impact that even to this day still seems as fresh, exciting, essential and above all else fun as it was on it's day of release. Ladies and Gents, Boys & Girls and those of you who love the smell of petrol in the morning it's time to get behind the steering wheel and burn rubber in the true classic that is... Daytona USA
Daytona USA began it's development life after the then designer and producer, Toshihiro Nagoshi went to North America with his team in order to get new ideas in how to make the driving genre more entertaining. Toshihiro was impressed by the simplistic yet ultra exciting nature of NASCAR and this prompted him and his team to begin a project to design a game based around this sport. Originally given the development title of Daytona it also had GP added to it before the decision was taken to call the final product Daytona USA. Part of this reasoning was due to Sega's popularity in the region, a region well known for embracing anything centered around itself or it's national identity. Another aspect was to try and tie it into the sport itself and therefore gain a ready made audience.
With technology moving at such a fast pace and with arcade games improving in visual terms so quickly Daytona USA was earmarked to be the first game released for the brand new Sega Model 2 technology. With very little out there centered around this type of sport and with the huge leap in how it would look and move it would once more place Sega on the very top of the pile from a developer's stand point. In comparison to it's predecessor, Virtua Racing, Daytona USA was a fully filtered texture mapped 3D polygon game. With incredible realistic graphics thanks to this technology it stood apart from everything around it and gave that real world feel to everything. The power of the arcade architecture also meant that in one player mode everything moved at 60 frames per second, which in simple terms meant that it moved silky smooth and at super fast speeds.
In August 1993 a limited release of Daytona USA occurred in Japan in order to test it's quality from both a technological standpoint and to see if audiences would enjoy the racing experience on offer. Needless to say this experiment worked and a few months later in March, April and May 1994 (Japan/North America/Europe) the full game was unleashed on a public who up until that point had no idea that from that moment on, all subsequent racing games would be compared to it. Instantly becoming the game to go to if your local arcade hall had one it was another enormous leap in gaming quality and technological prowess from a company who excelled at pushing the boundary envelope further than anyone else.
The original games release gameplay consisted of being placed at the wheel of a Stock Car called the 'Hornet' which had the number 41 on it, a nod to the producer, Toshihiro Nagoshi's, lucky number, with two different colour schemes based on one or two player selection and choice of Automatic or manual transmission. Your goal is to drive your car around one of three tracks (courses) and place first out of a large number of other racers. All of this is done to a timer that counts down, leading to real tension and excitement as you power your way through the field of drivers to the next lap checkpoint. Daytona USA is loosely based on the real world NASCAR racing event at the Daytona National Speedway, located in Daytona Beach in Florida in the United States Of America. Another interesting fact is that all of it's releases and sequels, bar 'Sega Racing Classic' have been officially sponsored by the International Speedway Corporation.
From a technical point of view and to add realism to it's design the players car could suffer damage from impact with other racers, track obstacles such as cones and the race track walls. This in conjunction with the players selection of manual or automatic car transmission gave a tactical and strategy element to it that whilst not a new concept, certainly worked better in this title. A pit lane was available to repair any damage however this was a risky move unless your lead was extensive or damage occurred in the early laps in order to give yourself time to recover after mechanical repairs.
Daytona USA consisted of 3 courses (tracks). In the original Model 2 arcade version of the game the tracks were not given names. It was only subsequent ports and the games official soundtrack that named them. The beginner track, Three-Seven Speedway (or 777 Speedway), is the most famous track and the easiest to play and finish. Built similarly to real NASCAR tracks it is loosely based on the Pocono Speedway in Pennsylvania. It is essentially a circle, where you race over 8 laps against 39 other cars.
The track is special for several reasons, including Sonic The Hedgehog carved into a cliff face, the classic and iconic 'Rolling Start' game mechanic where players began with an already moving car and the Slot Machine Banner located above the track. This banner could be manipulated using the arcade cabinets 'Start' button and had several end results. Getting three 7s will give you seven seconds of extra time, with three BARs giving you an extra five. Three cherries will give you a random amount of extra time. The game only allows you to do this once during a race, though with multiplayer games every user can trigger it. This was often how experienced players used the games subtle and hidden aspects to beat new gamers. Also with an element of luck added due to the nature of how it worked it also meant that players lagging behind could luckily get a much needed time bonus.
The advanced track, Dinosaur Canyon was a step up in several ways. Firstly was that it's design was not that of a Nascar track but of a more traditional racing track. With sharper turns and elevated heights or track it was created to introduce and refine the gamers use of the drift mechanics. The number of laps required has dropped to 4, and the number of cars to 20, mainly because of the course length being larger and less cars meant more space for maneuvering on the track for passing or blocking purposes. This second track's most noticeable aspect was a dead end path from the starting position on the left which lead to a sign that said "CONGRATULATIONS You Just Lost Your Sponsors!".
Sea-Side Street Galaxy completed the track offering and was the expert course on offer in the game. The number of laps was reduced to 2 but it raised the amount of opponents to 30. It is also the only track to contain multiple paths (aside from the pit lane). With a large track to navigate it's scenery is it's biggest feature which takes in a lovely bridge, a cool ship and a statue of Jeffry from Virtua Fighter who can be made to go upside down if you drive around the course backwards for the two laps. If you come to a stop near the same statue and tap the arcade cabinets 'Start' button you can also make him break dance. Once again Sega being insanely cool with it's little in-game Easter eggs.
The A.I. in Daytona USA was also incredibly deep with the arcade cabinet changing the attitudes of the opposition cars depending on your first lap's performance. A fast time on lap 1 would mean more aggressive behavior from the other cars as the game sought to up the challenge for the rest of the race, a slow time would mean the others cars would drive at lesser speed and often move out of the way to allow you to pass. This gave a much better sense of inclusion and also leveled the playing field for new players as well as experienced drivers. It was almost impossible to not make progress and become an excellent driver. This meant more plays from gamers and more coins in the machines slot. Daytona would go on to become the most successful arcade driving game ever making the company millions.
It's hard to pinpoint one specific reason why the game was so instantly amazing and why it's rightly regarded as a classic now because almost every aspect of the arcade game was perfect. Daytona was a hardware miracle that stood apart from everything before it for a number of reasons. The first, and possibly most important was that it was the first arcade racing game to allow for 8 player simultaneous play. Sold to customers as either a single player experience, a two player game, a four player beast, a six player dream or an 8-player deluxe juggernaut it never failed to impress. With the option to change camera views in game the deluxe versions of the Model 2 arcade also had actual cameras mounted in them which could be connected to an external closed-circuit display to allow for people to view huge 2,4,6 or 8 player races and the drivers reactions at larger venues.
Visually it was breathtakingly beautiful to look at, either whilst playing or simply being a spectator. The Model 2's graphics capabilities were unmatched at the time and this was an outstanding first game to show off it's raw power and what could be achieved. It didn't just look nice but moved super fast and ultra smooth with no slowdown even when the screen was full of opponents in single player mode. It's physical workmanship was spot on with a superb seat, perfect steering wheel and pedals all placed into a cabinet design that stood out a mile. Every aspect of it's design was to both impress and shock and seeing several cabinets linked together is a thing of real beauty.
Daytona's soundtrack however is something of videogame legend. Engine noises, speech for the announcer and in game sound effects are spot on but the actual music is very possibly the highest of high points for both Sega fans and for any Sega game. The soundtrack of Daytona USA was composed by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, who also performed the vocals. For the arcade version, the songs were sampled onto a Yamaha sound chip, including the drums and Mitsuyoshi's voice. In the Model 2 Arcade version he does not sing entire songs at once. Instead parts of his vocals were recorded and played at various pitches and lengths in order to construct songs, hence their arguably simplistic nature. This is because Model 2 hardware has comparatively limited sound capabilities compared to systems which rely on CD audio.
The strange thing here is that what this resulted in were songs of such simplicity that they would become instantly memorable to the point of where singing along whilst playing became the norm. Catchy tunes mixed with short bursts of speech including phrases like 'Daytona! Let's go away' were enough to send people in a Karaoke meltdown.
Due to the arcade games enormous popularity a home conversion was inevitable and so a conversion was begun for the soon to be released Sega Saturn console as one of it's two flagship titles. Unfortunately development time on this important game release was rushed due to time limits imposed by the release schedule for the new home console itself.
On the 1st April 1995, 5 months after the console launched in Japan, Daytona USA was released for the Sega Saturn. Just over a month later (May 11th) North America got the game and it 8th July it landed on European shores as part of the launch window lineup. With improvements in some areas and huge backwards steps in others it instantly became a flawed release of an iconic game. In a rush to get it on sale as close to the consoles release in every major region several corners were cut. Graphically the game suffers from both a slow frame rate, a complete lack of any link-up gameplay between machines, terrible in-game pop up and an overall shaky feel to it all.
At the time it split both gamers and the press in two with some arguing that it was still the same amount of fun as the original despite it's technical flaws. It was also poorly and unfairly compared to the Sony Playstation launch title 'Ridge Racer' which was a similar driving game experience that had a much longer development time for a console released after the Sega Saturn, allowing for more time to complete a superior product. For those who did choose the Sega Saturn however it was still an essential first purchase, the game itself was and still is a fair comparison to it's arcade big brother. It was also compatible with the consoles official steering wheel.
More than a year after it's release Sega released a new version of the game. Now called Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition this was specifically designed for the Sega Saturn console. Released first in November 1996, it is a reworked and extended version of the original Daytona USA, and was developed by the same team that oversaw the Saturn port of Sega Rally Championship, by using a modified version of the Sega Saturn engine of that game. Improvements over the original Sega Saturn version of Daytona USA include a drastic reduction in graphical popup, increased frame rate (now a consistent thirty frames per second), a new selection of cars, two new courses, a 2-player mode, compatibility with the Saturn's 3D analog control pad and Arcade Racer steering wheel, and a ghost mode.
Better both visually and technically it had more than enough new features and improvements to become essential for fans of the arcade original and both reviewers of the time and fans were more than pleased with this new release/revised version. One can only wonder how much more this and Virtua Fighter Remix could have helped early Sega Saturn sales. Although the botched release date of the console in the west is considered a defining point in the console's failure, coupled with the PS1's colossal impact on everything, it's without a shadow of a doubt true to say that had Sega got Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA right at the first time of asking then the launch of the Sega Saturn would absolutely have fared better in ever region. What might of been eh?
Several other versions and revisions of Daytona have appeared on several formats since it's original arcade release and the Championship Circuit Edition including Daytona: Special Edition in the arcade (a cheaper arcade cabinet model), Daytona USA 2, an arcade-exclusive sequel utilizing the Sega Model 3 hardware that was released in 1998. Daytona USA 2001, a remake of Daytona USA and Championship Circuit Edition, was released in 2001 for the Dreamcast, with massive graphical upgrades, online multiplayer and new courses and an enhanced version was released in the arcades in 2010 as Sega Racing Classic. It features a widescreen display and new cabinet design.
On 25 October 2011 and on the following day for XBox Live Arcade, an enhanced version that was faithful to the arcade original was released for the Playstation 3's PSN network. This version featured true widescreen display, high definition textures, 8-Player Multiplayer over Xbox Live/PlayStation Network, and additional extras, such as 30 new challenges, Karaoke mode, and an Arranged soundtrack. The game also offered support for console steering wheels, in addition to Xbox Achievements/PlayStation Trophies for the player to obtain. The Xbox 360 version was also made backwards compatible with Xbox One on 21 March 2017. In many ways it's this version that is overall the most satisfying version to play in your home today if you are looking for a perfect mixture of gameplay and excellent graphical design.
For those of a certain age however it's the arcade original that is playable now via emulation on a PC that sits supreme as one of the most memorable driving games of all time. Whilst Namco's Ridge Racer absolutely won on the home console front, in the arcade halls Sega got there first and it's first that counts! With more tracks and multiplayer options, in game secrets and cooler music Daytona USA is Sega at their best in every single possible way. Fast, frantic, flashy and fun it's everything that you remember was the best about the old games played in the old ways at your local arcade hall or venue.
Walking into a place with a Daytona USA cabinet was like love at first sight every single time. Even if you couldn't see it from the entrance you could hear it or hear the noise of people playing or watching others play. it was more than just a game, it was a childhood, even adult defining moment. It's games like Daytona USA that get your eyes watering, your heart pumping and your knees trembling. Daytona is why Sega are just so cool, Sega is why Daytona is just do incredible.
For sure graphics have moved on, what we have now looks more realistic and sounds more lifelike than ever before, gamers now are spoilt rotten with video gaming in some aspects. Will they ever get to walk into dimly lit rooms with neon lights and beeps and boops from numerous cabinets breaking against their eyes and ears like huge waves of water though? Will they ever make new friends whilst waiting in line for their turn on the game everyone wants to play? Will they ever smile as they see Sonic on a mountain as they turn a corner, trying not to crash into a wall? Will they ever get a Rolling Start?
So why exactly Is Daytona USA so good? Honestly, who knows and at this point though who cares, it just is, and everyone who was there, everyone who's ever loved racing games, arcade halls, Sega and fun will tell you the same exact thing.
To be this good didn't take Sega ages, it took Daytona! Nearly 25 years after her first limited release in Japan she's still the most amazing lady at the dance.