Sega Rally Championship was released in arcades in 1995 and followed up on Sega's success with Virtua Racing and Daytona USA. Sega Rally was ported to Sega's ailing Saturn later that same year. Sega Rally was released during the tail end of Sega's glory years, when they dominated the arcades and were transitioning from the successful Genesis console.
Two cars are featured in Sega Rally Championship, the Celica T200 and Lancia Delta HF Integrale. The Celica is faster but has less grip. The Delta is slower but easier to control. Each car can be selected with a 4 speed automatic or manual transmission.
Three tracks are initially available, including Desert, which is an easy course set in what appears to be the wettest and greenest desert ever known to man. The Forest course is moderate in difficulty and takes place on pavement and dirt. The final course, Mountain, takes place on a tight and twisty paved road.
Despite the insanely small roster list, Sega Rally Championship has the goods where it counts. First and foremost is the handling of the cars. I have played a lot of 3D rally games over the years, from V-Rally on the original Playstation to Rallisport on the Xbox. Nothing compares to the smooth and responsive controls of this masterpiece.
When I first got my Sega Saturn back in 2001, it came with Sega Rally. I played it for a while but never really got into it. Eight years later I am hooked. In little time at all I started "getting" it, sustaining impossible drifts around long corners and switching from left to right with ease. After playing for an hour I had all 3 courses memorised and began shaving many seconds off my lap times. The sliding is predictable and works well with the d-pad.
The main meat of the game is the championship mode. You start off in 15th place. You won't make it to first place in the first round, but you start the next round in the position you ended in the last round. If you manage to be in first place at the end of the three rounds, you move onto the fourth and hidden track. Lake Side is a very difficult track taking place in the jungle with a very slippery mud surface. It's a nice bonus for completing this demanding mode. If you finish lake side in first place (on normal difficulty), you earn the Lancia Stratos.
The artificial intelligence does leave something to be desired. The opponents follow a predetermined path and don't react at all to your presence. In addition to memorizing the tracks, you need memorise your opponents paths to determine the best time and place to pass them. The quicker you can clear opponents the better as it seems to "unlock" the next opponent.
Exclusive to the Saturn version is a Time Attack mode that lets you practice the 3 tracks (as well as the hidden Lake Side track if you have unlocked it). There is also some minor tuning allowed in this mode, including suspension settings and adjusting the blow off valve. Rounding off the options are a 2 player head to head mode, three difficulty levels, and the option to change between 1 laps and 3 laps.
Changing the rounds to three laps does not make the game any easier. You just encounter opponents less often through the three rounds. The difficulty level gives you additional time to complete the race and slows down your opponent's pace. Normal difficulty offers a good challenge without being overly punishing. It stills takes a lot of practice and skills to finish first on this level though.
Graphically speaking, Sega Rally Championship is still a solid looking game and holds up well today. A lot of these early 3D games don't age well. Where this game lacks in polygons and texture quality, it makes up for in color and sheer speed. This game cooks along at a quick pace, helping to hide some of it's shortcomings. Additionally, the game is bright and colorful, with bright blue skies, and bright shades of green, brown, and tans for the road textures and road side details. There is some pop-up in the background but nothing that gets in the way of game play and most of the time it's unnoticeable. Lastly, the frame rate rarely suffers from any slowdown.
My only gripe with the graphics lies with a limitation of the Saturn's hardware itself. The Saturn can't do transparency effects. The transparent windows on the cars are faked with a checkered pattern. While it blends well enough using RF or composite cables, it sticks out like a sore thumb with an S-Video cable or when emulated (see the below screens).
The soundtrack in Sega Rally Championship consists of a generic rock track that was popular at the time. Thankfully, the game still maintains some of the silliness found in Sega's earlier arcade racers like Virtua Racing and Daytona USA. After completing a race you get an exaggerated jingle celebrating that fact you finished the race (Fiiiiiiiinnnnnish!). The engine sounds are spot on, from the audible gear changes to the whine of the turbo charged 4-bangers. Play this game loud!
I really like Sega Rally Championship. It really sucks you in and makes you feel like a rally racer. Few games ever make you forget about your surroundings and immerse you into the experience. Racing is my favorite genre of video games, as obvious by high proportion of racing reviews on this site. Sega Rally definitely ranks high among my favorites.
Overall Sega Rally is an outstanding game. The speedy graphics and awesome drifting physics make for an excellent racing experience. The only shortcoming, which isn't uncommon in arcade ports, is the lack of length. If you want to know why so many gamers loved Sega in the 1990's, look no further than Sega Rally Championship for the Saturn.
Graphics 9/10 - Fast and colorful
Music 7/10 - Decent soundtrack, great sound effects
Game play 9/10 - Great controls, lacking AI
Overall 9/10 - Defining Sega title