How the West Haven’t Won (Yet)
There is a myth in videogames nowadays. It’s a dangerous, xenophobic myth. It goes like this: Western games are the dominant, superior creative force while Japanese games have been left behind to stagnate. Well, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear Les Dennis getting his big ‘eh-uh’ sound effect ready right about now.
Alright, the games industry isn’t quite so Japan-centric as it was back when the PS2 was king. At a base level, that’s a fantastic thing. Diversity is great; it leads to better choice and growth for the whole industry. The baffling leap of logic that says Japanese game makers have ‘lost it’ this generation is, however, a terrible thing.
The main consequence of this madness is that Japanese companies like Capcom and Konami have been farming out development of some of their major games to western developers, and it almost never works out. Castlevania Lords of Shadow bored me to tears and left me wanting to shout from the rooftops, ‘Come back Koji Igarashi! All is forgiven!’
So here’s the plan: every time I write this feature, I’ll highlight a Japanese game from this generation. It’ll be a game that, by all rights, should have put us westerners in our place, but we just couldn’t see how great it was because our big swollen egos have blinded our judgement.
First up, the genre we call ourselves the kings of here in Britain: Arcade racing games.
Make it your best
Because Activision and Disney have been busy shafting Bizarre and Black Rock for the crime of making great wee games, there’s been a lot of talk about the ‘death’ of arcade racing. Well, don’t worry sports fans, because that’s a load of pish. Arcade racing is alive and well in Japan, especially if you own a PS3.
My pick of the bunch, and one that I really recommend you to import, is Initial D Extreme Stage, by Sega. Aye, that Sega, the one that everybody says is dead because they keep churning out licensed rubbish. If I was to do a Kojima and compare Initial D to a meal, I’d say it was like sushi; expertly crafted from a small number of specifically sourced ingredients, and beautifully presented.
Initial D strips everything out of the racing game that doesn’t need to be there. It puts our fascination with ‘takedowns’ and exploding buildings to shame, and leaves you with only the bare essentials: A track list you can count on one hand (if you’re a mutant with a couple of extra fingers…); an unwavering focus on one-on-one, point-to-point racing on mountain roads; a tuning system that anybody can understand, even though it’s in Japanese. If you’ve played GRID‘s excellent Touge mode, this was its inspiration.
It’s most important achievement, though, is its handling. The phrase ‘arcade handling’ is often used as negative shorthand for ‘pish’ nowadays. The truth is that the best arcade racers have their own deeply rewarding handling models, with a basis in realism; even if that realism is from another planet. They give you the ability to do really cool things very simply, but can be learned and exploited to get the best lap times.
Initial D gets this. Every corner is a tight, barely controllable drift. It’s not quite like the characteristic ‘on-rails’ drift that makes Ridge Racer 7 so fun to drive; it’s more violent, jittery, and most importantly, it makes you feel like a boss when you do it right. Once you start getting through corners cleanly you can start to use more advanced techniques, like feints to help on the brutal Irohazaka course.
Talking about the courses, each one has a secret you can exploit. If you’ve seen the Initial D movie, you’ll know what to do on the Mount Akina course when you get to the hairpins: hug the gutter and hook your wheel in as you turn, like Apollo 13 using the Moon’s gravity as a catapult. The first time you try it you’ll balls it up and Takumi will race past showing you how it’s done. You’ll curse him like I did. 50 times he passed me. 50 retries, until finally, the mountain was mine.
Once you’ve conquered one mountain it’s straight onto the next, with new rivals who know it better than you. When you’ve beat them all, an extremely difficult thing to achieve, you’re king of the whole prefecture, and there’s only one person left to beat: yourself.
No other time attack mode since Mario Kart has gripped me like Initial D. Saving and loading ghosts is so easy, and the dangerous knife-edge of each corner makes every attack tenser than the last. The first time you break the 3-minute mark on Akina is a glorious achievement, one that doesn’t need a Trophy or a Gamerscore to make it worthwhile.
Diving into the import scene
If you’re in the mood for some of the best arcade racing this generation, and my words have inspired you to take the plunge and import Initial D, you should know a couple of things. First, don’t worry too much about the money. The game is huge in Asia, so you won’t have to pay more than about £20-25.
Second, don’t worry about the language barrier, either. Although everything is written in Japanese, all the menus are very easy to navigate if you’ve been playing games for a while; the syntax of videogame menus is almost universal. Just remember that in the game, ‘O’ means forward and ‘X’ means back, but when a PS3 system input comes up, for entering your name etc., that’s reversed. Because saved data is managed by the PS3’s menu system, there’s no danger of accidentally deleting anything, because it’s written in the system’s language, not the game’s. The online menus take a bit of getting used to, but they’re easy to work out.
If you want to play online, make sure the box has the CERO A label on the bottom corner.
Thirdly, and most importantly, be aware that there are two versions. The Japanese version has a few downloadable cars and an online racing mode, including a brilliantly addictive online championship. Even though you don’t live in Japan, you can still play online. The Asian version doesn’t have any online functions at all. If you’re not bothered about playing online, just plump for whatever you can get. If you need the Japanese version, contact who you’re buying it from and ask them to double-check what it is. If you can see a picture of the box, the small CERO A sticker, like PEGI here, will signify it’s Japanese.
Hopefully this will become a somewhat regular feature. I’m extremely passionate about Japanese games, and I hope to counter the belief that they’ve been left behind. If you do get the Japanese version of Initial D, give me a race online.