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What do you play when you just want to get away? We all have our go-to comfort games. For a lot of 2020, mine has been Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the GB team's GOTY so far; and I've a selection of attractive open-worlders that I can always dip into, too, for when my spirits need lifting, such as Forza Horizon 4 and Breath of the Wild. They never fail.
But just recently - by which I mean, in the last week or so - I've been going back in time in order to get away. SEGA's famous blue skies, as seen in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Out Run and more, have long been a pick-me-up for gamers, and they don't often come quite so awesomely azure as they do in Daytona USA. The AM2-developed arcade racer of the mid-1990s was one I'd often slip inside the bucket seat of as a teenager, as it was a mainstay of local arcades (remember those?). It'd greedily eat up my loose change, whatever I'd saved up that week, and I didn't mind a bit.
When I got a Dreamcast to call my own, its version of Daytona - Daytona USA 2001 - was an inevitable purchase. But it never connected with me in the same, immediate-smiles way as the arcade cab, largely due to its, let's say, particular handling. It's been stored away for some time now, alongside the Dreamcast. Sad times.
However, somehow I didn't fully notice that there was a port of the arcade Daytona - expanded with a suite of extras - released digitally for Xbox 360 (playable on Xbox One) and PlayStation 3 in 2011. But I sure noticed a couple of weekends ago. An actual, arcade-perfect Daytona? PSN, take my money.
And they did. And I'm loving what I've received in exchange. This is the Daytona USA I remember. Pedal-to-the-metal speed with responsive steering to match, and drifts you can pull off for hours. The chunky, boxy visuals, still so supremely crisp despite their age, as detailed as they need to be for you to read the road's contours and curves. Three classic circuits - be fair, none of them quite as memorable as the Three Seven Speedway of the 'Beginner' level, with its Sonic in the mountainside - and one iconic car in the form of the Hornet. And such sweet, sweet music, too.
The melodies of SEGA's best arcade games are always of an exceptional standard, but the work of composer and singer Takenobu Mitsuyoshi in Daytona USA is truly top-tier stuff. Listen to the 'Let's Go Away' theme of its attract screen right now, and try not to feel brilliant. You can't. It's a physical impossibility. And have you seen/heard Mitsuyoshi's live, 'alternative' version on YouTube? It's like liquid sunshine injected straight into your heart.
The XBLA/PSN version of Daytona USA includes, amongst its extras, a karaoke mode - you drive around the tracks, free of other racers, while the lyrics to the game's songs roll across the bottom of the screen. Joy. There's also an endurance mode, and a selection of challenges to meet: pass so many cars, hit a certain speed, don't grind against the walls, and so on.
There's online play, naturally, but I've no idea if you'd get anywhere using it today. Not that it matters: I'm not playing this to compete with anyone. I'm playing to feel better, happier, calmer, and wholly outside of the here and now.
And where I end up is right back in my teens, right back in those arcades. I can't hear these songs and see these sights without a background hum of other machines rising in my memory. The smell of the places, long before the introduction of a smoking ban. The rattling of coins. Two-pence-piece slot machines spilling their guts to punters who've already pumped more than they'll ever win into them, but that doesn't matter. A worn but loved Street Fighter II cab in the corner, still pulling in an endless stream of players.
I believe, wholeheartedly, that there is no greater a golden age of gaming than the one we're in right now. Video games can today be anything, for anyone, and experienced in a wealth of ways, across devices to suit all tastes and budgets. But there's something, still, so special about certain releases, because of what they're connected to in your own life, the memories they're wrapped around. The sensations they evoke will never fade.
The 15-year-old me is amazed that this gigantic dream of an arcade machine is, basically, now mine forever (well, for as long as my PS3 functions) to play at home, for the low price of an afternoon's arcade time. The 40-year-old me is amazed that the 15-year-old me is still somewhere inside of him, stirred anew by these beautiful blues, these screeching tyres, and these sumptuous sounds. I could play this game for another 40 years, and never get tired of it.
When I want to just get away, I play whatever makes me smile - and my smile doesn't get much bigger than when it's in front of Daytona USA.
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