Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mixed Feelings.

I’m in the middle of a nostalgic, but epic run through my beloved old games and systems. One of these old games is Shutokou Battle 2, known in the US as Tokyo Xtreme Racer 2.

I’ve got earlier entries that go on at nausea-inducing length about how much I love Genki racers like the Shutokou Battle games. This one, the second Dreamcast-based episode was the reason I got into them. See those earlier entries for the details if it matters.

In any case, I originally played the Japanese version. I was really smitten with the description and some demo I’d played of the first one, but I wanted the expanded world of the second one and didn’t want to wait for a localization that might never come. So importing it was the way to go. I didn’t understand all the text, mostly the wanderer descriptions, but all the upgrades and gameplay stuff was in English, so I got through it and thought it was practically masturbation material.

Recently, in my fit of oldskool fondness, I got ahold of a USA version of the game. I’ve played subsequent episodes in English, and knowing the details of the rivals and all that only added to the experience. It had been years since I’d even looked at this old game, and while I was digging my re-look at the Dreamcast, I figured I might as well replay this old love in an even more understandable, engaging form.

It ain’t quite the same. The graphics have aged pretty well. The cars and streets look fine. The music is still decent, with one tune being a real standout, and some of the best ‘racing battle’ music ever in a game. BUT, some of the actual gameplay specifics are just ass. The controls are part of the issue. The Dreamcast has analog triggers for gas and brakes (most racing games can be mapped to these controls) exactly as I prefer, but there is some disconnect between how hard you pull the trigger to apply the brakes and how hard they are actually applied. If you want a little bit of braking, you have to go REALLY light on the trigger. Pull the trigger halfway and you get full panic-stop brakes and your tires break loose from traction. This basically has the effect of making your brakes worthless IF you try to brake with the timing and feel of all the other Shutokou Battle games and most other racing games besides. It is really irritating. It must not have bothered me much back in the day because I was either enjoying the novelty of the other aspects so much OR I just didn’t know any better not having played many of the others. This is something I’ve gotten used to somewhat, but in the panic of a really close race I find myself reverting to my tried-and-true methods and timing and I typically blow the race. My win-loss record is truly pathetic compared to other Genki racers.

The other bigger problem is the balance between racing and upgrading. Most racing games have a ‘career mode’ of some kind. The one-player story sequence game where you start with a shit car and work your way up by winning races, upgrading your car, buying faster cars, and winning some more until you finally finish the game by having one all the races the game has in its roster. Most allow you to keep playing in an effort to unlock (or buy) any cars or parts you still don’t have.

Genki racers have a very specific methodology to their career modes, oft imitated, but in my opinion, never equaled. You still have to win, upgrade, then win some more. Racing games’ career modes have to strike a balance between challenging you with races that test you, but reward you with cars or parts around the time that you actually need them. When you first start, your car is crap but the races aren’t hard. You buy a few mods and then the races are easier at first, but then they start to get challenging. When you start to lose a few times or really have difficulty pulling off wins, the game unlocks more cars or parts… and this is the cycle. It is possible to suck so bad at racing that you lose and don’t unlock more parts, but most of the games will allow you to grind away at replaying races you’ve won until you earn enough money to buy parts that will allow you to overcome your suckiness. This ‘grinding’ is familiar to RPG players. They have to battle a lot of peon monsters to earn enough gold to get the super-item needed to get past an NPC or boss character. This repetition can often break the fun out of a game. Over the years Genki racers (and other racing franchises) have fine-tuned their play progression so that the player gets fed the ability to get additional parts at the ‘right time’, assuming your skill level is reasonable. If you can find reasonable racing lines, and stay off the walls and your opponents, you will win enough cash to afford better cars and parts as you need them. Memorizing new tracks so you race the correct lines, and learning how to stay off faster, more aggressive opponents in turns is the challenge part. If you get hung up in a game with a fair progression/difficulty curve it is because you need to learn the track better.

With Shutokou Battle 2 this is not so much the case. I have frequently found myself up against opponents that you simply cannot win against. Your car is not fast enough to keep up, no matter how you’ve tweaked the settings, and no matter how well you stay off the walls and avoid traffic. When you look about for better parts… either there aren’t any OR you don’t have nearly enough money. And the game is VERY stingy with the money. In the case of ‘I have money but there are no parts’ the game is basically telling you to buy a new car, but you’d have to have A LOT of money to both buy a car that is significantly better than the one you have already and to be able to upgrade it. You need to upgrade right away because you probably already have your current car maxed and no vehicle fresh off the showroom floor will be its match or better… certainly not one you can afford. So it becomes a money issue again.

So here’s the problem. Opponents you can’t beat, so you don’t progress. No parts to buy because you’ve bought the best of everything. Upgrading to another car is expensive, and the parts cost more on the better cars. So you’re left with ‘grinding for gold’ basically, by re-racing old opponents to slowly, tediously build up your cash and get a better car. This process is aggravated by the games insistence on making opponents worth less every time you race against them. So the game forces you to race for peanuts, over and over again. This process is why I don’t care for the Gran Turismo series. The nuts and bolts are a bit different in that franchise, but apart from the absolute lack of atmosphere and color, you have to race and re-race the same tracks for piddly amounts of cash. It just isn’t worth it to me, though I know a lot of players swear by those games. In iterations of Shutokou Battle after number two, you don’t really run into a lot of this problem. Between improved controls and a better progression curve, when you get hung up in the game it is typically because you need to learn the street section better (or confront them in a section in which you are stronger), get better about staying off the walls (because with the better rival, every tenth of a second of speed scrubbed off on a wall is a potential race loser), or tweak your cars settings. If you finally reach a point where a new car is needed you typically find that you are really close to affording it, if you didn’t buy unnecessary cars at some earlier point.

So this is kind of a drag. I guess this didn’t bother me much years ago, because I hadn’t been spoiled by the more balanced progression Genki would come to dial into their games. I’ve also got the much more recent Kaido Battle Touge No Densetsu (Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2 in the States) going on as well, and it is the very model of the balanced progression I’ve been talking about. There is some grinding, but it is as much to learn the tracks I suck at, as it is to earn money. AND they give you quick and easy ways to earn cash other ways. Repetitive to a degree, but not like the seeking out and racing of penny-ante drivers in Shutokou 2.

I still see what was great about this game. It IS obviously a step in the evolutionary process of Genki developing their racing system. Sometimes you go back to some old game you remember fondly, and it is just lame. Often the graphics play a big part of this. Most people, particularly old school gamers, don’t want to cotton to being graphics whores, but it is awfully hard to sit through hours of NES graphics (or heaven help you, Atari 2600 or Mattel Intellivision screens) when you’ve been spoiled by modern games. The eye candy of 16-bit consoles (Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, and SNES) can still hold up okay. This being a Dreamcast game, and not an early one, it really doesn’t look far off from the PS2 or Wii. The game’s system is the hang up. Like an old movie you find doesn’t scare you the way it did when you were a kid….no matter how well filmed.

At this stage the game is a chore. When I finally upgrade the new car (which I’ve bought, I’m just grinding for parts money), maybe the game will break wide open and be fun again. But the gloss is off now. Not tarnished exactly, but not the same as it was. Never thought I’d say that about any game in this series.

I’ll just blame Genki actually. It’s their fault for improving the damn things so much.
(screenshot swiped from IGN)

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