Version tested: Xbox 360
No game has issued that nostalgia-shattering comedown as forcibly as the original Sega Rally.
My dad, brother and I absolutely adored the game. We loved it in the dingy arcades of Bournemouth's piers and we played it to death on the Sega Saturn. My brother dreamed of one day buying a Toyota Celica, just because it was the coolest car in the game.
We especially loved all the iconic voice-overs and catchphrases, like "Game Over Yeeeah" and "Long easy left" and "Gentlemen, start your engines". Actually, that last one might have blared out from a nearby Daytona USA cabinet, come to think of it. Funny how nostalgia clouds your mind.
So when I was a little older and on a game-collecting kick, I bought a dusty Saturn from some car boot sale and picked up a tattered copy of Sega Rally from Gamestation. My dad and I slotted the disc in, figured out how to receive a SCART signal on an HDTV and grabbed the two pads for a race.
Imagine our slack-jawed dismay when the game turned out to be absolutely nothing like we remembered. We had misty, nostalgic visions of delicious tropical tracks and sexy cars churning up mud and tarmac. What we found was a blocky, pixelated blur of stretched textures and excessive pop-up; a game that sort of resembled a racer if you squinted, and made you throw up if you didn't.
Sega Rally Online Arcade, on the other hand, is exactly how we remembered it. The bonus classic mode, which pits a Toyota Celica against a Lancia Delta on the first game's dusty desert track, but with spiffy new graphics and modern handling, is like playing an artificial memory, synthetically wired to meet our impossible nostalgia.
The gorgeous, high-contrast visuals are ripped straight from the 2007 Sega Rally (known Sega Rally Revo in the US), a boisterous and noisy mud-churning rally favourite. It paints the lush landscapes in a vibrant palette of primary Sega colours - skies splashed in Sonic blue, race car bodywork gleaming with OutRun red and an overbearing sun spraying out Crazy Taxi yellow.
And, of course, the tracks are littered with little flourishes and cute sights to remind you that you're definitely playing a Sega game, and not some po-faced WRC sim or Xtreeeme DiRT sequel. There's a space shuttle shooting off into orbit here and a formation of jets there. A few hot air balloons. A hang-glider. A yak.
On the other hand, the twitchy controls are borrowed from the arcade-only and gleefully retro Sega Rally 3. The cars dart and turn with little regard for nuisances like friction, gravity and physics, and you can fling your car into corners and over jumps with reckless abandon and a foolhardy neglect for your bodywork.
You can tackle just about every corner with the same winning strategy. Fire towards a sharp bend at full tilt, let off the gas as you careen into the apex, swing your tail out wide and floor the pedal to rocket out of the turn unscathed. A wicked Ridge Racer-style drift will hold your hand around the hairiest bends and the bouncy bumpers on every surface will give you a gentle nudge back on track if you fluff it up.
The two source games, Sega Rally 3 and Revo, were built in tandem at Solihull's now-shuttered Sega Racing Studio, but came out as different games for different audiences. One was a punchy arcade pick-up-and-play distraction designed to gobble 50p pieces, the other was a dirt-rally epic for the console crowd. In Online Arcade, they're mashed together as firmly as an off-road tyre and sodden mud.
But a lot has been lost in this messy mash-up and the transition to Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. For one, the ground-churning track deformation has been seriously dialled back, meaning no more soggy mud gulches carved out by too many tyres. It's no big loss, though: it wouldn't have fit Online Arcade's mantra of retro purity.
Some other holes are far more noticeable. The XBLA game (costing 800 Microsoft Points) doesn't have a traditional career mode: no sprawling tree of events and tournaments and no garage of slowly unlocked motors. Instead, you get a bare-bones "Championship" mode to beat. In this four-track event you wrestle your way to the front of a 22-car pack over three different maps, and then go head-to-head in a painfully difficult deathmatch against a near-unbeatable nemesis.
There are also one-off quick races and the aforementioned classic mode. Plus there's the lonesome time trial mode, where you can race against Sega staffers or download a best-time ghost from any player or buddy on Xbox Live. That's it for single-player.
As the name might suggest, Online Arcade's true focus is the internet. Unfortunately, the match-finding menus are unintuitive and a trifle broken, and it'll often try to plop you in a half-finished race before booting you straight back out to the menu. But when the stars are aligned and an online game actually loads, Sega Rally shines bright.
The punchy, short tracks lend themselves well to jump-in races and no one gets stranded at the back of the pack for long. Most events have a neck-and-neck pack of warring rally motors which crumbles into disarray on one sharp bend, as the best racers jet on and the less attentive drivers pick up the pieces.
So it's just a shame that Online Arcade suffers from such a crushing lack of content. There are a piddling five tracks to tear up: one from Sega Rally Championship, and four that were shared between the two most recent games. There are a fair few cars to drive and unlock, but no liveries or options to customise them. 60 frames per second would have been nice too, if we're just listing stuff now.
Sega Rally Online Arcade is balls-to-the-wall, old-school fun that tugs at your nostalgia strings with deadly precision - even if you have moved on and stumped for a boxy green Peugeot 205 instead of a Toyota Celica.
If you don't have fond memories of the arcade cabinet or Saturn game, it's still a truly feisty little racer that looks great and handles well. Tearing up dirt tracks with indestructible rally cars is enormous fun, and this XBLA title delivers those thrills in their purest, most undiluted form. It's just a shame that there's so very little of it.
8 / 10
Sega Rally Online Arcade is available now on XBLA. A PSN release is also planned.