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Retro Friday: Gran Turismo, more than a game

If the trailer hasn't made it clear enough, the world is getting another Gran Turismo. The game was announced at the Gran Turismo 15th Anniversary event held at the Silverstone racing circuit in the UK. Surprisingly, the game won't be a PlayStation 4 exclusive, but is due to land on the PlayStation 3 before the end of this year. No doubt, the game will remain consistent with the high standards of quality that has became the signature hallmark of the series since its inception in 1997.

It's hard to believe that the original Gran Turismo dropped on the gaming scene only a decade and a half ago, what with the series having become so ubiquitous and all consuming, it's as though it's been a part of gaming since the 8-bit era. With 70 millions units sold across the franchise, its even harder to believe that the series originator, Kazunori Yamauchi, thought of the game as a niche product and never considered that it would become so influential that it would actually affect the real world car market.

Prior to the release of Gran Turismo, you would have been hard-pressed to find a person - that wasn't a car nut - in the Western Hemisphere that knew what a Subaru was, let alone consider buying one. In 2002, Mitsubishi's Takashi Kiuchi confessed that the company's decision to market its Lancer Evolution VIII in the west was directly influenced by the game. Speaking to Reuters in 2002, Kiushi said that "there's no doubt that Gran Turismo played a huge role in our decision to launch the Lancer Evolution in the United States. The car wouldn't have attracted as much attention as it has in the United States without the game."

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The success and reach of the franchise is really amazing when you consider that the original game was made by Yamauchi and a team that ebbed and flowed between 7 and 15 people depending on workload. Considering the scope of the game, Yamauchi's modest team performed nothing short of a miracle.

Two things set Gran Turismo apart from other racing games that were surging around the track at the time. The inclusion of real cars, an anomalous concept at that time, was one. More importantly, though, was the fact that the cars weren't just designed to look like those produced by the real world manufacturers, but  they were designed to performed like them as well. Gran Turismo was more than a video game; it was a Simulation.

Yamauchi's personal passion for cars and his pursuit of realism in this game redefined the racing genre. It wouldn't be unfair to say that in racing games terms, the world exists along a before-GT and after-GT timeline. Before Gran Turismo, realism was a non-word in racing games, never mind a dirty word. The racing circuit was dominated by the Ridge Racers, Mario Karts and Wipeouts of the world.

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Before Gran Turismo, racing games were incredibly straight forward in their execution. Hold down the throttle, then push left or right when a turn presented itself. Gran Turismo didn't just require skill for it to be played well, it demanded it. As evidenced by the licensing trials that opened the game. They were incredibly frustrating, but immediately set the tone for what the game expected from you. And it expected a lot. It wasn't just a case of learning to drive a car well, it was about learning to drive every car well.

As demanding as the game was of it's players, it was also a very rewarding one offering the passionate car fan the ultimate gift: lots and lots of new cars. When the competing Need for Speed II came out earlier in 1997, it debuted with an amazing line-up of nine officially licensed cars. Gran Turismo offered up 140. And in an odd turn, it was just a selection of supercars. No, Gran Turismo gave it's players lowly Toyoto Demios and matched them against monstrous Dodge Vipers. Each car came with a unique handling profile and a long list of customisation options, that mirrored the those available in the real world.

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There were few things as satisfying as taking a crappy Mazda Astina, tossing in a new clutch plate, a set of racing tires and some weight reduction and then tearing a Toyota Celica a new one. That was the beauty of the game, winning races wasn't just about getting the next most powerful car in the line-up, it was about making do with the car you could afford, squeezing out every ounce of speed possible and then learning to tame the beast you'd created. Going through all that effort, meant you built an affection with the cars in your garage and when the time came for you to inevitably sell it, because money was tight, making that decision was never an easy one.

Gran Turismo hasn't been without criticism. Its dimwitted opponent AI and lack of vehicle damage being oft mentioned ones, but even with that said, Gran Turismo's appeal is still undeniable. 70 million people can't be wrong.

Gran Turismo wasn't just a game about racing cars, it was a game about loving cars. Over the last 15 years, Kazunori Yamauchi has been writing the most complicated and sincere love letter to the automotive industry. Fortunately, for us gamers, Yamauchi made this letter open to the public and gamers and car lovers have been reaping the benefits ever since.

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