Thursday, April 9, 2009

Done and done, yo.

Racing Battle: C1 Grand Prix is in the can!

Some background to this momentous event.

(car) Tuner culture over in Japan has a lot of similarities to its counterpart here in the States, but a lot of differences too. One of the key differences is in the very public arena of street racing. In the USA, racing your street car is basically illegal on a public road, and legal on the track. There are almost no exceptions to this, in any state and in any circumstance. You cannot race your car on a public road without risking police entanglements. You also risk ticketing, arrest, and/or impounding of your vehicle if you take part in a street racing ‘meet’ (a la scenes in The Fast & The Furious), even if you aren’t doing any actual racing yourself. Over time, as tuner culture has approached closer to mainstream consciousness, advice even amongst the formerly edgy magazines and shows has been to take the racing to the track. Cities with large car segments have been making track time available specifically to street racer potentials—anyone wanting to drive fast can have access. A lot of official drag racing events have tuner-oriented aspects to them, and a lot of tuner shows include time at a nearby track. American tuners may enjoy the same forms of racing that they do in Japan; time attack, touge, circuit drifting, etc. but the overwhelming preference is for drag racing. A quarter mile drag race can happen quickly (and with a minimum chance of attracting the authorities) as long as any reasonable traffic-free straight stretch of road can be found.

In Japan, street racing is also technically illegal but how the law is enforced differs substantially from America, and can even change month-to-month, year-to-year, depending on what problems and pressures the relevant authorities are feeling at the time. In ‘good times’ the cops generally turn a blind eye or rely on automated ticketing procedures (like cameras) to ticket drivers. So racing will flourish in this environment. In ‘bad times’, not only will they ticket the crap out of you, the police may even set up checkpoints to check any suspicious cars for modifications to their cars not covered by driver paperwork or the law. A lot of the car clubs have members that spend time monitoring the political and social climate around their favorite streets to determine the efficacy of racing without getting into trouble. Races, typically termed ‘battles’, typically take place on the expressways (for highway battles) or on winding mountain roads (touge)… all very late at night when traffic is at a minimum. In the case of highway battles, encountering and evading what little civilian cars there are is all part of the deal. In the mountains, they have team members on cell phones actually giving an all-clear when a stretch of road is free of cars.
Legal circuit racing is very popular in Japan also, with time attack, drifting, road courses all seeing popularity with tuners… drag racing included, but by far the least popular. Gasoline being hugely expensive, and with space and population issues, big powerful cars are not aligned with Japanese society. Their choice of motorsports reflects this with an emphasis on the technical skill, in driving and setting up a car, that road racing and time attack require, as opposed to the raw horsepower on display at the dragstrip.

With all of this in mind, Genki a long time ago decided to tap into Japan’s tuner culture and general love of automobiles with some very unique racing games.

Genki started its Shutokou Battle series, so named for the network of Shuto expressways encircling Tokyo, way back for the Super Famicom (SNES). At that time it included highways, touge, and circuit racing, formats that would all get their own series as time went on. Subsequent chapters of Shutokou Battle concentrated on highway battles, with touge moving over to the Kaido Battle games, and circuit racing picked up by Kattobi Tune and later, Racing Battle: C1 Grand Prix. Common to all these games was the concept of a sort of game world complete with individually identified rivals. In the early games it was just a name, a car, and maybe a picture. The driver might say some trash talk before a race. But as these games have evolved, the rival concept has been expanded to the point it mirrors real-life Japanese underground race culture, though dramatized and simplified in the same way movies or comic books might do it. The rivals now carry through from game to game, consistently driving their recognizable make or model of vehicle. They have individual ‘stickers’ identifying them or the club they belong to. They each have information on their tuning strategies or philosophy along with info about their day jobs. And they communicate with the player through a faux BBS and email system within the game.

This determination to reflect the actual culture, and the details that make it attractive, not only extend to the rivals, but also to the cars. In the beginning, small company that they were, Genki’s ability to get actual sponsorship and licensing went about as far as getting Keichi Tsuchiya (Japan's celebrity Drift King) involved and that’s it. The cars all had to be referred to in the game by their chassis code as opposed to their name, but the games usually had a screen for changing the name to the real one if you wished. Genki stayed hip to what sort of parts tuners bought, and what sort of modifications they made, so the games reflected—with increasing sophistication through the years—what you could find in any nighttime parking area around Japan. Nowadays, with sales and money comes the ability to attract and pay for the real names, so Genki games now are populated with the real car manufacturers, models, and aftermarket parts suppliers.

As described in another previous post, Genki racing games appeal to gamers that want more color or atmosphere. But one of the great things about the game world, besides the cultural details, and the continuing cast of characters, is the type of ‘freedom’ you have. A better word escapes me. This is kind of a hard thing to describe accurately. In many racing games (Gran Turismo most prominently) you just have a list of races or tracks, some starter cars and parts available, and you pretty much just work through the choices, winning as you can, getting more money, buying more cars and parts, tweaking as you go, until you eventually complete the game. At the other end of the spectrum you have those games who hang your progress on a detailed plot (Race Driver Pro for example) and you pretty much need to complete the races and get the cars more-or-less in narrative order, to climb your way to the top of the racing heap.

The Genki games have found a good balance between the two extremes. You have only a minimum plot, usually about ‘the greatest racer’ having disappeared and a power vacuum being created, which you, naturally, are going to try to fill by contending with all the other wannabe racing kings. You can then roam the highways looking for rivals, race as many times as you wish, talk to other racers, or frequent the shops. It is pretty much all done at your own pace. It isn’t the goal of attaining champion that is the fun part, it is the journey.
Some days, you might find yourself in constant white-knuckle races, other days you might do nothing but shop and modify your cars. All at your pace. You’ll have friends and supporters. You’ll have drivers that dislike you for no good reason. You’ll have rivals you hate because game after game they keep giving you trouble. Only the Need For Speed: Underground series and its spinoffs seem to have hit a similar note, but with even more emphasis on real-time free roaming in your car than the Genki games… though NFS: Underground still seems to need to wedge a fairly serious ‘plot’ into the proceedings.

Genki racers are something of an acquired taste. At first glance it may be hard for the average gamer to see what the fuss is all about. But there is a lot of fun, excitement, and drama under the surface. It takes some dedication to see that. These games bring back one of the killer reasons why many people play video games in the first place: anticipation. To see what is next. To complete goals. To finish the game. It isn’t just endless repetition once you start talking to the other drivers, or opening up new tracks. You actually learn to feel dread, hatred, or dismay when you see a familiar sticker from a rival you remember handing your ass to you multiple times in a previous game. Like Cave shooters, or SNK fighting games, Genki racers are a cult phenomenon. Not so easy for the mainstream to crack.

Despite all this street racing emphasis Genki has had some titles take the racing to the track. The very first episode of Shutokou Battle had a circuit aspect to it, and later on during shelf life of the editions for the PSX and the Saturn there was Kattobi Tune, and most recently Racing Battle, the inspiration for this post in the first place, came out in 2005.

As recent as it is, Racing Battle has had the benefit of all the other titles that have come before it, so Genki decided that the rivals, communications, and color of the ‘illegal’ racing titles, in addition to the cars and parts should come over and test their mettle in the new environment. Many of the rivals have gotten sponsors and changed or upgraded their rides to meet the conditions and challenge so different than the highways or mountain roads. In point of fact, they’ve cordoned off some sections of the expressways from Shutokou Battle to make street circuits so now fans get to drive these familiar areas in the daytime. Since cars and rivals from both current Genki series (Shutokou and Kaido Battle) are included, there needed to be several race ‘modes’ to cover the skills on display in those games. Racing Battle includes both racing and drift segments, and all rivals are capable of racing in all modes. Completing the game, in fact, requires you beat everyone at each type of contest. Like most Genki racing games some detail and realism in the graphics has been sacrificed to keep the sense of speed up (Gran Turismo looks like it crawls in comparison) and to budget in all the rivals, parts, background, communications, etc. that are part and parcel of their game world. It won’t win points for beating Gran Turismo or Forza’s realistic cars and tracks, but it does have a much more immersive framework in which to race. The customization level is much higher than almost any other racing game as well, including the ability to place vinyls on the cars that you derive from pictures taken with the EyeToy accessory.

If all of this sounds a lot like the other ‘epic’ motorsports titles like Gran Turismo, Forza, or Enthusia Racing, it is. Only it is Genki’s take on the specific subgenre of circuit racing, and it brings along a lot of what makes their other racing titles so compelling.

So my personal story with this game: I had played numerous Shutokou titles and become a big fan, including buying, playing and completing Japanese versions when it appeared I just wasn’t going to be able to wait for them to release in the USA. When Kaido Battle came out, I waited out the arrival of an English version. But then played it through rapidly, enjoying the different take on the ‘Genki system’. I was all set to skip Kaido Battle 2 (I’d heard it wasn’t different enough from Kaido Battle 1, though it was a better game) and move onto Kaido Battle: Touge no Densetsu, when I saw Racing Battle for sale. In Densetsu, the plot is that Shutokou bosses come out to the mountains to challenge the Kaido racers… kind of a crossover between the two series, so I was really ready to get to that.
The only thing that would’ve stopped me was an even more jaw-droppingly nerdy event in the Genki racing world, but that was exactly what Racing Battle was. A different crossover of rivals from both series battling it out on official circuits, with technical supervision from racer/drifters Orido and Taniguchi… just like in the ancient days when Tsuchiya would advise on Shutokou games. So I put Densetsu on hold, bought Racing Battle till my hands ached. This was not a simple task. Where Shutokou and Kaido Battle games had English versions so one could figure out a subsequent Japanese chapter, those games also tended to have a fair amount of English in the menus and captions. Not so Racing Battle. Very extensive Japanese text, a system dissimilar in a lot of ways to the other series’ AND almost no English language help or players online.

I was alone in my Racing Battle corner of the Genki universe.

Now a site named NTSC-UK does (at the time of this writing) have a guide to the most common menus, and this was absolutely invaluable. They actually used screen shots so the learning process is way quicker than most all-text FAQs you might use to learn a Japanese-heavy game. All props to this site for posting such a professional, useful tool. So with at least the main menus translated, and a lot of determination I worked my way through the game. It was A LOT OF FUN. As I was playing I found I was really missing out on the BBS/email communications… in fact ANY communications or info on the rivals, really, and learning what you gain from all the different items you can buy. The game lets you buy stuff to decorate your in-game garage, wear on your person, or keep with you as you drive… and these items can change certain attributes or gain you advantages, ie wearing the helmet reduces the amount of damage hitting a wall does to your SP bar. By lurking around the very few English threads on this title, I was able to get an idea what some of the items do. None of this stopped me from playing and enjoying the game. And getting good at it.

There comes a time in every Genki racers time with a game when he has to knuckle under and ‘find all the wanderers’. Usually you’ve fought and defeated all the rivals in the main narrative of the game (such as it is), and now there are just the rivals left that have special conditions required to make them available as opponents. The conditions can be as simple as a certain day of the week, or a weather condition. They might require you to be in a certain model of car. Sometimes the requirements can be more difficult, like having defeated certain previous rivals, or owning a certain number of cars. In the English versions of the games, the communications from or about the drivers often give you enough information to get most of these people out. Typically, there will be a last dozen or so, that you just can’t make appear. Or if you are playing a Japanese version it might be many more, since you can’t read the Japanese-language clues. This is where the online guides come in. Most people do not have the patience, or in my case the time, to really sit there and find every last wanderer strictly without help. Although their requirements do fit in with each driver’s background and profile, they are often just too obscure to reason out.

So imagine my difficulty coming to that point in Racing Battle and finding absolutely NO wanderers guide whatsoever. And the game was not popular enough in the English-speaking world to warrant even a regular forum to discuss the matter. Eventually having persevered I got the leftover wanderers down to about twenty, mostly by filling conditions bound to get taken care of if you race enough days and beat enough opponents. I used Genki’s official Racing Battle website to find Japanese fan pages and then ran them through Babelfish. I found two usable wanderer lists, and these got me down to about eight. Unfortunately this was the place where the inaccuracy of the Babelfish facility showed itself. Genki racers are a minority subset of tuner culture which is itself a corner subculture in the much larger universe of automobiles. There are terms unique to automobiles, terms unique to tuners, and terms unique to this family of racing games. So any vagueness was incredibly difficult to decipher. Finally, stymied I had to put the game down for awhile. I’d come back to it and finish it after I’d taken a break from racing games altogether.

A long time passed. In that intervening time, the few English language bits and all the Japanese fan material seemed to dry up. As I was farting around with an STG or learning about the Wii Virtual Console, Racing Battle was becoming more and more obscure. Since Racing Battle had, at the time of its release, topped sales charts in Japan, I had no idea that it was going to fade like this. Partly time got away from me too. I really hadn’t intended to go THAT long without taking another stab at it. In that time also, Densetsu got an English release, making my Japanese copy a non-starter. Fiddling around with Densetsu got me feeling like I had unfinished business with Racing Battle. So before Densetsu hooked me completely, I needed to close that previous chapter. I tried scouring the ‘net for help once again, but found myself to be even more alone than when I first started playing it. Even the Japanese pages were gone. I had made a copy of what seemed to be the best one, so I had my main wanderer help, but it looked like this could be really grueling slog to the finish…a feeling I was starting to remember when I first took my break from the game.

Turns out my fears were unfounded. I don’t know what I was NOT doing earlier but I had no problems following this FAQ and getting the last few wanderers to come out. Actually defeating them was another matter. In the time I’d taken off, my skill had atrophied somewhat. I was okay in the various racing events because racing ability in one game can frequently give you a leg up on another one, and I’ve played a lot of racing games in my life. But the drifting was another matter. Not as many of those played and really only one other Genki one (with its unique physics and system). So the Drift battles were rough. Very rough. Especially the ones requiring the use of cars far outside my preferences or experience… drifting in a front-engine front wheel drive vehicle is an experience I don’t want to repeat too often.

Finally, ‘Wanderers Completed 100%’ flashed across my screen, and when I went into the garage the next day, there was an email. The final boss labeled ‘Unknown’ was calling me out. Now this guy is well known to serial players of the Shutokou Battle games. He is labeled ‘Unknown’ or ‘???’ in all the games he appears in, with his sticker being a horned skull suspended above a hexagram. He is always the last guy you fight, and he typically drives a very innocuous looking 1980’s version of a Nissan/Datsun 240Z colored blue. The appearance is deceiving of course, because it is small, light, and souped up the max. It probably doesn’t corner all that well, but he usually challenges you on the Wangan section of the Tokyo expressways which is miles of straight freeway. So beating him is typically an exercise in maximizing your car’s power while really getting good at dodging freeway traffic.

He’s different in Racing Battle. Japan has a professional race series called Super GT. Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda all contribute a lot to the series, including technology and machinery for automobiles. They all have unbelievable versions of street cars on the track and Unknown’s car is basically the Nissan 350Z in its Super GT version, with a tiny nod to his old street ride in the form of the form of his driver side front fender being blue, with an old 240Z style headlight and fender mirror.

To wrap up this very long post, I used my traditional cars to beat him. I typically have in my garage in every Genki racing game a Supra RZ, a Silvia S15 (or a 180SX), and a Lancer Evolution. In the three contests against him all three cars played their part, amongst many others used to bring out the last wanderers.

It was a great game. A very long, drawn out experience, but well worth it in the end. It may not be my favorite Genki racing game (that might be another post) but it is probably the best-quality overall, of all of them. Certainly the most in-depth, though Densetsu looks to rival that. With all the effort required it was still hands-down a better time than Gran Turismo or any other game like that.

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