Wednesday, 3 August 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 4: Fast engaging characters, how?

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.