When it comes to racing games, you can either lean into the more arcade-influenced style for pick up and play accessibility (Ridge Racer), or you can try and go for the more real life-based simulation style (Gran Turismo). Depending on which direction you go in when you reach the fork in the road (pun intended), both of these different styles of racing come with their own unique collection of potential plusses and pratfalls. It’s probably best to decide on what direction you want to go in as early as possible, especially as arcade and simulation racing games often attract a completely different clientele, with halfway houses often arriving to lukewarm receptions. It’s thus a shame then that Tommi Mäkinen Rally feels like it never really made that decision.
Tommi Mäkinen Rally was originally developed by Magnetic Fields for Windows PCs and was released in Europe and Japan in 1997. North America would have to wait all the way until 2001 before they could get hold of it, which seems positively bonkers when you consider it would have been approaching four years old by that stage. PlayStation owners in both the UK and France did eventually get a port of it for their home consoles in 1998 though, with Europress developing that one, and it was the PSX version of Tommi Mäkinen Rally that I played for this feature. The game actually came out under the title International Rally Championship when it was on PC, and I’m not entirely sure why Mr. Mäkinen ended up getting drafted in to front the PSX release.
I wasn’t really sure whether Tommi Mäkinen Rally wanted to lean more into the arcade style or go for a more faithful Rally-styled game. In some ways, the game is like a combination of Rally racing and Stock Car/Touring Car racing, with you having the option to either compete by your lonesome in time trials or race against three other opponents in Arcade and Championship mode. You have a decent selection of real cars to choose from, with the likes of Subaru, Renault and Skoda all making an appearance. The cars do feel different from one another to a certain degree, thus giving you a reason to try them all out till you find the one that works for you.
Arcade mode sees you having to work your way through a branching map of races, with you sometimes being able to select between two different locations depending on the previous part of the tree you completed. In a nice touch, if you are finding the current route you’ve taken to be too difficult, you are allowed to try some of the different earlier tracks that you originally skipped on in order to open up a new path for yourself. Championship is more in line with what you’d expect from a Rally game, with you needing to make sure that you have all the correct tyres and suspensions on your car in order to combat the tracks accordingly.
As someone who generally prefers the more arcade-based style of gameplay that you can find in racing games, the Arcade mode of Tommi Mäkinen Rally is far more in line with what I personally enjoy, and I didn’t spend a lot of time in Championship mode as a result. I personally think that the game needed to focus on one aspect over the other though as because the attention was split between the two different modes, you end up with a thinner experience in both in my view. It doesn’t help that the gameplay itself is kind of lacking overall.
Tommi Mäkinen Rally is not a smooth, joyous gameplay experience, but it is playable, for the most part, with the races generally being competitive with the CPU opponents and analogue stick support as an option. Sometimes I found the revs on your car inexplicably dropped without any real environmental reasons to cause it. Collision detection is also inconsistent sometimes as well, with you sometimes bonking off the side of the track at speed with nary an issue, whereas other times just brushing by the side will cause your car to flip over onto its side like a toppled tortoise. I didn’t hate Tommi Mäkinen Rally when it came to gameplay, but it did frustrate me sometimes, and it’s a bit janky. “Janky but playable” is probably the best way I could describe the game, to be honest.
Tommi Mäkinen Rally really shows its age when it comes to the visuals, with it having the blocky early 3D look that a lot of games from the fifth gen tend to have. The cars actually don’t look too bad and are reasonably well detailed, complete with assorted logos and whatnot. The courses aren’t especially easy on the eyes, with walls fading in and out at times, and some poor draw distance making it hard to see too far ahead of yourself sometimes. Musically, the game isn’t bad though, with Darren Ithell and Dave Sullivan handling the composing and filling the game with some very nice 90s techno dance tunes. It’s music that’s very of its time, but I happen to be nostalgic for that kind of music in video games, so it gets a personal thumbs up from me.
Tommi Mäkinen Rally is certainly not bereft of options and modes, with Arcade, Championship and Time Trial modes being joined by Challenge Tommi mode and an option to create your own tracks. Challenge Tommi is just you taking on Tommi in a 1 v 1 race whilst he occasionally trash talks you in the most boring manner possible. I personally didn’t find the AI for Tommi to be especially challenging considering his name is on the box and all, but it’s a nice enough additional mode to give you more things to do. Create a Track mode wasn’t really wacky enough for my liking since you’re not really able to create absolute wild monstrosities for you and your pals to race on. I mean, would it have killed them to include the option to add a lava pit to the proceedings?
Tommi Mäkinen Rally isn’t a great game by any means, and it shows its age quite a bit these days, but it’s reasonably playable, and you can get it pretty cheap if you like in Europe, so if you fancy some affordable so-so racing, then you could do far worse. If realism is more your thing, then you’re probably better off with getting Colin McRae or Gran Turismo, whilst arcade fans might be better suited to look at Ridge Racer or games of that ilk.