Review by: J.M. Vargas
“GOING OUT WITH A BANG OR A WHIMPER? SEGA’S ARCADE RACERS TO THE RESCUE”

WARNING: this game requires 221 blocks of the Saturn’s internal memory, so if you haven’t picked up a Memory Card yet for the Saturn then this might be the game that forces you to get one. Of course, you can just delete every saved game you have on the system and forget you ever read this.

The coin-ops Sega develops for arcades are the best of the best (and even Namco would admit, privately, that there is no disputing that), and the racers they develop are, among other things, the most visually rewarding and gameplay-enhanced driving experiences in the world. Problem is, Sega’s arcade division never gave a thought about the home conversions of those games when developed for the coin-op, which resulted in the underpowered Saturn having a tough time duplicating the Model 2 stunning visuals with any degree of resemblance to the real deal. And although this applied to all coin-op ports (“Virtual On”, “Virtua Cop” series, “Virtua Fighter” series, etc.), driving games in particular were tough to convert and/or port because of the need for speed (30 or 60 frames-per-second), resolution and the ever-dreadful pop-up of the horizon.

So, does “Sega TouringCar Championship” (STCC from now on) join the elite racers on Saturn (“Manx TT”, “Sega Rally”) or gets lumped with the occasional disaster (“Sky Target”, “Daytona USA”)? The credentials seem to indicate that there is truckloads of talent behind this game: Tetsuya Mizuguchi (former head of AM3) and his team of “Sega Rally”/”Virtual On” refugees banded together and formed a new AM department (ANNEX) solely to develop this game. They did careful research over the Touring Car circuits of Europe (where this sport and Rally Championships are quite popular), and went to Finland to get the feel and experience of driving really fast sports vehicles. The cars are all the real deal: Alfa Romeo 155V6TI, Toyota Supra GT, AMG Mercedes C-Class and the Opel Calibra V6. So, does it all come together or not to give the Saturn a 21-gun salute as it rides into the sunset? Because unless Sega pulls “Indy 500” out of nowhere between now and Dural, “STCC” is the last racer from Sega that Saturn will ever see :-(.

GRAPHICS / VISUALS: B-
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Anyone who ever saw the arcade will tell you that it was one sweet piece of polygon eye-candy, with high-resolution and blazing 60 frames-per-second (consider yourself lucky if you saw it, since “STCC” saw limited release here in the States); some of the stills in Next Generation magazine #23 will also showcase the beauty of the arcade version this Saturn racer is based on. And, sadly, those kick-ass visuals have taken a real head-on hit on the 32-bit system, with muddy and low-res graphics that can give eyes some watery and sore times. The frame-rate of the game is interesting, as it seems to CONSTANTLY shift between 24 and 30 per second regardless of race location and number of vehicles on-screen. Remember how colorful and vibrant the world of “Sega Rally” looked on Saturn, with deep greens, blues and reds mixed with realistic landscapes? “STCC” needed to reduce detail to free the Hitachi twin-processors to handle the many cars on-screen (up to eight others), which incidentally look like the real vehicles the player has an option to select (no other pink-colored drones here); you will be driving against seven other Toyota Supra’s, Alfa Romeo’s, Opel Calibra’s and Mercedes C-Class vehicles. But those beautiful colors and transparencies from the arcade had to go, and what we’re left with is a game that drives like a simulator’s wet dream but looks like a dog. We’re talking “Daytona CCE” pop-less visuals here folks, and that is probably as good as the Saturn can do graphically unless a third party comes out of nowhere (like Tecmo) and releases the “Dead or Alive” of racing games. The result? The game feels fast and has the scenery and other road objects flying by at breath-taking rates; no “Rage Racer” here, but awfully close sense of speed. The split-screen VS Mode looks just like all the One-Player modes, with a comparable frame-rate and a little more pop-up visible; much better than “Rally” or “Daytona CCE”, and comparable to “Manx TT”. No other vehicles besides the two competing one’s are visible, so I guess the Saturn is being pushed to its limits and can’t handle the truth :-).

Something else about the graphics: the three courses are one sad-looking and uninspiring bunch of generic tracks; with the exception of the Brickwall Town (an absolute bitch of a track if you ask me), all the background detail and side objects look like generic mountain landscapes. The crowds watching on the stand look like s@%* (what’s new in a sports game?), but the many sponsor advertisements spread throughout the courses look nice (“must buy Michellin tires…must buy Michellin…”). The option screens and menus are in gorgeous hi-res, looking just like they did on the arcade original. AM3’s previous Saturn port, “Manx TT” (which was, incidentally, handled by Psygnosis subsidiary Tantalus to allow ANNEX to concentrate on “STCC” and AM3 on the Saturn port of “Last Bronx”), was way more shallow but escaped with a less punishing visual facelift. The sparks flying off the vehicles are just plain sad, without any of the visual sparkle from the arcade version (they should have scrapped it, since it looks like a joke compared to other racers on competing systems).

MUSIC / SOUND EFFECTS: B+
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I’d rather have the sweet relief of silence over the dopey guy on Rally going “Baby!” all over, or “Manx TT” and its announcer with a Japanese accent; that’s right, “STCC” does not have an announcer prominently counting down the clock, saying “Ready”, “Go” and “Game Over”. The engines from each of the four vehicles have their distinctive roar, but everything else about the sound effects seems dead average; hitting the rails, screeching tires, etc. never sounded so average or unremarkable, but you’ll be hard-pressed to listen to them because of the kick-ass racing songs.

Musical tracks were composed by Italian, Belgium and Japanese composers, particularly AVEX TRAX (a Japanese house for techno composers); the “WipeOut” series aside, you won’t find a more hardcore techno soundtrack anywhere else, and that says a lot because this type of music is the current rage when composing soundtracks for videogames. The game’s producer is a self-proclaimed techno freak, and he made sure there’s a nice selection of music to which to race, and it’s all available in red-book audio for audiophiles on the go (a soundtrack with more remixes of the songs in the game is available on import). Two of the tracks, “Game Over” and “Conditional Reflex”, are techno remixes of the Desert Track in “Sega Rally”; besides those two, “STCC” has totally new racing techno composed specifically for this game. Techno freaks, rejoice! This game has the third-best techno score of ane next-generation racing game, behind only the “WipeOut” series and the wacky “Ridge Racer Revolution”; shame that type of music ain’t my cup of tea, but I recognize talent when I hear it.

GAMEPLAY / FUN FACTOR: B-
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I was hoping against hope that AM ANNEX would tone down the sadistic level of realism that “STCC” brought to the arcades, and include some sort of “dumbed down” driving for those of us who simply aren’t up to the realism standard brought to consoles by the likes of “Formula One: CE” (PSX) or the Ubi Soft game for the N64. Unfortunately, “STCC” for Saturn didn’t go far in its options, and the result is a game that will only be worshipped by racing Gods that crave the thrill of taking a steep curve with the precise gas, brake and steering combination, and shave off a few milliseconds from the previous score. As hardcore as racing simulators get on Saturn, “STCC” and EA’s “Nascar ’98” are the only racing options this Christmas ’98, and those of us who crave the thrill of huge jumps and over-the-top racing will have to find them elsewhere but the Saturn.

Allow me to explain a little what the gameplay of “STCC” is about: it’s a hybrid of hardcore simulator and arcade racer that is unforgiving in it’s realistic gameplay mechanics. If you hit the roadside at least one, then you can pretty much forget about finishing first for that race. You have to understand your vehicle’s strengths and weaknesses, tweak them at the option menu (Saturn Side), and beat the other seven racers in order to open more tracks and get hidden vehicles (like the cars from “Sega Rally”). I’ve played the game for the past two weeks, and I’m telling you that if practice makes perfection, then I’m perfection 10 times over but I still haven’t finished first (or second) once! This game’s brutal and may turn off people who buy into it expecting it to be the next “Daytona CCE” or “Ridge Racer”; Sega should promote more prominently the simulation aspects of the game (“simulation” isn’t mentioned in the manual at all), since this game has more in common with Psygnosis’ “F1” simulators than you would think. But by not going all the way with the simulation aspects, “STCC” has created its own niche’ of arcade racer mechanics and real-life attributes, which is closely mirrored by the likes of the “Test Drive” and the “Need For Speed” series. Your vehicles don’t deform or show damage, but bang the left wall of the Brickwall Town plenty of times and tell me if your handling doesn’t take a nose dive and the car feels like it’s pulling toward one side or another. Internal bleeding baby…the most dangerous and deadly of them all.

When you fire up “STCC”, you’ll get to choose between Arcade Side (Championship, Records, Grand Prix) and Saturn side (Championship, Time Attack, VS Race and Car Set Up). The Arcade side is just like that, the coin-op gameplay brought home with the same degree of intense realism: finish the race in three/five laps per course, and if you accumulate enough points you get the ranking. Don’t finish a lap in time and you’re disqualified and your records forgotten. Although not listed in the Menu, Grand Prix Mode becomes available when you place high enough to get your name in the records, and it allows you to play a 20-lap heat with seven other racers and the clock constantly counting down in a single court. A trip to the Pits will have the car ready to take the final few laps after all the punishment the first few laps will put on the tires and suspension, but it costs up to fifteen VERY VALUABLE seconds. Can’t tell you how frustrating it is to race for 18 laps, with a trip to the pits suddenly boosting my car handling and propelling me from sixth to first place in about seven laps, only to have the clock counting down and expiring on you on the 20th lap with the Finish lane just half-a-mile away. The rage level can only be compared with the level of exhilaration I felt when finally winning the Country and Grunwalt Circuits…but I guarantee you that Brickwall Town will give you nightmares and haunt you in your sleep. Truly wicked and sadistic course design; needless to say, Grand Prix Mode is the best option available on “STCC” by far. Saturn side gives you Time Attack, were you practice for the real race and get to see if you can beat your best times via a cool “Ghost” of your best times (like “Rally” and “Manx”) that becomes available after racing a five-lap run under 250 seconds. Car Set Up lets you tweak the car of choice to your liking, which could be considered a way of easing the pain of the real deal by giving the player control of the car’s suspension, gear ratio, handling on the back or front tires (which affects some of the cars better than others), etc. I can finally give a better cornering pattern to the speed demon that my Toyota Supra GT happens to be and take it to the Championship Mode (but not to the Arcade Side’s Grand Prix Mode…bummer!). Options menus allow you to adjust anything from Boost (Saturn side) to the loudness of the music and the difficulty of the game; be warned that the CPU is killer when it’s set on anything but Easy. VS mode only allows you to race against your opponent and not the usual eight, which affects the gameplay considerably: you only have to worry about taking on a single guy and not the hordes of speed demon the CPU controls, which comes to a test of pure driving skills since you can’t just grab the controller and “Ridge Race” your way through the game. Me and a fellow gamer went at it for a while and, although not exactly pissed, we weren’t motivated to ever try it again. VS is for skilled drivers who can take pride in their cornering and brake/shift skills, and want to prove the buddy with similar tastes in driving games who’s boss. Since graphics look no different than in the One-Player Mode (a little more pop-up, same frame-rate), it comes to skill; and like the game itself, it’ll be an acquired taste for those who choose to go at it.

Finally, there is the potential for internet-friendly gameplay in the near future via PC and Netlink hook-up to the Internet (using both the PC and the Saturn versions of the game). There are tournaments scheduled for December 24, 1997, February and April 1998 in which a new course will open for players to race in and leave their best times posted; this to me sounds like a potential expansion pack, since I can’t think they would go to the trouble of creating new tracks just for a few hours worth of gameplay. That would go a long way toward easing the pain of the many shortcomings in “STCC”: no Netlink support (would have extended the lifespan of the product considerably), only a handful of generic and uninspiring tracks (compared to the number and design of the tracks in “F1”, it feels lacking), and a difficulty level that’ll keep many of us crying late at night (and many other racing demons salivating for one more lap…you know who you are!). OVERALL: B
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I was ready to crucify this game three hours after playing it with a nasty and negative review, but after playing it for a few more days it has grown on me in a weird way (that and the fact that I’m going to get my money’s worth got dammit!). I never liked simulation games at all, but somehow that Sega magic has blessed “Sega TouringCar Championship” with addictive and challenging racing gameplay that is sadly held back by the lackluster visuals and difficulty (a one-lap qualifying heat?). “Ridge Racer” this ain’t, but at least it has better tunes than the hick tunes and barnyard atmosphere of that other realistic Saturn racer for the holidays (EA’s “Nascar’98”). Just be warned that “San Francisco Rush” and “Test Drive 4” (had to pick two random arcade-like titles for competing consoles) are the games you want if you want to keep driving after hitting a wall head-on at over 100 miles-per-hour; “STCC” will leave your car limping and in need of a trip to the Pits if it encounters a similar scenario.

AM2 titles are not in parade this Christmas on Saturn, which leaves all the big games to alternative teams (AM3, ANNEX, Lobotomy, Warp, etc.). “STCC” will sell on Sega’s name alone, but sadly Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s talent and pull doesn’t approach the status of a Yu Suzuki or Shigeru Miyamoto (yet); two games under his watch, “Last Bronx” and this one, have failed to live up to the standards of past Christmas releases (“VF2”, “Rally”, “Daytona CCE”, etc.). Let’s hope that future Dural releases get at least one Christmas goodie from AM2 more than once every few moons; “Fighters Megamix” was their last one, and the creators of “STCC” keeps reminding me that they lack AM2’s magic touch. Maybe they should get a cool logo or something, like a palm tree with a boom box and sunglasses; a morale booster!

NeXT!!!!