For a while, the Mega CD really looked as if it might at last prove its worth. After a rocky start and a sad catalogue of releases (Sewer Shark, Night Trap, Microcosm, to name but a few), prospects for the system seemed to be looking up – and last month saw the preview of Sega’s newest CD racer, Heavenly Symphony. From the initial look of things many thought this would be a game to share some of Virtua Racing’s hard-won glory. So is it finally time to rush out and buy a Mega CD? Well, not quite…
The initial idea of Heavenly Symphony was to accurately recreate the 1993 Formula 1 racing season in as many ways as possible – the racing takes place at several locations around the world, and each track has supposedly been ‘flawlessly’ recreated by Sega (but are there any cows next to real-life racing circuits?).
And, as with just about every other racing game, you also get the original drivers accompanying each of the tracks, complete with pixelized versions of their actual cars. Part of the game’s attempt at realism involves subjecting you to digitised film sequences in which various people’s faces slide mysteriously around the screen. The faces offer you what’s probably pretty sound advice about each race, the problem is that it’s all in Japanese – in this initial version at least, so these verbal sections, which might add a brilliant extra tactical element to the whole affair, are something you have to do without.
The tactics behind the races themselves are nothing new – speed up on the long straights and slow down for the corners (you can see them coming using a handy head-up map), make the occasional pit-stop and try to win the race. That’s all simple enough, and with decent graphics this game would all be fine racing fare. But, with the Mega CD, such things can never be taken for granted.
When the graphics for Heavenly Symphony were planned, it was with distance in mind – pit stops involve driving up to a team of people that gradually look more and more like a collection of large multi-coloured squares. Similarly, when the courses were designed, it was with people who always stay on the track in mind – you won’t notice the crash barriers until you stop dead, start spinning, look down and then notice the differently coloured squares on the floor.
It’s here that the game starts to lose its polish, despite the fact that it’s one of the few games based around the Mega CD’s 3D scaling mode. While Thunderhawk, Soul Star and Sonic CD have admirably demonstrated the machine’s abilities in this area, here the scaling is crude and uncompromisingly jerky. And of course, those blocky close-ups don’t help things along much, either. The general rule in Heavenly Symphony is that if it looks like a 3D object you can probably drive through it (even other cars on some occasions) whereas, if it’s a paving slab laid neatly into the turf it can stop your car quite easily.
All of this points out one fatal mistake on Sega’s part – when they set out to create a replica of the 1993 season, they obviously spent a lot of time getting the drivers, conditions, tracks and scenery exactly right. Their mistake was to throw the fruits of all this painstaking research into such an unsophisticated 3D racing routine – in which the other cars don’t so much as travel as flick on and off, and remain seemingly stationary for large amounts of time on corners.
Okay, so Mega CD may not be as capable of fast perspective 3D as other, more recent machines, but a little bit of mathematics and the same methods that ran so many racing titles on the 8bits could have produced a much better game. The game’s ‘accurate’ representation of last year’s season seems perhaps a little flawed as well. Okay, so it’s all meant to be totally correct, but if you’re not a racing nut you’ll be left with two questions; ‘why is this factual stuff interfering with my game’, and ‘why didn’t they cut the video, reduce the scenery, and leave it on a cartridge?’
Something that’s bound to stir fond memories in Mega Drive owners – remember Super Monaco Grand Prix?