Beginning in the late ‘80s, Square forged its legacy as a purveyor of iconic Japanese role playing video games. It’s also a legacy that Square Enix is keen to return to today, for better or worse. But for a brief moment — around the turn of the millennium — the pendulum swung way the fuck the other way.
Riding high on the success of its Final Fantasies and its steady churn of JRPG bangers for the original PlayStation, Square sought to branch out more than usual. As Sony’s PlayStation 2 launch loomed, Square rolled out a lineup spanning a mix of genres including baseball, racing, beat ‘em up, and even pro wrestling games. With any luck, these would showcase Square’s (and the PS2’s) technical chops while serving as fiscal stopgaps between its tentpole RPG releases. After all, Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts were multi-year projects and there was no way either were going to make the PS2’s launch window. In the meantime, Square needed to fill the next-gen void.
I am fascinated by this era of Square. Not only did its output spearhead the early PS2 hype, but it sparked intrigue for the kinds of gaming experiences that would await in the new millennium. What would happen when a renowned gamemaker (mostly) synonymous with JRPGs takes a swing at other genres way outside its wheelhouse? What unique innovations would its interpretations contribute? And in what inventive ways could it fuck things up?
The answers, I’d find, were capricious and messy yet so bizarrely satisfying.
As you might expect, Square’s early PS2 titles elicited mixed receptions at their release — both commercially and critically — and retrospectives have rarely been charitable in the decades since. However, Square’s sheer commitment to their spectacle undoubtedly makes these games worth revisiting today.
The most infamous of these is The Bouncer, which embraced its billing as an interactive action movie. More accurately, it is a cutscene collection where the dramatics are frequently interrupted by rote beat ‘em up sequences. Developed by a Square super group helmed by DreamFactory (Ehrgeiz, Tobal), The Bouncer revolves around a vibrant team of doormen donning copious chains, belts, and zippers. Their friend gets kidnapped by ninja goons from a shady corporation and other stuff happens, too.
Initially touted as a cinematic action game with co-op multiplayer, interactive set pieces and destructible environments, the final product eschewed those ambitions. I wouldn’t be surprised if DreamFactory scaled down the project to avoid cannibalization from FFX. (Update: I just dug up this old CNN interview where Director Takashi Tokita did allude to that dynamic)
Ultimately, The Bouncer is better remembered as an Emotion Engine tech demo and Tetsuya Nomura fashion show than a coherent narrative-action game. I guess there’s still some charm in that, though.
Actually, I was originally planning to write this post about Square’s baseball game, Gekikuukan Pro Baseball: At the End of the Century 1999. Inspired by Ichiro’s recent induction into the Seattle Mariners team Hall of Fame, I was compelled by the game’s glimpse into his legendary Japanese career with Orix BlueWave before becoming one of the greatest players stateside. Square’s baseball sim also features other then-future MLB stars like Hideki Matsui and Kazuhiro Sasaki at the peak of their Nippon Professional Baseball careers.
Beyond being a wonderful time capsule for Japanese baseball in 1999, Gekikuukan looks striking, immersing players in its dramatic camerawork, atmospheric stadium lighting, and nuanced player animations. Based purely on its merits as a video game, however, things are considerably more more complicated. I’ve actually been having a blast playing it but I’m still working through all my thoughts on the game. Maybe I’ll revisit this one in a future post.
Diving into the greased-up grappling ring, Square also produced three All-Star Pro Wrestling games for the PS2. I’ve only briefly played the first entry as I write this. Although its wrestling action doesn’t seem especially remarkable, the glam of its wrestler entrances inject plenty of spectacle around it. Pulsing light displays and booming acoustics place me squarely in its arenas for the theatrics. It exudes a presentational swagger that underlies all the games in Square’s early PS2 showcase.
And that leaves us with the driving game.
As an aesthetically realistic racer in 2000, Driving Emotion Type-S drew an unreasonable wave of comparisons to Gran Turismo from the gaming press. The game was developed by Escape, an in-house team within Square, but it eschews the RPG framework of 1999’s Racing Lagoon. It’s also deprived of Chocobo and anaglyph glasses for that matter. Driving Emotion’s ambitions are comparatively tame, at least in concept. It sticks to a basic arcade-style structure of one-off races, time trials, two-player versus, and a training mode, with no robust season or Grand Prix modes for the long haul.
Simple as it is, Driving Emotion was a rightful showpiece for the PS2’s technical prowess at the time. Each of its licensed cars — which include a handful of Ferraris and Porsches thanks to a publishing partnership with EA — sport lovingly-rendered interiors. The camera defaults to the driver’s perspective, immersing players behind the wheel, gripped by virtual hands which steer in step with the analog stick. It was a novel idea for the time and the detailed dashboards with functional speedometers and tachometers, and tinted, reflective windshields remain nifty flourishes today.
Fortunately, Driving Emotion had flair to spare for its handful of courses. Those include a mix of real world tracks (Suzuka, Tsukuba) and other vaguely-inspired locales like a nighttime Tokyo expressway, an old European village/countryside, and not not San Francisco. Admittedly, some look fancier than others.
The Tokyo-esque Urban Highway courses are my personal favorites. Not only do their striking skyscrapers and intricate infrastructure evoke then-next-gen awe, they also stir up my own memories of the expressways around Tokyo and Yokohama when I visited as a teenager. I remember we stopped at one of Namco’s mega arcades, which was nestled off a highway much like this one. I also drank way too much C.C. Lemon that day and had to pee like a motherfucker on the way back to Tokyo. We discovered an underground rest stop in the freeway tunnel, and I was, erm…relieved. None of Urban Highway’s landmarks feature corporate rivals’ amusement centers or tunnel toilets, specifically, but its cityscape is dense enough that I imagine it could.
Otherwise, Driving Emotion Type-S was brutally panned by critics. This is especially true of the Japanese version, which was notorious for having some of the most unwieldy, physics-defiant handling models since Checkered Flag on the Atari Jaguar (and if you’re not familiar with Checkered Flag, you can just pretend that was a sick burn). Even as the previews hyped up Driving Emotion’s visual panache — waterfall mists, windshield smudges, firework bloom effects, and the like — they could only describe its godawful steering so diplomatically.
To its credit, Escape did tighten up the handling a bit for Driving Emotion’s Western releases. In fact, I had only played the North American version until recently. But by many accounts, the original Japanese version was especially heinous. “Unfuckingplayable” was the general vibe I got?
So of course I had to try it out for myself.
After booting it up on my Japanese PS2 last week, my first impression was the cars in Driving Emotion don’t really turn so much as they wobble. Often uncontrollably. Not that the North American version handles particularly well, either, but the Japanese version is more of asshole about it. The steering is ultra sensitive, it never centers itself after you let off the analog stick, and it fails to add resistance or tighten the turning radius as you gain speed. If you aren’t careening into walls or spinning out, you’re likely spending most of the race correcting, then overcorrecting, then overovercorrecting, etc. etc. — there’s lots of weaving side to side, ad nau(seous)eam. Enduring its wobblefest is often the best case scenario, and simply finishing a race for the first time feels like a remarkable achievement.
It was actually pretty common for racing games of that era to have awkward handling and physics models. Most of the time, you can chalk it up to one thing: steering wheel peripherals. Games like Sega GT, the Dreamcast version of Daytona USA, and Capcom’s Auto Modellista all fall into this class. With a gamepad, they share plenty of similar quirks in their unstable, jerky, or otherwise unruly handling. Hook up a racing wheel, however, and those issues drift away. Not that this absolves them for being poorly tuned for regular controllers — you know, the way most people would play them — but at least they are solidly playable somehow.
Not so with Driving Emotion Type-S. It’s not compatible with racing wheels — at least not the one I own — nor does its options menu acknowledge their existence. The idea that the handling and physics are this shitty with a gamepad and that it was meant to be that way seems bonkers to me. It truly is as awful as they say.
But also, I kind of love it?
As I’ve spent more time with the Japanese version of Driving Emotion Type-S, I’ve adjusted to its idiosyncrasies through a process I’ve found unexpectedly rewarding. The random spinouts and ping-ponging between walls are still facts of life — especially when driving the more erratic GT class cars — but winning races is a pretty regular thing now. At this point, I’ve unlocked all the vehicles by finishing first on every course in every class category. Now I’m just vibing as I casually top my best times. You could say I’ve found the
light toilet at the end of the tunnel.
For me, a huge part of Driving Emotion’s appeal lies in dissecting its wacky physics, and then developing a wackier play style to exploit them. There’s so much that can go wrong on any given turn and one solid crash can easily invoke the “retry race” selection. The upside of this dynamic is it makes me more invested in how my car is responding at all times. I don’t take anything for granted because the game won’t let me.
Have you ever seen those monster truck rally commercials where the announcer growls, “You’ll pay for the whole seat but you’ll just need the edge!!”? Well, that’s kind of how Driving Emotion feels with the Dual Shock 2 pad. I guess I mean that in two senses: A) the twitchy handling does keep you on the edge of your seat (figuratively or not, depending on how much you lean forward while concentrating on a video game), but also B) cars respond best when you use as little of the analog stick as possible. In general, the game wants you to nudge the stick incrementally into a curve and then feather it the other way to even out. Because your car won’t center itself after turning, you have to manage that manually, which is far easier if you didn’t turn too sharply to begin with. You can also use this quirk to your advantage by angling the car preemptively and then letting it steer itself around the longer, sustained curves.
It almost feels like Escape wanted players to treat the analog stick like a steering wheel, albeit without all the friction and nuance that make steering wheels practical in the first place. The point is: Driving Emotion insists you fight the inclination to push/pull the stick all the way, and when you do, only flick it as briefly as possible. And even then, you’re still at the mercy of its chaos.
You’re bound to oversteer and/or understeer — and sometimes both at once. There’s often a razor-thin line between the two. You’re not completely helpless, though. First, easing off the accelerator in tandem with feathering out of turns is your front line for maintaining control. Failing that, leaning into the wall you’re about to hit can give you a fighting chance of recovering without ricocheting wildly the other way. And sometimes simply committing to the spinout is also a viable strategy.
A side note: For the less contained courses like Suzuka Circuit, you can cut across the open fields if you want. The grass won’t slow you down much and it can only fuck you up if you acknowledge its existence. It’s like Wile E. Coyote with gravity.
Since the lack of resistance makes it easy to oversteer at high speeds, you can exploit this, as well. The tire grip is generally better than you’d expect, at least for everything but the Ferrari F50 and the GT supercars. Take a leap of faith and you can often take sharp corners at near-full speed. As long as you anticipate the entrance and exit angles ahead of time and keep straight as you accelerate out of it, you can often get away without braking. After building up confidence with this approach, it almost feels like I’m playing Sega Rally at times. I think (?) that’s a compliment.
Well, there you go. That was my Driving Emotion Type-S strategy guide, I guess.
It’s all very counterintuitive, and that’s probably why so many people despise this game. Which, fair enough. Adapting to Driving Emotion’s weirdness only requires unlearning decades of muscle memory and conventional racing game wisdom. At any rate, I eventually got a grip on the game’s handling, more or less, and I’m still having a lot of fun playing it.
It was a hell of a journey to get there but that might be the point. I can’t imagine Driving Emotion Type-S would’ve been nearly as compelling if it didn’t have such bizarre quirks to overcome in the first place. By now, I’ve gotten so used to reacting to and strategizing around its precariousness, that in itself has become a core part of game’s hook. I also prefer the Japanese version for that same reason. The Western releases of Driving Emotion are technically the better versions with slightly improved handling models (plus an additional track) but they don’t engage my brain’s frontal lobe and reward centers in quite the same way.
Of course, most great racing games draw their appeal from thoughtful design and mechanics. They generally make the player’s moment-to-moment connection with the track feel natural, with unpredictability and friction arising only as their systems will it. Of course, a stylish sheen and kickass soundtrack can elevate those strengths, as well. And the occasional AI toaster concept car doesn’t hurt, either.
That said, not all racing games need to share the same strengths or be enjoyed the same way, and Driving Emotion Type-S poses a compelling — and deeply charming — alternative. Its handling woes inspire me to embrace the chaos and make it my own. Honestly, Driving Emotion would’ve been a far more boring and forgettable game if everything worked as expected. As it is, I’m drawn in by the constant rush of recognizing and outwitting its flaws. Without them, I probably would’ve stopped playing long ago. And I certainly wouldn’t have written this blog post.
Actually, that’s not true: I probably would’ve just written it about Gekikuukan Pro Baseball instead.
Anyway, after enduring all that chaos on Driving Emotion’s terms, I decided it was time to wreak my own. Here are the spoils of that buffoonery…Enjoy!
Finally, I’ll leave you with this anecdote: According to an old company FAQ, Square’s name was at least partially inspired by the practice of golfers squaring themselves with the ball before taking a swing. They meant it to evoke an attitude of tackling challenges head on instead of avoiding them. Perhaps that’s a fitting ethos for approaching Driving Emotion Type-S, where squaring with its myriad flaws can help players get the most mileage out of the experience.
Also, are you telling me Square went through this whole weird-ass sports game phase and we never got a golf game out of it?!
– Brian (@VirtuaSchlub)