|Drift King '94 |
|Drift King '94 |
|Kattobi Tune |
|Kattobi Tune |
|All Japan GT |
|All Japan GT |
|Advan Racing |
|J's Racin' |
|J's Racin' |
|Midnight Run: Road Fighter 2 |
So, the racing games win after all. In fact, it was actually a close finish. The recent Square/Enix merger initially sent me diving into my collection for this month's column, but there's so much ground to cover that I decided to take the speedier route this month. funny thing, though- it ended up being just as much, if not more work. With the Daytona 500 officially starting off the US racing season, I figure it's a good time to focus on some import racers that have a lot more going for them than driving in elongated circles for 2 hours. With dozens of titles to choose from, I picked out some pre and post Gran Turismo racers that emphasize customization and/or simulation aspects over more arcade-like or cartoony titles. You can consider this column Part One of a few parts, and I'll add other cool titles in future installments. Meanwhile, hop in and let's go for a joyride!
The first great 3D home racer, Need for Speed (3DO) was released for the console in Japan as OverDrivin', and after the console crashed and burned (heh), Electronic Arts Japan put out two more games in the series for two different systems. OverDrivin' GT-R (Saturn, 1996) and OverDrivin' Skyline Memorial (Playstation, 1997) are two Nissan sponsored games that are identical to the 3DO game in most aspects. Both games feature most of the menus and track graphics from the original, along with 8 initially selectable vehicles. The biggest changes in both games are there's no Smokey pulling you over from time to time, and the annoying rival guy from the 3DO game is missing in action. On the technical front, the Playstation game has a tiny bit of texture warping on the road surfaces not found in the other games, while the Saturn version looks a wee bit grainier (and you get a heavy keychain bonus in the oversized CD case). Still, both are great examples of a good idea that should have been expanded upon more in the US market.
Imagine walking into a dealership and going on a test drive or just to shop around, and getting a free game for your time. One Japanese publisher, Atlus, took this idea to a unique new level, and a few thousand copies of Netz Toyota Racing were released in 1999. This was a not for sale game available mainly to potential new car buyers, which makes it one of those eBay rent makers for whoever posts it. Running on a modified Advan Racing engine, Netz features 8 selectable cars, 4 tracks, up to 15 cars onscreen, and some very Gran Turismo-like menus and visuals. The game has a few quirks, like loose handling, intentionally blurry replay footage, and cars that give off showers of sparks at the slightest contact. As this is more or less an extended demo, there are no memory card features whatsoever, but it's a fun 2 or so hours while it lasts- if you're lucky enough to find one. You'll also get to watch some cool car commercials when you're done with the game, which is pretty funny if you think about it (imagine if they happened during pit stops). Atlus also produced two other hard to find titles for Toyota for its Altezza and Vitz models, but I haven't been able to track those down just yet. The US car company that jumps on this idea is probably going to have the most traffic in and out of their showrooms, especially with the sudden interest in hybrid and other non-gasoline powered vehicles.
Back to Atlus for a bit- the company has come up with some fun racers for the Saturn like Touge King The Spirits (released here as High Velocity) and Touge King The Spirits 2, while the Playstation got the Cave programmed Touge Max and Touge Max 2. Touge 2 is also a cool cultural guide to Japanese car fans, as the disc is packed with bonus stuff US publishers would probably not even think of including. There's a photo gallery of 160 real car owners and their own cars (and a few motorbikes), along with a magazine section featuring ads from CarBoy, Tipo/J's Tipo, Carisma, Rev Speed, and other popular Japanese street racing publications, and you get a silver sticker for your own car, to boot! Touge Max nixes the photo gallery, but adds a Gymkhana course where you place cones and test your skills with any of the cars in the game. If you stack the Touge games up against Gran Turismo, you'll be disappointed in the boxier-looking car models and less realistic handling. But the games are full of details that didn't make it in GT, like selectable seasons, time, and weather, animated drivers, and more racing viewpoints to choose from.
For US gamers, car body customization and engine modification in a console game were rarely seen features in the early 90's. Unless you were playing Formula One or Rally racers (I'll cover these another time), the most you could do was change your tire type and occasionally create your own race tracks. Japanese gamers had a couple of titles by 1993 or so that featured more technical aspects in both modification and handling, helping pave the way for the likes of Syutokoh Battle and Gran Turismo. Games like Drift King, and Drift King '94 (Super Famicom) featured real life Japanese racing legend Keiichi Tsuchiya, and famous car tuner/race team owner Masaaki Bandoh as themselves, with a cast of anime street-racer types as your opposition. The extremely drift heavy gameplay and split-screen action makes this an incredibly difficult game if you're used to the more arcade-like handling of some older console racers. But any initial annoyances with the controls and presentation are reduced once you realize that you're learning a new set of skills that will probably make you better at a few of those older games.
Tsuchiya and Bandoh have also appeared in a number of other great racing games, notably a number of Syutokoh Battle titles (on both the Saturn and Playstation), and Super Technic Challenge (Playstation). Four of the Syutokoh Battle games ended up stateside as Tokyo Highway Battle (PS) and Tokyo Extreme Racing (Dreamcast, PS2), if you hadn't made the connection yet. Super Technic is an odd one, in that it has regular folks taking their tuned street cars literally out for a spin on some tricky race tracks. Each course has Drift Sections, which are curves where you have to side brake your car for as long as possible. This technique has to be mastered perfectly, as you can actually finish in first place but still lose a race if you didn't score enough points while drifting! While it's a decent game with a high challenge level, it does come with one major and one minor caveat: there's a fairly high amount of Japanese text to wade through here, and there's no quick race, free run or time trial options selectable from the main menu. Like many early racing games on the PS, the lack of analog control makes it a bit tough on the fingers, and this is one of those games that doesn't support the NegCon controller. Dig up one of those Interact Barracuda pads and things may become easier, at least on the control front. Super Technic and the Syutokoh games were either programmed or supervised by Genki, known for their port of Virtua Fighter 3 for the DC, Wangan Midnight (PS2- see my review), and a slew of mech-based games for a number of platforms.
There were also other imports that featured Japanese tuning shops getting motor heads hooked either through sponsoring or not so subtle product placement in a number of games. Option Tuning Car Battle and Option Tuning Car Battle 2 (Playstation) and literally ads for over a dozen custom shops, as well as the magazine the games are named after. Rev Speed has its name on Kattobi Tune (PS), another Genki-programmed racer. Despite all the big name tuners and the definite GT influence in the visuals, the overall quality of the gameplay comes off as less than spectacular. It was as if Polyphony had raised the bar to forehead level, and these guys were either bumping into or ducking under, instead of jumping over it. Saturn owners in Japan suffered far worse though, with at least two Wangan Dead Heat games, yellow label titles which featured stiff control and pretty poor graphics. The real draw in these two games were the models who appeared in video clips as you progressed in the game. Of course, the frustrating gameplay meant that only the most patient (and hard up for cheap thrills) gamer would even bother. And no, that doesn't mean I'm selling my copies anytime soon- cheap thrills are hard to come by lately. Besides, Natsume released the first Wangan game here for the US Saturn as Highway 2000...with all the footage of the girls cut out completely, though.
While there have been a few NASCAR games released in Japan, none are exclusives or have much in the way of extras, so we'll skip them completely. As far as the other pro race circuit titles, games like All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship, J's Racin', JGTC, and Advan Racing (Playstation), and GT 24 (Saturn) should cover your speed fix nicely. All Japan's unusual scaling isometric viewpoint makes the game quite tricky to control, but it's also what keeps you playing once it grows on you. Advan Racing (Playstation) is the closest game to equal the thrill of the first Gran Turismo, in my opinion. Atlus borrowed and improved some visual aspects of GT, and many of the better racers are available right at the start of the game. The in-car view is the only major flaw in the game, featuring a generic dashboard with NO steering wheel or dials, and the game shares the same visual quirks as Netz Racing. JGTC and J's Racin' share some control and minor graphics issues, but as long as you keep your car ON the tracks you'll do just fine. Jaleco's GT 24 is a Le Mans variant featuring a highly compressed clock. Through the wonders of the option screen, hours can be exchanged into minutes, so bathroom breaks aren't impossible should you decide to tackle the big race on your own.
Finally, I was going to avoid arcade games completely, but Taito's Side By Side Special and Konami's Midnight Run: Road Fighter 2 (Playstation) deserve mentions, as they have Syutokoh Battle inspired gameplay and/or some minor customization features. Both games are not only very fast, but also ridiculously short as they're ported from arcade originals. Side By Side got a PS2 sequel called Battle Heat, and it's very much the same game with better visuals and analog support. By now, you're either asleep at the wheel, or ready to speed down to an import game shop or hunt online for some of these games- I'm hoping for the latter response, naturally. Yes, I left out a number of important games (a few RPGs, RC racers, F1 and other specialty titles), but as I said earlier, we'll get to those in the future.
Next month: Square/Enix, a bunch of RPGs you've never heard of, and if you're very extra good, I'll show you what could be considered the Playstation's Animal Crossing (and no, I'm not talking about Pet In TV)...