The Sega Ages series has quickly established itself as the premium name when it comes to retro gaming on the Switch. While each release is generally more expensive than other old-school offerings on the system, it’s worth it for the pristine emulation, the extreme attention to detail and the way developer M2 improves each game in a tasteful, relevant way that doesn’t mess too much with the spirit of the original title.
The seven Sega Ages games released to date have treaded fairly safe and familiar ground for the most part, covering games from the Mega Drive (Sonic, Thunder Force IV), Master System (Alex Kidd, Phantasy Star) and its earlier sprite-based arcade boards (Out Run, Gain Ground, Puyo Puyo). This eighth release is a biggie, though: Virtua Racing was the first game created for Sega’s Model 1 arcade board and was the company’s first attempt at a polygonal arcade game: had it failed, we may never have had Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, Virtua Tennis or the like.
Gamers of a certain vintage will know Virtua Racing, even if they didn’t necessarily play it. There was a period in the early ‘90s where practically every decent arcade had a Virtua Racing machine, and many even had a bunch linked together for multiplayer races. Although they were replaced over the years with the likes of Daytona USA and Out Run 2 machines, for a glorious couple of years Virtua Racing was the showstopper, the game you happily watched people playing because it was so much more advanced than anything you’d ever seen before.
In theory, porting Virtua Racing brings a whole new set of challenges. Sega’s earlier boards and systems have been emulated countless times in the past, so while a flawless port of Sonic the Hedgehog is certainly welcome, it isn’t exactly monumental. This is a different ball game, but we’re delighted to confirm that M2 has once again absolutely smashed it out of the park and delivered yet another fantastic re-release that doesn’t just accurately replicate the 1992 arcade original, but improves it significantly so it looks and feels better than it ever has before.
For those unfamiliar with it, Virtua Racing consists of a five-lap race on one of three different tracks, each with its own notable landmark. Beginner track Big Forest is located next to a fairground, intermediate track Bay Bridge features... well, a big bridge, and the expert track Acropolis has a hell of a hairpin turn that’s easily the most notorious corner in the game. A trio of tracks may not seem like much by modern standards, but the game’s unique handling and extremely efficient AI racers mean mastering them will still be a challenge that’ll take a while.
Visually, the game is flawless. With improvements made to both resolution and frame rate, Virtua Racing runs at a native 1080p on Switch (720p in handheld) at a rock solid 60 frames per second. This makes it significantly sharper and smoother than the original arcade version, and it looks absolutely fantastic. Granted, look at any screenshots of the game and you can literally count the polygons, but what was then a lack of detail due to restrictions in technology has now – some 17 years later – become a beautifully minimalist look.
The most notable issue with the original game’s graphics, the severe pop-in, has also been drastically improved. Draw distances are far longer than they were before, meaning those jarring moments when bridges and Ferris wheels suddenly appeared out of nowhere are a thing of the past: everything feels like the sort of thing the developers presumably intended to achieve back in 1992 but weren’t able to.
Some purists may turn their nose up at these improvements, and argue that Virtua Racing was never supposed to be played in 1080p at 60 frames per second, with draw distances longer than Pinocchio’s snout after he fails a lie detector test. Indeed, there are no options to play in any sort of ‘classic’ mode (at least not that we could see), meaning if you actually want the pop-in and lower frame rate for nostalgia’s sake you’re out of luck: it’s the good stuff or nothing.
Its looks aren’t the only element given a revamp. One of the other major new additions is an optional new steering mode. The original arcade version’s steering was famously slippery, and turning even a little too hard could result in your car spinning out. With time you could learn the car’s limits and figure out how far you could push them on each corner, making it all the more satisfying when you pulled off progressively faster laps. For those who aren’t up for that challenge, the new ‘standard’ handling option makes the game feel far more like modern racing games, and makes spinning out while turning all but impossible. Again, the die-hards will baulk at this and consider it an insult to the past, but at least this time it’s optional.
Craving something a bit more meaty than the standard 5-lap races? A new Grand Prix option has also been added, upping the number of laps to 20 and making things like tyre wear and pit stops relevant. Both were present in the original too, but with only five laps they weren’t really worth taking into consideration: now you can really feel your handling start to suffer after around 10 laps and have to make a call as to whether you want to soldier on with the handicap or pit in and give up 10 seconds or so to restore your car to perfect condition.
Multiplayer racing was one of the big selling points of Virtua Racing in the arcades, so it’s covered here too. There’s local multiplayer support for up to eight players in split-screen, which is a lovely gimmick and still moves perfectly smoothly but is practically unplayable given how small the screens get: we’d recommend sticking to no more than four. As for online, it’s probably the game’s main letdown: it’s limited to 2-player races and we constantly had issues with lag (presumably because most of our opponents were based in Japan rather than nearby – this review is based on the Japanese version of the game).
A brand new replay mode – which never even existed in the arcade game – has been included here, complete with a remixed version of the incredible replay music from the 32X version of Virtua Racing. Even better, load up a replay of a Grand Prix race and you’ll see Virt McPolygon, the virtual commentator who appeared on the extra screen when arcade owners were flush enough to add a bonus ‘live monitor’ for spectators during multiplayer races. His charmingly bad English (“I’m alive and kicking, get you the exciting race!”) is a delight, as is the fact he’s even here in the first place. It’s attention to detail like this that shows M2 is on top of its game once again.
In fact, M2 may be its own worst enemy at this point. This is such an absolutely perfect rendition of the arcade version – right down to the annoying little black mark next to the lap time in the top-right corner that we assure you was there back in the day too – that we couldn’t help wishing M2 had gone further and added more features from other ports of the game. The 32X, Saturn and PS2 ports of Virtua Racing may not look as good as this Switch one, but they all added bonus tracks to offer more value for money (the Saturn version had ten!) and each gave you different vehicles to choose from too, like stock cars and karts.
Here you’ve only got the standard three tracks and F1 car. In a sense, it’s hard to criticise that – this is a port of the arcade game, and that’s exactly what the arcade game offered – but given how comprehensive previous Sega Ages games have been, that would have been a particularly delicious cherry on top. Instead, while this is clearly the definitive version of Virtua Racing in terms of look and feel, long-time fans of the game still shouldn’t chuck out their old copies of the home versions. Well, except the Mega Drive one.
As it stands, if you’re coming to this game fresh and without the obvious nostalgia factor many will be buying it for, your enjoyment of Virtua Racing will depend on what type of racing game player you are. If you’re the sort who thrives on heaps of tracks, tournament modes, Mario Kart-style cup formats and the like, you’re going to find this severely lacking in that regard. If, however, you’re the type who’s up for the challenge of playing just three courses over and over again, mastering them, improving your times and inching your way up the online leaderboards (each track has two: one for the normal 5-lap mode and one for the 20-lap Grand Prix mode), then you could be playing this for (ahem) ages.
Virtua Racing is by far the most impressive Sega Ages release to date, offering an incredible remaster that doesn’t just replicate the arcade game but actively improves its resolution and frame rate. Newcomers should be aware that it still only offers three tracks and one car, but those willing to accept this fairly meagre offering will find that the new 20-lap Grand Prix mode and the online leaderboards give it a much-needed boost of longevity. Not for everyone, then, but those who ‘get’ it will adore it.
Please note this review is based on the Japanese version of Sega Ages Virtua Racing.