ROOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLIIIIIINNNNNGGGG STAAAAAAART!!!! yells Takenobu Mitsuyoshi as you push down hard on the accelerator, ready to take control of your Hornet NASCAR on the beginner course of the mighty Daytona USA. You grip the wheel tightly as it fights you for control, and a huge grin spreads across your face. It doesn’t get any better than this. This is arcade racing perfection.
Cards on the table, I love this game. I love the arcade version of Daytona USA so much that it remains a dream of mine to own it one day. But back in 1995, its impending arrival on Sega’s new 32-bit Saturn machine basically made my mind up about what system I would be getting to ‘replace’ my Mega Drive. Sega had always been about ‘bringing the arcade experience home’, so there was never any doubt that they would deliver a perfect conversion of their arcade smash. Or was there?
For those who don’t know (and I find it hard to believe these people actually exist) Daytona USA is a racing game, based on the quintessentially American motorsport of NASCAR racing. You control a high performance Hornet NASCAR and race against up to 40 opponents across three tracks: ‘Three Seven Speedway’ – the beginner track, basically an elongated oval, the slightly more technical ‘Dinosaur Canyon’ advanced track and the expert course – a very difficult track known as ‘Seaside Street Galaxy’, packed with the kind of hairpin turns these cars simply aren’t designed for!
There’s only one car to choose from, the aforementioned Hornet, although you can of course select manual or automatic transmission. In terms of options and variety, for the arcade game at least, that’s about it! But we’re here to talk about the Saturn port, so let’s do that….
Released as a launch title for the Saturn in the west in the summer of 1995, the home version of Daytona USA carried a huge weight of expectation, both from fans of the arcade, but also from Sega, who hoped it would help to shift large numbers of their new system. I got the game with my new Saturn that year, and couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
Let’s not sugar coat it, the first thing you notice when playing the Saturn version of Daytona USA is that graphically, it’s taken a MASSIVE hit. The Saturn simply couldn’t compete with the awesome power of Sega’s flagship Model 2 arcade board, so compromises were inevitable. The smooth 60 frames per second of the arcade is gone, replaced with a slightly chugging 20fps. Draw distance is hugely reduced and polygons are constantly popping up all over the place. It’s not pretty, but it is still very recognisably DAYTONA, and frankly that’s all that matters.
You see, I’ve started with what seems like a big negative, and for many it will be. We’re now so used to home console and PC graphics comfortably matching today’s arcade games that it’s easy to forget how things used to be. No-one was expecting the Saturn port to look identical to the arcade, although perhaps we were a little taken aback by just how much they had suffered. What we were really concerned about though was whether it played like, and more intangibly perhaps, felt like Daytona. We needn’t have worried. Sega absolutely nailed the handling of the cars, and despite the slower frame rate, it doesn’t feel slow (there’s that F-word again…). The drafting behind other cars, the power sliding round corners, the bumper to bumper racing – it’s all there, and it feels sublime. It feels excellent with the always awesome Saturn controller, but if you can get your hands on either the Arcade Racer steering wheel or 3D controller for the Saturn, you definitely should. They both work a treat here and the wheel in particular just adds to the arcade vibe, and is incredibly precise.
The overall presentation of the game is almost identical to the arcade, so apart from the graphical deficiencies, you really do get that same experience. As well as the normal Arcade Mode, there’s also a Saturn Mode, which is still contested on the same tracks, but allows for the unlocking of new cars (although they are just different colour variations of the Hornet, just with differing attributes. The colours themselves were used to represent cars 3 – 8 on the 8 player arcade cabs). If you meet certain criteria, you can even unlock both a manual and automatic transmission HORSE. Yes, I said horse. These polygonal stallions handle about as well as you’d expect, although they share the same attributes as the slowest cars. Hilariously, their hooves squeal and smoke as you slide round corners…
A special mention here must go to the music. For the arcade game, all the songs, including both the drum sounds and Mitsuyoshi’s voice were synthesized using a Yamaha sound chip, giving them a distinctive yet slightly muffled and reverb-heavy sound. For the Saturn port, the entire soundtrack was re-recorded using real instruments, and as a result everything sounds much clearer and punchier. This is one area where the Saturn port is actually BETTER than the arcade! Don’t believe me? YouTube a song from both the arcade and Saturn versions and listen to them back to back. Don’t worry, I’ll wait….
Done it? Told you so!
The soundtrack is one of the things that made the arcade game so special, and having its endearing mid-90’s charm represented so brilliantly on the home version is a massive plus point.
The only real flaw that I can think of (aside from the graphics) is the same complaint you could level at most arcade ports – it’s too short and there isn’t much game here. While this was a serious consideration in 1995 when deciding whether or not to spend £30 – £40 on a game, in 2017 when we’re looking for that nostalgic Sega arcade racer fix, this concern simply isn’t a factor, especially when Daytona is so cheap and easy to find. It’s also a game you’ll find yourself coming back to again and again. There’s something so fun, so comforting, so SEGA about that beginner course that it’s almost hypnotic in the way it draws you back for just one more lap….
Overall, while Daytona USA on the Saturn doesn’t look as good as the arcade version, it gets everything else so right that you can easily forgive it’s graphical flaws. With it being a huge launch title, it’s still dirt cheap and boxed complete copies still sell for comfortably less than £10 on eBay.
It’s hard to believe that any Saturn owner hasn’t already got this in their collection, but if you haven’t because you’d heard that it was an ugly duckling compared to the beautiful arcade swan that spawned it, then please, please buy it now!