Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Game Review: Initial D Special Stage

Initial D: Special Stage
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sega Rosso
  • Release: PlayStation 2, 26 June 2003 (Japan)
  • Genre: Racing
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Memory Card, 230 KB
  • Rarity/Cost: Uncommon, US$20-40

(This review was updated on 14 August 2013.)

With home console video games gaining so much relevance over the past decade, the only way for arcades to catch up was to employ gimmicks of all sorts. One such gimmick was employed by Sega's Initial D Arcade Stage series from the early-to-mid 2000s. These racing games let you purchase a "memory card" of sorts, a thin, cardboardy-type dealie which would save your stats and upgrades to your car. This proved to be a big draw for me once I got into it. Being a good licenced game (based on a manga and anime franchise) was only icing on the cake.  Sadly, by the time I did get into the Arcade Stage games, its popularity in America was supplanted by the The Fast and the Furious series by Raw Thrills, a spiritual successor to Crusin' USA.  While it had a similar game-save mechanic, and despite my resignations I still pumped in numerous credits to the games, I found it to be a basic, unpolished, unfulfilling alternative to Initial D once arcades started replacing it with this Americanised tripe.  The good news is that Sega saw fit to make a home version of the games, in the form of Initial D Special Stage for the PlayStation 2. The bad news... it was only released in Japan. ...Pfft, like that's gonna stop me!

Initial D started life in 1996 as a manga series written and drawn by Shuichi Shigeno. The universe of Initial D centers around Takumi Fujiwara, a teenager who develops spectacular driving skills from working for his father's tofu shop, and reluctantly enters the world of touge racing, one-on-one duels on Japan's winding mountain roads.  Through his years of driving experience, he transforms his car, a sleeper Toyota, into the stuff of legends among his friends and rivals.  In fact, the popularity of this franchise has given renewed fame to drift racing, and Takumi’s car in particular, the Sprinter-Trueno, also known by its chassis code "AE-86" or just "86", or as the Corolla in the US.

Special Stage lets you live the action in three ways. The "Legend of the Streets" mode is identical to the arcade experience. There's also the "Story Mode", a series of thirty or so scenarios which re-create scenes from the manga, and “Time Attack”, where you can run through courses without opponents or even a time limit. The other choices available from the main menu are the Replay Theatre, Koichiro’s Car Museum, which plays demos of the game’s various cars with a Japanese narration about the car, Save and Load controls, and other Options. Also, unlike in most Japanese PlayStation games, you can move forward in menus by pressing the X button as well as Circle, whereas Triangle and Square take you backwards.

I’ll start with the Arcade mode. On the first menu, you have a choice of setting up a new profile, or loading an existing profile from the garage. You get to pick your car from brands like Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and others, and change body colours by pressing Up or Down. Then you get to choose an upgrade course. Playing races, win or lose, earns you upgrade points, which are used to add modifications to your car at certain milestones. These mods are mainly of the decorative variety, but it helps create a sort of bond between you and your virtual car. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I grew addicted to the arcade version, but on a home console where you're not charged a dollar a game, I have to say the impact isn't quite as profound. Once that’s done, you have to set up your name, which uses katakana symbols by default but also supports Latin letters.

Now, you get to take on challengers at your leisure. Only six courses are available in Arcade mode, and of them, only two are circuit tracks where you have to do laps. All the others are one-way courses, driven either uphill or downhill. And let me tell ya, there’s a huge difference between driving the same course up- or downhill. Not only will the turns come at you in reverse order, but your car will accelerate differently depending on whether it’s going up or down, so the limited track selection becomes less of an issue.

Not all Story missions involve straight racing.
In Story Mode, you are given a series of 30-odd missions which roughly replicate events from the manga. The missions are book-ended panels from the manga and Japanese voicovers, which you can thankfully skip over. Not all these missions require you to finish ahead of the other guy, so a little experience reading Japanese would be useful after all.  Or you could just find an FAQ online or, when all else fails, do it trial-and-error.  For example, the first mission puts you on a solo run where you have to drift in order to avoid spilling water from a cup, as depicted by an on-screen meter. And this being the first mission, of course it’s easier than it’s depicted in the comics, or in real life for that matter.

Finally, there’s Time Attack. You use the same car profiles and courses as in the Arcade mode, but you have control over what direction you want to run in, the time of day, the weather, and finally you can load a ghost of a previous run from your Memory Card. Since the events in the Arcade and Story modes utilise night and/or rain versions of the tracks, Time Attack mode is a stress-free way to practice anything that’s been giving you trouble. Sadly, there are no multiplayer offerings in this game. Unless you wanna take turns in Time Attack or something, and compete for the best time.

The controls are simple enough; X is Throttle, Square is Brake, yada-yada.  The buttons can also be manually assigned, although I’m bamboozled as to why there’s no rear-view button but there is a button to turn the headlights on and off. The racing discipline exhibited in the likes of Initial D is commonly misattributed as drift racing, but to be honest, that's not too far off the mark.  Special Stage's physics engine allows you to break into a drift rather easily. Most high-speed turns are enough to generate some smoke from the tyres, but in order to truly take on the corners without dropping precious revs, you’ll have to develop your own technique.  One method I developed is to rapidly shift down and back up, so in order to master the more technical maneuvers, get used to playing with manual transmission enabled.  Of course, you still have to brake ahead of sharper turns, so it’s better off to start out playing Gran-Turismo style and developing your skills from there. All things considered, the handling in Special Stage straddles the line between simulation and true arcade-style control.

It's easy to break into drifts.
The assortment of playable cars, predominantly composed of Japanese mid-90s models, doesn't offer a lot of variety in practice. The only statistic that has any major effect on a car's handling is whether it runs on a front-wheel, rear-wheel, or 4-wheel drive platform. On the bright side, you're not likely to screw yourself over by picking an inferior car, but anyone who's familiar with Gran Turismo should find it odd that in this game, it's entirely possible for a lowly Suzuki Cappuchino to defeat a mighty Nissan Skyline, despite a four-to-one disparity in horsepower alone.
The graphics in Special Stage pretty much reach the bar set by high-end PS2 titles from a few years prior.  It does run smoothly in 60 frames per second, but doesn't do much else of note, not that it needs to anyway. Shigeno-san's illustrations are featured in character portraits and on the loading screens; regardless of whether you like his art style, it’s nice that they worked it in, to give the game some personality. The collision model is a potential point of contention, however; depending on how you hit the other car, you may be able to slingshot past it, or him past you. Staying true to the spirit of the anime (and presumably, touge culture in general), the soundtrack is composed of licenced Eurobeat songs. As a critic I'm not supposed to account for taste, so I'll instead warn you that this high-tempo, poppy material may not be for everyone (even if it is, contrary to popular belief, sung in English).

In fact, you could make a similar argument for the game itself. It’s not just that the language barrier is a little steep; at the least, knowing the katakana letters will be a big help. Given the unique techniques one needs to learn in order to perform best in this game, and no training mode to speak of, the learning curve will come across as sharper if your racing game experience leans more toward Mario Kart than Gran Turismo. But make no mistake - Initial D Special Stage is great at what it does, and is worth putting on your list especially if you're a racing pro, or if you're looking to get your feet wet in the waters of import gaming.

Japanese: 4 kanji out of 5
Graphics: 4 stars out of 5
Sound: 4 stars out of 5
Control: 4 stars out of 5
Design: 5 stars out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

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