Shutokou Battle 97 Drift King (1997, Genki for Sega Saturn)
Sega Saturn had a pretty rough time with racing videogames. Its best titles all appeared in the system’s first year, with Daytona USA, Virtua Racing, Wipeout and Sega Rally Championship. After that, quality titles became increasingly rare, and this became extremely frustrating to me during the Saturn era. I enjoyed The Need For Speed and Impact Racing and High Velocity, but felt very frustrated with Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition, Manx TT and Touring Car Championship, all of which stumbled for varying reasons. What happened to the good driving games?
I really could have used Shutokou Battle 97 in my Saturn library. Here is a racing videogame with meat on its bones, one that I could devote a lot of time playing and mastering. This game puts you behind the wheel of a series of street cars as you race against rival drivers across the Tokyo highway system. You only battle one-on-one, but you are also driving through heavy traffic and must navigate around cars and trucks as you race through the roads, bridges and tunnels while trying to overtake your rival.
At the end of the race, you will receive money that can be spent on extensive upgrades to your car, which will dramatically improve its performance. As is typical for this sub-genre, your stock vehicles are a little stiff and sluggish when you first drive them, so the upgrades to the engine, tires and suspension will make a great difference, and you feel inspired to continue racing so that you can continue improving your car. Eventually, when certain conditions are met, you will be awarded more cars beyond the initial three. There are at least eight vehicles in the game and possibly more, ranging from sports cars to a VW Bug.
The course designs are quite excellent, modeled after their Tokyo counterparts, with plenty of curves, hills, overpasses and tunnels. I especially enjoy the sights of the buildings and skyscrapers along the highway, the lights and billboards hanging overhead, and the endless array of minivans and city buses that always get in your way. One course takes place entirely at night, with illuminated roads and bridges set against dimly lit buildings in the background. Another course takes place at sunset, and you see the sky change from blue to orange to dusk as you race, and the environment is lit and colored accordingly. The draw distance is respectable for its era, the 3D polygon graphics are extremely solid, detailed and colorful, all rendered convincingly at 30 frames-per-second.
The obvious comparison is made to Namco’s Ridge Racer, and Saturn fans will be very happy to have a similar racing game in their library. Shutoko Battle’s pacing is a bit slower, however, and leans closer to simulation than pure arcade action. An essential gameplay feature is the hand brake than enables drifting, and it’s a bit more challenging to pull off than in Ridge Racer, Daytona or Sega Rally, but no less satisfying when successfully performed. I do have some issues with the way your car bounces against the side of the road or against passing vehicles, which can cause you to abruptly slow down (the extremely dry steering controls. It lacks the bounciness and speed of the genre’s top names, but the cars have a proper sense of weight and momentum that is very welcome. As always, the 3D controller’s analog steering is recommended for best results.
My one major beef with this game are the low number of closed circuit race tracks, only three. It feels a bit thin and I do wish Genki had included three or four more, especially given how many times you will be racing to upgrade your cars. This was an issue with the genre during the Fifth Generation, and only a small handful of titles offered more than a handful of courses.
Genki’s Shutokou Battle series began on the Super Famicom and continued through to Saturn, Dreamcast and Playstation systems. The games involve high performance racing through Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway, based on real-life illegal street car races. This underground culture also spawned manga comics, anime, videogames and movies, even inspiring The Fast and the Furious series. Sega fans will best remember the series as Tokyo Extreme Racer on Dreamcast, and if you’re a fan of those videogames, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this one.