Does any game own its genre as effectively as Mario Kart? Sure, the more po-faced among the racing brigade might draw influence from other (more realistic) avenues, but if you’re looking towards making a light-hearted kart racer, it’s impossible to avoid the touch of Nintendo’s ineluctable offering.
One factor that makes this interesting is that, when it came to kart racers, Nintendo were actually beaten to the punch by their arch-rival Sega – and by a good few years to boot.
Released into the arcades in 1989, Sega’s Power Drift instantly nailed many of (what would become) the defining aspects of the genre. Its characters had personalities that were as disproportionately large as their heads. Its vehicles were nippy, responsive and were easy to throw into physics-defying drifts. It may have had nothing to compare with the deadly shells that players would come to love and loath in equal measure, but it pushed Sega’s Y board hardware to the extreme with twisted, roller coaster-like track designs that Nintendo’s franchise wouldn’t be able to match until the arrival of the N64. Power Drift was even one of the first multiplayer games of its type, with a networked release that allowed players in separate cabinets to race against each other.
However, if Power Drift was so awesome why didn’t it have a greater effect on the wider gaming world? This question has an obvious answer: Sega didn’t actually port it to any of their own consoles until 1995, and even then they only did so in Japan. Considering the effect Mario Kart was to have on the industry, why on earth wasn’t there a Megadrive version?
This question has a neat and obvious answer, of course: Given that the arcade hardware that ran Power Drift sported three 68000 processors, the Megadrive (which was based around a single 68000) simply wasn’t up to the job. The problem however, is that this theory doesn’t stack up to the evidence. After all, Galaxy Force II and G-LOC were also Y board games, yet they ended up being ported not only the Megadrive, but to the aged Master System as well.
It’s also not like Sega were particularly precious about Power Drift either. As was generally the way in Sega’s pre-Megadrive days, their kart-based racer ended up being ported across the entire spectrum of home machines available in Europe (including, the Spectrum itself, in fact. Ha.) and they even allowed a port to be produced for 16-bit rivals NEC in Japan. Though few of these versions were particularly impressive, they nonetheless demonstratedthat it was possible to produce a compelling version of the game on relatively compromised hardware – especially since the 8 bit versions generally play better than their 16 bit relations.
Unsurprisingly then, it turns out there was indeed a Megadrive port of Power Drift in the works. Perhaps slightly more surprisingly it turns out that it was also a relatively early one too. The first reference to the port in print appears to be in the September ’89 issue of Japanese mag Beep! In a wide-ranging interview, there’s a discussion of Sega’s licensing woes (particularly their deal with Atari for the Tetris license) and an apology from Sega about the amount of their titles – with Power Drift being mentioned in particular – that were arriving on competing platforms before they had debuted on the Megadrive. Apparently Sega were taking their time with the Megadrive version of the racer in order to make it the best version of the game possible.
Did this represent actual work in progress or was it more of a statement of intent? Either way, a reference to the port appeared a few months later in C&VG’s Complete Guide to Consoles. Though Power Drift was listed as coming to the console, rather ominously an actual release month was omitted.
After C&VG, there doesn’t appear to be another reference to the Megadrive version of Power Drift until November/December 1990 – almost a year later. At this time, a reader wrote into the letters page of C&VG spin-off Mean Machines to specifically ask about the Power Drift entry in the earlier Complete Guide to Consoles. According to Mean Machines’ sources, it would appear that Megadrive Power Drift was slotted in for a Easter 1991 release.
Curiously, a Usenet post authored just a couple of months later (in January 1991) painted a very different picture of the progress of the port. Writing in the rec.games.video group, the seemingly well-informed Han J Lee claimed that Sega had farmed the port out to Denpa Shinbunsha – developers of the Megadrive version of Afterburner – and that it had originally been pencilled in for January 1991. Unfortunately, he claimed that things had not gone well – Denpa had apparently produced a number of different versions, with Sega declining each one on quality grounds. Crucially. Han wrote that the rumour on the ground was that the Megadrive version was effectively dead in the water, with development moving over to the forthcoming Mega CD add-on.
Of course these days we know better than to trust random people on the internet (ahem), but with Spring arriving and Power Drift not, it would appear his information was correct. Indeed, even the rumours about the switch to CD proved to be true: The next time a 16-bit Power Drift port turned up in the press, it was in articles formally introducing the Mega CD to US audiences (December 1991.) Production of the game had apparently shifted to Sega’s CD-based add-on with release slotted in – once again – for the following Spring. Though the inclusion of a screen shot in EGM’s article seemed to outline that a good deal of progress had been made, comparison of the screen layout reveals that this is almost certainly a picture of Asmik’s PC Engine port rather than a preview build of a Mega CD version.
After being touted as an early CD title before the release of the console, Power Drift appears to have vanished from view for another year – once again missing its provisional Spring release date. Though EGM were to later to suggest that Sega were still working hard on the port, in reply to a letter the following month they admitted there hadn’t been an update in over a year. Having never been formally announced, The 16-bit Sega port of Power Drift appears to have quietly slipped out of existence.
Or did it? According to US magazine Gamefan, the expiry of Denpa’s license led to Sega to move the title to the recently-released 32x. However by the time this rumour was circulating (March 1995) the steam was already running out of the 32x’s sails, so it’s probably not unsurprising that this also amounted to nothing and that an official Sega port didn’t finally see the light of day until Sega’s Japan-only Saturn release in 1998.
Sega’s 16-bit version of Power Drift is a bit of an oddity, then. Officially in production for a good number of years, the only evidence we have for its existence is a few asides in Magazines. Considering the recent find of a development version of Moonwalker (complete with a chiptune version of Thriller), I wonder if there are files related to the project that are sitting on redundant floppy disks somewhere, waiting to to be rediscovered?