Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Speed Oddities: embracing the flaws in Genki games

When we think about racing games, names like Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport and Need for Speed are unquestionably the most popular in town. Over the years, we saw those series routinely set new standards in terms of polish, accessibility and mass market appeal, their influence bleeding into every declination of the genre's landscape - from hardcore simulations to pure arcade racers. Raising the people's expectations towards the category since the late nineties to such an high extent, though, had both good and not so good implications: on one hand, the overall quality of the products rose accordingly, while on the other, developers that used to do things a little bit differently ended up falling by the wayside somehow, especially in the West, and that includes the japanese Genki.

I've never concealed my appreciation for this studio, born in 1990 and firmly rooted in the racing genre (but they did Jade Cocoon for the PS1 in 1998 too, a lovely JRPG). Awkward logo aside, most people will probably recognize them for the Shutokou Battle racing series, known outside of Japan as Tokyo Xtreme Racer, Tokyo Highway Battle, Import Tuner Challenge or Street Supremacy, depending on the publisher. Born in 1994 on the SNES, this longstanding saga had 10 main releases up until 2006, when it was officially discontinued, and something like 11 spinoffs that dabbled with its core gameplay in interesting ways. Western developers recognized Shutokou Battle's importance by embedding some of its tropes (japanese cars, the focus on tuning, high speed public roads used as racing tracks, especially at night) into hit series like Need for Speed Underground, Midnight Club and Juiced.

Despite sharing some of its elements with the titles we've just mentioned, the core racing dynamics and rules in Genki's products are apart from all of them - so far apart, in fact, that they could even be considered the main factors behind the generally mixed reception of Shutokou Battle in the West during its 10 years run. To better understand why, let's try to sum up the Genki driving experience: racing occurs mainly on the Shuto Expressway, a sprawling system of highways that encompasses four prefectures (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama), and is articulated in multi-lane routes with tunnels and elevated roads, all faithfully reproduced in the games but most importantly, blazed through at speeds far north of 186 mph (300 kph).

In Shutokou Battle, the fun emerges as the player becomes more and more aware of how to exploit the game systems' interactions - not by cherry picking and dismissing them for not being as elegant or refined than [insert any big racing game name here]

The extreme speeds makes breaking, cornering or even the basic lane changing maneuver far more dangerous and complicated than they should be, courtesy of some very deliberate vehicle dynamics: straight breaking at 300 kph screws up the cars' weight distribution, making them swerve nervously until the player tames them with equally nervous wheel corrections. Understeer affects each and every single car to various degrees, so the cornering phase has to be set up as early as possible in order to send the vehicle into a state of controllable drift: there's a precise timing for this, but randomized traffic placed in trajectory can make its evaluation pretty hard, so it's easier sometimes to just ram into the barriers and let them do the job.

One of the greatest innovations introduced by the Shotokou series into the racing genre are SP (= Spirit) battles, where players competes to deplete their opponent's Spirit bar to zero: to do this, they just have to outrun their rival (or rivals, there are three way battles in the games) for as long as necessary while preserving their own SP bar - collisions with cars and barriers affects it to a considerable extent. This mechanic usually leads to battles resolved in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, but when the course gets longer than 6 miles, the fight against opponents, car dynamics and traffic becomes an uphill struggle of trial and error due to a combination of the aforementioned factors. Players who are more into driving simulations or silky smooth arcade racers in the style of SEGA and Namco may legitimately ask where's the fun in all of this.

Well, it is all a matter of balance: if there's anything that the Shutokou Battle games attests is that reading into the mechanics, understanding the cars' behaviour and exploiting the alleged faults can be fun - that's sort of the mentality these racers are built around, considering that Genki's founders are former SEGA employees. The balance in question comes mainly from the AI, the traffic generation predictability, and the godsend chance to retry a battle with no loading times. The CPU is not shy at all when it comes to using a powerful vehicle to the fullest extent, so it comes off as routinely aggressive on straightways and even prone to collision if that means draining the last drop of the player's SP bar, expecially when he is in the lead; so there will be instances where your vehicle will be underpowered, and you'll be left behind with little to no chances to catch up... But speaking of catches, there are some very interesting ones.

First, the AI is especially bad at cornering, it loses lots of speed and it tends to collide with traffic, thus creating some serious opportunities for the players. Second, civil cars are usually generated in the same lane as the player and at the same spots of the corners, far enough to be seen and tactically exploited. So for instance, it is possible to keep a fast pursuer at bay by running in the same lane, steering at the last moment when traffic is generated, and forcing him to brake abruptly. As a last resort measure, players can sacrifice some SP to ram into the opponents and have them collide with other vehicles - after all, the games are about illegal street racing and such nasty behaviour is completely OK. When you're on to some particularly hard battles, the fast retry makes it easy to form a strategy involving SP and pace management: you get to figure out where and when to go all out, play it safe, attack or defend with the Spirit at your disposal.

I'm on the 7th paragraph now, and while this can hardly be considered an in-depth technical or philosophical look at Genki's systems, I think it's amazing how much we got and understood by simply observing the games and devoting a little bit of time to them, pad in hand (and not even delving into their various Career/Conquest/Tuning modes). We've seen single mechanics that we could consider flawed to some extent, coming together to unexpected effect by way of clever, offbeat design. In Shutokou Battle, the fun emerges as the player becomes more and more aware of how to exploit the game systems' interactions - not by cherry picking and dismissing them for not being as elegant or refined than [insert any big racing game name here]. It's just a different approach to the racing genre, and I really hope that rumours of a possible return of the series (and the Genki Racing Project) to consoles turns out to be true.

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