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Games

How Gran Turismo became a cultural icon, and why you can’t afford a Skyline

Picture the scene; it’s 1998 and I’m in my local branch of Comet in Dunfermline. I’m wearing Kappa tracksuit bottoms with a Fila sweatshirt, with the stylish ensemble perfectly finished off with a pair of Adidas Sambas. While walking past the rows of Minidisc players, pagers and fax machines (ask your dad), something caught my eye.

Comet had a copy of Gran Turismo (GT) for the Sony PlayStation playing on ‘demo mode’ on one of their ultra-widescreen 28-inch TVs. On-screen was a race involving some nondescript Japanese saloons & hatchbacks, but I’d never seen cars represented in-game as faithfully as this before.

“Mum!!! Look!!! It’s a Nissan Primera!!!” young Ross shouted excitedly, fully expecting her to share my enthusiasm. Ace of Base was playing in the background (probably).

Mazda RX-7 in Gran Turismo
A Mazda RX-7. Does around 23 miles-per-gallon… of oil.

The enthusiasm was not reciprocated. But at that moment I knew I had to play this game – I loved motorsport, cars & racing games, and GT appeared to be the perfect amalgamation of all three.

Clearly, this brief introduction to the game had a huge effect on me but was a whole generation of gamers influenced by GT, and if so, to what extent?

Well, to answer that question you just need to look at how much an mk4 Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 or Nissan Skyline would cost you today.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I first played Gran Turismo soon after this wonderful introductory experience. I’d seen the reviews; this was an excellent game and there was nothing quite like it in the racing genre at the time, or at least nothing that compared in terms of graphics, content and gameplay.

However, the first version I played was a Japanese import – borrowed from my sister’s boyfriend, Gary. (Don’t worry readers, I’ve purchased every single copy of GT legitimately too!) There was no memory card (ask your dad), so I couldn’t save my progress, but this hands-on experience blew me away.

Peugeot vs Ferrari in Gran Turismo
Mismatched online races were huge fun in GT5

After five hours of non-stop game-time, I’d graduated from the mighty Mazda Demio to a Honda CR-X with a few modest upgrades – nearly peeing my pants in the process. That was a big thing for me; you could buy a fairly unspectacular car, upgrade it with a turbo, lightweight flywheel, or full racing gearbox, and race it competitively against much more exotic cars.

Want to race a modified Fiat Panda against a Mitsubishi Evo VI Tommi Makinen Edition? Of course, you do. It was such a thrill to take your trusty little starter car through multiple events in the game’s career mode, building a virtual bond that extended to the real world. How do I know this? Well, I bought one of my favourite GT cars in real life!

No, not the Panda…

I BOUGHT A GT LEGEND. KIND OF.

I first properly drove the Nissan 350Z in Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation 2 and was sucked in by its striking looks. So much so, that in 2014 I bought a 2007 model for a bargain price of £6,200. It needed a little work, so after refurbishing the chunky RAYS alloy wheels, upgrading the air filter and finally adding a swanky stainless-steel exhaust, I was ready to live out my GT fantasies.

Thankfully the engine sounds were better than in the game!

Nissan 350Z blue
There she is. 300bhp+, V6 and a cassette player. Yes.

This is one reason Japanese sports cars from the 90s and early 00s are rising in price. GT players from the early days are now in their mid-to-late 30s, so now have the disposable income to buy their dream cars – dreams created while playing their favourite game for hundreds of hours in their formative years. [Ed – I know this feeling all too well!]

GT emerged in the days before ‘proper’ internet. For example, I had an external modem that operated at 15,600kbps. Searching for a Nissan Skyline photo would take minutes, and trying to download it would require a calendar to time. Therefore, GT was really the only way casual car fans could learn about Japanese sports cars in the late 90s.

Although my first experience of the R32 Skyline was on BBC’s Top Gear, with Jeremy Clarkson exclaiming it to be “The best car… in the world” (not really).

So if you weren’t an avid viewer of car programmes, or had little exposure to Japanese/Australian Touring Car races, chances are your first experience of Skylines, RX-7s or Supras would have been in Gran Turismo.

But then came the ‘Fast & Furious’ (F&F) franchise, which took the increased interest in Japanese car culture forged through GT, and took a massive dump on it put its own spin on it. The popularity of the franchise significantly increased interest in the aforementioned cars – especially in the USA* – and coupled with the fact that it’s now legal to drive many of these Japanese classics on American roads means they’ve never been more sought-after.

For example, take a look at this fairly standard RX-7, that sold for $70,000.

If you find yourself in an F&F drag race though, for goodness sake don’t take Vin Diesel’s advice and ‘double-clutch it – unless you’re driving a 1950s Maserati.

It just goes to show, you should never put Diesel in a petrol car.

And if you need an explanation…

With bands such as Feeder, Garbage and Ash, GT continued the trend of legendary PlayStation future-racer wipEout by having an excellent soundtrack. It was now cool to play a racing game! At the time I was a huge fan of Manic Street Preachers, so to hear the Chemical Brothers remix of Everything Must Go accompany the game intro was spine-tingling. This game was created for me!

Thanks to the uniqueness of the car list and the Zeitgeist-typifying soundtrack, Gran Turismo was an intoxicating mix that encapsulated a moment in time. No wonder there is such strong nostalgia for Polyphony’s masterpiece.

Manic Street Preachers Everything Must Go

The less said about the game’s predilection for Jazzy menu music, the better. Or the vacuum-inspired engine notes that were barely passable even in GT6. Back in 1998, we didn’t know any better though. Which also perhaps explains the popularity at the time of shellsuits, Animal Hospital and Tony Blair (ask your dad).

Cultural impact

I have absolutely no doubts that Gran Turismo has contributed greatly to car culture worldwide. How many late 90s car fans had even heard of a Mitsubishi FTO before GT for example?! Conversely, how many Japanese car nuts heard of TVR before GT?!

These days, GT fans trying to buy their favourite car from the game will face a hefty cost, but there are so many 30-something petrolheads around right now, all scouring eBay and Auto Trader, trying to find their dream GT car.

An R34 Skyline on the Nordschleife.
An R34 Skyline on the Nordschleife.

We have much to thank Gran Turismo for in terms of spreading the joy of motoring into the consciousness of the casual fan. It also raised the game of its competitors’, so right now we live in a golden age of driving games and sims. Think Forza, Assetto Corsa, rFactor 2, iRacing and Automobilista 2.

My personal favourite memory of GT was racing against my friend, Dougie. I would use a heavily modified 1990 Fiat Panda, and he would take a less-modified Volvo 240 Estate. We would then take to the Nordschleife, where chaos ensued. It’s a fun game, which is sometimes easy to forget with its ‘serious racer’ presentation. The addition of a thick driving strategy guide and license tests certainly added to the idea that the original GT was preparing the player for a serious test of skill.

Fiat Panda, Volvo 240, Nurburgring crash
How most of our races ended.

On the other hand, without the early influence of GT, would The Fast & Furious franchise exist? Probably not.

Gran Turismo has a lot to answer for…

*The USA has a law that means only Japanese cars over 25 years old can be imported & driven on their roads, making classic GT cars a viable option for car fans.

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