Put simply, this game was absolutely unimaginable a year before its release.” So runs the comment in our 100 Most Significant Reviews special on Gran Turismo’s ten out of ten score, and that ten has always provoked debate. Those for it agree there’s no question that The Real Driving Simulator redefined the console racing game, ripping it from its arcade roots, and set a new standard for the breadth, fidelity and flexibility of game software that would – and still does – cause ripples way beyond its genre. Those against argue that, despite its massive appeal, the almost fanatically obsessive approach it takes to its subject matter does make it an inaccessible mystery to many players; and that, unlike all the other tens, its mighty achievements have very little to do with traditionally good game design.
Of course, it’s easy to argue the toss now, after nearly twelve years’ worth of hindsight, nine years of its revolutionary template being worn into familiarity by imitations and GT’s own lavishly hidebound sequels. That comment is a telling reminder of how uncanny it seemed at the time. And such were the shockwaves caused by its graphical and physical realism, it was easy to miss just how strange and fearless it was underneath. Creator Kazunori Yamauchi and his team at Sony’s internal studio Polys – later, of course, to gain more independence and fame as Polyphony Digital – were absolutely rejecting the videogame aesthetic, and conventional wisdom with it. They poured countless man-hours into the painstaking recreation of some 150 cars, most of which most players could never hope to use, and many of which had no logical reason to be there. They then broke each model down and opened it up to the user with a tuning system that was like being able to reach into the code and tweak it yourself, a cocky invitation to explore the very limits of its magnificent handling model. And, most strangely of all, they organised it all into a sprawling, progressive game structure that turned its back on every existing variant of videogame racing and instead took inspiration from a most unlikely source: the RPG.
None of that, though, is immediately apparent in the course of a first, breathless dive into Arcade mode, Gran Turismo’s traditionalist facade. You marvel at the slippery reflections, the grainy authenticity of the locations, and just how instantly recognisable the car models are – something that’s still striking today, despite the chunky resolution and sparse polys. You appreciate the precise, distinguishable exhaust notes, the way cars’ behaviour doesn’t just feel right but looks right as they shift their weight between wheels and skitter across bumps. And, if you’d done the sensible thing and invested in a DualShock to go with the game, you get a third level of sensory input that’s no less enthralling.
At the time of GT’s release the DualShock had just arrived, bringing analogue control and rumble effects to the PlayStation for the first time, and Gran Turismo was the game that made sense of it, just as it made sense of the game. Of course, the implementation of analogue steering was a huge and obvious bonus of the device. But it was Polys’ exploration of the full subtlety and range of its twin vibration motors – inspired by but far more versatile than Nintendo’s crude Rumble Pak – that set a benchmark. The twitches of an uneven road surface, the uneasy shiver as grip fades away at speed, the sudden jolt of contact with an unseen rival, the satisfying burr of a kerb glanced at the apex of a corner: this isn’t just an extra level of immersion, it is a valuable extra stream of information, delivered straight into your hands. It was by far the most sophisticated and thoughtful application of rumble effects at the time, and it’s scarcely been bettered since. It’s ironic and sad that the DualShock 2’s lack of analogue triggers and stick sensitivity made it something of a millstone for the series once it reached PS2 because, at the time, GT made it sing – and it returned the favour.
You have to step out of Arcade mode and start on the long road of a Gran Turismo career to get past the immaculate sensory sheen and unearth GT’s radical agenda for racing games. In doing so you step straight into the first round of the infamous licence tests, the austere lessons in driving technique that provide access to the various championships and racing events. They’re almost perversely unexciting; the first thing the game asks you to do is drive a small hatchback in a straight line and then stop it. It’s a long way from the seductive rush of the arcade, or even the steep demands of a motorsport simulation. The tests’ purpose is to train, yes, but also, by their very dullness, to imply the deadly seriousness of what’s to follow. This isn’t kids’ stuff, and you can’t just walk into it; Gran Turismo is a privilege that must be earned with graft. Many are put off by them, and it’s almost as if they were meant to be.
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