Classic Untextured Polygon Arcade Games of the 1990s


A while back, I wrote about SEGA’s super scaler arcade machines. Today the focus is instead on the early days of polygon graphics in the arcade. This era is not as fondly remembered, perhaps because early polygonal 3D was pretty rough.

You want textures? You want HD? You want 60fps? You’ll get nothing and like it. The arcade efforts at polygonal 3D were at least higher framerate than what we got on home consoles however. Cyber Sled, for example, ran beautifully. It did not push the hardware beyond what it could handle, and the result was a spartan yet serviceable arena shooter:

If it reminds you of Virtual On, you’re not alone. It definitely controls in a similar fashion, with the sticks simulating a differential drive like you would expect on a tank. The crude visuals are of course explained away by the “cyber” prefix, the battles taking place in some sort of future 3D internet. This strategy was also seen in titles like i-War and Spectre VR.

S.T.U.N. Runner (below) was one of Atari’s more successful attempts at a polygonal arcade game. A futuristic racer in the same category as Wipeout:

The ability to race up the sides of tunnel walls and shoot at other racers set it apart, and unless I am misremembering, there was some sort of gameplay element where you could upgrade and repair the hover car. But if you’re not into tank battles or racing, what’s left? Aircraft dogfighting! Enter: Wing War.

A Sega title that was planned to be released on the ill fated 32X, Wing War ran on the Model 1 arcade hardware that addon was based off of. It made possible some truly impressive draw distances and framerates for the time, albeit still untextured. It’s interesting to note parallels between Wing War and Propeller Arena, a cancelled Dreamcast game also featuring head to head aerial dogfighting.

Star Wars Arcade was another SEGA Model 1 game, but this time it *did* receive a 32X port. Wing War was actually the only Model 1 game that didn’t. The hardware proved very capable for rendering the high level of polygonal detail needed for the Death Star stages in particular.

It’s easy to see how the 32X could have seemed like a good idea at the time. Multiple manufacturers had flat shaded polygonal 3D arcade games out, so it seemed like that was going to be the graphical standard of the 32 bit home console generation.

This is also why the Saturn and Jaguar were both underpowered at textured 3D compared to its competitors. Textured 3D on home consoles was mistakenly seen by some industry analysts as being further off in the future than it really was.

Obviously I can’t omit Virtua Fighter. It was SEGA’s most expensive arcade cabinet at the time due to the immense high resolution (for the 90s) monitor. They believed the investment would pay off, and it did. Virtua Fighter became the widely celebrated grand daddy of every 3D fighter that followed.

If I mention Virtua Fighter, then I also have to mention Virtua Racing…

This one not only got a 32X port, but a Genesis(!) port, courtesy of the SVP chip. The SVP was SEGA’s answer to Nintendo’s SuperFX chip, and Virtua Racing was the only Genesis game that ever used it. Probably because it drove the cost of that game up to $90.

It’s a bit off-topic, but just for fun, here’s some footage of the Genesis version of Virtua Racing. Try not to wince. It’s serviceable, and arguably performs better than Star Fox, but that didn’t make it fun to play. Racing games need much higher framerates than this to be playable:

What would the 32 bit gen have been like if these graphics really had been the standard? What if the SVP chip had been used to port those Model 1 games to Genesis rather than releasing the 32X? These are the deep questions I ponder while eating sandwiches in the bath. Perhaps some things are not for us to know.

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