The original Sega Rally brought rally racing to the mainstream and delivered one of the finest racing experiences arcade goers could have. With its sharp graphics, more realistic handling, and off-road setting, it stood out immediately. The Saturn console release was a hit in its day, while the arcade and Dreamcast follow-up were regarded as top of the line, but the most recent console entry, Sega Rally Revo was critically acclaimed for its track deformation, but hurt by its lack of options compared to contemporary full-priced console releases. Now, as a downloadable game, Sega Rally Online Arcade’s limited variety fares better and delivers what amounts to a “best of” collection for the series.
It combines the arcade original’s more simplistic menu and car selection with Revo’s impressive graphics and even throws in the first game’s two cars and desert track with the modern-day graphics. The core gameplay remains basically the same as it ever was, which is a good thing for both veterans and newcomers because it’s a very easy game to pick up and play if you’ve never done so before, while veterans will feel like they’ve become reacquainted with an old friend when they partake in the original Sega Rally remake stage.
The racing action is built around power sliding - whether you’re facing rivals in quick or championship races or trying to beat a ghost in time attack, power sliding is the key to getting ahead quickly. You also need to carefully master just when to reduce your speed and when to gun it because not only does the terrain change due to rivals, but the actual type of terrain you’re driving on changes as well. You could go from racing a quarter of the course in mud to then having to drive on asphalt - the mud causes you to slide around more, but you still need to instantly acclimate yourself to driving on roads when the need arises. No matter if you’re facing a foe or a time trial, SROA provides an exciting racing experience, which translates well with a lag-free online mode as well.
The series’ greatest challenge has always been to work your up from last place in the championship mode all the way up to first. It may seem simple, but isn’t because of just how well-designed the tracks are. You could be doing great on a straightaway and pass two cars, but then run into a long corner that you screw up and then get sent back those same two positions. The challenge never seems unfair either - it’s simply a matter of learning the courses and mastering how to control the cars (which basically all control the same) on the different environments. You’ll probably start off getting a fifth or six place finish and be satisfied for that play session, but then have to go back to it later to try and get just one spot above, then you’ll get a podium finish and realize that you absolutely must get a first place finish because you’re in the zone. It’s an addictive structure, and one that ensures even just players of the championship mode will get a lot of playtime out of the game.
Visually, it’s pretty top-notch for a downloadable game. Car models and environments are solid and while they don’t hold up well compared to newer retail racing games, they hold up nicely compared to those on the XBLA service. Sega’s arcade racers have had some pretty memorable soundtracks, with OutRun’s being one of the best gaming soundtracks ever, and Daytona USA’s being a legendary “so bad, it’s good” one. However, SROA’s soundtrack is pretty forgettable. It’s not bad, it’s just very hit or miss, with a mix of techno and rock songs and some tribal-sounding stuff thrown in for good measure. The rock music is generally pretty exciting, while the tribal music is beautiful to listen to and the techno…just isn’t. It seems out of place for a rally racer, and isn’t particularly good for its genre.
Sega Rally Online Arcade offers up a streamlined version of what made Sega Rally Revo great, while also providing the same addictive gameplay that’s made the series so revered for a decade and a half. The Sega fanboy in me wants this game to do really well so that perhaps Daytona USA will hit the Xbox Live Marketplace someday, but realistically, this isn’t a game for everybody - even though its more limited gameplay style is better-suited for a download instead of a full-price retail product in the modern era. However, a purchase will really depend on if you’re a big fan of the series or Sega racers in general - if you are, then even though it’s a pared-down game compared to Revo, it still offers up enough new to warrant a $10 purchase. However, casual players of the series may be better off buying Revo for about the same $10 nowadays and then seeing if they like it, or at least trying out the trial version.