A Love Story in Six Parts

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I don’t remember the date, but I remember the day. The exact date and time are lost in my memory but I remember walking into the Toys”R”Us in north Spokane and walking out with this brand-new game with a funny Italian name. Even as a middle-school kid I knew those two letters -- GT -- stood for something fast in the language of cars. I’d become a voracious reader as an elementary school kid, not just of novels but also the car magazines my dad had subscriptions to -- Automobile, Car and Driver, Road & Track. It’s where my young mind picked up not just knowledge of all the cars on the roads, but also racing highlights from around the world. Plus, I learned parts of grammar or words that I may not have been ready for (Car and Driver at that time ran some pieces that were kinda gonzo and not 100 percent kid-safe).

So it was me at home opening up a new game with just one PlayStation CD but two manuals -- one for the game, and one about driving techniques. My mind was blown -- then I put in the disc, saw the intro video, and fell in love.

Weeks later, I brought The First Game (and my memory card) with me to visit friends back in Portland. My friend Robert was also a big car fan, so I decided to show him the game. We dropped a couple hours into it; he was impressed. I think shortly thereafter he got the game, too. I played the game forever, wound up getting a DualShock just for it and completed the game three times. When I sold my PlayStation for a Sega Dreamcast, the first was the game I was saddest to lose.

And to think, I almost bought Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit that one day at Toys”R”Us instead.

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Emulators allow games to live on essentially forever. When consoles fail, when cartridges cannot be blown into enough time to save their lives, ROM dumps and emulators allow them to continue on.

But an emulator also took advantage of one of the Dreamcast’s quirks, that “Windows CE” sticker on the front. That a little $5 piece of software allowed me to play The Sequel, the huge game, the one that had so many cars, the one I missed out on since I didn’t have a PlayStation, is kind of funny in retrospect. I’m not sure why Bleem! chose to call themselves Bleem! -- probably to do with the dot-com bubble -- but that was the name, misplaced exclamation point and all.

The resolution increase on the Bleemcast version makes all the textures crisp

The resolution increase on the Bleemcast version makes all the textures crisp

It was only a couple years later that I got the chance to play the sequel; I had a friend who had an eBay account pick up the emulator, and I wound up *ahem* borrowing the game from my friend long-term. I had to dedicate an entire memory card so that the emulator could format it for the PlayStation, but that was okay -- I had the official four-bank VMU so space was never a problem. If I fired up my Dreamcast now, I’d probably find that partition still. Boot up the software, put in the black-bottomed PlayStation disc and enjoy the one thing I missed from the PlayStation days.

What did I find? The game that Electronic Gaming Monthly gave four 10/10s, at a time when the number of platinum games could be counted on one hand.

The Dreamcast had some great racing games, of course. But even with some unique features, Sega’s own Sega GT just didn’t live up to The First (or The Sequel). What did I find? The game that Electronic Gaming Monthly gave four 10/10s, at a time when the number of platinum games could be counted on one hand. It took what was great in The First and added onto it. The Second now had so many cars -- more familiar models from European and American brands, added onto these now-exotic Japanese models. Also included were events with different forms of racing -- namely rallying, which was in a golden era at the time. Where The First had great physics and lots of cars, The Sequel seemed closer to the encyclopedic ideal that series creator and director Kazunori Yamauchi still strives for today. There were more tracks, more kinds of races, more kinds of cars, all done with a level of detail that you could only find on PC.

It kept a lot of other games out of my Dreamcast for a long time.

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If you were a gamer in the fall of 2000, you were one of two people: You were either the one waiting in line for a PlayStation 2, or the one stubbornly proselytizing for the Sega Dreamcast.

I was the latter.

“COME ON YOU GUYS!” I’d shout in the hallways to my nerdy high-school peers. “You can walk right past everyone lining up for a PlayStation 2 -- which has no good games now by the way -- and buy the system and like four games for the same money!” I’m sure if I’d lived in 1912 I’d be talking about investing in the Titanic. Biggest boat in the world; what could go wrong?

The system upgrade from PlayStation to PlayStation 2 meant a massive update to graphics and physics

The system upgrade from PlayStation to PlayStation 2 meant a massive update to graphics and physics

Well, I was right, in a way. The PS2 lacked a killer game until the next summer when The Third title came out. By now it was a brand name, and on the new system it was the best-looking and best-playing game by a long stretch. Compared with The Second it lacked a lot -- fewer cars, fewer tracks. However, it had some fantastic features like longer endurance races and vastly improved car physics.

I had just discovered a new online group -- a message board…all about these games I love, The First, Second and Third, and racing and videogames in general. Well, I was invited onto the message board by my friend, Robert, whom I’d shown the first game to in the first place. Right after the game came out the message board was aflutter with excitement, and on top of the new-game novelty there was a mystery to solve! Showing up in one of the “attract mode” videos was a strange new car. “Could it be…YES. YES IT WAS. FORMULA 1!” Oh, they weren’t licensed Formula 1 racers, but the names of the cars -- F686-M, F090-S -- were a riddle. It was a great moment this community, like a proto-version of reading Twitter while watching any major event unfold.

I was late to the third like I was late to the second. I lacked the right system: I played it from time to time with friends and heard how good the game was but didn’t experience it first-hand at the time. It was only in 2004 once I picked up a PlayStation 2 and found a copy of the third for a paltry $3 at a GameStop in Eugene, where I’d just begun attending the University of Oregon. That price wasn’t due to failure or age as much as ubiquity: when the PlayStation 2 began to move lots of units, it was with The Third as a pack-in game.

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My first year in college, I was fortunate enough to live in a dorm hall that had quick access to both the laundry room and the communal big-screen-TV room, which were next door to one another. This led to me engaging in the harrowing feat of carrying my PlayStation 2, a controller, the cables, and The Fourth game in a backpack when going to take care of the monthly load of laundry. Who needed studying when you could kill three hours of laundry time by racing?

If The Third game was great (and I played enough of it once I got a PS2 to know that it was good), then the fourth was a revolution. There was so much more: more cars, tons of historic and famous cars; photography modes; yet more tracks, including the Circuit de la Sarthe, Suzuka Circuit and the harrowing and sprawling Nürburgring. And above all the aesthetic design turned up to 11. It was great. I think I still have the Japanese version of the opening theme on my computer somewhere. The series has always had great intro videos, but The Fourth one might be my favorite.

The Fourth title introduced new features like the Circuit de la Sarthe and Mercedes CLK-GTR that you see above

The Fourth title introduced new features like the Circuit de la Sarthe and Mercedes CLK-GTR that you see above

Unfortunately, it had competition. The first Forza came out and I gave it a shot and it was great! Forza had more customization, a great alternative handling model and robust online play (thanks, Xbox Live). This meant that despite how pretty The Fourth title looked (and it did look incredible; they’ve always had a certain je ne sais quo about the aesthetic, even to the first game) the cracks were showing. The Fourth was a new game built on old foundations.

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I didn’t “get” the PlayStation 3 at first. Sony was too arrogant. I didn’t need one living in America with an Xbox 360. In 2010, The Fifth game came out and was…an arrogant mess. Much like the PS3 was at first, though by that time they started catching Microsoft up. But The Fifth was flawed. Much like The First to The Second, so was The Fourth to The Fifth: more of what came before. In this case that meant the cracks showing in the fourth became rips, tears and certifiable real problems in The Fifth. The grandiosity kept snowballing until it became an overwrought mess. That is what I heard on podcasts and message boards, and despite how the romantic part of me wanted to get a PS3, nothing about The Fifth excited me. This news made me sad, but at the time I had Forza, the competitor, and all was well. The Fifth and I were apart, and it was fine.

This news made me sad, but at the time I had Forza, the competitor, and all was well.

Later, after moving to Japan, I did get a PlayStation 3. And it was only until details and information about The Sixth began to trickle out that I decided to take the dive and pick up The Fifth used. And as soon as the installs and updates were done, the nostalgia kicked in. The Fifth still looked and sounded like what I fell in love with; I enjoyed this reunion. The aesthetic was great, and hey, you know, the driving was not that bad…I could get used to this.

The Fifth was easily one of the best-looking PlayStation 3 games

The Fifth was easily one of the best-looking PlayStation 3 games

But those cracks from The Fourth remained. After more time, they appeared worse and worse. Too much pomp and circumstance and glittery detail coupled with a subpar game. Compared to Forza -- namely Forza 3 -- I was let down. Everything got in the way of the fun. And so, my interest fell away as well. It was fun, but it wasn’t the game that gripped me and took away dozens of hours of my life. It wasn’t the same as The First, which I completed so many times, and it wasn’t The Second, which kept my attention even in emulated form. It was what I had heard: flawed. Were the prior ones just as flawed too? Did memory deceive me? I was sad. I didn’t want to be mad at The Fifth, but the flaws remained.

As news about The Sixth cropped up time and again, I remained bitter and skeptical. The Fourth introduced flaws, and The Fifth didn’t fix them. How could I trust Polyphony again?

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I didn’t want to believe. I didn’t want to trust. But the rumblings started: A demo in the summer that showed promise -- better driving, and better menus? Good grief. More demo videos came out. This looks good. Summer turned to fall, and more news arrived. Almost to the release date now. A new teaser trailer included lots of pretty, interesting new cars and, what’s this, The Moon? Suddenly it's release week, which sneaked up on me. Somebody on an Internet forum has got a pre-release copy, and they say it’s really, really good. But that’s on forums so who knows. People on my forum got their download versions unlocked and they’re enjoying it. All the promises are being lived up to, they said on my forum. Most all of the problems are fixed.

Friday afternoon, December 6, 2013. Heading out to meet friends for dinner. Will I get it? Should I go pick up The Sixth? “Ah, hell. Game stores in Japan are open late. Why not.”

I stopped in at one of the chains on my way home. The Sixth was there, very much in stock and available. “It’s how much?” The 15th anniversary edition rang up at 6700 yen, about $65. “Ah, hell. I’ve come this far. I have to know.”

After installs, patches, and a weekend of play later, I can safely say that The Sixth is great.

The only thing that’s missing is my license plate — otherwise this is the car that I drive to work in every day

The only thing that’s missing is my license plate — otherwise this is the car that I drive to work in every day

The Sixth corrects the faults of The Fifth. User interface issues -- the menu system -- are completely changed. Single-player progression has been fixed. Any car is available to buy in a dealership, and though some are still based on cars made for The Fourth, they have been polished to a high sheen. Mixed as the results can be, that ensures that there are 1,200 cars available to buy. This summer, I got a new car -- a 2000 Subaru Legacy B4. My car is in the game. This is partially because I finally have a sporty Japanese car from the ‘90s, but my car is definitely in the game.

More importantly there is a great deal of feel in the game. This delivers on the promise hinted at in The First game -- it feels like driving on a track, whether you’ve got a compact grocery-getter, a sports car or a dedicated racing car. All of them are welcome and represented; all of them feel accurate and fun. Too often, The Fourth and Fifth felt like they got in the way of that fun; menus, layers and artificial barriers and videogame red tape keeping you between pressing start and enjoying. And that’s bad.

But with The Sixth, that’s gone.

There’s a little more handholding now -- the first hour or so is basically on rails, save the driving -- but it’s for a reason. It’s educational, not patronizing. It shows you where everything you need is located, and sometimes it even pops up in the hours afterward to point out when a new feature is unlocked. The menus are clean and simple and powerful and thoroughly modern -- somebody finally looked at contemporary western games and said, “Oh, hey we can do that too!”

The only thing that’s missing is my license plate

The only thing that’s missing is my license plate

I guess that’s to say that the driving and aesthetics and emotion are all at full-tilt here. The driving’s always been good, even when the game has disappointed. Now though in the sixth the driving is great -- better than ever -- and the rest of the game lifts up to meet it. Don’t question the driving in this game. Just enjoy it. I wish my PlayStation 3 would accept my wired 360 pad, because the DualShock 3’s L2 and R2 are sub-par stand-ins as triggers, but that can’t be held against The Sixth. It’s not its fault.

But that passion? The passion I’ve had for cars and racing ever since I was little? It’s there. It’s even more evident now than ever before. Just watch the intro video (at least, post-day one patch): There isn’t a shred of in-game racing graphics until the 2:23 mark. But the rest? It’s all the power of fast cars, high-tech racing, and the deep emotions they can elicit.

*****

The Sixth isn’t perfect, but it’s not crumbling from the foundation. Instead, it’s flawed in very human ways. It wears its passion on its sleeve, and that means it’s vulnerable. As cars are concerned, The Sixth gets it. It’s easy to act cool and think some things are corny: knocking down cones, driving certain cars. Sure, it’s strange, but that’s what makes it great. Too many AAA games take exactly zero risk, lest they upset the marketing people who attended the focus groups. However, The Sixth takes risks because Yamauchi is the target market, and he gets it, and there are millions of people worldwide just like that who “get it,” and who love what he makes.

To me, The Sixth feels like an old friend has come back into my life better than ever. We have history -- we have great old stories and inside jokes and everything feels familiar, but things have changed. Even after that time when I was worried if I’d lost the plot or the series had, I’m happy to say:

Gran Turismo is back.