From when I was old enough to use a controller or turn a steering wheel, I’ve always loved car racing games. I guess it probably started in the early 1990’s with a pirated copy of Pole Position my friend had on his Commodore 64. At the time, there simply wasn’t anything better than racing split-screen against each other, complete with simulated tyre wear and pit stops – it was absolutely fantastic.
Then there was the copy of Virtua Racing on the Sega Mega Drive which introduced the prospect of 3D to me for the first time. It blew my mind, but not as much as Sega’s Daytona USA did when I saw an 8-player version of it down at the local arcade in 1994. The graphics sent tingles down my spine, and the sound of the stock cars racing through the tunnel on the Intermediate track was just as good. Because of these titles I was always more of a Sega fan than anything else, but I never felt any love for the Saturn and in 1997 I chose an Nintendo 64 over it and the original PlayStation. But there was a PlayStation game released later in the year that had me regretting that decision. Gran Turismo.
When Gran Turismo (or GT1) was released, it immediately made all previously released car racing games seem inadequate, underdone and severely lacking content. GT1 had 140 cars and 11 race tracks to choose from – and what made those figures even more incredible was the fact that they were real cars, and mostly real tracks too. It doesn’t sound as amazing now, but back then that was a huge deal. GT1 was really the first mainstream game that introduced a worldwide audience to internationally renowned cars – the Nissan Skyline GTR from Japan was a world beater, but relatively unknown to a wider western audience in the late 90’s. Others such as the Mitsubishi FTO and TVR Griffith were only really known by hardcore enthusiasts. GT1 opened the world of cars to an audience thought to be only interested in saving princesses or shooting green shells at opponent’s go-karts.
Handling aside, I think the thing which impressed me the most about GT1 was the career mode. The fact that you had to take license tests, plus purchase and upgrade cars using the money you earnt from winning races was an immersive proposition. They weren’t just cars you drove, you owned them and felt increasingly attached to each one, partly because of the detail which GT1 went in to. For example, when you were upgrading your new Mazda RX-7, one of the options was upgrading the mufflers and air cleaners. Here you could do what other games had in the past; upgrade parts to give more power, but GT took it a step further. You would choose between sports, semi-racing, and racing upgrades and each one gave a description on what exactly you were doing to the car. The racing exhaust upgrade states,
“A combination of a racing air filter equipped with an air funnel that gives even better air intake than the semi-racing air filter, and a high efficiency straight muffler designed for racing cars which normally run at high engine speeds. Because torque is reduced at low engine speeds, the engine characteristics, gear ratios, and so on, need to be taken into account.”
Now this didn’t make a lot of sense at the time to 13 year old me, but it sparked an interest which drove me to read more about cars and learn how they worked.
GT1 is probably responsible for creating many of the current crop of 30 to 40 year old car enthusiasts – and the sequels which followed have been doing the same thing to children ever since. GT2 followed the same formula, but upped the car list from 140 to an incredible 650 cars – expanding the range with a wider array of internationally known cars. Names like Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Lancia, Lotus, Peugeot, Renault, Vauxhall and Vector became household names to young gamers. Thanks to my Nintendo 64 I didn’t get a lot of exposure to GT1 or GT2, only at a friend’s house, but I made sure I didn’t miss out on the next one.
With the arrival of the PS2, Polyphony Digital (the development house behind the GT series) released GT3: ASPEC. In an instant, we went from pixelated, square-edged cars, to beautifully detailed, shiny and smooth looking models which were extremely accurate for the time. The graphics alone had a massive impact on me and were even good enough to get non-gamers, such as my father, interested in it. Since the developers couldn’t re-use their existing car models, all 181 vehicles in the game had to be remodelled, which is why there was a substantial reduction in vehicles when compared to GT2. GT3 also brought about a new style of game-play featuring a more robust single player campaign with side missions, short sprint races, and even endurance races that could last for hours. I’d say it was GT3 which actually turned me into a car enthusiast, with the ability to tweak suspension settings like spring ratios, ride height, camber and toe angles, gear ratios, and turbo boost pressure. I’d eventually learn how these settings would affect a car’s handling, and it was extremely rewarding to tweak the handling of the cars in my virtual garage.
In my opinion, the Gran Turismo series peaked at GT3. Sure, GT4 had more cars and more tracks, but that’s all the series has ever offered from that point onwards. There was more of everything, and one could argue that they were each better than the title that came before them, but somehow the world had moved on. Forza Motorsport was now available for the Xbox and fanboys argued ’till the cows came home about which one was best, but it didn’t really matter. Both games were responsible for creating a new breed of young car enthusiasts. If GT1 never saw the light of day, perhaps Forza might never have been made…
My interest in GT4 was lukewarm at best, but perhaps this was due to my interest in real cars taking over. I’d already transitioned from digital vehicles to an actual car which I could drive on the road or work on in the garage. From where I was sitting, GT4, GT5 and GT6 failed to bring anything new to the table, except more cars and tracks. The series formula hasn’t changed, and I think that is where the problem is. But while I might be disappointed with the direction (or lack of) which the GT series has taken, I’ll always respect it – because without it I probably wouldn’t like cars half as much as I do today.
And for that, I am eternally grateful.