(Xbox 360 Review) Daytona USA

Developer: Sega AM2
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Arcade Racing
Players: 1-8
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

As the owner of three Sega Saturns, it was tough seeing Sega revisit the Genesis and then leapfrog over the 32-bit underdog straight to the Dreamcast. The PC, PlayStation 2 and 3, and Xbox 360 have all received some stellar emulated releases and compilations, while only House of the Dead and Nights resurfaced with releases for the Wii. It seems as though that has all changed recently, which is great news for newcomers’ libraries and retro gamers’ wallets. The cult classic Guardian Heroes was the first to find itself ported over to Live and PSN, and the results are outstanding. Now, it’s Daytona USA‘s turn.

Daytona USA has found itself re-released several times throughout the years, though none of the home versions have managed to equal the original arcade hit. A rushed port for the Sega Saturn back in 1995 suffered from draw-in and clipping problems, while the Windows PC version and updated Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition (CCE) for the Saturn did much to address the original home version’s visual shortcomings but couldn’t quite nail the handling. A Dreamcast version in 2001 certainly looked good, but again, the handling wasn’t totally accurate. One of the things that makes Daytona USA so unique, and so addictive, is how the cars have a certain heft to them and how the mechanics punish overly aggressive drivers with a sort of ‘snapping’ motion. This feels clunky at first, but managing to make it through an entire race without snapping the car is downright exhilarating.

It’s those kinds of subtleties tucked away behind the game’s over-the-top style that have made it so appealing for all these years. Daytona USA was made at a time when Sega was on top of their game. Not only were they dominating in the arcades, but the Saturn was still on the market and the company was going all-in with support porting over home versions of Sega Rally, Virtua Cop, Virtua Fighter 2, and Virtual On, all of which tended to sport a distinct visual style that was heavy on light colors and big, bold fonts. The bright, colorful graphics create a spectacle that drew gamers’ attention at arcades and made console owners feel as if they had their own cabinet in their living rooms; or close enough, given the time.

The secret behind the company’s success was that behind all of the explosions and cool color schemes were games that were true benchmarks of their respective genres. The mechanics were designed in such a way that new players could jump in and enjoy a few rounds of fast-paced action, while persistent players would be rewarded with slowly revealing layers of complexity of which many remain fresh to this day. Daytona USA was at the forefront of this, with a ridiculously catchy soundtrack, loud sound effects, three courses of increasing difficulty, and an eye-catching centerpiece that pulled everything together: the Hornet 41 stock car.

The red-and-blue beast is iconic, with its large, blocky build standing out in the arcades and print ads of the mid-1990s. The car was such a part of Sega’s lineup that they gave it a bit of personality as a playable character in their catalog-spanning fighter Fighters MegaMix. It’s a good thing that developer AM2 nailed the design because there are only two cars available throughout the entirety of Daytona USA: the manual Hornet, and the automatic Hornet. The difference between the two is only a few extra miles per hour, but going by the leaderboards, that little bit goes a long way.

The Hornet is a peculiar vehicle, controlled like a guided, sliding rocket. As it bucks up and down the speedway, its delicate steering can mean the difference between smoothly passing alongside an opponent or slamming into them and losing a few precious miles per hour—or doing a ridiculous flip. Each of the three courses represents a new rung on the difficulty ladder, from Beginner to Advanced to Expert. The circuits also have pit stops that can be used to repair damage and replace worn tires. Not that there will be much time for repairs. Showing its arcade roots, the game uses a countdown timer that requires checkpoints be passed throughout each race in order to be able to continue. Fail at any time to reach a goal before the counter reaches zero, and you will get a GAME OVER message that’s actually spelled out by what can only be described as a jazzy lounge singer. Even if you manage to finish the race, there will be little joy unless your position is one of the top three. It’s a ruthless, taunting system that begs to be humbled.

Humbling, however, is easier said than done. The AI is very aggressive, even on the Beginner course and Normal difficulty. Computer-controller drivers will jockey hard for the optimal track paths, slamming into you and one another—and sometimes, it seems, simply out of spite. Recovering from a pile-up is difficult, but this version includes one of the few nods to newcomers: a rewind feature.  More chances to rewind become available the longer you play, and each allows you to go back a few seconds in time in order to retry a sloppy corner or avoid smacking into a wrecked opponent. This is a handy feature because, by and large, developer AM2 had little interest in holding gamers’ hands. They designed Daytona USA to grab your attention and pop a quarter in, and then compel you to continue with a masterful learning curve that conveys enough improvement to encourage play while consistently checking hubris with a sharp turn or nasty bend. In short, the system was designed to drag out the learning process to both slowly develop drivers’ skills, allowing them to get the most out of each course, and get even more quarters. Although the game can be difficult, even for fans who haven’t taken a lap in a while, there are small signs to indicate when things are going well, when things need to be adjusted, and when you need to get ready to take advantage of the rewind feature.

As it happens, there is very little time between these stages; if a slight error is made, the result can be an out-of-control drift to a goofy 360 that ends with a few laggards crashing into you. But by paying attention to how the tires squeal, reading the tracks, and continually plugging away, an appropriate strategy for each circuit will slowly reveal itself. Daytona USA might be intimidating at first, but it isn’t nearly as daunting as it seems and amply rewards persistence. I caught myself still pressing an imaginary gas pedal as I zipped into first and breathing a sigh of relief when I was actually able to see a race through, and I’ve been playing the game for years.

Modern gamers might find the game too limiting. Even though there is a difficulty setting and numerous extra modes, the meat of the game still consists of the Hornet and the three circuits. And in accordance with one of the finest traditions of the era, the courses can be mirrored for almost-but-not-quite-new courses. But there is no upgrade system, no branching course paths, no turbo boost, no showroom, and no credits to accumulate; there’s just an accelerator and a brake, the combination of which can lead to powerslides and close calls far more satisfying than most racers on the market. Fortunately, the release isn’t completely barebones, as there are a number of additional modes that add both longevity and interesting ways to practice.

In addition to Arcade mode, there is Multiplayer and Extras. Online multiplayer, like Guardian Heroes, suffers from lag spikes but is great fun when functioning smoothly. Up to eight players can compete with one another at the same time, but I found four to be the best balance between smooth latency and playability. Finding opponents can take time, though, which is a bit of a bummer. There is no local multiplayer, either. Split-screen multiplayer was added in later with the release of CCE. While unfortunate, that isn’t surprising given the game’s history, as the arcade linked cabinets together and had full-screen play for each and the original Saturn release was single-player only.

The Extras option consists of several single-player modes: Challenges, Time Trials, Survival, and Karaoke. Challenges are actually a collection of 30 different tests that break down to 10 per circuit, ranging from reaching a certain speed, passing a set amount of cars, or not hitting a wall before time expires. Time Trials is more for bragging rights, with times from one-off races uploaded to the leaderboards. There is also a bit more to Time Trials as replays can also be saved for others to download, which serve as a great way for newcomers to see how the pros tackle the courses.

Surprisingly, Survival turned out to be my favorite addition. A running odometer tracks distance traveled throughout an extended run, with the countdown timer lengthened by seconds earned by completing laps, cornering aggressively, not hitting walls, passing opponents, etc. Those times are then uploaded to compare against friends and others on a global leaderboard. What makes Survival particularly tricky is the combination of an unforgiving clock and the tires losing their grip at around the 10,000 mark; taking a corner a touch too rough with bald tires will lead to some nasty fishtailing, and most likely an end to the run. The races become trickier the better the placement, however, as there are fewer cars to draft behind for a speed bonus and pass for an overtake bonus. Taking smooth turns and not using the brake also becomes more difficult as the tire’s grip thins out, but that also opens up more opportunities for drifting bonuses. Survival alone has eaten hours of my time.

I was initially excited for Karaoke mode and had taken for granted that it would easily top the new additions as my favorite. As it turns out, it’s a little light for my taste, though that is by no means a fault of the game’s amazing soundtrack. Instead of having options to have both the lyrics and vocals, the mode is limited to solely to lyrics. The mode is also not available with regular play but only as a solo race around one of the circuits. Although maybe me imagining singing along in time and tune with Takenobu Mitsuyoshi while zipping past dozens of opponents akin to a cavalry charge while listening to “Ride of the Valkyries” might be a bit much.

Seeing as how the arcade canon was already tweaked, I would’ve liked to have seen the two extra tracks from CCE in the lineup. Since they have been relegated to an offshoot release, it would have been great to see them worked into the fold properly. Their exclusion is understandable when taking into account CCE was a Saturn original that featured a modified engine for smoother play on the system. Still, you can’t fault a man for wanting more Daytona.

The re-release of Daytona USA is a phenomenal port and a grand reminder that there were once arcades, and that they were ruled by Sega. Don’t let the blocky models and dated textures deter you from settling in with one of the most satisfying racers to date. Race a few times, lose, probably lose some more, but get back in and allow its subtle charms and bright colors to lull you into a Hornet 41-induced trance—you’ll come out of it an hour later with frayed nerves and noticeably better skills. While the lack of local multiplayer stings, online lag spikes are annoying, and a few more tracks would’ve been nice, this is 800 MS Points’ worth of pure arcade racer that deserves to be played.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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