Gran Turismo: A Retrospective

Hop inside a time machine -- to stay within the theme of this article, let's use the Delorean from the classic Back to the Future movies -- and travel back to the year 1998. Ignore the temptation to mess with your past, … la Marty McFly, and focus instead on the state of the video-game industry- specifically, the racing genre: what you'll quickly notice is that it's dominated by games that focus less on the rules of the road and more on causing vehicular chaos. In this bygone era, racing franchises like Mario Kart, Need for Speed, and Twisted Metal are more popular than their simulation oriented competitors, meaning every car is less a method of conveyance and more a weapon of destruction.

But that all changes on May 12, 1998 when Sony releases Gran Turismo for the Playstation console (hop back into the Deloreon and set the year to December 23, 1997 to see its Japan launch). Polyphony Digital's breakout hit did offer an action-oriented experience, but its true strength was the incredibly deep simulation mode, which put a premium on performance both on and off the track. Back in the present day, it's easier to look back now and see the immediate impact that Gran Turismo would have with critics and fans, and why Gran Turismo 5 is one of the most highly anticipated titles of 2010. (See GamePro's review of Gran Turismo 5.)

Of course, finding actual reviews of a game as old as the original Gran Turismo is relatively difficult, even in this information-rich age, but the few that are accessible show just how revered the game was from the very beginning; for instance, the aggregate score on GameRankings is hovering at 95 percent, with the lowest recorded score clocking in at a still impressive 8.6-out-of-10.

"Sony's foray into the auto-racing category is the equivalent of a 'mighty blow' that should snap its competitors to attention, lest they risk being knocked out altogether," says GameSpot's Vince Broady, the reviewer who gave it the aforementioned "low" score. "[It] presents you with the most realistic, most challenging, and most in-depth racing game currently available for the home market."

GamePro's own Paul Curthoys also found the game to be topnotch, awarding it full marks and proclaiming, "Never before has a racing game gotten so many things right. Turismo rockets to the top with unbelievable depth, raucous arcade action, challenging sim gameplay, and more cars than a mall parking lot."

That immense number of licensed vehicles was a definite boon for car aficionados, but in a departure from genre norm, Gran Turismo required you to purchase each car by earning credits. Of course, it would take a lot of work to access the high-end autos, as the game only started you out with limited funds. According to Gaming Age's Greg Stewart, "About all you'll be able to afford [at first] are some of the used vehicles available at certain manufacturers."

But tenacious drivers were soon able to fill their virtual garage with some of the highly detailed cars that were painstakingly modeled after their real-world counterparts, with some costing in the neighborhood of 50 million credits. Compounding the sticker shock was Gran Turismo's steep learning curve, which made it hard for less-skilled drivers to access the later levels and tracks; this issue was exacerbated by the game's license mechanic, which required gamers to pass a series of tests in order to be rated worthy of the advanced circuits.

"This is certainly the most controversial aspect of the game," GameSpot's Broady wrote. "The license tests can be very, very difficult, so much so, in fact, that some players might quit the game in frustration."

The game's simulation mode did place a high premium on realism, and while this translated into a lot of frustration for some impatient gamers, some critics saw it as a distinct benefit.

"The physics in Gran Turismo are fine-tuned to simulate those of the real world, and they're the best yet," IGN's Jay Boor wrote. "Your car bounces through gravel, shakes violently at high speeds, flies through dips and mounds, and even gets on two wheels on sharp turns."

Polyphony Digital's decision to include an exhaustive upgrade system would also prove to be key, as it encouraged a performance- and results-oriented mindset that so many gamers would find addicting. Almost every aspect of a car could be tuned with various parts and tweaks, and each change would have a tangible effect out on the track. "By the time you're finished, you'll have a machine that fits you like a glove," says GameSpot's Broady.

Gran Turismo would go onto sell almost 11 million copies, and would help establish Sony's original PlayStation as a racing powerhouse. It would lead to the release of several sequels and side projects, and almost every single game would prove to be a commercial success, with the least successful title -- Gran Turismo 4: Prologue-still selling a respectable 1.4 million units; critically, only the PSP version can be called a disappointment, as it registered an aggregate score in the 75 percent range on GameRankings.

Although it doesn't get as much mainstream attention as Sony's other powerhouse franchises like God of War and Killzone, the Gran Turismo series is one of company's most important assets, and looking back at the reviews for the original makes it clear that the upcoming fifth installment of Polyphony Digital's racing franchise must live up to a legacy that was storied from the very beginning.

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