Theme: Japan – Gotta Catch ‘Em All: In praise of Gran Turismo

At the dawn of the 1990s, the computer games industry was in a state of flux. The emergence of 3D rendering technology was spawning new types of games and gameplay.

in control: source
in control: source

Yet against this background of widespread experimentation, driving games were stuck in a rut. A young Japanese game designer by the name of Kazunori Yamauch was unhappy with the state of play. “There were no simulation-based racing games,” Yamauchi stated to Autoweek. “Most of them were arcade games.”

Microprose Formula One Grand Prix (Image:

While Yamauchi’s lamentation may have been the case in Japan, where games were dominated by arcades and consoles, it was not entirely true elsewhere. Indianapolis 500: The Simulation (1989), developed by Papyrus and released on PC, used polygon graphics to pioneer a more realistic simulated driving experience. Geoff Crammond’s Microprose Formula One Grand Prix (1992) offered PC and Amiga players the chance to compete over a complete season in a 3D simulated F1 car. But nobody had made a console game offering a realistic 3D simulacrum of cars. Not yet.

The game-changing Sony Playstation (Image:

Yamauchi worked for Sony, itself a new player in the games business. With a combination of a 32-bit CPU and dedicated 3D GPU, CD-ROM drive and edgy marketing, the Playstation console had pushed out industry stalwarts Sega and Nintendo to claim top spot in the console wars. Sony looked to consolidate their position with a wave of new games, with an emphasis upon developing fresh IP. Asked to pitch concepts, Yamauchi’s ideas had already crystallised around a new vision of what a driving game could be.

“We wanted to put real cars into the game,” said Yamauchi. His idea was to create a Real Driving Simulator. While Yamauchi’s vision had road cars at its heart, the game he would shape took considerably longer than the average car to develop. Starting in 1992, well before the Playstation was launched, over five years would elapse before Yamauchi and his core team of seven people (rising to 15 at various stages) had a product that was ready to hit the road.

in control: source

As it transpired, all that development time was worth it. Gran Turismo (1997) comfortably outstripped contemporary rivals, offering 144 licensed cars when others offered less than ten. With 11 tracks (plus more if you count reverse running), Arcade and Simulation modes, plus various events and racing licences, Gran Turismo offered a challenge of considerable breadth and depth.

Gran Turismo was the first driving game to render reflections on the car’s bodywork, in replays at least. (Image: Google)

The meat of the game lay with Simulation Mode. Here a carefully tiered structure of racing events dictated that you started at the bottom, typically fielding a small low powered hatchback such as a Mazda Demio (sold as a Mazda 1 in some markets). Racing success brought credits and the gift of a slightly more powerful car, the technical specification of which (2WD, 4WD, FWD, RWD, number of seats, weight, BHP, etc.) in turn providing eligibility for more races.

In a unique spin, you could also sell these cars and use the credits, plus your hard-earned prize money, to fund your own purchases. As IGN put it: “There was an economy. Players had to juggle their funds to purchase and collect new and used cars. It kept you playing. You couldn’t just reach up GT’s skirt, have at the goods, and move on to the next big thing. You needed to grind away. [Gran Turismo] had turned a racing game into an RPG.”

The in game map. The car wash didn’t get much use. (Image: Google)

Driving the economy, so to speak, was a huge and varied roster of Japanese cars. The ranges of Acura (Honda), Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota were all represented in strength. A smattering of British and American manufacturers also featured, TVR being a notable inclusion, but these foreign cars were fiercely expensive. Older models were also available via each Japanese manufacturer’s used car sections, with bargains and obscurities alike waiting to be discovered.

Certainly more lively than the stock “274bhp” (Image: Google)

Playing Gran Turismo was thus a thorough education in the massive Japanese car market, often akin to plying Autotrader with the odd spot of racing attached. By scouring lists of JDM curios for performance bargains, your racing career progressed from a lowly Demio, via Toyota AE86s and Honda Preludes, Subaru Legacies and Toyota Chasers, to twin-turbo’ed big beasts like Nissan Skyline GT-Rs and Mitsubishi 3000 GTs. It certainly beat Sega Rally (1995) on Sega’s rival Saturn console, as good as that game was, with its choice of a Toyota Celica or a Lancia Delta.

Lives could be lost twiddling with damper bound and rebound rates in the Tune Shop. (Image: Google)

The diversity of metal on offer was a huge boon to gear heads, but the feature that really cemented Gran Turismo as true arbiter of the JDM scene was the Tune Shop. Here players could spend their hard earned race credits on a comprehensive suite of upgrades. Engine, suspension, gearbox, induction, bodywork and tyres could all be modified, tiered from basic “sports” to full racing mods. Early victories could be brute-forced simply by bolting on a turbo, but later events would require a more considered approach. Hours could be spent tuning a single car, experimenting with castor and toe in angles, brake bias, or gear ratios, all in pursuit of the perfect set up. It was a testament to Gran Turismo’s simulation model that small changes would made a tangible difference to a car’s usability and performance against the clock.

“Giving it some oppo” © Trash Car Magazine (Image: Google)

A completist’s mindset would soon set in. It wasn’t good enough just to have a Sprinter Trueno, you needed a Sprinter Trueno tuned to 300bhp, with race suspension and stage 3 weight reduction. Then you would spot another promising looking curio in a used car list, and buy that purely to see how far it could be upgraded. Later, you would realise you needed a mid-engined car to compete in a specific event, and the precess would start all over again. Gran Turismo was Pokemon for petrol heads, the player training up their stable of exotic beasts. “Gotta catch ’em all,” as the pocket monster tag line went.

Mazda Demio: the one car everyone could not wait to sell. (Image: Google)

A driving game of unrivalled size and ambition, Gran Turismo was released to immediate acclaim, chalking up nearly 11 million sales.

That global impact had a profound effect extending well beyond games. Japanese manufacturers, long regarded sniffily by the west, found their standing reappraised thanks to their cars featuring heavily in the game. Prior to 1997, for example, few outside of Japan knew of the Nissan Skyline GT-R. After Gran Turismo, the whole world feared Godzilla, with the car attaining mythical status in the west.

Foreign cars were expensive but occasionally worth the money, as per this drift-tastic Viper GTS. (Image: Google)

Manufacturers could not buy that sort of exposure. The effect was a huge uptick in grey imports, not only of Skylines, but of all manner of JDM cars. Manufacturers soon took notice. “There’s no doubt that Gran Turismo played a huge role in our decision to launch the Lancer Evolution in the United States,” said Mitsubishi’s Takashi Kiuchi in 2002. In 2007 Nissan finally released the GT-R from its Skyline JDM cage and set it loose worldwide. That would not have happened without Gran Turismo‘s influence.

The sheer diversity of cars featured in Gran Turismo served to redefine traditional expectations of what sports cars were, and could be. RWD, FWD, 4WD; front-, mid- or rear-engined, naturally aspirated or turbo’ed; two door, four door, soft top or estate; Gran Turismo presented the grand plurality of sports cars in all their glorious strangeness and invited players to have fun with them all.

In 1992 Kazunori Yamauchi set out to create a game featuring simulations of real cars. What he actually created was a digital hymnal to driving. Gran Turismo was his love letter to the car; one written in Japanese, but understood by petrolheads the world over.


Author: chrisward1978

Professional pixel pugilist and word wrangler. Unprofessional pub snug raconteur.

15 thoughts on “Theme: Japan – Gotta Catch ‘Em All: In praise of Gran Turismo”

  1. Thanks, Chris. Fascinating. And your description of it justifies my decision to stay well clear of Gran Turismo. I’ve never had a problem with, say, alcohol, but I long ago realised that. with computer games. I would be, if I indulged, an addict. In 1982, I took a chance trip down to Brighton and spent the afternoon playing games on the Pier. I got particularly obsessed with a tank driving game. This had the crudest wireframe graphics but it still drew me in rather shockingly. At various occasions since I’ve tried arcade games like Sega Rally and been reliieved that I ran out of coins because, if they were free, I might still be there.

    I did once buy a cheap Ferrari logoed steering wheel and Colin McRae Rally at a sale in PC World. Fortunately, though, the clunky PC I had at home ensured that it crashed before I did, so I gave up, but not before confirming it was dangerous. The level of detail of games like GT means that I’d probably get sucked in and never come out. Even worse, GT includes another of my obsessions, used car lots.

    I’d be going to hell in a handcart – albeit one fitted with Ohlins shocks and a nitrous system.

    1. You are quite correct to steer clear. All the Gran Turismos can be preposterous sinkholes of time. Neglecting to bother with 4 and 5, I picked up the series again with Gran Turismo 6 on the PS3. I quickly realised that in the interim my life circumstances had changed to the point whereby simply did not have the time to do a game with over 1200 cars justice. It certainly did not help matters that before I even started the game, my will to live had been sapped by over 20 individual updates comprising some 40gb of data, all of which had to be downloaded and installed manually one by one over the extremely unreliable PlayStation Network.

  2. Terrific article. I kept my Demio… whenever I visited my garage, it was a reminder of how far I’d got in my career. Did the original version include tyre wear as another variable, or did that come later? I remember tuning up a Pagani Zonda to preposterous heights, but it would melt its rubber after 2 laps and become undriveable.

  3. A question I’d have for you two is, do you ‘drive’ with a button controller, or do you use a wheel? etc. Partly my age, and partly the fact that I’m a pedantically literal person sometimes, means that I couldn’t countenance playing a driving game without a steering wheel and pedals and without it being set to cockpit view. It just wouldn’t seem right.

    Actually, I might have to withdraw from this conversation and stop reading, I’m already wondering where I might salt away a Playstation at home.

    1. I only ever play with a controller. Whilst I accept this makes for a sub-par experience, I don’t play enough driving games (or indeed games in general) to make the investment in specialised controllers worthwhile.

      Regarding the current generation, I rather enjoy playing Drive Club on the PS4, which has the benefit of being free if you have a Playstation Plus subscription.

  4. I am of the opinion that the first two Gran Turismos (the Playstation 1 era games) were superior later editions, purely because there were not too many cars. Whatever way you look at it, the 1200 cars of GT6 is a stupidly large number. Who has the time to do anything more than scratch the surface? Ditto the extra long endurance races. Who has the time to actually race for a couple of hours, never mind 24? The PS4’s ability to suspend a game mid-action will be invaluable when GT7 inevitably rolls along.

    1. You could pause a race, of course. But if you wanted to eat, sleep or go to work, you had to leave the console switched on. God help you if someone wanted to use the machine for something else, switched it off, or there was a power outage of some sort.

    2. Not entirely unrelatedly, when I was a student I rented a Sega Dreamcast for a week. One thing I did not figure on was the lack of a supplied memory card. Consequentially I spent the entire week with the Dreamcast switched on, just so I didn’t lose my progress playing Sonic Adventure. And thanks to the walkthrough I had printed off in the computer lab, I finished it too.

  5. Dear Leonard will be looking down on you, thinking that your time would be better spent on studying scripture, and, in lighter moments, practicing the violoncello or clarinet.

    1. The closest I got to Sega-type rectreation involved a remote controlled electric car. I noticed the mindlessness it induced. The iphone – alas – is even more effective at gathering the dust of our small moments into the Hoover-bag of mortality.

    2. The mindlessness it induces is largely what I seek. Games will always be a pastime rather than a bona fide hobby. Now that I lack the time to pass, I find myself gravitating towards shorter story based or experiential games.

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