Throwback Thursday: Ferrari F355 Challenge
Rosso corsa never looked so good on screen as in the most authentic Ferrari sim ever.
To say that legendary Japanese game designer and Sega veteran Yu Suzuki really likes Ferraris would be something of an understatement. His 1986 arcade smash hit Out Run was borne out of his love for the brand and boasted an iconic Testarossa – although not with the Italian marque's official blessing – and he would later become an avid collector of the company's cars.
While Out Run is perhaps the racing game with which Suzuki is most closely associated, and has gone on to inspire an entire generation of gamers and developers, it would be 1999's Ferrari F355 Challenge that allowed him to take his adoration of the Prancing Pony to an entirely new level.
Originally launched in arcades, the deluxe version of F355 Challenge came in a massive three-screen cabinet, which surrounded the player and ensured that the action entirely filled their view. The cabinet was powered by four of Sega's then-flagship NAOMI units – one for each display, and another to keep everything in check.
Visually, it was about as cutting edge as it could possibly get back in '99, and the addition of clutch, accelerator and brake pedals – as well as a reassuringly clunky gear stick – made for an intimidatingly authentic experience. This of course was Suzuki's intention from the outset, as he was unashamedly aiming to create the most convincing impression of driving an actual Ferrari F355 without actually being inside one. Reportedly, the Japanese designer even took his own beloved F355 out onto professional racing circuits in order to collect data that would later be used in the game itself.
Despite its coin-guzzling roots, F355 Challenge is most definitely a simulation rather than a light-hearted dash down the highway, as Out Run was. Although we've yet to have the pleasure of turning the ignition key on a real-world Ferrari, we'd imagine that driving one around a high-speed race track isn't something you can do without a degree of skill, and the same thing applied to Suzuki's game.
While titles like Gran Turismo and Forza boast of their impeccable realism, even these illustrious games pale in comparison to the brutal nature of Sega's arcade beast. In F355 Challenge, every element of your input had to be perfect in order to tame Ferrari's sleek and powerful machine. The amount of power applied at any one time – as well as the forcefulness of your braking – could determine if you made that corner, or if you ended up in the gravel. Add to this the need to position the car perfectly and you had a simulation that rewarded patience and effort, and punished even the tiniest, most insignificant lapse of concentration.
As if to hammer home the hardcore credentials of Ferrari F355 Challenge, Suzuki opted to omit an external viewpoint when racing. Common in titles such as Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo and practically any other racer you can think of, this 'outside the car' perspective was deemed too unrealistic. Suzuki wanted it to feel like you were sitting in the driver's seat of this insanely expensive performance automobile, not hovering behind it.
The sense of actually driving a real Ferrari was further heightened by some amazing visuals – running at 60fps, no less, something many modern racers still struggle with – and stunning real-time weather effects, which made the course feel alive and not just some static, unchanging backdrop.
The realism extended to the gameplay, which was unforgiving at the best of times. To make things a little easier to stomach, various driving aids were included – assisted braking is your friend – allowing players to gently ease themselves into the world of high-speed sports cars. One aid placed a red marker on the course indicating the optimum racing line, and each new circuit could only be tackled with any degree of confidence after you'd thoroughly memorised this vital guide many times over. In fact, learning each and every corner of the various courses was a must if you wanted to succeed in the game's championship mode, thanks to the incredibly intelligent AI drivers.
Unlike other racers of the period – which showcased rival cars that acted almost as if you weren't on the track – F355 Challenge was populated by smart computer-controlled opponents. We're so used to rubber-banding in our racing titles these days, where the game adjusts the speed of other cars depending on your position in the pecking order. That's not realistic, so Suzuki took a different approach and imbued his AI with a shocking degree of talent. Mess up too often, fall to the back of the grid and you'd find it impossible to catch even the guy just ahead of you, let alone the car that was leading the pack.
All of this might sound too harsh to be even remotely enjoyable, but F355 Challenge's steep learning curve posed an addictive test to many players. Sure, it demanded all of your concentration and talent, but even novice gamers could slowly but surely master the intricacies of both the car itself, and the tracks on which they raced. Hours of studious effort would yield improved lap times, and slowly but surely you'd be able to switch off the driving aids and take full control. It remains one of the most satisfying learning experiences in driving game history, and is proof of the old adage that nothing of any value comes easily.
While contemporary racers like Gran Turismo and Dreamcast stable-mate Sega GT prided themselves on the vast size of their garages, F355 Challenge bucked the trend by only featuring a single model of car – no prizes for guessing what it was. By focusing their energies on replicating the handling and performance of a lone vehicle, Suzuki's team at Sega's legendary AM2 studio were able to capture the feel of driving an F355 perfectly.
Many critics at the time saw this as a shortcoming, and it could be argued that Sega's game lacked that vital variety, which made other racers so appealing to petrol-heads. However, the investment of time required to not only master the F355 but also to figure out the perfect set-up for each course (you could tinker with basic settings and dramatically change the way the car handled) meant that the game was a time-sink regardless of the fact that it wasn't populated by hundreds of different vehicles – most of which you wouldn't bother to try out anyway. For Sega and Yu Suzuki, focus was everything.
The sheer size of the three-screened arcade version of F355 Challenge meant that only the largest amusement centers could afford to host it, and consequently it would be the domestic versions – released on the Sega Dreamcast and Sony PlayStation 2 in 2000 and 2002 respectively – that garnered the most attention from gamers.
The Dreamcast version is generally considered to be the superior of the two, despite being somewhat older; this should perhaps come as no great surprise when you learn that the NAOMI arcade platform is directly related to the hardware within the Dreamcast itself, and that ensured a top-notch conversion. Not only did Sega's machine get a more faithful port, but the analogue triggers on its pad allowed for more accurate and realistic control. On the PlayStation 2 version, acceleration and braking were both mapped to the face buttons, which impacted its appeal to seasoned veterans.
If there was one aspect of Ferrari F355 Challenge that didn't quite meet the high standards shown elsewhere, it was the overbearing '80s-style music. Suzuki is clearly a fan of that particular decade – after all, his big arcade hits Space Harrier, Hang-On, After Burner and Out Run were all released during this period – and he's a keen guitar player. Even so, the music was cheesier than a lump of cheddar and actually distracted from your enjoyment of the gameplay. Thankfully it could be switched off.
Despite its uniformly positive critical reaction, F355 Challenge was held back by the fact that it launched towards the end of the Dreamcast's tragically short life, and didn't find a massive audience as a result. The PS2 port didn't gain the same praise and was largely ignored by fans – a sad fact which appears to have curtailed Sega's interest in continuing the franchise. The Ferrari license has since passed to other video game developers, but none have been able to match the level of detail and authenticity present in Suzuki's title. It remains as masterpiece, not only in gameplay terms, but in the manner in which is so closely replicates the feel, performance and speed of one of the world's most desirable sports cars.
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