Why Gran Turismo was a true game changer

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25 years ago, Gran Turismo changed racing games forever.

Launched in Japan on 23 December 1997, it’s without question one of the most influential racing games of all time. Its impact on video games and car culture is still felt today.

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To celebrate the series’ 25th anniversary, we’re looking back at what made the first Gran Turismo game so groundbreaking as well as the enduring legacy of the series.

Table of Contents

History of Gran Turismo

The year was 1992. Super Mario Kart was a smash hit on the Super Nintendo, spawning the most successful racing game series of all time. At the same time, sim racing was also taking off on PC, with titles such as Indianapolis 500: The Simulation and Geoff Crammond’s influential Grand Prix F1 simulator game achieving new levels of realism.

That same year, a young Kazunori Yamauchi set out to make the ultimate driving simulator with real licensed cars, bridging the gap between pure arcade games and hardcore simulators. That game would become Gran Turismo.

After Sony rejected his original pitch to make his dream driving simulator, Yamauchi and the team at Polys Entertainment were tasked with making a cartoon racer for Sony’s upcoming PlayStation console to rival Mario Kart. The result was Motor Toon Grand Prix.

Motor Toon Grand Prix Polys Entertainment
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Released in 1994 a few weeks after the PlayStation launched in Japan, Motor Toon Grand Prix laid the groundwork for Gran Turismo. Beneath its funky exterior was a surprisingly advanced physics engine, which would be adapted for Gran Turismo.

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Motor Toon Grand Prix 2 followed in 1996 with a wider release in Europe and the US as well as Japan. But unbeknown to Sony, the team was also secretly working on Gran Turismo at the same time.

After five gruelling years of development, Gran Turismo arrived in Japan on 23 December 1997 before coming to the US and Europe in May 1998.

The real driving simulator

Gran Turismo wasn’t the first driving game to feature licensed cars. Games like Accolade’s Test Drive and EA’s Road and Track Presents The Need for Speed let you live the fantasy of driving the world’s most powerful supercars on open roads. But nothing had ever matched the scale of Gran Turismo’s gargantuan car roster.

Gran Turismo 1997 Playstation Nissan Skyline GT-R
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Gran Turismo launched with 140 licensed cars from manufacturers including Mitsubishi, Subaru, Toyota, TVR, and Aston Martin, along with 11 fictional tracks including the now iconic High Speed Ring, Deep Forest Raceway, and Trial Mountain.

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Such a vast variety of cars in a video game was unheard of in 1997. For comparison, Need for Speed II released the same year had only nine cars.

Unlike Test Drive and the early Need for Speed games, Gran Turismo didn’t just focus on supercars and sports cars either. Getting to drive normal everyday cars your family owned in a video game was a novelty.

Each car was made of 300 polygons, and while that’s a small number by today’s standards (GT7’s cars boast 500,000 polygons), they looked like the real thing at the time, showcasing the power of Sony's PlayStation.

Gran Turismo 1997 Playstation bumper camera
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Aside from a few western models like the Aston Martin DB7 and TVR Cerbera, Gran Turismo featured predominately Japanese cars, introducing western car enthusiasts to Japanese car culture.

Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Nissan even credit Gran Turismo with boosting sales of the Subaru WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and Nissan Skyline GT-R outside of Japan.

Gran Turismo earned its tagline of "the real driving simulator." Its revolutionary physics model made every car feel distinct and behave like you would expect them to in real life. You could immediately tell the difference between cars with a front-wheel and rear-wheel-drive layout.

Gran Turismo wasn’t the first driving simulator game, but it was the first to bring a realistic driving game experience to a mass audience on the original PlayStation.

Creating the CARPG

Before Gran Turismo, arcade racers provided short bursts of fun. But Gran Turismo’s Simulation mode engrossed players for hundreds of hours, setting the template for racing game career modes.

Gran Turismo 1997 Playstation Simulation mode
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When starting the career mode, you can only afford to buy a cheap runabout from the used car dealership. Credits earned from winning races could then be spent buying faster, more desirable cars, or upgrading cars already owned in your garage – a progression system other racing games have replicated ever since.

With a focus on collecting cars, the Simulation mode incorporated RPG-style mechanics allowing players to install upgrades to improve performance and handling.

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Offering a level of car tuning and customisation never been seen before in a console racer, this meant you could turn a humble Japanese hatchback into a supercar slayer. But before you could enter races, you had to complete License Tests teaching you basic driving skills and advanced racing techniques.   

Gran Turismo was an instant hit. By the time it launched in Europe in May 1998, it had sold over two million copies, earning a "Double Platinum Prize" in Japan. Yamauchi predicted Gran Turismo wouldn’t be popular outside of Japan, but he was soon proven wrong.

Gran Turismo went on to sell a staggering 10.85 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling game on the original PlayStation and the fourth highest-selling Gran Turismo game.

Its monumental success showed that simple arcade racers could no longer hold their own and console gamers were craving more realistic racing experiences.

A lasting legacy

With Polys Entertainment renamed to Polyphony Digital as we know them today, Gran Turismo 2 followed in 1999 with an expanded roster of 650 cars. More western manufacturers were featured in the sequel including Ford, Chevrolet, and Lotus.

Gran Turismo 2 1997 Nissan Skyline
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Launching in 2001, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec was the first PS2 entry, becoming the highest-selling GT game with over 15 million units sold. Gran Turismo 4 followed in 2004.

Both are regarded as some of the greatest racing games of all time thanks to their cutting-edge graphics and sublime driving physics. Unfortunately, the higher fidelity graphics meant GT3's car list was reduced from 650 in GT2 to around 150.

GT4 made up for this, boasting a whopping 700+ cars from 80 manufacturers, from the then-new Ford GT to the 1886 Daimler Motor Carriage. It also introduced B-Spec, a managerial mode where the AI took over the car in long endurance races while you issued commands, as well as a photo mode.

Later games in the series didn’t quite match these high points. Fans would get used to long delays between mainline games, but this only heightened expectations.

Arriving six years after GT4, Gran Turismo 5 didn’t live up to those lofty expectations as Polyphony struggled to get to grips with the PS3’s complex hardware.

Gran Turismo 5 Playstation 3 2010
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In a questionable design decision, most of GT5’s 1,000+ cars were recycled from GT4 with PS2-quality textures. Despite these setbacks, GT5 was a massive leap forward in other areas. It was the first Gran Turismo game to feature online multiplayer, car damage, downloadable content, and real motorsport licenses WRC, NASCAR, and Super GT.

2013's Gran Turismo 6 boasts the largest car roster of any game in the series with a whopping 1,200 cars along with 30 tracks. There was even a course maker allowing players to make a track on a phone app and download them onto their PS3.

However, GT6 arrived late in the PS3’s lifecycle after the PS4 went on sale and its sales suffered as a result.

Gran Turismo Sport Playstation 4 2016
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The series then made its PlayStation 4 debut in 2017, but Gran Turismo Sport was a divisive entry. Once again, the number of cars was reduced to only 168 cars at launch compared to 1,200 in GT6.

Its stringent focus on esports and online multiplayer polarised players who enjoyed the series’ signature single-player campaign. Nevertheless, GT Sport revolutionised online racing on consoles, spawning the Gran Turismo World Series esports tournament sanctioned by the FIA.

Another six years later, Gran Turismo 7 took the series back to its single-player roots with the return of the campaign, tuning and a large roster of cars.

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It’s arguably the best game in the series since GT4. With 4K, HDR, and 60fps, there's no better-looking racing game on PS5 and the feeling of driving is unmatched. But multiplayer server stability issues, a short campaign, and a lack of meaningful post-launch updates have left some fans disappointed.

Gran Turismo 7 PlayStation 5 2022
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Gran Turismo's influence extends beyond video games too. Polyphony’s innovative Vision GT has allowed car manufacturers to design concept cars only available in Gran Turismo, most recently with the Ferrari Vision GT.

Meanwhile, the GT Academy has given gamers the opportunity of a lifetime of becoming a real racing driver. 2011 GT Academy winner Jann Mardenborough went on to finish third in the LMP2 class during his 24 Hour of Le Mans debut in 2013. His incredible journey is being adapted for the upcoming Gran Turismo movie.

Gran Turismo’s popularity paved the way for Microsoft’s rival Forza series as well as popular sim racing titles like iRacing, rFactor 2, and Assetto Corsa, which are pushing the genre forward. And they all owe their success to Gran Turismo.

Yamauchi set out to make the ultimate driving game, and it's safe to say he succeeded. 25 years on, Gran Turismo has sold over 90 million units worldwide, creating a generation of petrolheads and the best-selling PlayStation franchise of all time.

Whether it's saving up to buy your dream car, a close online World Series race, or the iconic start sound, we all have our favourite Gran Turismo memory.