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Gran Turismo: How a video game changed car culture forever

Once upon a time, the automobile was conceived. And it was good. Shortly thereafter, Gran Turismo was made; or so it would seem to this generation of digitally savvy automotive enthusiasts. And it was also good. Gran Turismo (GT) has been around for what seems like forever, and I’m not surprised as to why. This game is the benchmark when talking about racing games in the last 20 years, and even of all time. With a slew of new competitors, including the hugely anticipated Project Cars just released to the US market, I’m taking a look back at GT and why it’s been so important to recent car culture on the whole. The current iteration is GT6 and while that is excellent, we need to know where these games began to get an idea of just how unprecedented and market changing this franchise has been to the automotive world.

When GT1 was released all the way back in 1997, racing video games had come a long way from their humble roots. See here, here, and here for examples of early racing games. While those that came before GT were legendary in the racing game community for their simplicity and innovative natures, they weren’t exactly the most elegant interpretations of the real world. Technological hindrances handcuffed the racing game, along with other genres, and developers had not yet been able to produce a meaningful racing simulator for the general public. As the technology got better, so did the game-play, graphics, and physics. With these advances, a plethora of different types of car sims were within your reach. In 1997 you could purchase Diddy Kong Racing, Car & Driver Presents: Grand Tour Racing (yup that was a thing), Twisted Metal, TOCA Touring Car Championship, of course Mario Kart, Test Drive: Off Road, or the venerable Need For Speed (NFS) II. Even Cart World Series and NASCAR ’98 were good games in the own right. If you were an enthusiast, you could run the gamut of games tailored to your car interests.

NFS II

Photo credit: Electronic Arts

But what if you were an older enthusiast or a young kid just getting into cars that wanted more from a racing game than just open wheel style, touring car intensity, or deviously sitting at the back to mess up your friend with a blue turtle shell? This is where GT stepped in and took over the racing game world. GT1, titled “GRAN TURISMO” was really the first mainstream game that introduced a worldwide audience to internationally renowned cars. The Nissan Skyline GTR from Japan was a world beater, but relatively unknown to a wider US audience in the late 90s. The Mitsubishi FTO and the TVR Griffith were only really known by the hardcore enthusiasts. Not anymore. This is what GT1 did so well. It opened the world of autos to an audience thought to be only interested in saving princesses and obtaining tri-forces of wisdom. The only downfall to the original installment was the 140 total car list. Great cars, but not many.

GT1 also was a a revelation for in-game tuning abilities. Sure you could play NFS and “tune” your car with upgrades, but GT went into excruciating detail. For example, when tuning a Chevrolet Camaro in the “tune up” section as shown in this video, you could upgrade many parts of the car. One of which was the “mufflers and air cleaners.” Here you could do what other games had in the past; upgrade parts to give more power, but GT took it a step further. You would choose between sports, semi-racing, and racing upgrades and each one gave a description on what exactly you were doing to the car. The racing exhaust upgrade states, “A combination of a racing air filter equipped with an air funnel that gives even better air intake than the semi-racing air filter, and a high efficiency straight muffler designed for racing cars which normally run at high engine speeds. Because torque is reduced at low engine speeds, the engine characteristics, gear ratios, and so on, need to be taken into account.” Now imagine reading that paragraph as a 10 year old kid playing his or her first racing game. There’s a ton of information and terminology that, to the casual observer, doesn’t make any sense. Which is awesome for the fact that it could have sparked an interest in that 10 year old kid as to what that all meant. Which meant he or she might go online and do research on cars and how they worked. And this could lead to them becoming a gear-head. And this is how GT sucked you in and why it was brilliant. And for the older enthusiast, this was nirvana. Over delivering on something like the minutia of the upgrades was only the beginning.

NSX - gameswalls

Photo Credit: Gran Turismo

GT2 picked up the proverbial ball from here and decided to decimate it by upping the anti on the total cars list. It ballooned from 140 to 650 which any 2nd grade math student can tell you is a much larger sample size to choose from. Recently, Jalopnik had an article showcasing user submitted suggestions for the 10 old racing games that are still great today. As you can see GT2 is on that list and I do not disagree. This game was the big one where more and more people became familiar with a wider array of internationally known cars. Names like Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Lancia, Lotus, Peugeot, Renault, Vauxhaull, and Vector became household to these gamers and thus made the car universe smaller and more accessible. People would research these cars outside the game to learn more about them. Dream cars were born from GT2. And it was good.

At this point, the original Playstation had run it’s course and the PS2 was on the way. And with it, Polyphony Digital – the development house behind GT – brought GT3: ASPEC. We went from pixelated, square-ish cars to beautiful, round, smooth overlays with extremely accurate visual models. The graphics alone were revelation enough to get even a casual gamer to take a chance on the GT series. This was evidenced by the sheer numbers this game produced. To this day, it is still the best selling GT game ever made with nearly 15 million copies sold worldwide. The only downfall was, again, the available cars which fell to 181. GT3 brought about a new style of game-play featuring a more robust single player campaign with side missions, short sprint races, and even endurance races that could last for hours. GT3 also gave virtual drivers the ability to tweak suspension settings like spring ratios, ride height, camber and toe angles, gear ratios, and turbo boost pressure. The casual gamer was turned into a driving enthusiast in GT3. And it was good. Where else could you find that kind of detail on a console game?

That question was answered 4 years after GT3 was released when in 2005 gamers and car nuts alike were given a choice between GT4 or a newcomer: Forza Motorsport for the Xbox. The beauty of GT being so popular was that it was exclusive to Playstation. This forced the hand of Microsoft’s Xbox game developers to come up with a viable alternative. And thus, Forza was born. And it was good. Really good. Good enough to make lifetime Playstation stalwarts jump ship and buy an Xbox to place alongside their PS2s on their TV stands. With more options came more fans. And with more fans came potentially more gear-heads. Starting to see a trend?

Gran Turismo 6

Photo credit: Gran Turismo/GT Arena (User: Thermite_917)

GT and Forza would battle back and fourth for racing game supremacy. While GT4 and GT5 were released for PS2 and PS3 respectively, Forza released 4 games in the same timeframe, further drawing players away from the incumbent racing game yardstick. Because there was such great competition and because the technology was becoming more mainstream and accessible, GT5 saw the blossoming of an online motorsports revolution. I say this because to be on the Playstation Network, all you had to do was own a Playstation, have an internet connection, and own GT5. You still had to pay for Microsoft’s Xbox Live account with a yearly subscription. GT5 made racing online accessible and fun for all who wanted to expand their options to more than just the single player missions. Forums like GTPlanet and GTArena burst at the seams with car and race clubs specific to stanced cars all the way up to those who wanted to have an LMP1 class of race. The Forza and GT battle rages on and it’s wonderful for anyone who loves cars.

GT6 is my current game of choice and with the recent game expansion called the GT Community, it’s now easier than ever to find something tailored to your wants and likes within a single game. A far cry from the days of Sega and PS1. GT also takes the best online racers and turns them into professional racing drivers in the real world through the GT Academy development program. And possibly most notable of all, yet not getting the recognition I believe it deserves, is the Vision GT segment of the game where auto manufacturers can virtually build their interpretation of what GT is to them; with no restrictions. What a truly original and fresh way to bring wild and forward thinking concepts to life. And some car companies, such as VW and Infinity have even built real world versions of these concepts.

volkswagen vision gti - gtplanet

Photo Credit: Volkswagen/GT Planet

But this all stems back to GT being the dominating force in racing games for so long. Without it, Forza might never have been made. Without it, many gamers wouldn’t have been introduced to a totally new genre. Without it, many enthusiasts, myself included, may never have known what the hell a Tommy Kaira ZZ ii or a 1960 Plymouth XNR Concept is.

Tommy Kaira - rigsofrods1960 plymouth xnr - automobile mag

Photo Credits: Rigsofrods and Automobile Magazine

And now we’ve been gifted with a new challenger to the GT series. Project Cars, which has been delayed multiple times but is finally available as of May 8th digitally and May 12th at retailers, is now set to bring a serious challenge to the burgeoning world of online, console based racing. According to all reports I’ve read and all videos I’ve seen, this release should be one of the biggest of all time. If not, it’s at least been one of the most anticipated. The graphics are just stunning and while the car list is lacking in numbers when compared to GT or Forza, I don’t think many people will be complaining. See for yourself.

We will have a full review of this game in the next 1-2 weeks and we’ll be sure to bring you our thoughts as soon as we have sunk our teeth into the finer points.

But let’s not forget where this genre has come from and why GT is still so important to the car realm. Automotive love has been passed down in many ways since the car was born so long ago. Like the way a parent might have brought their child out to the barn or garage to wrench on an old Chevy Bel Air. Or the way that it was passed down to me through magazines or live racing events that sparked a petrol flame in my heart. This is what GT has done for so many others that might not have been gear-heads. It’s laid the groundwork for other games to build on it’s reputation and it’s opened up the gaming generation to the seriously fantastic world of automotive obsession. And it is good.

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About Gregson

Gregson's love affair with cars began at a young age thanks to his father who introduced him to racing. He's been a fan ever since he saw his first race live at Watkins Glen at the age of 5. He loves GT3, F1, Rally, Touring, and Le Mans styles of racing. Intermediate knowledge of internal combustion engines. Any reading done for pleasure is devoted to automotive journalism. Gregson owns a WRX and can 4-wheel drift directly into your hedges, no sweat. He currently is a Senior Copywriter for McCann Torre Lazur specializing in pharmaceutical advertising. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Kate and their dog Savannah.

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