If you’ve been to an arcade in the last two decades, chances are you’ve played, seen, or heard of Daytona USA. Designed by famed AM2 developers Toshihiro Nagoshi (Virtua Racing, Super Monkey Ball, F-Zero GX) and Yu Suzuki (Outrun, Virtua Fighter, Shenmue), the game is based on the NASCAR Daytona racing circuit. It offers high-speed arcade racing thrills across three courses in either a manual or an automatic stock car while racing against up to forty opponents and the timer.
Set in a forest, the beginner circuit, Three-Seven Speedway, is a fantasised version of the Daytona circuit with only one difficult corner, which has Sonic carved into the rock wall. The advanced circuit, Dinosaur Canyon, is a dinosaur-shaped circuit set in a canyon and contains the best balance of high-speed straights and tight, challenging corners. The expert course, Sea-Side Street Galaxy, is the longest circuit spanning a San-Francisco style bridge, a city, the countryside, a shipping dock, and even a rocket launch pad! This is the most challenging course, featuring many hazardous corners that really test your driving skills.
Automatic transmission is for beginner racers, while manual transmission offers a higher top speed and more options for cornering.
While racing, composer Takenobu Mitsuyoshi (Virtua Fighter, SEGA Rally, Shenmue) belts out fruity lyrics like “Rolling staaaaaart!”, “Daytonaaaaaaa!”, and “I wanna fly sky hiiiiiigh!” over some catchy, pumping music that intensifies the races. As cheesy as the lyrics are, they draw players into the races and you might find yourself singing along despite yourself.
In 1993, this game looked very realistic. Despite this, the game eschews realistic play mechanics in favour of arcadey high-speed thrills. Further, while racing against the computer-controlled opponents is fun and challenging, the game rises to another level when competing against up to eight human opponents.
While the arcade version has earned a legendary status over the decades, the four home conversions are a mixed bag, offering an assortment of extras and conversion qualities. I’ll examine each one, comparing graphics, audio, playability, extras, and spirit.
Daytona USA (SEGA Saturn, 1995)
Ported by the original AM2 developers, this conversion features terrible pop-up, glitching, and draw-in, and plods along at an instable 20-25 frames per second compared to the coin-op’s 60. Moreover, the PAL borders are so big the game could have been marketed as the Deluxe Widescreen Edition. Despite the poor presentation, it still looks like the arcade version, albeit at a lower resolution.
The game sounds superior to the coin-op, thanks to the clarity of redbook audio. These sonically superior versions of the arcade tunes were re-recorded with real instruments and vocals as opposed to the coin-op’s spliced versions.
The controls are responsive using the standard control pad, although the button layout options are limited, even when using the manual edit setting. The game plays just like the coin-op despite the dodgy frame rate.
This conversion includes two modes. Arcade Mode offers the same single-player coin-op experience. Saturn Mode adds more cars, the ability to race without a time limit, and mirrored versions of the circuits. Unfortunately, the new cars are the same as the original, albeit with different specifications and minor paint alterations. While the different specifications offer some gameplay variety, the original cars are better, making these additions mostly superfluous. The freedom to race without the timer offers players the opportunity explore and master the tracks without pressure, while the mirrored tracks offer a slightly different challenge. Sadly, the game lacks any multiplayer mode, which is unforgiveable, given that multiplayer made the coin-op so much fun.
In essence, this conversion is a graphically inferior version of the arcade game that was barely acceptable in 1995. Nevertheless, it’s still a solid, highly playable racer.
Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition
(SEGA Saturn, 1996)
Developed by the AM3 conversion team responsible for the awesome SEGA Rally Championship Saturn port, and released eighteen months after the original conversion, Championship Circuit Edition (CCE) fixes many of the issues players had with that version.
For starters, this conversion adds two new circuits – National Park Speedway, a high-speed circuit set in a national park with two challenging corners, and Desert City, a desert-based circuit almost on par with Dinosaur Canyon for its balance of high-speed straits and challenging corners. The former lets players race alongside a rollercoaster and the latter a train, which adds to the atmosphere.
Another addition are eight new cars, which vary in acceleration, grip, and top speed. Unlike the superfluous cars of the original Saturn conversion, these cars add some complexity to the game. Unfortunately, CCE handles differently from the arcade game. Instead of the twitchy, powersliding driven gameplay, CCE plays closer to the finesse of SEGA Rally. While this makes for a very enjoyable and solid racing experience, fans of the coin-op will be disappointed.
As well as an Arcade mode, this conversion adds a Time Attack mode, where players race for the best lap and overall course times, and a 2-Player Battle mode, which pits players against a human opponent in a split-screen race. The latter is much needed and a lot of fun. While the graphics take a hit in this mode, it’s still very playable thanks to the solid frame-rate.
The game’s graphics are a huge improvement on the original conversion, featuring longer draw-in distances, minimal clipping, and a constant 30 frames per second. Also, most of the graphics have been redrawn, offering a slightly different look.
The sound effects are more powerful, while Richard Jacques (Sonic R, Metropolis Street Racer, Headhunter), Jun Senoue (Sonic 3, SEGA Worldwide Soccer, Sonic Adventure), Tomonori Sawada (Sonic & Knuckles, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, SEGA Rally 2), and Kenichi Tokoi (Sonic Jam, Sonic Adventure, Space Channel 5) have remixed the original music as dance or rock tunes, omitting the vocals. They have also created new tunes for the new courses, and the options menu allows players to assign which ones to play on each circuit. The remixed tunes are great substitutes, giving the game a more mature atmosphere. The lack of wacky vocals will come as a relief to some, and annoy others. Eric Martin of Mr Big fame gives a vocal performance on a rock introduction tune, Sons of Angels, which sets the game’s tone.
While this conversion looks like Daytona USA, it plays differently enough to be a new game in its own right. Pursuits will moan about this, however, CCE is a solid racing game.
Two alternate version of CCE were released. The first, Daytona USA Circuit Edition, was released on Saturn three months later in Japan. As well as the above features, the game includes the ability to race at different times of day, allows network play across the Saturn Netlink, and the cars handle more closely to the arcade version, making this version more authentic. Further, the graphics have been cleaned up slightly, and the coin-op’s music returns in place of the remixes. Everything in-game is presented in English, meaning CE is arguably the better version.
The other alternate version, Daytona USA Deluxe Edition, was released on the PC in 1997. Featuring the same feature as Circuit Edition, it adds another circuit, Silver Ocean Causeway, a simple ocean-side city that reuses a lot of graphical assets from the other circuits. It has a lot of wide corners and straights, and only one challenging corner. The game also has a longer draw distance, using a fog effect to eliminate some popup and the ability to alter each car’s suspension, handling, front and rear ride height.
Daytona USA 2001 (SEGA Dreamcast, 2001)
Developed by Genki, the developers responsible for the Tokyo Highway Challenge series and the abysmal Virtua Fighter 3tb Dreamcast port, Daytona USA 2001 (2001) features superior graphics and draw distances to the coin-op, and runs at a solid 60 frames-per-second. This is the best-looking version of Daytona USA, bringing the graphics on par with those of Daytona USA 2.
The vocals return in slightly rearranged versions of the original tunes, which lack the same energy. Strangely, the original tunes can be found in the sound test but can’t be played during a race. The CCE tunes are replaced with new ones and, along with new songs for the new circuits, are imbued with the same quirky style of the originals. Different arrangements of the tunes are used for the mirrored tracks, giving players some aural variety. The sound effects are as good as CCE but the game features a whinny announcer.
2001 includes the three arcade circuits, the two CCE circuits, and three new ones. Set in a stadium, Circuit Pixie is a simple oval track that requires no breaking. Rin Rin Rink, which is set in a swamp, is a simple circuit with two challenging corners. Mermaid Lake is a figure of eight circuit around a lake, featuring one very long banked curve, an easy turn, and a very challenging corner. While the other five circuits are faithfully reproduced, the three new courses are little more than speed runs that lack the complexity of the other circuits. Reverse, mirrored, and reverse-mirrored versions of each course are available.
As well as the original Hornet, three new cars have been added, and six more can be unlocked. Each has different acceleration, top speed, and grip specifications, meaning they handle differently, offering some depth to the game. Players can modify the softness and hardness if the tyres used, and can change the car’s paintwork.
The controls play differently from the coin-op. Fortunately, the NTSC-U and PAL versions feature an option to adjust the analogue sensitivity so the cars’ handling more closely resembles the arcade’s.
Single Race mode replaces Arcade mode, where players can race up to 39 opponents on any track. Player can also race from two to 16 laps on each circuit. Championship Mode allows players to compete in a series of four races to unlock new cars. Time Attack mode pits players against the clock, while Versus Mode lets two players race each other and eight computer-controller cars in split-screen. Unfortunately, multiplayer is restricted to two human players, when four, given the four control ports on the Dreamcast, was expected. A Network Mode, where players could race other human opponents online, was removed from the PAL version, which is a huge disappointment since multiplayer racing is where the coin-op really shines. Replay mode allows players save and rewatch single player races.
Despite so many customisable features, 2001 is too challenging, especially in Championship Mode, and lacks the spirit of the coin-op. Further, the simplistic design of the new courses, the lack of customisable music, and the twitchy controls drag down what is otherwise a solid remake and fantastic racing game.
Daytona USA (Playstation Network / Xbox Live Arcade, 2011)
After reobtaining the Daytona licence, SEGA converted the high definition arcade rerelease, SEGA Racing Classic, to PSN and XBLA, adding the Daytona branding and restoring the original music.
The game looks exactly like the coin-op, only in 720p. It’s beautiful to behold. It plays exactly like the arcade game, meaning it’s easy to get into but challenging to master.
Players have the option to use the coin-op’s music or newly arranged versions, which keep the energy of the originals while enhancing them. These sound like appropriate updates.
Little extra content has been added. Arcade Mode gives players the same experience assthe coin-op. Extras mode offers players a series of challenges across each circuit. Some are as simple as powersliding around a corner and doing a rocket start, while others are more complex, asking players to maintain certain speeds while powersliding around corners. Not only do they add to the game’s longevity but they also teach players how to better play the game. Extras mode also offers a time attack mode and a grand prix mode. The latter allows players to race 80, 40, and 20 laps over each respective circuit while earning time bonuses for achieving certain conditions, such as cornering without braking and powersliding. It’s very challenging and rewarding. Finally, what game with wacky lyrics would be complete without a Karaoke Mode!
Although the game is missing most of the extras from the subsequent conversions of Daytona USA, when presented in such a perfectly pretty package for less than $10, along with an online multiplayer mode that allows players to race up to 8 players, what gamers finally have is an arcade-perfect conversion. This is by far the best version of Daytona USA outside of the arcade because it perfectly captures the game’s spirit.