All The Lights That Light The Way
Are blinding. There are many things that I would like like to play on my Dreamcast. But that's another story (morning glory). Where was I? Oh yes...Driving games! The Dreamcast has lots of them. Some of them are total shite, and some of them represent the very zenith of their respective sub-genres. Ferrari F355 Challenge and Le Mans 24hrs for example, are two of the most impressive track-based racers of their generation. But I'm not here to talk about the quality (or lack thereof in some cases) of the Dreamcast's racing stable. What I'm here to talk (write?) about is a minor part of some of the Dreamcast's racers that I find quite intriguing: headlights! More specifically: which Dreamcast racing game has the most impressive digital rendition of light particles being thrown out of the front of a vehicle as it careens around a course in the pitch black?
Before I set off on this journey, I want to be clear here - what I'm looking at is the overall headlight effect, whether it is beneficial in-game and well, how nice it looks. There are quite a few DC games that feature night races but do not really have any dynamic lighting so I've left those off this list. Most notable is probably the aforementioned Le Mans as even though it features a 24 hr race, complete with changing light conditions, the cars themselves do not have any dynamic lighting effects that actually illuminates (or appears to illuminate) the environment. Furthermore, the games listed below do not all necessarily feature real-time headlight effects, but they at least try to give the impression that your car has a working set of bulbs installed. So without further ado, let's have a gander...
What kind of rally game would be complete without some good old-fashioned night stages? Driving rain, mud splashing everywhere...smashed headlights and no clue where you're going. All part of the appeal of rally for me. V-Rally 2 indulges this by featuring night stages and real-time headlight effects aplenty. The thing about V-Rally 2's stages though, is that they are never really ever dark enough for the headlights to actually be useful. There are random splashes of light everywhere, which is understandable if you're driving through a village or something...but more often than not you're just out in the countryside and there'll be blobs of light just there. That aside though, the real-time lighting is OK, even if it does look a little odd in action. It's hard to explain, but the cone of light from the front of the cars appears 'artificial,' as if the different polygons making up the floor are just switch for a lighter version whenever the 'light' is meant to be shining on them. Quite noticeable what I mean when you're whipping along at a fair pace, but the effect at least looks like real-time lighting so I'm happy with it.
There is only one night time track in Rush 2049 - you can't change the time of day so the headlight effect is only visible on the one track. It isn't real-time either, but is instead a fairly clever trick where light-coloured sprites are drawn over the environment whenever you get close to a wall or your car approaches the ground at an angle after a jump. Sometimes the game gets it wrong and the effect looks a bit odd (for example a whole 'round' light beam occasionally continues off the edge of a building like in the bottom screen down there), but it is a unique way of representing real-time lighting on the cheap. Building a whole lighting technique into a game with only one night track probably wouldn't have been cost effective, but top marks to the devs for trying - and this effect is absent from the N64 port of Rush 2049 too.
Tokyo Highway Battle 1 & 2
Tokyo Highway Battle/Shutokou Battle/Tokyo Extreme Racer (why has it got so many names?!) is a bit of an odd case. It is a racing game that is entirely based on night-time street races through the neon-lit metropolis of Tokyo...but features some pretty half-arsed lighting effects. Sure, the highways are impressively lit and every single light in the game has either a lens flare or a trail just waiting to spill from it...but it has no real-time headlight effects. Well, it does...sort of. Let me explain. In THB/SB/TER you initiate illegal street races with rival boy (and girl) racers by flashing your high beams at them...only the environment is totally unaffected by your lights. You get a nice little 'halo' effect around the front of your car and the little 'light' sprite on the floor grows a bit, but it doesn't actually illuminate the walls or anything. However - and this it the weird bit - the lights illuminate other road users' vehicles! So at least there's that.
4x4 Evo features muddy racing where you can literally drive anywhere you like around the map, and also has some pretty extensive race customization options...including the time of day the race takes part in. Weirdly, you also have the choice of 'night' and 'pitch black,' but to be honest there's not really a great deal of fun to be had in either mode. This isn't just because 4x4 Evo is about as much fun as a family funeral (before the traditional pub wake, I mean), it's because the headlights fitted to the trucks are about as bright as a the candles on a birthday cake. The shots here were taken in 'night' mode and the terrain is light enough that the headlight effects don't really come into play, but in 'pitch black' you literally can't see anything - it's pretty much a black screen with the slightest hint of illumination. The effect used in 4x4 Evo also seem to be of the same ilk as those in V-Rally 2 - the floor tiles seems to just 'swap' for a lighter version of themselves, or at least thats what it looks like.
Metropolis Street Racer
MSR is one of the best racers on the Dreamcast. The visuals are great and the representations of real-life locations was unprecedented at the time of release. That the game utilises the Dreamcast's internal clock to change the time of day in the three cities that the races take place in also means that it features some kick-ass real time lighting effects right? Well...not exactly. The night-time variants of Tokyo, London and San Francisco are all suitably well lit (as any modern city would be), but the cars themselves do not have true headlights. Much like Tokyo Highway Battle, MSR's engine simply places a patch of fake light down on the ground in front of your vehicle that disappears into walls if you get too close. To be fair to MSR, the game is so highly detailed in pretty much every other area of aesthetic design that to also have full-blown real time lighting would have been asking a little much. On the plus side, the actual headlight effects themselves are very impressive - the lens flares are wonderfully down-played and the glare alters depending on the angle and how far away the vehicle is from the camera.
This was the first full game I ever owned for the Dreamcast - I actually bought it the week before I got my console so read the manual cover to cover and ogled the screenshots on the back cover an untold number of times before I got to play it. Halcyon days in 1999. Anyhow, one of the things that will always stick in my mind about Speed Devils is that the headlight effects are bloody fantastic. The cone of light that the cars project on night stages is - while not the most realistic - definitely one of the most interesting and useful. The lights actually light the way, and the environment outside of that precious area of illumination is pretty much hidden by the darkness. The lights can also be broken if you crash, and the races become much more difficult to compete in if you do end up going down to one bulb...and if you lose them both then you're pretty screwed. Most of the courses do have street lighting and other light sources dotted about so you're not totally lost without your lamps, but there are areas of total rural darkness in places and traversing these places is much more difficult without your hallowed bulbs intact.
As I stated up there in the intro, there are other games that do feature night stages, but the effort to simulate real-time lights (or indeed have them) was lacking for whatever reason. Sega Rally 2, Buggy Heat and 4 Wheel Thunder all spring to mind, but these games listed are your best bet if you're a weirdo like me and find fascination in the most mundane of subjects.
And with that, I'm off to stare at a candle for a few hours. Night.