I like cars. I like video games. These two things are a match made in heaven… probably. Racing games seem to have stuck around more consistently than almost anything else since the very beginning, so obviously they’re doing something right and appealing to the right people. I guess it’s a good way to showcase the power of new technology too, since cars are very pretty and much easier to model realistically than a human face, and the physics of things like tires and torque are simulated with ever increasing complexity. You can see that by looking at the long history and continued success of Gran Turismo and Forza games. But something weird happened… where did all the arcade racers go?
I have no intention of taking part in the argument over what’s really a sim racer vs arcade racer. But Gran Turismo and Forza are sims. Even if you disagree with that, you can’t argue that they’re a thousand times more of a simulator than the blatantly bonkers racers like Trackmania, Need for Speed, Flatout and so on. These days it feels like all the racing games are sims compared to that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, just observing the change. However, this pursuit of realism does seem to stifle creativity, making more and more racing games blur together into one big amalgamation. There’s always been a lot more unique and distinct offerings with the arcade racers, even excluding things like kart racers or spaceship things like Wipeout.
So what happens when you find a total oddball even among those unique offerings? You get Tokyo Xtreme Racer, a series of games where you race cars on the highways of Japan. Only the highways. Nothing else. And only a small chunk of them for the most part. All you do is drive on the highway, challenge hundreds of racers that are either way too fast for you or way too slow to be a challenge in a mostly straight line, and the game is 30 hours long. Also, pretty much every game in the entire series is the same game, and they’re not good games by any stretch of the imagination with physics that feel more like driving a bar of soap than a car. It’s pretty horrible. It’s one of my favorite racing games of all time.
Import Tuner Challenge
So let’s start with the easiest point of entry. This game is called Import Tuner Challenge in the US and Europe, but don’t let that fool you, it’s Tokyo Xtreme Racer. In Japan, it’s called Shutokō Battle X, which is a far more descriptive name since you’re battling specifically on the Shuto expressway, and yes, “battling” is the term I just used. You don’t race for time or position in this game, you and your opponent each have health bars, and you’re fighting to be the last one standing. Health goes down faster the farther behind you are, and you also lose big chunks of it for hitting things.
The driving controls are better in this game than any other in the franchise. That’s great and all, but they’re still not exactly… good. Manageable, but not good. The AI is very stupid too so if you can figure out how to take a corner even half decently, you’ll gain a LOT of ground in every corner, which is something you’ll want to use to your advantage until you can unlock and make enough money to buy more go fast bits.
The gameplay loop is strangely addictive and entertaining, even though it’s basically just grinding from start to finish. Most of the racers on the road are part of their own little teams, and you need to beat all the members of the team to challenge the leader, which will unlock more upgrade parts and their team sticker. Beat enough team leaders and the boss racers will come out. Beat enough of them and you progress to the next part of the game, unlocking more road to race on, more racers to fight, and the cycle repeats. After you beat these guys called the Phantom Nine, the credits roll, but the game isn’t over yet because you unlock a whole bunch of new teams and bosses to race, including King Speed, the guy that’s been foreshadowed for the entire game.
It takes forever to get that far though, and as you can guess it’s EXTREMELY repetitive and monotonous. Graciously, the game knows this, so it tries to place the racers in a convenient manner by trying to make sure the first racer you see is unbeaten and spacing all the racers out just far enough that you’ll be right behind your next opponent after you win a race. Keeps you going. You can’t race too much though, because after spending too long on the road, your engine will lose power until the next in game day. There’s supposedly tire wear to think about too, but I never noticed.
If you want to be a completionist about it and beat every single racer in the game, you’re going to have to do some very specific things. There’s a huge number of racers that aren’t part of any team, called Wanderers, and many of them have specific requirements or they won’t race you. Cutie Hip for instance won’t race you if your car has a rear spoiler, even if it’s stock, you have to remove it. Yellow Desperado will only race you if your odometer is less than 124 miles. Free Tree will only race cars with a stock exhaust. Tsukkomi Breaker will only race cars that have neon and have beaten Platinum Prince. You need to beat every single wanderer to unlock the final racer whose name is just three question marks and is driving a special car, but if you manage that, you’ll get 100,000,000 credits for it and turn the game into a real sandbox.
There’s a lot of charm in this game. Many of the racers in this game are returning from, well, every other game in the series, and look at their names, it’s silly, I love them. You can pull into parking areas and talk with a bunch of people too, some of which give you hints on how to get certain wanderers to race you or how to tune your car better, but they mostly just have some very Japanese flavor text with the occasional typo. The overarching story of the game is that the fastest racer on the metro, King Speed, disappeared one day, so everyone is trying to become the new King Speed, and as you beat bosses, you learn more about who he was and why he quit racing. It’s kind of sad, even… but considering the tone of the game it doesn’t carry much weight beyond its charming absurdity.
Performance problems crop up here and there with seemingly unpredictable frame drops and the occasional car that loads in too late, and there’s glitches too like cars that just don’t load in at all, roads not loading in, or whatever happened here. It’s not a plague though, it’s livable. Speaking of livable, the music and sound is no more than that. It’s inoffensive, and that’s all it has going for it, nothing special. However, the music kind of fades into the background and since the engine sounds are so smooth and simple, it makes it really easy to zone out and race mindlessly, which is what this game is perfect for. It’s actually quite relaxing, a great way to wind down after a stressful day… provided you know how to win so you don’t frustrate yourself even more, because the game can feel unfair if you don’t know how to turn before you get a really fast car. Here’s a tip, if you just want to win every race without thinking, get the R34 ASAP.
It’s not like you have much choice anyway, there’s only 18 cars in this game, a paltry drop in the ocean compared to the 82 of Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3, not counting customs.
Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3
As the vastly increased car count would imply, this game has vastly more content in general compared to Import Tuner Challenge. More cars, more customization even going so far as swapping engines, more opponents at 600 compared to the 399 of Import Tuner Challenge, a WHOLE lot more road to drive on, including Nagoya, Osaka, and the Yokohama area, and a weather cycle including rain and snow that both affect your handling differently. Sounds great, right?
Problem is, while so much extra content is a wonderful prospect, all the quality of life improvements that came with Import Tuner Challenge are not here. That nice thing I pointed out about opponents always being right in front of you when you start driving, and being spaced apart just enough to have you ready to start the next race right after winning one? Not there anymore. Sometimes you might find yourself having to spend a minute or two just trying to get to your opponent, several times per session. Bit annoying especially considering that Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3 is a lot more punishing. The engine losing power after a while in Import Tuner Challenge is turned up to extreme levels in this game, and this time tire wear is absolutely present and very noticeable, which is very annoying to deal with on top of the 6000% worse controls. In the intro I mentioned these games feeling like driving bars of soap more than cars… for Import Tuner Challenge, that was hyperbole, but for Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3 (and nearly every other game in the series) it was absolutely not an exaggeration. The controls are absolutely horrendous here. It doesn’t stop there. Opponents are also wildly unfair in this game, almost universally. I played for 11 hours and never had a race that felt even a little bit fair, and the vast majority of them were not in my favor.
Sound design is worse to the point that some menu sounds cause me physical pain from the sharpness and pitch, the music is somehow both better and worse than Import Tuner Challenge at the same time because even though many of the songs sound better, I just want to turn it off, and there’s a lot of things in this game that just aren’t told to you at all. For instance, engine swaps. That’s a locked feature, but the game never tells you how to get them, which is to simply put a whole ton of mileage on your car. Hours worth of just driving. There’s also a never-explained feature where if your car has a turbocharger, you can press the select button while driving to get a lot more boost in exchange for much faster engine overheating. Maybe you’re actually expected to read the manual that comes with the game, which would be a problem since I don’t have one. Credits also come in a lot slower so on top of the already unfair power gap between you and every opponent, you have to grind a lot against opponents you’ve already beaten, which earns even less credits than before. It takes far too long to unlock things too. Almost everything about Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3 apart from raw content is worse than Import Tuner Challenge. As a nice little cherry on top, the game is literally impossible to complete due to a bug causing the final opponent to never appear. You actually need to cheat for true completion.
I still enjoyed my time with it, but I have no desire to play this one ever again. If Import Tuner Challenge had the amount of content this game has, it’d be amazing… but I really need those improvements and simplifications for the game to strike that perfectly strange balance and scratch the itch just right. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, every previous game in the series, on top of already being practically identical, is just as bad as this one but with extra age, so I have no desire to check out any of them either. There was, however, a PSP game in the series called Street Supremacy in the US and Europe that came after this but before Import Tuner Challenge, and is fittingly a middle ground in terms of both quality and content but with the added bonus of portability. I played it a lot but don’t have a lot to say about it other than this. It’s good, but more interesting is the spin-off that takes the game off the highways entirely.
Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2
So what happens when you take Tokyo Xtreme Racer and put it on mountain roads instead? And give it actual decent controls? And add even more cars? And add a bunch of new types of race for variety, including gymkhana? You get this.
Ironically, the worst part of Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2 is the drifting, because it’s so very hard to control no matter what I try with tuning, technique, car choice, tire choice, all of it, it’s unpredictable and difficult no matter what. Fortunately, most of the drift challenges are either easy or optional. But when you’re not trying to drift, this game is actually a blast to play, thanks to the much more responsive controls and tight mountain roads. You have your SP battles just like every other Tokyo Xtreme Racer game, but now they come with a finish line so you can either run their meter down or simply win the race. There’s also a couple slightly different versions of simple races to the finish line with no SP meters, as well as time attack races, and like I mentioned before, gymkhana, though it’s not like what you see Ken Block doing in the videos, it’s like a super tiny version of autocross where you weave tightly around cones as fast as you can. There’s even mixed surface races, and boy lemme tell you, it is hard to drive on dirt in an FR car on slicks.
There’s also a day and night system in this game, where you can enter official races for big cash prizes in the day or go head to head with other drivers in the parking areas at night. Making money is thankfully much easier because of this, especially since you can get sponsors to further increase your prizes. To get a sponsor, you have to win a challenge in the car the sponsor gives you, then you put their sticker somewhere on your car and they’ll give you more money when you win official daytime races, but only when you win… which you probably always will in the time attacks.
This all sounds like the perfect recipe – apart from the drifting being bad – but the flaws are still many. Races are short and fast, but the game feels slow despite this because every single thing you do is behind either a long screen transition or a full loading screen, and even though the progression seems faster than Tokyo Xtreme Racer 3, it still takes stupidly long to unlock stuff. With the much more usable controls and the beautiful mountain roads though, it’s much easier to get stuck in for just one more race for a couple hours. Still not enough to keep me in for the long haul though, because even after 12 hours it still felt like I had hardly made any progress whatsoever, and the more intense roads and handling really take away from the zen-like effect Import Tuner Challenge had on me, though it does have an unexpected amount of similarities with that game. That said, I could see myself coming back to this one for a little while every so often just for a bit of touge fun. You can’t get this flavor of racing game anywhere else.
So again I have to ask… where did these games go? I don’t think any of the games in this series ever sold particularly well… and yet the Shutokō Battle series lasted nearly two decades from 1999 to 2007 and was even revived as a mobile game twice in 2011 and 2017. Genki is clearly passionate about their franchise to pursue it with such a small audience and consistently poor review scores. Like, really poor, the average score across the whole series is 5/10 or something.
I admire that dedication. I want to see more of that.
Arcade racers seem to be having a slow resurgence in the indie scene if nothing else, which is great to see. But as for this formula in particular… I’ve never seen anything like it apart from this franchise. Not a single one. You may point out some arcade machines or a Wangan Midnight game, but those are all made by Genki too. This formula is genuinely one of the coolest ideas for an arcade racer ever conceived, and there’s such a vast amount of untapped potential with it, yet Genki is the only one who has ever tried. I’ve scoured the internet for anything else like these games for days, but never found a single other example. Please, if you know of anything like Tokyo Xtreme Racer not developed by Genki, share it with the world.
Even though these games are mediocre at absolute best, they’re some of my all time favorites because of the concept alone. I want nothing more than to see this concept return, even if Genki continues to be the only ones championing it. There is nothing quite like Tokyo Xtreme Racer.
Let this post be a an open letter to game developers, pleading desperately…
Bring the battles back.