I’ve always wanted to square off Virtua Racing against Starwing. That’s a much bigger job than just reviewing either one of them individually, and since I lack the time to immediately that, and, having been playing a bit of Virtua Racing recently, I thought I’d forgo my original plans to review it alongside its early home console 3D-graphics competitor. In its home console form, Virtua Racing is obviously important for two reasons, the first being its conceptual import, and the second its innovativeness in terms of its use of hardware.
Previously, racing titles relied on a carefully constructed two dimensional illusion of distance and depth of environment in order to convey a plausible game scenario. While VR wasn’t the first 3D racing game to do away with these techniques, it was the first to do it well. What was definitely not lost in VR, and indeed continues to be an important concept in racing games after their transition to three-dimensional environments, is its persuasive illusion of speed.
I didn’t find VR‘s Acropolis level to be particularly well-executed level in conceptual terms, but its intermediate-difficulty level, Bay Bridge, a shining example of what Sega and Yu Suzuki were trying to achieve. While VR‘s environment can be divided up binarily, interactively speaking, into obstacles and non-obstactles, Bay Bridge demonstrates the kind of raw, intuitive feeling that you can only get from a (what was then) realistic three-dimensional environment. On the level, you pass through the namesake steel bridge, which is enormous. It towers over you, and the feeling of that empty column of space stays with you the rest of the level. You pass through a mountain in a tunnel, underneath huge freeway-like concrete manifolds, and alongside imposing grey retaining walls. The level design and eye-candy work together to drive home this concept of speed and transit in a very convincing manner.
The only time this breaks down is when you crash, or, through naive level design, become aware that–much like any 2D racing game, Hang On and Out Run being famous Sega examples–basically all of the world is proceeding towards you from a point in the middle of your TV screen. At these two moments you’ll realise just how much VR has inherited from its ancestors, as it will become patently apparent that the car onto which you’re projecting your will, and the environment around it, are not inhabiting the same plane of existence: the player’s car, at times, feels as if it is being drawn on top of everything that’s happening on the screen, like it’s not really ‘there’ on the road. This should all be regarded as forgivable, because, first, most of the time, the player’s car feels flush with the road, and secondly, this criticism is minor gripe. Seeing as the technology powering VR was very, very new, the fact that they managed to pull off a game as atmospheric and realistic as they did is a real achievement.
The second important thing about VR, its use of hardware, is also something worthy of praise. I think it speaks to the great flexibility of the cartridge format that game manufacturers were able to incorporate secondary processors into their games in order to better realise their creative ideas. Today, one is more-or-less stuck with the hardware they have when they come to possess a new game title, but that was not necessarily so with cartridge-based software. Cartridges could–and did–contain extra RAM, or special memory bank switching hardware (think the NES) in order to push the envelope in terms of sprite and background complexity. As with Nintendo and their Super FX line of chips, Sega made use of a secondary microprocessor to handle the calculations necessary to display 3D visuals on their fourth-generation console. What distinguishes VR‘s special chip, the ‘Sega Virtua Processor’ (good old-fashioned marketing spin at work here) from the Super FX is that it was not a full, multi-purpose microprocessor. It was a Digital Signal Processor (DSP).
A DSP is microprocessor that is custom-built for a very particular purpose, which is frequently a very simple and repetitive, but power-hungry task. That’s not to say that all custom-built microprocessors are DSPs, but in this particular case, the “SVP” was designed to perform two operations (multiplication and addition) for the purpose of calculating VR‘s 3D polygonal data, and transforming it into “8×8 tiles” (which one can assume to be 8×8 pixel patterns). These two-dimensional tiles are transferred, ultimately, to the Mega Drive’s video RAM via Direct Memory Access (which is only possible through the use of cartridges!).
You could be forgiven for thinking that the SVP stood in the same league of semiconductor fidelity as the RISC Super FX chip, because, short of performing some sort of hard empirical comparison between VR and Starwing in terms of their polygon-count (VR displaying somewhere between 300-500 polygons @ 15 FPS), early alternative to Z-buffering (see Quake’s Binary Space Partitioning), use of colour, and frame-rate (&c &c), the visuals that both games push are comparable. Honestly, whenever I pick up VR I forget that the SVP is only capable of rendering polygons on-screen in 16 (!!!) colours.
There may be something to be said for Starwing‘s better player game-environment interactivity and command of atmosphere (NB Starwing‘s final level), but, short of performing the all-out compare-and-contrast disclaimed above, Virtua Racing is an absolute stellar title. I’m asserting this despite the fact that I don’t particularly like racing games as a genre–as a game in itself, the world environment that this title manages to convey to the player is reasonably deep and tangible. While I haven’t spoken about the game’s controls at all, its scheme of interactivity is solid. In that manner, it doesn’t fail as a racing game.
The great thing about VR is that it is able to be acquired on eBay and other retro gaming shops on the internet for ten to twenty dollars. That’s a far cry from the game’s original asking price. With Mega Drive systems being correspondingly so durable and cheap, it’s worth getting both and learning a bit about the history surrounding the video game industry’s fits and starts into the 3D graphics era. Retrogarden puts it pretty well when it says that
the SVP chip brought hope to die-hard and downtrodden Sega fans; if Virtua Racing was possible, why not Virtua Fighter too? Could 3rd party developers take the SVP chip and use it to port Doom, or even make a Starwing-type game?
The SVP represents the highly contingent nature of the aesthetics of the Western video game industry from the mid-nineties onwards. The progression to more and more complex foundations of hardware didn’t push more complex artistic ideas with it, as disillusioned Sega fans can surely attest. While VR offered a glimmer of hope, the future wasn’t secure as the industry moved into the mid-to-late nineties, as everyone is so obviously aware.
For a brilliant in-depth hardware analysis of Virtua Racing (which Jump’n Shoot will probably exploit later) on the Mega Drive, see this blog post.
For more information about the “Sega Virtua Processor” (a Samsung SSP160x Digital Signal Processor), see this forum thread.