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The "Patient Zero" of Modern Sim Racing


The "Patient Zero" of Modern Sim Racing

The "Patient Zero" of Modern Sim Racing

With the recent release of Forza Motorsport, it’s safe to say gamers are spoiled for choice when it comes to highly realistic and technically advanced renditions of real-world driving that they can enjoy in the comfort of their own homes.

Ground-breaking titles like iRacing, Assetto Corsa, and the F1 series are just a few of the ways you can satisfy your need for speed, and if you have the extra cash to spare, you can invest in a racing rig, steering wheel, and pedals to make things even more immersive.

But how did we get here? How did we go from a few colored pixels on a screen to rendering dozens of cars with millions of polygons each? Well, if you’re curious to find out, then you’re in the right place as we examine the “Patient Zero of Sim Racing.”

The First Games and the Arcade Days

The story of sim racing originates from a (then) small Japanese games company named Namco with game developers Shinichiro Okamoto, Kazunori Sawano, and Sho Osugi. Back in 1979, this modest in number but highly experienced dev team set out with the goal of innovating on the arcade racing market by combining aspects of real-world racing with a 3D perspective - something that was unheard of for racing games at the time.

The "Patient Zero" of Modern Sim Racing
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Credit: The "Patient Zero" of Modern Sim Racing
The "Patient Zero" of Modern Sim Racing

Development took three years and was beyond challenging for the Japanese developers. Due to the hardware limitations of that time, newer, more powerful hardware components needed to be produced to accommodate the game's higher graphical standards. Two 16-bit processors and a Z800 CPU were two of the main pieces of puzzles that helped bring the dev team's ambitions to life.

Once that was settled, they needed to figure out a suitable control scheme that was both realistic and easy enough for newer players to understand. Eventually, they settled on a sit-down "environmental" arcade cabinet design, which was a rather popular choice at the time, along with a gear shift system that could be set to either Low or High. These are very reminiscent of the old-school Pachinko games, some of which can be found online on websites like spinfever.com, it would be cool to see if some of the original creators would revive them again in this physical form, holding today's more modern title catalog.

For the track that the player would be racing on, the team picked the Fuji Speedway to give players a sense of familiarity with the game. Finally, they had to decide on a name that would both stand out and be memorable. Luckily for the team, Toru Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Mac, suggested the name Pole Position, and it stuck.

By the 16th of September, 1982, Namco released Pole Position in Japan, and later that year, it was made available in the North American game market under Attari Inc. To say that the game was a commercial success would be an understatement.

According to the Attari Numbers Memo, Pole Position sold over 21,000 arcade cabinets in North America for an estimated $61 million within its first year of release. That’s $185 million when you adjust for inflation. Japan’s Game Machine magazine listed it as the highest-grossing arcade game of 1983 and was only moved to second position the following year.

Pole Position, and its successor, Pole Position II, was so successful that Nacom opted to discontinue all of its driving games. Looking back, it was the best course of action. Pole Position gave players the feeling of actually participating in an actual F1 race. The game featured a challenging qualifying lap, realistic steering, comfortable controllers, and competent AI opponents.

Pole Position’s success stemmed from the fact that no other driving game at the time offered the same level of immersion and realism, but that wouldn’t be the case for very long. In the coming years, many other developers drew from Pole Position’s formula to create their own titles, with some doing better than others.

Bringing Racing into Living Rooms

From 1983 to 1991, several other sim-racing arcade cabinets were released, with each one making marginal improvements on Namco's already established game mechanics.

Titles like Hang On, which introduced motorcycles to the genre, and Indianapolis 500: the Simulation, which was made for home computers, were memorable additions to the long list of Sim Racers, but they paled in comparison to what Sega was about to unleash.

The "Patient Zero" of Modern Sim Racing
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The "Patient Zero" of Modern Sim Racing

On the 22nd of March, 1992, the Virtua Racing arcade system was released globally, trumping everything on the market. A fully realized 3D environment, multiple tracks, and a radically realistic physics system were just some of the things that made Virtua Racing stand out from the crowd.

Game journalists everywhere were singing its praises, with many giving it at least an 8/10 rating. For the next four years, Virtua Racing received dozens of awards and accolades.

But how did Sega achieve this degree of graphical fidelity? To put it in simple terms, Sega had heavily invested in crafting a more powerful arcade board that was capable of producing 3D polygonal graphics called the Model 1, and Virtua Racing was originally a tech demo meant to test it.

Once the gap between home consoles and arcade machines had sufficiently reduced, Sega ported Virtual Racing to the Sega Saturn and added plenty of new content like new courses, modes, and cars to ignite player enthusiasm.

The impact of Virtua Racing on the gaming world can still be felt today as it received a remake on the Nintendo Switch, and IGN listed it as the 3rd Most Influential Games Ever. The two games that beat Virtual Racing for the top spot on IGN’s list were the original Pole Position and Sony Entertainment’s modern masterpiece Gran Turismo.

Enter - Modern Racing Sims

Before Gran Turismo was released in December of 1997, a majority of sim racers had two things in common - they almost exclusively featured a small collection of sports cars and relied on premade animation to give the illusion of movement. In other words, you’d hardly see any street cars, and movement, while fun, felt stiff. But that was about to change.

When it launched for the PlayStation, Gran Turismo boasted a roster of 140 licensed sports and street cars along with a robust physics engine that accurately simulated the unique properties of each car like weight, traction, and torque. To go with that, players were given a wide selection of 11 tracks to race on and given a choice between an Arcade mode and a Simulation mode that changed how each was handled.

As for the graphical side of things, the game implemented a reflection system that altered how light bounced off the surface of each vehicle as it sped down the tarmac. An in-depth progression and customization system that allowed players to earn credits that could upgrade or purchase new vehicles was included to keep players engaged for hours.

The five years of growing development that it took Kazunori Yamauchi, head of Polyphony Digital, and his team of 20 developers was more than worth it as Gran Turismo went on to sell over 10 million copies, spawned one of the longest-running racing franchises, and effectively give birth to modern sim racing as we know it.

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