Wednesday, December 23, 2009

X Marks the Followup

This is a sequel post to the previous ‘Price of Power’ entry. I’ve spent a decent amount of time on Shutokou Battle X now and feel the need to comment on what I’ve discovered, and how it contrasts with what I expected.

To review briefly: after picking up an Xbox 360 I knew at some point I was going to have to buy and play Shutokou Battle X. It is my go-to racing series, and no matter what differences arise between installments I always have a pretty good time. Not too long ago I was dismayed somewhat by how much luster has worn off Shutokou Battle 2 for the Dreamcast, but it was still a good game.

The Price of Power ‘blog entry was my attempt to lament the drop in game content as graphic sophistication has increased. To make my point I chose two game series that crossed from previous console generations to the current one, the Earth Defense Force series and the Shutokou Battle games. The current chapter of EDF I’ve played through and was the impetus for writing the post. The section on Shutokou Battle was more anticipatory based on what news, information and rumors I could glean from the internet. So how did this latest Shutokou Battle actually stack up? Did the gutting of the content to fuel the graphics work to the detriment of the game? Did it move the meter away from substance and over to style?

The answer: Yes. But not as much as I thought it would.

Shutokou Battle X (Import Tuner Challenge in the USA) being the latest installment in Genki’s venerable franchise, had a huge foundation on which to build this game. The series has been on almost every platform since its inception, and Genki has had countless opportunities to tweak the mechanics, car physics, car selection, interface, complexity, graphics, and everything else. Like any developer making a sequel, especially as part of a franchise, Genki, has a fine line to walk between offering something new and different enough (from their own previous games AND other games) to warrant a purchase while not alienating long time fans who expect some mechanics and traditions to be maintained. Every Sonic game, every Gran Turismo installment, almost all of series, tread this narrow, perilous path. Occasionally enough time passes to where a developer feels that an intellectual property’s (IP) can be radically changed while still having a name that will be a sales draw. See the new 3d Bionic Commando or the upcoming Splatterhouse. Significant reboots of franchises are rather rare. Successful significant reboots are an order more rare still.

(Dedicated) gamers are picky fuckers. On the one hand they want innovation… they don’t just want the same old retread games. On the other, they break out the torches and pitchforks when developers go TOO far from what they perceive are the core mechanics (or narrative, or graphics, etc) that made the franchise beloved in the first place. Fans often deride developers and publishers for their lack of ability in seeing what made the good chapters in a franchise… well, good. But it really isn’t as easy as just ‘leaving the good shit in and adding some more good shit’. Who decides what is good shit? What aspect of the old game was THE good part? At what point is adding a new character a great idea, and when is it just lame? Like movie studios, game developers often seem to think MORE is the same as better… and who can blame them really when that so often seems to be what the audience responds to. The syndrome that Tim Burton’s Batman film series fell prey to? Hell, yes.

Genki didn’t reinvent the wheel (so to speak) with SBX. And I didn’t really expect them to. Shutokou Battle games are all pretty much the same game. Same mechanics, same plot (such as it is), same tracks (mostly), same opponents (mostly), same progression, etc etc. Fans of these games don’t play each installment religiously because they are always hungry for radical innovations. They play them because driving through traffic on Tokyo’s highways is really fun, but also each game’s backstory, rivals, and cars build on the previous chapters. Every new chapter does also feature just a bit of tweaking to the driving model to emphasize something different to go with the increase in detail and realism in the graphics that you’d expect. The likeness to actually being on the expressways gets closer and closer to the real thing. The updates have the latest car models to add to the game world.

I’ve likened the series (and all of Genki’s racing games) to role-playing games. The actual play features have a lot in common with RPGs; the hunting for opponents, the battles, the money earned, getting items (auto parts), affording better weapons (cars). But there’s also a history woven through the individual games, which affords the player as they spend the time necessary, a sense of very simple narrative progress complete with characters that grow, change, or drop out as time moves on across the series.

In Shutokou Battle X, the driving ‘feel’ has been made more forgiving. It is typical for Genki games to be characterized as having slippery or ‘floaty’ handling, but this really only applies to early or unmodified cars. In real life a low-power or stock car is not as difficult to keep on the road as this game indicates, but that is because the poor handling is an abstraction. It is designed to a) symbolize crappiness in both car and driver, ie ‘making you be crappy’, and b) give the modifications a serious effect. In real-world driving if you upgrade your suspension by small increments; maybe stiffer springs first, then stiffer dampeners, then bigger sway or anti-roll bars, then upgrade everything to a coilover system, then a racing-heavy four-corner adjustable coilover system. You will notice improvements but they may be subtle or only noticeable in the most extreme track situations. In a Genki racer they need every mod to make a demonstrable difference. So in effect, they start you off a little more difficult or ‘worse’ than real life, in order to encourage you to mod as soon as possible and then reward you when you do so with tangible results. The floaty handling usually manifests itself in the fact that you have to make lots of small adjustments constantly while driving, as if the car has a bit of a mind of its own. You have to constantly feed inputs to the controller to get it to go exactly where you want, a combination of steering being a bit loose or unstable and tires that don’t hold the road or give you a proper feel for when they are about to break traction. In the old Dreamcast chapter, Shutokou Battle 2, the game never completely dropped the tire feedback problem. In SBX the floaty feel seems minimal, only manifesting itself to me (and I may just be really used to these games by now) driving down straights when the instability of the steering has me making small adjustments to keep it heading correctly… rather like the tires needed balancing. Once you improve the tires and suspension, even by one increment, the floatiness goes away. This is a fairly big change from the old days where you had to buy the upgrades, adjust and test a lot, then fiddle with the sensitivity controls for the game itself. Continual upgrades, adjusting, and fiddling continue to improve the handling as always, but you can banish the trademark Genki floatiness almost right away.

Another difference in this game is how it handles breaking traction. Various installments have waffled back and forth as to how important or useful drifting is. In real life drifting is more useful in touge (mountain road) racing, or as a show and competition form on a formal track. It is not really used in highway racing which is more akin to driving on a circuit with its well-paved roads and less drastic elevation changes. Drifting would also be death used in highway traffic. Touge uses spotters to make sure the road is clear… doable on the short twisty sections out in the country. Can’t do that on urban expressways. So highway battling typically takes its corners in the slow-in/fast-out philosophy of grip racing. Being a driving fantasy, Shutokou Battle games try to incorporate drift… making it more important as drifting has gained popularity (as a competition) in real life. In earlier chapters, your car just broke loose and careened into a wall if you tried to drift. It was possible to get this under control, but it was almost in spite of the game, not because of it. With the PS2 iterations and the rise in drifting’s popularity, this changed, though still not allowed with the same alacrity as the companion series Kaido Battle. In SBX, losing traction (accidentally or on purpose) in a stock car will cause a weird, sudden slide that just as suddenly ends when enough speed is scrubbed off. It is jerky and unpredictable, much like the way the Ridge Racer games handle the same phenomenon. It was REALLY off-putting at first, because I have always hated Ridge Racers sliding. But much like the floatiness, this detriment can be quickly dialed down. And once you learn to expect it, it can be controlled right handily. I don’t think it is realistic… odd they didn’t just use the drift mechanics from the Kaido Battle series… but it does put the option to drift controllably as a firm, planned cornering option into the expressway battles.

Some other things: glancing off cars or barriers are rather like Shutokou Battle 3 on the PS2—some speed loss and a hit to your SP bar, but recoverable in all but the closest battles. A direct hit into traffic causes a really weird, almost slo-mo hit to the traffic car. The effect is roughly the same as all other Shutokou Battle games, but it FEELS like it is costing you a ton of time because of the perceived slowdown. I’m not sure if it actually does cost you more time… I don’t think so… and I’m not sure if this was intentional on Genki’s part; maybe done to make the player really hate crashing and really try to avoid it. Your car is also larger than its apparent shape, meaning you will hit traffic and opponents by just getting really close to them, rather than literally touching them. Driven properly this isn’t much of an issue, because:

This game is really REALLY easy.

Given the power of your modifications and the new more forgiving driving model, this game presents the least challenge of any Shutokou Battle game I’ve ever played. I finished the game handily in a JZA80 Supra that was still three upgrades away from the maximum allowable engine size. Supras are known for having overbuilt engines that can handle monstrous amounts of horsepower, but I didn’t have to get anywhere near those titan levels to romp through all the final bosses of the game.

And you know what? That lack of difficulty was okay, frankly. I have enough games on my plate that require scadloads of practice or effort to progress in microscopic increments (Mushihimesama Futari anyone?). This was really enjoyable to drive and race just for the pleasure of it.

The new versions of the cities are really beautiful. Lots of detail, and animation. A couple of new offramps added that lead to an entirely different kind of racing for this series, with very hard-angled corners. New rivals, new bosses, and everyone seems to have gotten a graphic overhaul for their stickers, the rivals’ team or nickname emblems.

Okay, so the game was fun… more fun than expected considering the rumored losses. Losses that turned out to be true, but had little effect on my fun with the game. What were the losses exchanged for the improvements?

Drastic downsizing of the car list. There are only about two dozen car models in the game. That is a major drop from the hundred or more that was typical in earlier chapters. There are a few more makes and models amongst your opponents than you can get yourself, but besides limiting your options, this really increases the repetition amongst your opponents. Many teams have members that all drive the same car. Many bosses have had their traditional car changed. It was quite disconcerting to see some historic rivals like the Death Driver and The Emperor have such radically different rides. The number of cosmetic upgrades (aero parts, vinyls, etc) help this somewhat. But at the end of the day, this was probably the single biggest hit to my pleasure in the game. It was a groaner to think to myself ‘oh another team entirely made up of Evos’ over and over again. One of the big attractions to Genki Racing Project games is the immersion factor, and that has always been helped considerably by the number of different car types (multiplied by the possibilities in modifications) you could encounter. It has seemed like no two cars were alike, like real life. And there have always been plenty of oddball or weird cars thrown in like vans, utility trucks, muscle cars, or maybe a Corvette Z06… all unexpected in the racing environment of Japan. None of that in SBX.

Downsizing of the highway map. They dropped the Wangan and Yokohane expressways, the epicenter of flat-out drag racing in these games. These areas had to be opened up in the previous games by progressing… and offered a stark contrast to the tighter corner-based racing of the games’ initial C1 tracks. This could’ve been as big a drag as the loss of cars except Genki added the two aforementioned offramps which themselves have some fairly long drag-able straights. Genki also took a cue from the Kaido Battle series and started putting parking areas into the game. Parking areas are the social heart of Japan’s racing scene. At key offramps around the expressway system, the racers, teams, hangers-on, groupies, and just plain car nuts gather around and talk, compare vehicles or just loiter. Music is blaring, challenges are made or refused, a lot of snacks and drinks are bought out of the area vending machines. This adds a lot to SBX, giving new forms of interaction, and new places you have to go to find your rivals.

Traffic is a lot more sparse. This is probably in keeping with making the game a bit easier and more accessible, though I’d say Genki’s inexperience with optimizing the graphics comes into play and they needed to minimize slowdown… of which there still is some in instances where many cars are onscreen, the developer’s traditional weakness in this area.

That’s really it for the minuses. Less cars, less track, less traffic. The first two are definitely ‘content’. The game isn’t literally shorter than other iterations in terms of rivals and number of races to run, but it is really obvious that there is less variety. As I said, this bothered me less than I thought it would because, and I don’t want to sound like a graphics whore, the game is just so much prettier and realistic. And my mind was taken off the shortcomings by having the two side road areas and new rivals to master.

As if time has continued its march in the Genki world, so some old teams have disappeared, new teams have arisen and the player has to find his place in the scheme of things… usually at the top when all is said and done. There were some pretty cool things to this part of it. There is a selection of bosses that have been recurrent through the games usually called the Thirteen Devils. For this game, they are kind of in semi-retirement and a new group, the Phantom Nine, have come to prominence. Upon beating the Phantom Nine you, of course, catch the attention of the remnants of the Thirteen Devils. This is all handled with cool intro videos and music.

It is as fun as ever to knock these rivals on their asses and once again assume the mantle of King.

Note: I played the japanese version of this game. One wanderer rival, Green Wild Child, has a different requirement than what is indicated in the USA version (Import Tuner Challenge). His Japanese requirements are the same as they are in SB3 on the Playstation 2, a license plate edit.

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