It is impossible to overstate the significance the Gran Turismo franchise has had on the American auto enthusiast scene. It’s an established institution today, but in the mid-to-late ‘90s, Gran Turismo was a phenomenon, introducing millions of U.S. gamers to cars, tracks, and even driving styles they’d never seen before.
But that significance had other effects, too. The shadow of Polyphony Digital is so big and so broad that it drove a host of other excellent games right out of the public consciousness, many dating from the same golden era of creative Playstation racing games with a JDM flair.
So, with respect to Gran Turismo, here are my five other favorite Japanese racing games and franchises, all of which are well worth your time.
Initial release date: 1993
Before Gran Turismo was more than a glimmer in Kazunori Yamauchi’s eye, before Initial D and Tokyo Drift took touge racing mainstream, the Ridge Racer franchise was the place for sideways antics.
It’s hard to describe how otherworldly this game was back when it hit arcades in the early ‘90s. It had advanced 3-D graphics, cool (if unlicensed) cars, and an absolutely mind-blowing soundtrack loaded with so many high-BPM bangers I’m surprised it didn’t carry a warning from the American Heart Association.
The original game will forever be an icon, but for me it was Ridge Racer Type 4, stylized as R4, that set the high-water mark. With a full-motion-video intro that managed to be both chill and exciting, and a legendary theme song, as soon as you spun up R4 you knew you were playing something special. Plenty more Ridge Racer games have followed, but most messed with the core formula a little too much for my tastes.
R4 also introduced the JogCon controller, the first taste of force-feedback Playstation gamers would get. Like most third-party peripherals, it never saw much support, but it was an early preview of the advanced steering wheel setups that would eventually become de rigueur for serious console racing fans.
Though its cars and tracks may all be fake, Ridge Racer literally set the tone for the ‘90s racers to come.
Tokyo Xtreme Racer
Initial release date 1994
One of the most iconic Japanese-themed racers of the early 2000s actually got its start as a Super Famicom (SNES in the US) title called Shutokō Battle ‘94. Named after the Shuto Expressway toll roads in and around Japan, the game made the most of that console’s Mode 7 capabilities to give the feel of a 3D racer on decidedly 2D hardware.
It was 1999’s Tokyo Xtreme Racer (again Shutokō Battle in Japan), a launch title for the Sega Dreamcast, which really brought the franchise to global renown. I spent so many hours drifting on the highways of Tokyo in this game that when I got to drive there for real a few years back, I was hit with the most unbelievable feeling of nostalgia, a sort of digital deja vu that made me want to drive in circles for hours.
That game will forever be my favorite, but most folks rightly consider Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3, released in 2003 for the Playstation 2, to be the peak of the franchise. It’s hard to argue otherwise, but regardless where you dive in the games offer a compelling mix of light narrative and mission-based gameplay. The goal is to chase down and beat opponents on the road. Pull up behind them, flash your lights, and it’s on.
Races aren’t races so much as they are fights, each driver having a life bar that decreases if they’re not in the lead. Hold the lead long enough and you win the fight, earning some money and cars too. There’s a good selection of real cars (though some have fake names), an incredible jazz soundtrack, and an overall unmatched experience of touring Tokyo.
Developer: Sega/Wow Entertainment
Initial release date: 2000
I said I wouldn’t include Gran Turismo, but I didn’t say I wouldn’t include any Gran Turismo clones. As much as I love it, you definitely need to include Sega GT in that category.
The game features 130 real cars and 22 forgettable tracks, unlocked and accessed through a series of frustrating challenges and license tests, the first of which has you driving around a timed course in a Honda Civic. Sound familiar? Yeah, it all is, but the franchise did introduce some interesting things, like maintenance and repair costs that encouraged you to be a better driver and not just ricochet your way to victory.
Graphically, Sega GT was a huge step above the then-current Gran Turismo 2. Cars looked great and, even though the physics were a bit vague, it was immediately fun to pick up and play. The franchise out-lived the Dreamcast with its sequel Sega GT 2002 on Xbox and then 2004’s Sega GT Online. That title beat Gran Turismo 4 Online by two years.
Being a Sega game it even gave you the chance to race around Daytona — though sadly called “Desert Super Ring” here. With a fraction of the car selection and some decidedly inane fictional tracks, Sega GT didn’t stand up against Gran Turismo in its day. But, looking back, it deserved more of our respect.
Initial release date: 2002
I’ll be honest with you: I’m actually not a big fan of playing Auto Modellista. I never really found the physics to my liking — too casual for a sim, too serious for fun — and the selection of cars and tracks feels hugely limited compared to most other racers of its day.
So why is it included in this list? Frankly, because of how it looks. Auto Modellista is the Maserati of racing games: more fun to admire than to drive. So-called cel-shaded games were all the rage in the early 2000s and Capcom had the bright idea to apply them to a racer. Today, 20 years later, Auto Modellista is still a visual treat. Run it through a high-quality upscaler and it’ll still stop gamers in their tracks.
Auto Modellista delivers a level of style and flair that gamers really haven’t seen since — only the new Need for Speed Unbound gives a taste, but I’m inclined to say that game is trying a little too hard. The clean simplicity of Auto Modellista makes it more like watching art than playing a game. There’s a reason why it’s often called Auto Mona Lisa.
Developer: Angel Studios/Rockstar San Diego
Initial release date: 2000
The original Midnight Club was developed in California and featured two locations: New York and London. So why, then, does Midnight Club belong on this list of great Japanese racing games? The answer is right there in the title.
Midnight Club was clearly inspired by the fabled Mid Night Club, a group of street racers infamous for their antics on the highways around Tokyo in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The real club had strict rules for the behavior of its members, including respect for their cars and other drivers. The games? Not so much.
Midnight Club, the franchise, would eventually take gamers to Tokyo, but not until 2003’s Midnight Club II. In concept it’s much the same idea as Tokyo Xtreme Racer, racing and challenging others on the streets, but here you’re given far more freedom to explore the city. Likewise, the storyline is more involved, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s a strong Rockstar look and feel to the experience, from the characters you’ll encounter to the familiar-but-not-real cars.
So is this a Japanese racing game? Maybe not as such, but it delivers the vibe well enough to make this list. Or maybe I’ve just been wooed by the lovely SW20 MR2 that appears in the original game’s intro. Either way, this game was, and is, a lot of fun.