Initial D Arcade Stage 4 location test
By Alex Kierkegaard / October 30, 2006
So we've thus far established that antisocial geeks go to STG location tests, while well-adapted sociable guys go to those of fighting games. Today we learn, perhaps to no one's surprise, that young, skinny Takumi look-alikes are the kind of people you are most likely to encounter at an Initial D Arcade Stage loke.
Sega has been testing its new racer since the 21st of this month at three game centers across the country: in Tokyo, Osaka and Aomori. The Tokyo loke was held at the Club Sega Shinjuku Nishiguchi (nishiguchi meaning 'west exit', named so because of its proximity to the train station) -- a dimly-lit, typically smoky arcade, housed in a boxy three-floor building near Shinjuku's skyscraper district.
I had been planning to check it out sometime last week or during the weekend -- when attendance would be at the highest -- but laziness and prior commitments prevented me from doing so. Instead, I ended up going over tonight at about 10 pm -- two hours before the arcade closed and the test officially came to an end.
Since this was the last day of a rather long location test, I was kinda fearing I'd find myself being the only one there. So I was happily surprised to see a bunch of other guys (or should I say kids?) waiting in line for their chance to have a go at the new game. (Note: Being the only person there is cool if all you want is to get as much play time as possible, but undesirable if you are looking to gauge players' reaction to a new title, and cover the event for a website.)
Now I am always apprehensive when I go to Club Sega location tests, because the staff is rather strict in enforcing the standard loke 'no pictures' policy (as I've related before, I was once taken to a police station near the Akihabara Club Sega, and held for over two hours until I agreed to delete pictures of the KOF XI loke from my camera). But tonight no one was overseeing us, so I quickly took some pictures and videos and then settled down to get in as many goes as I could before closing time.
The line was short and moved fast, and the sound of roaring engines and screeching tyres proved impossible to resist. Hardly any new players arrived during those last two hours, and almost no one left; so it was basically just me and half a dozen other guys, taking turns racing our hearts out down Gunma-ken's twisting mountain roads.
Now if you've never played an Initial D arcade game before you've been missing out. What you should do is watch some of the videos to get an idea of their unique racing mechanics, and keep on reading as I explain what makes these games stand out among all those other racers.
Initial D is a story about a bunch of kids driving their cars up and down the mountain passes of Japan's Gunma prefecture. The hugely popular manga and anime seem to click mostly with the teenager crowd, because they are the ones more likely to see the cool aspects of the racing, while overlooking the tediousness. Because apart from that there is surprisingly little else going on in terms of story and character development, something which makes the series' success and longevity all the more baffling.
But that's precisely why an arcade conversion was such a great idea. Because here you are the one doing the racing, whereas the sparse story is only there to give you a break from the action, while at the same time setting up the scene for the next challenge.
Regarding the physics engine, Sega Rosso (the now-defunct team that developed the first three games) went for a brilliant mix of reality and fantasy. There is enough of a Grand Turismo here to give the cars solid handling characteristics, and enough of a Ridge Racer to inject some fun to all the drifting. But it's not as pedestrian as the first, and neither as fantastical as the latter; there's just the right mix of both here to make possible the particular flavor of racing action seen in the manga and anime.
Now the previous games all had version designations, to signify that they were only slight updates to the original; featuring a few added characters, cars and courses, and advancing the storyline (which mirrors that of the manga and anime). But this time the 'version' has been dropped from the title, in order to show that this isn't yet another minor revision. Initial D Arcade Stage 4 has been in mystery-shrouded development for nearly two years now (in contrast to the previous games, which were released about a year apart), and uses the all-mighty Lindbergh board to run its powerful new engine, and a revamped cabinet to make the playing experience smoother and more engrossing.
And it was about time too; Namco's Maximum Tune and Taito's Battle Gear racers have been giving Sega serious competition in game centers, and the latest iterations of both series feature several new modes and advancements, as well as looking a world better than IDAS Ver.3. But from what I saw of this during the AM Show in September and from what I played tonight, I have no doubt that Sega will soon have the hottest racer in arcades once more. IDAS 4 is a careful evolution over its predecessors, better in all respects, and sure to bring back old fans, while attracting new players to the series.
As with other Lindbergh games, the most important new feature here is the network aspect. Sega's InitialD.Net, which will be part of its ALL.Net online network, will finally allow players across Japan the chance to settle their burning rivalries, in what will surely be some of the most intense races the video game world has yet seen. What's more, the international version will also be able to go online -- though it remains to be seen if many foreign operators will choose to sign up to Sega's plans and make the necessary line installations (it's hard enough getting them to maintain the machines in the first place). But at least the option will be there, and eventually some lucky gaijin players will be facing off against Japan's best (anyone fancy a race against CKF?) without having to spend large sums of money for plane tickets and hotel reservations.
The new cabinet looks way cool and feels far more comfortable, featuring a 32-inch widescreen LCD monitor, a better steering wheel and sound system, and a gear lever which has been moved to a lower, more realistic position. This last change is sure to give headaches to long-time players, especially those who are used to holding the wheel with both hands (luckily for me, I've always been driving one-handed). This, together with a re-worked physics engine (so far lines seem more important, and there's much greater difference in handling between dry and wet roads) and a more developed tuning aspect, are all obvious steps that Sega has taken towards adding a touch more realism.
But the essence of the game has not been diluted. To balance out these realism-enhancing changes, Sega has expanded the drifting aspect, and made it even more important -- and showy -- than it was before. It's remarkable how the designers managed to move into both directions at once, while at the same time keeping intact the feeling that makes the series unique. Of course all this means that old players will have to spend some time re-learning the game, but on the upside newcomers will be given a chance to catch up, and eventually compete on a more equal footing.
One change which will be almost universally hated among the old-timers, however, is the new IC card standard, which has replaced the old magnetic card technology. These cards will be similar to those Sega has used in recent games (Ghost Squad, Power Smash 3, Viruta Fighter 5), and as a result Ver.1, 2, and 3 card data will not be transferable to IDAS 4. So those who spent hundreds, and even thousands of dollars building their cards up will now have to start over from scratch, just like everyone else. It would have been nice of Sega to offer some sort of bonus to those with stacked cards (free tuning options, perhaps, or anything to sweeten the blow, really) but yeah, life's a bitch get used to it kid.
In terms of the visuals this looks way better than Ver.3, though that is not saying much given how crappy that game looked, even at the time of its release back in 2003. The sharp WXGA graphics (that's 1360x768 -- slightly higher than 720p) look great in motion, and the framerate stays solid throughout, but look closely enough (which you'll have to since that huge-ass LCD will be right in your face) and you'll be able to see a lot of jaggies and low-detail models. So it's nowhere near as nice-looking as Ridge Racer 6 or Project Gotham Racing 3, and even Gran Turismo 4 on the aging PS2 poops all over this if you ask me, but then again the graphics have always been unimportant in this series, and even the manga and anime themselves are distinctly low-fi.
But like I said, it's a huge leap forward all the same, and the now cell-shaded characters (a la Special Stage) will be a nice addition to the anime look of the cutscenes (in fact I still think they should cell-shade the whole game, in a similar fashion to Capcom's Auto Modellista. I mean we are either going for the anime look or we aren't). And of course you've got a brand-new collection of Eurobeat tunes to look forward to (and we ARE all looking forward to the Eurobeat tunes right?) So expect Inital D Arcade Stage 4 to take over Japan's game centers sometime in January, and to hit the better-equipped foreign establishments around November 2007. A long wait for many of you, unfortunately, but totally worth it -- trust me on this.