VALLEY WEEKEND : Ridge Runs Good Race, but Daytona's a Smash : More variety and realistic crash damage make the Saturn system's driving contest a winner.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Pole Position to Night Driver, driving contests have always been the meat and potatoes of the video game industry, and the next-generation rigs on the market continue the tradition.

Both Sega and Sony included racers in the launch lineups of their flagship systems. The question I get asked over and over, though, is which one is better. Ridge Racer for PlayStation or Daytona Speedway for Saturn?

While Ridge Racer serves up some tasty graphics and crazy motion, Daytona is the better game overall. Its graphics aren't quite as smooth as Ridge Racer's and the scenes sometimes are slow to fill in, but the driving experience of Daytona leaves Ridge Racer in the dust.

It boasts three distinct courses as opposed to Ridge Racer's one, and the car sustains noticeable damage in crashes. Pit stops are essential to a winning race. Control seems smoother.

All in all, Daytona lands in the winner's circle.

Shut My Mouth: I've been kind of rough on Sega Saturn since it was released in May. And while I don't take anything back, I got a glimpse of the games Saturn will support this Christmas and am convinced that the lineup more than makes up for the system's weak early showing.

On deck is Virtua Cop, Virtua Fighter II and Sega Rally Championship--three games that put the system's obvious power to good use. All priced under $80, the games deliver the kind of high-end play and graphics I expected way back in May.

Virtua Fighter II is a faithful adaptation of the arcade version and packs a potent punch that knocks Sony's Battle Arena Toshinden on its rump. Virtua Cop is the arcade shooter and comes packed with a fierce-looking gun that is one of the game's best points. Sega Rally is an off-road racer that corrects many of the problems of Daytona for a nearly flawless trip through the video boonies.

Power Drive: As other games struggle to get the first-person driving game down, Power Drive Rally for the Atari Jaguar takes the third-person overhead perspective to a new level. It's old-style racing in a new way.

The game is as much business management as it is driving skill, as players must assemble the car of their dreams and pay for repairs out of race winnings. The racing sequences are clear and fun, although a little uninspired graphically, which goes to prove that graphics alone do not a game make.

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Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games for Valley Weekend. To comment on a column or to suggest games for review, send letters to The Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Or send e-mail to Aaron.Curtiss@latimes.com.

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