Revisiting Daytona USA with the Xbox 360 port

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You know, we can blame the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 era for a lot of things that suck about modern gaming — but one thing that remains worth celebrating is how, after the underperformance of the Dreamcast and their subsequent pulling out of the console hardware market, Sega decided to treat Microsoft platforms in particular (and, to a lesser extent, the PlayStation 3) as spiritual successors to the 128-bit wonder. And nowhere is that more apparent than in 2012’s Xbox Live Arcade port of classic arcade racer Daytona USA.

Throughout the seventh generation, developers, publishers and gamers alike felt like they were starting to demand more from their games: epic, lengthy experiences that they could invest significant portions of their lives into. It’s the era we really started to see the more insufferable people whingeing about the non-existent correlation between game price and game length — and thus arcade ports that you could technically “finish” in a matter of minutes simply weren’t going to cut it for retail releases any more.

Daytona USA

But then we had Xbox Live Arcade, which began its life as a digital download platform specifically for these short-form arcade-style experiences that no longer had a place at retail. Over time, the platform grew into a rather more generic digital download store — but it never quite forgot that all-important “arcade” side of things. And titles like Daytona USA are a fantastic example of this.

Daytona USA, lest you are unfamiliar, is Sega’s 1994 follow-up to its classic arcade racer Virtua Racing, which got a cracking Sega Ages port to Nintendo Switch a while back. In contrast to Virtua Racing’s flat-shaded polygons, Daytona USA wowed audiences back in ’94 with its 60fps fully texture mapped polygonal environments — something which even home consoles of the period couldn’t quite match.

The arcade version of Daytona USA offers three courses to race on: a Beginner course with a tweaked tri-oval layout; an Advanced course that sees you racing around a rocky canyon area; and an Expert course that takes you to a lovely little seaside town. Interestingly, the real-world Daytona race course was rejected during development as being too repetitive to race on, so the three fictional courses were developed instead.

Daytona USA

In each case, you’re given a set number of laps and a time limit to get as far up the field as possible, with something of an inverse correlation between the number of obstacles you have to overcome and the overall difficulty of the race. For example, the Beginner race has the largest number of laps and the greatest number of opponents, but is the easiest, shortest course. By contrast, the Expert race only requires you to run two laps against a smaller number of opponents, but each lap is very long.

At heart, Daytona USA is a traditional timers-and-checkpoints racer, and indeed it’s possible to finish the race without taking first position. The ultimate goal to demonstrate mastery of the game is, of course, to take first place on all three courses without running out of time — but along the way you can gradually observe your own improvement by tracking your best times.

The fun thing about the Xbox 360 version of Daytona USA is that it doesn’t stop there, however. Not by a long shot.

Daytona USA

For starters, the arcade mode can be played in a number of different ways: a close recreation of the original arcade experience, or a longer “grand prix” session over a larger number of laps, with optional tyre wear mechanics necessitating pit stops at appropriate points. All three tracks can also be mirrored, providing a surprisingly different experience when all the corners go the “wrong” way, and while you’re learning the game, there’s even a “rewind” feature that you can make use of in order to really optimise your runs. And/or cheat.

But that’s just the beginning. There’s also a Challenge mode, which presents you with a series of short missions to accomplish on each course, ranging from simple time challenges to more complex demonstrations of advanced techniques. There’s a straightforward Time Trial mode with no opponents — and online leaderboard support. There’s a Karaoke mode with no opponents, no time limits and no worries — plus the lyrics to Daytona’s iconically cheesy music on the screen for you to sing along with. And there’s a Survival mode.

Oh, Survival mode, how I love thee. This is essentially a score attack mode where you have to keep driving for as long as possible on any of the three courses, racking up time extensions for accomplishing a variety of feats while driving rather than simply by reaching checkpoints. Overtake an opponent? Get a couple of seconds on the clock. Hit a cone? A bonus second for you! Drift around a corner? Time bonuses aplenty!

Daytona USA

Of course, what makes this interesting is that going out of your way to pursue time bonuses can still put you at a disadvantage, so you need to make sure you balance things out properly. It’s a monstrously addictive mode, and a way to play that is sure to keep you coming back for more long after you’ve taken first place in all three of the courses in the arcade mode.

As you would expect from a 2012 port of a 1994 arcade machine, Daytona USA’s performance on Xbox 360 is absolutely flawless, maintaining a slick 60fps throughout. The visuals haven’t been significantly upgraded over the arcade original other than presenting them in high definition, so there’s still a certain dated look to the scenery and cars alike — plus plenty of pop-in — but honestly, the game moves at such a clip that it really doesn’t matter if it’s not quite up to the technical standards of 21st century racers.

What is rather nice is that the high-definition presentation allows you to appreciate the amount of detail that Sega managed to pack into all three of the racecourses, even back in 1994. A particular delight comes in the Advanced course, where there’s a big dinosaur fossil embedded in a wall accompanied by a wonderful sign reading simply “CAUTION: dinosaur appeared”. It’s classic Sega at their absolute best.

Daytona USA

Gameplay-wise, Daytona USA may take a bit of getting used to for modern players. As a relatively early example of a 3D racer, Daytona’s handling may initially feel extremely twitchy and difficult to get to grips with — but a bit of practice will reveal some truly sublime use of analogue controls that mean you always feel fully in control of the car. This isn’t a foot-to-the-floor flat-out racer, either; you’ll need to stomp on the brakes at least once on each lap of all three courses — and figuring out the best racing line to take on each is part of the challenge.

While three courses (and mirrored variants) may sound like a skimpy amount of “content” by modern standards, what you have to remember is that given its origins as an arcade game, Daytona USA is designed for quick-fire play sessions that provide straightforward thrills with no commitment required. Given that it will take time to master each course, however, the game is highly replayable — and even more so with the additional modes featured in the Xbox 360 version. The Survival mode in particular provides the potential for limitless replayability as you gradually improve your scores.

Ultimately, Daytona USA is a pleasant reminder of a bygone age of gaming: a time when Sega made blue-sky arcade games with hilariously wonderful soundtracks; a time when arcades were still alive and well (though in more recent years, arcade-style gaming is making a grand comeback); and a time when it was okay for a game to just exist without needing constant updates, DLC and additional “content” added on a regular basis.

Daytona USA is a true, timeless classic that is still worth playing today. And thankfully, as of 2017, you can still play the 360 version on more recent Xbox platforms today. It’s a shame it never got a retail release — but perhaps that’s all the more reason to enjoy it now while we still can.

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Pete Davison
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