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The Intersection of Gaming and Driving: the Cult of Gran Turismo

gran turismo

If it wasn't for a certain computer game franchise, Kotto Williams' life might have turned out very different - and he thinks he's not alone. Gran Turismo has a lot to answer for.

Now let me be clear - video games do not promote violence even if they let you hack someone to pieces with a Chainsaw on Miami Beach, direct a nuclear missile on your own position, shoot endangered Tibetan tigers in the face whilst doing a graceful backflip or just jump up and down on turtles. One man however, Kazunori ‘Kaz’ Yamauchi has a lot to answer for when it comes to us….

There are many great things - great leaders, great military leaders, great actors, greatest lovers, great white sharks or a combination of those. This means that being the greatest as a prominent figure is very hard as you’re in a saturated market consisting of many great people or things. Thus, with gravitas and no jovial twinge to my voice, I say that Gran Turismo is the greatest driving/racing simulator.

In 1997 it roared onto your PlayStation 1 with Kaz at the wheel to great critical acclaim, consumer joy and impossibly high sales. Before GameRanking’s website closure in 2019, it was resolutely and rightly positioned at the #1 racing game spot. Its significance is in my opinion one of the foundations of the recent generation’s massive obsession and fanbase of the humdrum motor vehicle. If you’re a ‘millennial’ chances are Gran Turismo has impacted on your life in some way, for many - like myself – it was a launchpad of a life-long hobby and a constant pursuit of living the lifestyle it suggested as best as possible. The photos and screen captures will hopefully demonstrate how much it’s impacted me at least.

It is a Japanese game, so naturally, there’s a focus on the Japanese domestic market as well as some locations the designers felt were important to recreate digitally, namely the mountain Touge track – Trial Mountain, Clubman Stage Route 5 – Fictional Japanese city where street racing was once commonplace (Mid Night Racing Team anyone?) and various test tracks inspired by Nardo.

gran turismo

Sadly just 11 tracks were found on GT1 – a closed beta test volume compared to today’s expectations. My parents say they can still hear the four ‘honks’ prior to a race starting… Probably from grinding the initial Clubman Cup relentlessly to unlock the MK4 Supra, and then doing it all again to unlock the performance packs for it, then ruining your car by making it impossibly fast and tail-happy and not even the wide corners of Trial Mountain can save you. It featured 180 cars (granted many were the same but different variations much like real life) which was a big deal back then. Another modern, now taken-for-granted feature was the vehicles themselves – 3d modelled on real-life cars to an accurate scale and then given a ‘texture’ over that 3d model to ensure it looks as close to reality as technologically possible.

The sound too was synthesised to represent individual cars, for the first time (if you tried very hard) you could hear the difference between a straight-6 and a V8. On the subject of noise, the Japanese market’s soundtrack consisted of some genuinely great jazz music created by Japanese composer Masahiro Andoh who inadvertently created the legacy ‘opening theme song’; Moon Over The Castle. The US and European markets had some mainstream rock music from Feeder, Garbage and the Manic Street Preachers - perfect driving music.

Gran Turismo 2 built upon the incredible 3d graphics, sound, features, physics and tracks. It had a nearly complete roster of Japanese cars but had now forayed into Europe and America, it even featured some oddities such as the Peugeot 406 Coupe, Citroen Saxo VTS and my particular favourite - the TVR Chimaera. This game introduced real tracks – Laguna Seca and Pikes Peak so you could re-live some of the glorious scenes on TV. I’m not 100% sure but I think Gran Turismo 2 was the first to feature Laguna Seca and allow you to tumble down the infamous corkscrew in a variety of exotic racers or cars a bit closer to home – your mum’s Renault Laguna.

Within the game’s lifespan, I discovered Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson’s VHS special and later on, the Fast & Furious movie was released. I believe it was at this point my blood-type gained an octane rating, being able to go to the game and buy an Eclipse or an RX7 in the colour I wanted and change the wheels to ones like the movie was incredible.

Kaz was keen to augment the series given the success of the debut title, he sought sponsorship from SEIKO, the Japanese watch company for a share in his adventure and their name appears as official timekeeping scoreboards like you’d expect from Formula 1 or Le Mans coverage in real life. He also introduced off-road/rallying as a race style, and the racing formula changed too, allowing you to participate in individual races rather than a series in a tournament – a lifesaver if you’re ADHD. If you felt a bit frisky the GT2 title also held Dualshock vibration support for controllers.

gran turismo

Now, I couldn’t drive when Gran Turismo 3 and 4 were released but it was effectively a database in which I kept cars I yearned to have, ones I’d discovered in previous titles but like puberty, I matured into a Petrosexual. Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec matured too, on the new Playstation 2 console it pushed the boundaries of graphical prowess and even included an in-depth rallying mode. The game was the new benchmark for any racing game on graphics alone, once more 3d modelled cars were created with agonizing detail, only 187 cars were featured in the GT3 game due to the graphic processing demands but even now, the game seems graphically robust.

I wish I could tell you GT3 was a success story - and I can - it sold $120million worth of games in the US alone, quite possibly one of the very first ‘AAA’ games in the golden age of electronic entertainment. GT4 however, is my absolute favourite title - over 700 cars from 80 different manufacturers painstakingly brought to life to become the ultimate driving simulator.

The progress since the original to GT4 is astonishing, the sheer volume of cars, over 50 tracks to race on, in-depth modification and tuning that affects a car’s dynamics and performance, and a photography mode to capture your favourite cars. Gran Turismo 4 is the absolute peak of racing simulators, it lets you start at the bottom, just a few quid to buy a relatively mundane car to thrash about amateur racing events to earn some money towards modifying it, giving you an easier time and earning more cash to put towards precious metal. For me, that was usually a silver-green Sylvia S13.

gran turismo

The current generation of Gran Turismo - 5, 6 and Sport is still very much relevant, Forza Motorsport on the Xbox has come leaps and bounds but compared to Gran Turismo it’s not much more than an arcade racer. They can’t quite capture how a car feels and then translate it to digital format, which could be expected since Kaz’s team has been perfecting the art since the late 90s.

It's largely why if a potential car buy appears in my head, the first thing I do is go through every YouTube review and if it’s good it moves into the next stage of buying – Test driving it on Gran Turismo. I probably should’ve touched on this sooner but Gran Turismo’s physics are some of the best available, particularly when factoring in the sheer volume of cars, they have compared to other simulators.

My MX-5 for example, driving that in-game felt massively familiar to me. I knew how far I could push it in corners without losing traction and when the sweet spots for gear changes were. It made me a better driver on the road too, gaining confidence in the car and pushing it beyond what I took into the game initially. Same for the Supra which I specced perfectly to my real-life equivalent and it was spot on, massively fast in a straight line, slightly wallow-y in corners but would surprise even faster or better handling exotics featured in-game.

I don’t know why but for some reason I get a big thrill out of having my real-life cars accessible in a video game, it adds an extra degree of realism to the series and I enjoy the tinkering aspect – adjusting gear ratios, suspension height, spring rates, power level. I had the rear wheel alignment toe of my Alfa GT set to zero to stop it from wearing out the tyres, a move I reflected in-game. Don’t ask me why I just had to!

gran turismo

There are still many cars in-game that I hope to buy one day, Jaguar XK150 XKR, Maserati 3200GT, Alfa Romeo 147 GTA, Mitsubishi Galant VR4, Nissan Skyline R33 and the Toyota MR2 Turbo. But there are many I love but due to rapidly increasing prices or simply because they cost too much, I can only enjoy them in the game – Something shared with millions of other car fans who play video games to escape the wearisome aspect of life. However, there’s some relief when I see a car on Top Gear or in a Magazine, try it out in the game and it’s terrible. Knowing I didn’t pay £50,000 or £300,000 to discover a car that I liked was terrible is useful, certainly makes me feel better that I can’t afford it knowing it drives like shit or can’t beat my Lotus Exige around Tsukuba – my absolute favourite track…

However, with the newest Sport game Autodromo De Interlagos and Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, they’re winning me over. Another joyous thing with the recent entries and the increased amount of real-world circuits. Nothing is stopping you from going there yourself - my next jaunt to the continent will feature a trip to Circuit Barcelona-Catalunya or Le Mans.

Another aspect I like is the photography, you can travel the world and photograph your car; under a cherry blossom in Kyoto, alongside the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe in Valencia or the Red Bull Hanger. The next adventure for me is replicating some of the photo locations in the UK and Europe with my vehicles as a bit of fun. How do I have any friends?

gran turismo

And there you have it… An outpouring of affection for what many non-car fans would find uneventful or monotonous. But to me or even you, it’s likely been a significant pillar in the construction of your life’s journey through cars and the culture that comes with it. I’m very much looking forward to Gran Turismo 7. GT Sport was brilliant (as expected) but lacked the role-playing game element I had in previous titles that allowed me to start from the ground up, discover new cars and explore different race types without leaving my living room.

I say it’s had a big impact on my life but it pales in comparison to the latest generation whose passion for Gran Turismo has led to genuine racing careers via the GT Academy. Gran Turismo Sport is now an FIA-recognised e-sport which allows anyone to participate, championship-winning drivers are put forward to competitions to take a shot at becoming a racing driver. The very best Gran Turismo drivers are now competition racing drivers. There’s a real transference of skill that takes place with this video game.

It could’ve been the Subaru Impreza on the PlayStation 1 demo disk that took you to the Subaru dealership to buy a P1 and enjoyed many track days with it, or the S13 Silvia you enjoyed in Gran Turismo 3 is now on your driveway like me with my TVR Chimaera. But for those dedicated enough to try and absorb the Gran Turismo lifestyle fully, they might just win the 2015 Bathurst 12-hour race like Wolfgang Reip and Florian Strauss did - led by Katsumasa Chiyo - driving a Nissan GTR NISMO GT3 they'd first experienced in-game.

gran turismo


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