A Long Road to Success: Celebrating Gran Turismo
Back in the 1990s, most prominent racing games were largely arcade affairs. Players enjoyed the experience of games like Cruis’n USA and Ridge Racer and even Need for Speed II dropped the more realistic simulation of the original in favor of a more arcade-styled gameplay system. It’s safe to say there were very few games going the racing sim route outside of the NASCAR titles licensed for development by Electronic Arts. In 1997, that changed when a new game hit the scene that was about to start a franchise and revolutionize the hybridization of arcade elements and realistic racing simulation, not to mention become one of the most popular PlayStation games of all time. Today, we celebrate the arrival of the original Gran Turismo on North American shelves in 1998.
Gran Turismo’s story actually begins in 1992. The game took five years to develop and for much of its staff, especially game director Kazunori Yamauchi, the release day seemed to be nowhere in sight. This is due largely in part to how limited the staff was. In a 2010 interview with VentureBeat, Yamauchi revealed that there were only seven to fifteen people working on Gran Turismo at any time. This was also due in part to the drive to make a realistic racing game that was far and apart from the popular arcade style of racing games at the time. With so limited a staff and such high aspirations, Yamauchi had a mountain to climb.
In the original Gran Turismo, an arcade mode was present, as it almost had to be given the current trend, but it was negligible compared to the main mode of the game: Simulation Mode. In this mode, players must earn different levels of driver’s licenses in order to compete in higher and higher profile events. Races, tournaments, and championships had to be completed in order to earn trophies and prize money which could then be used to buy from the game’s then-huge roster of 140 licensed vehicles. In addition, players could use the money to purchase parts and customize any vehicle’s performance. The game featured only eleven tracks, but made this seem bigger by allowing races to be reversed, allowing players to take on each track from the opposite direction.
Going against popular racing games at the time with so much time and money invested, Gran Turismo was most certainly a risk, but it was one that paid off in full. The game was applauded and thoroughly praised by critics. It currently sits at almost 95% on GameRankings, making it the highest rated racing game of all time. Additionally, it had already shipped over 10.8 million units in 2008 according to PC World, making it the highest selling PlayStation game, even against the likes of Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil.
The original Gran Turismo was an arduous journey with limited resources the whole way. That can and has spelled disaster for many projects in the past, but Gran Turismo came through in a way that most developers can only dream of. It single-handedly established Kazunori Yamauchi’s new studio, Polyphony Digital, which has had staff of over 100 members working on the series ever since, far from the handful of people working on the original. The series is coming up on seven core entries with nine spin-off games. The modern games feature enormous leaps in technology with almost unparalleled realism, but we can’t possibly forget that it all started with a hard five year journey to create something outside the norm.