Welcome to the first entry of Imports Only - your encyclopedic cataloging and authoritative ranking of import racing games that never graced US shores. From anime to aspirators, we’re going to hit them all and rank them.
In the previous blog post where I discussed my plans for this series, I mentioned that I was assembling a complete list of games that would qualify for discussion. With only five platforms listed so far, I already have a list of 334 games for consideration. It’s an intimidating number, and it made the task of selecting games for this first blog post a tough one.
I initially considered leaving things entirely to chance by doing a random selection, but I think a more curated approach will probably make for a better experience for both you the reader and me. It also seems more in line with the structured and scientific approach that we need to take with this if the ranking is going to be truly authoritative.
Eventually I arrived at the idea of selecting a group of games based on some sort of thematic element. My hope is that this will allow for blog posts that cover varied and interesting grouping of games that do still have some element tying them together - ideally one that might tie back to a page in the Giant Bomb wiki such as a franchise, object, or concept.
Today’s Theme: The Simple 2000 Series
A lot has been said on Giant Bomb about the lost “B-Tier” or “AA” budget game, including as recently as this Quick Look of The Technomancer. While there’s certainly a lot of room for debate about whether those sorts of games still exist, there was no denying the prevalence of the direct-to-bargain-bin release during the PS1/PS2 era and few publishers were doing as much work in that space as D3 Publisher.
D3 Publisher was largely unknown in North America until 2007 when they started to dip their toe into the western market with the acquisition of Chapel Hill, North Carolina based Vicious Cycle Software and their success with Puzzle Quest. However, for decades prior to that, D3 had been operating in Japan as an extremely prolific publisher, most well known for their budget titles. Chief among these budget titles were the games released under the Simple Series banner.
The Simple Series started out on the PlayStation with Simple 1500, a set of games priced at around ¥1500 (~$15 USD) each that would eventually grow to be 100+ in number. With the PlayStation 2, D3 followed it up with Simple 2000. By this point, what had initially been a series focused solely on simple and bare-bones implementations of generic concepts like chess or pachinko had expanded into games with unique concepts and larger scopes.
Most of the games in the Simple 2000 series never made it out of Japan, but 505 Games did bring a few of them to Europe, often with dubious rebranding intended to conceal the Japanese origins and hopefully make the game an easier impulse buy for people that judge the game based solely on box art and price.
The Simple Series eventually died out after a sparse selection of titles on Wii and PS3, but its legacy does live on through a few descendents like the bikini-clad Onechanbara and Jason Oestreicher approved Earth Defense Force which both started out as entries in Simple 2000. There are also some genuine hidden treasures and interesting ideas from the PS1 and PS2 era that do bear going back to and checking out for those of us that were oblivious to their existence during their original release.
Anime. We’re not going to be able to avoid it in this blog series, so we might as well dive in head first with a mecha foot race.
This is a weird one.
Let’s start with the source material. Combat Mecha Xabungle was an anime that ran for 50 episodes in the early 80s. I don’t really know what it was about, but it seems like it’s something to do with gangs of mech thieves fighting for survival on a harsh desert planet. Jump ahead 20 years and suddenly this property is licensed for an extremely late era PS1 game released in 2002 that seems to be completely disconnected from the plot of the source material. Why would anyone care? How did this get greenlit? Were they just giving this license away and already had something ready to slap it on?
Ignoring the mysteries of why this exists, the license can be credited with delivering the best part of the experience - an intro FMV when you turn on the game. It’s all downhill once you press start.
The gameplay itself is something I can’t recall seeing before. If you just glance at this game, it looks like a relatively standard 2D shooter or platformer like a Contra or Turrican with mecha, but it is in fact a racing game with a group of six mecha sprinting from left to right until they hit a point where they turn around and race back to the starting point.
The eight courses are almost entirely uninteresting, just random hills and plains for you to run across and jump over with your jump jets. There is one kinda neat course where there’s a big ship moving in the background that has platforms you can jump on top of, but that’s the one and only significant variation.
There are about a dozen mecha of pretty varied shapes and sizes - some of them kinda unique and interesting but most of them pretty cliche. The titular Xabungle has by far the best overall stats though, so it’s the obvious choice and I was able to fairly easily win all of the races in the story mode with it.
Each mecha is equipped with one or two weapons that are mostly just irritating. By far the most useful weapon you have is your punch which you can use to instantly knock over someone as you’re running past them or they’re trying to run past you. The weapons can occasionally lead to a Mario Kart scenario where being in first place can almost be a disadvantage since everyone behind you is constantly shooting at you, but it only led to me losing a few times during the course of the eight race story mode.
The sprinting itself feels really bad due to the bumpy and uneven terrain. You’re constantly stepping into potholes or falling down small hills causing you to instantly lose almost all of your momentum. Occasionally I did get into a flow of running and using the jump jets, but it happened only a handful of times and was pure luck that I didn’t hit a bump on the ground.
Thankfully, the game’s story mode is short and easy. I played through it all the way to the end in well under an hour. You don’t save any data in this game, so I guess it has to be something you can complete in one sitting.
There’s no language barrier at all with regards to playing through the game, but you are missing out on the plot entirely - although I doubt the loose justification for a death race adds much to the experience.
When a member of Japan’s Parliament begins to suspect a fellow politician is involved in criminal activity, she calls on hardboiled detective Oogawara to help her out. Just as he’s closing in on the truth, his client is framed for a crime she didn’t commit and the evidence that could acquit her is stolen by police in league with the corrupt politician. Now the detective has just four hours to reclaim the evidence and make the journey to the courthouse in Tokyo before his client is thrown in jail and the truth is lost forever.
It’s a pretty decent setup for a race against time. This game has a lot going for it both in terms of the overall concept and some of its mechanics, but there is a critical flaw that severely limits its appeal.
That massive problem is time and the fact that the developers at Tamsoft felt compelled to make the time limit four hours and have the game last roughly that long without having enough to actually fill that time and make it interesting. This game is essentially Desert Bus but with some actual gameplay. Google Maps tells me that the estimated travel time from Nagoya to Tokyo, the beginning and end points of the game, is actually four hours twelve minutes. It took me around three hours to do the journey in the game, which I guess is probably in line with the actual amount of time it would take if you were driving well above the speed limit and only stopping to pick up briefcases or jump into another car. It seems legitimately like the same design philosophy as Desert Bus, and that’s not a good thing.
For the entirety of the three hours it took me to complete the game, there was damn near no variation. The first minute of this game looks and plays almost exactly like the last minute. The environment changes so little that I found myself actually celebrating when I’d occasionally see a building, go through a tunnel, or drive over a bridge. The game boasts 58 cars, but from a practical perspective, there’s not that much actual variation. The majority of the cars look and feel very similar to others and the larger trucks and buses are just obstacles in your path since there’s no benefit to driving them. There is one particular car type that is far faster and occasionally has a manual transmission (the only manual in the game) that was very cool to come across, but even that was predictably parked in the same position near off ramps and started to blend into the monotony by the end.
The only significant gameplay changes that are introduced are weather effects - fog that reduces how far you can see and the late game addition of rain that makes the already squirrelly cars even harder to wrangle. Typically cars so prone to oversteer would seem like a major issue, but I get the impression that the loose steering was a deliberate design choice to make the cars more prone to crashing so that the player is forced to leapfrog from one to another as they become unfit to drive. As far as control issues go, the slow and inverted camera controls on foot were the only real issue.
The cops in this game were also generally ineffectual and never mixed up their tactics. I occasionally got caught due to jank like getting stuck in a mess of cars while trying to bust through a roadblock, but it never felt like any of my failures were due to intentional efforts.
It being a budget title, I can sympathize with having limited resources to create art assets and develop mechanics, but arbitrarily deciding that your game is going to be 3-4 hours long when you don’t have enough to fill that time is much harder to understand or overlook. This game could be far better if it was 50-60% shorter.
Yuke’s is known almost exclusively for WWE games these days, but back in 2002, D3 employed them to develop Edit Racing, one of the earlier entries in the Simple 2000 series.
In a lot of ways, this game does present itself as an incredibly generic racing game, but one of its unique features is a track editor as is hinted at by the title. The game includes 24 pre-created tracks spread out across eight tilesets ranging from cities and closed race tracks (sponsored by Suzuki) to jungles and deserts, but if that isn’t enough, you can create your own in any of those same tilesets.
Track editors were a bit of a rarity back then and are perhaps even rarer now, and I think the track editor here illustrates why you don’t see them all that often. The track editor is certainly neat, but it’s a bit clunky and not particularly powerful - you just pick one of a handful of tile types and a direction until you bump up against the fairly limited memory restriction. If you don’t want to piece together a track on your own though, you also have the Monster Rancher inspired option of generating tracks based on other CDs or DVDs you insert. The results are a bit of a mixed bag, often solid but just as frequently a weird and barely navigable mess. Back then, it may have been interesting to share your results with other people so that they could generate the same track by using the same disc, but if you’re just on your own messing around, you’re just as well off using the random generation option.
Outside of the track editor, one of the other defining aspects of the game is the set of selectable drivers. There’s not a ton of obvious overlap between wrestling and racing, but Yuke’s did manage to bring at least one facet of wrestling to Edit Racing in the form of its host of characters based on potentially offensive stereotypes. I’m not going to take the time to go through all of them, but I think it’s worth the detour to take a look at a few.
Now that we’ve gone through all of that, it’s worth noting that the driver you pick has zero impact on anything. You’d think they might affect the speed or handling in some way, but there aren’t any listed stats on the driver select and no differences I could feel. In the career mode, your selected driver does show ratings for power, guts, and technique, but there’s no apparent way to raise them from their base level of one out of five.
All of that said, I know I went in on them hard, but I do in fact like the flavor that the drivers add to the game. A lot of the games in the Simple series can come off as totally devoid of personality, so it’s nice that Yuke’s made an effort to inject some.
Looking at the actual racing, the host of competitive modes on offer check all of the boxes. Standard quick race and time attack in addition to split screen head-to-head races. One questionable inclusion is a head-to-head battle mode that gives each player a bazooka to fire at the other player while driving around an open arena. It’s entirely out of place and doesn’t work very well - I suppose it’s fine that it’s included but it seems like it should’ve been cut early on in the design process.
The included career mode is surprisingly solid. You pick a driver and then lead them through a series of four race grand prix, earning money to buy new cars and upgrades along the way. You also get emails from other drivers that will challenge you to head-to-head races for credits or pinks. It feels far more fleshed out and full featured than you'd expect for something in a budget title.
The language barrier on this game is about as low as it gets. The menus are almost entirely in English, and there’s no plot or lore to miss out on. As much as I want to know what Wesley says when I press the taunt button, the voice acting communicates enough of the intent that I don’t need the details - if anything, I’m probably better off not knowing what these characters are saying since it’s probably all racist.
As of this writing, Edit Racing is the greatest import racer of all time, primarily due to being competent and mostly inoffensive (aside from the racism). The career mode in particular is pretty solid, and I’d like to go back and finish it at some point.
Unfortunately, following that triumphant announcement, I also have to announce that anime has disappointed us all once again and delivered the new worst import racer of all time - The Racing Action: Sentou Mecha Xabungle.
Right in the middle of the pack at number two is The Tousou Highway Nagoya-Tokyo, a great concept and some solid mechanics that suffer due to being artificially padded out.
Damn that was way more than I intended to write. I’ll try to cut it down a bit for next time. In addition to still figuring out the details of this series, I’m admittedly a bit rusty with this form of writing, so I’ll gladly accept any constructive feedback you may have.