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.
Sega Rally Online Arcade is available now on XBLA. A PSN release is also planned.