We live in an era of invention and, as such, compulsively seek the new. Were someone to have stumbled ontoDragon’s Den in 1997 and said “I want investment in this computer game, it’s a racing game, where you try to beat the other cars to the finishing line”, they’d have been heckled from the studio. Duncan Bannatyne’s jaw would have jutted out so dismissively they’d have tripped over it on their way out.
Perhaps the unoriginal, unsexy concept of Gran Turismo is the reason the game took five years to develop, why designer Kazunori Yamauchi stated that there were often only a dozen people working on the game and “in those five years, we could not see the end. I would wake up at work, go to sleep at work. It was getting cold, so I knew it must be winter. I estimate I was home only four days a year.”
Gran Turismo was a labour of love, an admittance that while there may be nothing new under the Sun we all quite enjoy being under the Sun (especially on those rare occasions when it shines). That if you’re going to do something, do it right.
There were great racing games before Gran Turismo. The cartoony pleasures of Mario Kart, Micromachines and Speed Racer. The pseudo-realism of Sega Rally and PC classic Formula One Grand Prix. Gran Turismo took things to the next level. It wasn’t just a racing game it was a racing simulator, with realistic car and track dynamics and painstaking attention to detail.
To put GT’s studiousness into context, consider that its closest console rival Sega Rally, a genuinely great early 32-bit game, featured four nicely textured tracks and three cars with slightly different handling characteristics. Gran Turismo arrived with 11 tracks and 140 cars. Moreover, every car could be customised. They could be spray-painted, given spoilers and alloy tyres – and these were merely the cosmetic enhancements. For true petrolheads the joy of the game lay in tinkering endlessly with engine settings, brakes and performance upgrades that impacted the behaviour of the cars on track.
Let’s be honest, in most racing games you can get away with driving like a stuntman in a Jason Statham movie – slamming on the brakes, screeching tyres and basically making as much noise and mess as possible as you slam into every available obstacle and dunt rival cars off the road.
Try these tactics in Gran Turismo and you will be punished. Miss the apex of a corner and your car won’t rescue you with a physics-defying contortion; it’ll carry straight on into the wall. Try to accelerate a high-powered sports car while it’s turning or the tyres are touching the grass and you’ll spin quicker than a show-off in a go-kart.
Gran Turismo applied real life car handling dynamics to video games in a way that hadn’t been done before – and I lost control of my PlayStation as a result. My 30-year-old neighbour and my petrolhead friend took over, manifesting in front of my TV at all hours of the day and proving tougher to budge than an oil stain.
I’ve always slightly distrusted the alpha male fascination with cars and collated hours of supporting evidence from the antics of this unusual pair. The most startling thing about their behaviour is that they didn’t even complete races. All they did was tinker with cars, bash them about on track for a lap or two and then enthuse about the extra torque they’d achieved through some infinitesimal adjustment of an engine setting. They would turn the volume up and listen to the sound of engine revs with the dreamy attentiveness of a romantic attending to lover’s whispers.
This was Gran Turismo. A game made by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. A game beginners could play and experts could love. A game that set a new benchmark for the racing genre. A game that changed our lives.