It started with an impromptu game of Galaga. Then there was a shout and a chequered flag, and with only one press of a button I was on the track, launched out into a mad world with lurid colours, crazy music and even crazier commentary. So began my virtual racing career.
The game in question was, as you might have guessed, Ridge Racer. Originally an arcade game, it was distilled onto a disc, packaged up and launched with Sony’s PlayStation console back in nineteen ninety-oatcake. Apparently they got the conversion from arcade to home computer just spot-on, but I wouldn’t know given that (a) I was ten at the time and therefore banned from arcades and (b) there were no arcades on the Black Isle in any case.
All that mattered to primary school me was that for the first time ever I could race a car, on a track, from my bedroom. Scalextric and radio-controlled cars didn’t really cut the mustard, because you didn’t get the first-person view that a computer game affords. In Ridge Racer, by contrast, you could select a camera that meant what you saw on your TV screen approximated what an actual car driver would see.
Taking your pick from the red car, the red and green car, the yellow car or the blue car, you then chose from the easy track, the hard track or the time trial track (they were all the same anyway), and within a matter of seconds you were racing. Holding down the cross button produced the sound of a hairdryer that loosely resembled an engine revving, and the arrow keys made the car go left and right. Apparently the square button acted as a brake, but nobody used that.
After three weeks of bumping off the walls, I’d mastered skidding round corners and begun to enjoy some of the game’s quirks. Why did that yellow car always follow you through the pack from eleventh place to second? How could it go from day to night and back again in sixty seconds? And why, after twenty days of non-stop 24/7 construction, had those cranes at the side of the road made no progress with whatever they were building?
Ridge Racer wasn’t the deepest of games, and I quickly explored everything in it. I got the bonus cars by shooting all the spaceships at the start, beat the black devil car with a perfect race, and even won the mirror tracks. Crucially, though, I’d got the bug – more driving games were bound to follow.
Unfortunately, the rate at which I received pocket money meant that, birthdays and Christmases aside, a game could only be purchased once every six months. (To be clear, this was much more of a reflection on the high price of software than it was on my parents, who looked after me very well indeed). So it was going to be a long wait before I could escape the fake American commentary, horrendous techno and two-dimensional grid girl of Ridge Racer.
What I did quickly realise, however, was that I wanted the most realistic racing games that I could. I would scour the nerdy magazines and play the demo discs until they literally melted to be sure that I’d make the right choice. Into this void stepped Porsche Challenge, a remarkable and one-off tie up between Sony and the Stuttgart manufacturer to celebrate and promote their new Boxster. As well as pushing the boundaries of contemporary gaming technology with its beautifully rendered cabriolets, Porsche Challenge also tested the frontiers of racial stereotyping with playable characters such as Taka-bo the Japanese computer hacker and Beats the Afro-Caribbean London DJ. You could race in an amazing four different locations, each of which had their own shortcuts and variable track conditions. And if you did really well you could unlock some footage of Porsches racing in the 1970s, or ‘Les Porn’ as my high-school friends used to call it.
My motor sport addiction was kickstarted at the age of three by rally driving, so it pleased me greatly when rally games started appearing on the PlayStation. Of course, Sega Rally had been around for a few years, but it was only in the forbidden arcades and on the Sega Saturn, which nobody at school had because it wasn’t cool and was in any case pretty rubbish. The first one to make it to the PSX was V-Rally, which did the basics right by featuring lots of different rally countries and a good range of contemporary rally cars. Sadly it also featured awful French rock music, a co-driver as accurate and informative as a sack of potatoes, and physics that would have given my science teacher a seizure – take off on a jump and your car would shoot into the sky, gently gliding back to earth then bobbing down the road on its roof before you got control back. Thankfully Colin McRae Rally emerged not long after, a game that got rallying so right it practically came wrapped in a blue Subaru rainjacket. They had proper A to B stages (V-Rally had circuits), accurate pace notes and some tuition from the great man himself. The programmers even managed to sneak a couple of Group B cars in there.
All of this took place between the years of 1995 and 1996. At this time there was no internet. And before the internet, to find things out you had to read stuff – or at least look at pictures. It was in one of these old-fashioned magazines that I saw some photos that blew my brains out. They were of a computer game that was under development in Japan, and they looked like nothing I had ever seen before. For a start, there were at least twenty different cars, including ordinary stuff like Honda Civics. And as they moved along the road, they reflected the light around them and cast shadows. If you squinted your eyes a bit, they looked…well, like real cars. The text next to the photos explained that in this mythical Japanese game, you could buy, sell and trade cars, and would be able to race on dozens of circuits. The name of this game, almost written in hushed reverence, was Gran Turismo.
Videos on demo discs followed, showing someone buying a used Mitsubishi amid screeds of Japanese text and Subaru Legacy estates broadsiding round bends. Months, weeks, days later, Gran Turismo arrived in the UK. It was released in April. My next memory of the outdoors was a family holiday. In August. The intervening period involved such delights as driving tests, performance tuning and endurance races – in three years, driving games had gone from pressing ‘X’ twice and being in a race to actually having to pass a flipping licence test before you were allowed anywhere near a racetrack.
It was about this point that videogames started getting dangerous. Gran Turismo 2 was released a couple of years later, just in time for exhausting the first GT, and was essentially an exercise in cramming as much shit onto a disc as was physically possible. Someone somewhere in Tokyo seemed to have made it their personal mission to ensure that every single car on the planet was represented in some way, shape or form, and to make sure you could race these cars in an endless array of circumstances. Single-make series, sprint cups, rally trials, time trials, drag races, Daihatsus, Vauxhalls, Autobianchis, Alpines, Gran Turismo 2 made it possible to binge on cars and racing to the point of physical sickness. And the eerie ghost VW Polo that popped up as a computer drone in a race I did once suggests they weren’t near done by the time the game went to press.
Thankfully not every developer opted to go for the GT model of ultra-realism. In-between stints of wheeling and dealing in GT land, I was able to hone my ramming skills in TOCA Touring Cars (which included a young Jason Plato as a playable character), perfect evading the police in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, and fuel my blossoming interest in Formula One with the official F1 games which were updated annually with teams, tracks and drivers.
With my family placing great value on studying and exercise, we were usually a little behind in getting the new consoles and games. As such, the creaking PlayStation had to be strung out for a good few years until it was upgraded to a shiny new PlayStation 2 one Christmas. This led to the only occasion in my life when I have actually been gobsmacked by a videogame. The soft light flowing over the perfectly-rendered cars of Gran Turismo 3 was just mindblowing, and still looks more than passable ten years later. A Mitsubishi Evo 7, corking graphics and Feeder pumping out on the soundtrack. What more could an early 00s adolescent want?
Many things, actually. Twice as much graphical power and fifty times as much memory gave potential for all sorts of silliness. Cue a Mini that took eighty seconds to stop spinning if one lost control, an AE86 Toyota that could powerslide the whole way round a circuit, and a Pagani Zonda so powerful that I once glitched through a wall and ended up in an ethereal wilderness from which I could only escape by resetting the whole console (twenty-nine minutes into a half-hour race I may add).
I mentioned a few paragraphs back that with Gran Turismo, gaming started to get dangerous. Well, with the PS2 it actually got properly, properly bonkers. There were a string of half-hour races that had to be done if one was to progress and ‘complete’ the game, and endurance races lasting up to four hours. As witnessed by the ominous internet connection port on the back of the PS2, this was around the time that computer games stopped being for pure enjoyment and started being serious, serious business.
Fast forward three years and my point is proven. I’m now in my second year of university (2005), and the long-slated Gran Turismo 4 is launched. So epic is this supposed to be, so full of cars to unlock and races to win, that for the month prior to its launch I put in eighteen hour days in the university library, get all my coursework for the semester done, and read ahead in the lectures – purely so that I can have a clear fortnight run at GT4 with the minimum of distractions. In that fortnight I win all the championships in the main section of the game, (briefly) hold the real-world production class lap record for the Nürburgring, and develop a nasty cold from Vitamin C deficiency.
Racing games continued throughout my student days, encompassing such delights as the ultra-realistic Ferrari 355 Challenge. F355 Challenge was another port-over of a Sega arcade game, with handling that boffins from ‘real’ car mags described as spot-on and a lovely range of actual racetracks on which to hoon one’s Ferrari. Being a Sega product, it also had an endearing intro – made using the in-game graphics – that drove down the street of the Ferrari factory in Maranello and in through the gates, before cutting to some heavy rawk music and footage of 355s going bumper-to-bumper. What it did not show was gamers throwing objects around in fits of pique as they struggled to manhandle a Ferrari round a tight course with the aid of only a flimsy plastic controller.
This period of time also introduced me to the delights of Enthusia, a little-known title ushered out by Japanese gaming giant Konami. Enthusia got a bit lost under the hype of Gran Turismo 4, in that it wasn’t quite as pretty to look at, quite as realistic or quite as in-depth. But what it lacked in the ‘wow’ department it more than made up for with the stunning array of obscure metal one could race. For the first time, Mercedes G-Wagens, Citroen DSs and first-generation Mazda RX7s were brought to the screen – basically, any car that’s ever been featured on PistonHeads was there. The developers even made some lovely fictional courses for the game, such as the Löwenseering (a cross between Spa and the Nürburgring), a Japanese road course and a night time trial by the name of ‘Dragon Range’ that is the closest I have ever seen to the Tour of Mull in videogame form. It’s such a shame only about sixty people will ever have played it, because it really was a hidden gem of the time in my view.
My virtual racing prowess peaked in the period around the end of my time at university. Thanks to two Xbox-owning flatmates I was introduced to Project Gotham Racing, with a devilish challenge system so difficult that numerous outbursts of emotion spilled off the screen and into the real world. These included (a) requesting, in a rather less polite fashion, that one roommate keep his trap shut until I had crossed the finish line on the hardest race in the game on the hardest setting; (b) smashing one time-trial target by two seconds whilst nursing a horrendous hangover and eating ice cream; and (c) staining a fine pair of chinos with blood after punching the adjacent bookshelf upon spinning out. I recovered to win that particular race, but the trousers were never the same again.
This era also saw me join the fellow nutters of the Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club for a full-on, real-time 24 Hours of Le Mans race on Gran Turismo 4. I wrote about that particular adventure at the time and you can read about it here should you so wish.
And at juncture, my virtual racing progress halted abruptly. Why? Because I did what game geeks are never supposed to do and found another person with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. This didn’t mean I had to stop playing games completely, but it did mean that money that was previously sloshing around for consoles and software was now being used for flights, engagement rings and wedding plans. Besides, going to Japan twice a year meant I actually got to see all the cool stuff that was hitherto the stuff of game legend.
In my absence, the progression of racing games has continued unabated. There’s some mental thing called iRacing which is considered realistic enough to do aerodynamic tests in, and the mythical Gran Turismo 5 finally got launched a year and a bit ago. In an interesting sign of the times, Sony now run a competition called GT Academy, in which people that are really, really good at Gran Turismo get invited to go and race actual cars at a racetrack and can win prizes and professional contracts. Bloody hell.
And as for me? I still manage to sneak in the odd timed lap of the Nürburgring in a Nissan – I can match the real test driver Toshio Suzuki’s 7:19 now – and have some games for my PSP that come on business trips and long-haul flights. But most of the time, I spend most of my time working on things that will improve my job prospects like writing articles, doing grant applications and learning Japanese. And what’s the biggest motivation for doing all that, you may ask? The aim of one day owning a gunmetal grey R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R, the car I spent so much time hooning round virtual racetracks. A man can but dream, eh!