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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.