Having tried my hand at a slew of racing games, including such racing simulations as Sega GT and Gran Turismo 2, I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of the simulation genre. Arcade racers have always been much more to my liking ever since I first laid my hands on Rad Racer for the NES. However, there have been rare instances where a racing simulation caught my eye and admiration. Until now that has only been Midway's World Driver Championship and Sega's Sega GT, but after taking Ferrari 355 Challenge for a spin, I feel it is safe to say that it belongs to that elite group.
Mike is not exaggerating when he says the game is hard. Yu Suzuki and his development team, AM2, all purported driving fanatics, set out to create one of the most realistic racing experiences ever made while staying true to the idiosyncrasies of the F355 itself. The result is a driving simulation that is as close to the real task of driving the Italian sports car as many of us will ever get. Like any racing simulation, a race can be won or lost depending on how you take a particular turn during a race, so a great deal of time is spent fine-tuning the specs of the machine and learning the ins and outs of each particular turn or straightaway. Sega did implement some help that I'm sure even veteran racers will appreciate—the so-called "assist functions" that Mike mentioned. They certainly helped me get acclimated to the racing experience, and I was no more aware of how much they really helped while racing until after I turned them off.
I am in total agreement with Mike when it comes to the game's graphics. The colors and textures are very rich and very detailed. The skies are quite beautiful (especially at sunset) and everything in the game is rendered with exceptional detail. The biggest plus that F355 Challenge has going for it has to be amazingly far draw-in distance and the lack of pop-up—something gamers have had to put up with since the early days of 3-D racing games. The music on the other hand does not shine so brightly. It is the silly sort of arcade music that is usually drowned out by the loud special effects that would emanate from speakers in the arcade machines—or the ambient noise from other arcade machines. At least there is the option to shut it off.
Where F355 Challenge ultimately falls short of getting a 10 is in the game's lack of variety or decent replay value. Its an unavoidable problem that afflicts all single-license racing games—Electronic Arts' Beetle Adventure Racing is one such game that fell into the same trap. As wonderfully realistic as the F355 may handle and as exquisite as the cars may look, it's hard to overcome the need to race as other brands of cars. If Sega and Suzuki wanted to stick to the Ferrari license, then why not sneak some other cars from the Ferrari line into the game as some sort of Easter egg? Any sort of variety would certainly have done more for its score.
In all fairness, the game's biggest negative would be irrelevant to anyone who read the game's title and still picked the game up. And those that do pick it up are sure to find a great racing game in F355 Challenge. It has the approachability, top-notch graphics and controls and great tracks to race on to make it one of the best racing simulations I've played in a while.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Dreamcast version of the game.