Graveyard: Rallisport Challenge

Watch your step, for you’ve just entered the Graveyard. Inside, we’ll be digging up games that have long been without a pulse. You’ll see both good and bad souls unearthed every month as we search through the more… forgotten…parts of history.

As we near another generation of Xbox consoles, it feels like as good a time as any to take a look back at some of the original Xbox’s best games. One such game was Rallisport Challenge — a top-shelf rally racer that offered the most enjoyable rally-inspired experience of its time and both it and its sequel have held up nicely. Sadly, neither is playable on the Xbox One family of consoles — probably due to vehicle licensing — but the original is at least playable on the Xbox 360, so it’s still playable on easy-to-obtain hardware and with HDMI output, it looks better than it would on the original Xbox with component cables. The original game has a soft spot for me since it was one of three games I got free with my system when I bought it. Beyond the Sega GT 2002 and Jet Set Radio Future bundle, a bonus freebie was included and I picked Rallisport Challenge and never regretted it for a minute.

Before Rallisport Challenge, I loved Sega Rally ’95 in the arcade and on the Saturn and enjoyed a bit of V-Rally on the PS1, but nothing topped Sega Rally. Rallisport Challenge was a bit different because it featured an arcade-style level of accssibility and more depth to the racing action and mode selection. Core time trial-based races are still a part of things and the key to unlocking more courses in the career mode, but you have a lot of options to keep things fresh within different racing disciplines. Beyond traditional point-to-point rally races, you also have rallycross events against rivals, time attack, ice racing and hill climb.

While DICE has become known as the house of Battlefield and one of EA’s pillars of top-tier development, they were truly underrated when it came to racing games because both this and the sequel were some of the best racers of their time. Their games are known for having a high amount of polish and that’s one reason EA snatched them up — and Rallisport showcased that nicely even at an early point in their life. Each racing mode allows you to have a lot of fun in a slightly different way — and some of it’s unintentional due to a couple of rough edges making their way into the final product.

Point-to-point races are a blast and that’s rare given that I usually find them to be a chore in a lot of rally racers. So many games, even now, just strip all the fun out of it and it because a tedious slog to get from A to B. Here, you have a fast pace to the racing so that even when you’re in a lower-end car, the action is still exciting and you always have something to compete with. While you not only have to get the best time, you also have to content with things like sharp turns causing you to lose valuable time and sending you to the back of the pack of four racers in competition. There’s an ever-present fear of needing to excel to survive, let alone do well, and this is in the days before rewind featured.

This holds even more true during ice racing where you have to be more careful than usual to avoid sliding around the place. Strangely, being able to use both the d-pad and analog stick to steer helps here because you can make smaller movements with the d-pad than the stick and that allows you to take corners a bit easier and even deal with passing rivals easier as well. The ice racing mode blew me away at the time since no rally racer I’d played to this point had it, and while it was tough, it was also a rewarding challenge that never overwhelmed you as long as you raced smartly and didn’t rush.

Hillclimb shows off the scope of the game compared to prior-gen hardware because you can climb up the mountain and see down where you were before as you go up the winding road and be amazed at just what you’re doing — and be grateful that you’re still going up. It’s a tougher race in some ways than ice climbing because while you have more traction, you have far less room to move and can easily get bunched up in a turn with other racers. You have to be careful, but can gun it a bit more here than in ice racing.

Rallycross is the mode that’s going to work the best with folks wanting a more traditional rival-based racing game. You have to come out on top against a slew of rivals and doing so rewards you with not only a victory, but a thrill unlike any other in the game because it feels like a more arcade-style setup and is easier to get into. It’s approachable, and like the other modes, feels rewarding when you win. The overall feel of each race wouldn’t be out of place in a Sega Rally game and I actually had more fun here than I did with later entries in the Sega Rally series just due to how great the core racing is.

Rallisport nails little touches in the AV side of things nicely, beyond having a top-notch visual design that holds up almost twenty years later, which is astounding to think in hindsight. Just think of how much graphics evolved from 1982 until 2002 and here we are in 2020 and Rallisport Challenge would honestly look fine now and outperforms some games like WRC on the Switch running in portable mode. The car detail in particular is impressive as you have realistic lighting with the paint and a lot of dirt and ice buildup as races go on. It’s immersive and done in a more organic way than one would expect for a game of this vintage. There’s also a fantastic rumble effect that changes intensity based on the surface you’re driving on that even the era of HD rumble hasn’t topped.

Rallisport’s soundtrack is a solid mix of somber rock and hard-nosed sound effects. DICE’s sound design is usually on-point and that’s the case here, especially when you’re in rallycross events and have cars all around you gunning to take you down. There’s a blend of rock and a bit of dance music thrown in, which comes in handy during races since it keeps your blood pumping. Your co-driver has his work cut out for him with the quick pace of races and it does lead to some comedy when he just talks over himself like an auctioneer trying to get one last bid in on an item.

Overall, Rallisport Challenge is a must-buy for anyone who wants a fun rally-themed racing game and it’s held up surprisingly well given that it’s eighteen years old now. You can get it for about $6 shipped and it plays nicely on the Xbox 360 — although the loading screens are wonky and it will crash trying to watch game demos. Still, the controls are great and the 360 pad feels more natural for it than either the Duke or Controller S did. It’s a well-crafted game and something that all fans of the genre should check out.