Cold Hard Shoulder

Ha! Found a Trueno-sized hole to squeeze through!

After enjoying drifting in several arcade racers in Tokyo, I began to wonder if something like that would also be available for home consoles. Although there doesn’t seem to be much to choose from, at least there’s Initial D: Extreme Stage, a 2008 release for the PS3, which turned out to be pretty much exactly what I was looking for. It’s based on the late 90’s hit anime of the same name, starring car enthusiastic teens racing their souped-up rides up and down Japan’s twisty mountain roads. The player joins their ranks as a newcomer male or female with a customizable look and license plate, choosing from one of the 23 80’s and 90’s cars from eight different Japanese manufacturers (Civics, Lancers, Imprezas, Skylines, etc.) For devoted Initial D fans, of course, there’s only one viable choice: the unassuming, rear-wheel drive Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86, which racing prodigy Takumi Fujiwara used to beat even the most bad-ass rivals out there.

There are only seven routes, although they are all driven both uphill and downhill, during daytime and nighttime, and possibly with a bit of rain thrown on top. On them wait at least 26 opponents familiar from the anime. All races are duels that last for about four minutes and are delightfully loyal to the original source material. They’re preceded by short, manga-like cutscenes full of the usual bragging, after which it’s time to get noisy. Engines growl, tires squeal, shift pedals are slammed audibly, and all this is, naturally, backed up by 13 songs worth of lovably trashy eurobeat. The most memorable songs from the anime are sadly not present but the overall atmosphere is still very much there, especially as your chatty opponents frequently engage in either smug boasting or cursing your speed and skill, depending on whether they happen to be leading or merely admiring your tail lights. Each race concludes by accepting a graceful win (or defeat) after which it’s time to see who’s up next.

All this comes with a driving model that is… Well, let’s just say interesting. Although the view from behind the car would be ideal for an arcade racer like this, it’s nigh on useless. The cars feel like weightless lumps that have been pinned on a cocktail stick from their exact center with even the smallest nudge of the steering wheel flinging them into a drift at any speed and even on straights. The handling becomes a little better after switching to the more boring road view but it never feels particularly enjoyable. Such an awkward model is justified by the game’s nature, though, as the sheer majority of time is spent sideways navigating 180 degree turns while trying to get the front bumper to caress the inside shoulder as closely as possible to block the opponent from passing. Faithful to the anime, each corner is taken at speeds well over 60MPH and brakes often feel like nothing more than a cosmetic afterthought.

After accepting the floaty driving model as a necessary evil, Extreme Stage briefly turns into a most entertaining experience. The speeds are always excessive but at least on the gentler corners of the wider roads of some of the routes, maintaining a steady drift with slight steering adjustments is rewarding. The races feel a little scripted but at least the rubber band is pure anime. More often than not the opponent will make an early overtake by brute force, if necessary, only to slightly slow down in some later sections to give the player at least a theoretical chance to make an impressive comeback.

Although wins are frequent at first, the game soon bares its fangs. Driving can feel deceptively easy, especially when frequent minor brushes with roadside barriers only dent your own self-esteem. Despite being excessively arcadey, however, it soon becomes a must not just to learn the game but to learn it exceptionally well. After later opponents start to repeatedly disappear into the horizon, there’s still the option to level the playing field by investing points won from races to improve car performance. The engine, manifold, wheels, chassis, and miscellaneous parts can be tuned up to seven stages but not only is this noticeably expensive and requires a whole lot of grinding with races already won, even that won’t help in the end. After ten hours, I finally managed to tune my AE86 to the maximum but I’m still getting my butt kicked. I suppose I could try some other car to see if one would be better suited for the harder opponents but not only would it take an equal amount of time to get them up to similar performance, I’m fairly certain the only cure would be to git gud.

Granted, banging your head against the story mode wall isn’t the only option. Each route can be practiced alone in time attack mode, and even if the game is a decade old already, its online mode was still alive and well, at least for the one brief go I had over there. Still, for this middle-aged Sunday driver, one weekend with this game is good enough for now. While I might never learn the intricacies of graceful, yet blindingly fast drifting, at least my Initial D fan service thirst has been quenched way better than I even expected.

There are a couple of other recent additions to the collection, too. Girls und Panzer: Dream Tank Match is most likely exactly that, although before hopping into that one, I really have to find time to watch the related anime (and movie) first to get a better understanding on why school girls are driving around in WWII era tanks. It’s important to know! And, to make future gaming days even more Japanese than that, there’s Gal*Gun 2, a first person on-rails shooter unabashedly touting itself as a pantsu paradise. Unconventional camp humor? Yes, please!