Initial D and the Virtual Game of Drift

BILL WOOD | JUNE 1, 2024

Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.

The AE86. The Hachi Roku. The Panda Trueno. Call it what you will, Takumi Fujiwara’s understated drifting machine from the groundbreaking anime and manga series Initial D has captivated the world for nearly 30 years. With over 50 million units in publication totaling nearly half a billion in sales, it’s one of the best selling Japanese titles in history, and with the recent release of Kodansha’s Omnibus Volume 1 manga, those figures will undoubtedly climb. I’m a newcomer to the series and it’s already one of my all-time favorites. I’m also a manga guy but the anime is very bit as compelling, the good news is there’s no wrong way to dive into this excellent series.


Due to Initial D’s worldwide success, Toyota’s AE86 series Sprinter Trueno has enjoyed long-term popularity and has been featured in numerous video games, including the popular Initial D arcade car cabinets that populate Japan and parts abroad. I decided to embark upon a quest to discover the best single-player drift and touge (transl. "mountain pass") gaming experiences on my various PlayStation consoles. The options are surprisingly varied, so let’s blast some Eurobeat, run it back to the ‘90s and check out the results.


But First... A Detour!

Before we get into the games, I have to mention my recent visit to Fujiwara Tofu Cafe, a real-life tofu shop in El Monte, CA which mimics Bunta's iconic shop in Initial D. The shop features tons of Initial D decor, memorabilia, and even a Third Stage arcade racing cabinet. A steady stream of D fans poured in to check out the place on this particular Saturday afternoon, one of which was wearing a fully embroidered Akina Speed Stars racing jacket. Sports cars decorated the parking lot, a live drift racing event was playing on a TV monitor inside. Yeah, it's a vibe.


I grabbed an order of Fujiwara fried tofu (what else?), it came with sweet and sour sauce and was surprisingly delicious as I'm something of a tofu skeptic. If you happen to be in LA and are an Initial D fan, you really need to put Fujiwara Tofu Cafe on your to-do list!


And Now... The Games!


There is one very notable omission from this list – Gran Turismo 7. It's missing for the simple reason that I don't own the game yet! GT7 does feature the Trueno, and if I decide to purchase I will definitely update this article.


Initial D (1999, PlayStation 1)

Rating: ★★★

For starters, I took a trip back in time with my PS Classic Mini and Initial D. This is an import CD from 1999 so your playing options are limited unless you’re into the emulation scene. Fortunately most of the menus are in English and the Story Mode—which loosely follows the First Stage story arc—can be skimmed through, meaning you can enjoy the entire game without understanding a lick of Japanese. I use my phone and Google Translate to handle the rest.


I enjoyed my time with Initial D as it was the only series-licensed game I played and therefore the most authentic. Having said that, PS1-era racing can be hit-or-miss and this is game is certainly no different. The d-pad controls are extremely stiff and the learning curve is probably the steepest on this list; I can easily see modern gamers getting discouraged. The good news is that the game isn't all that difficult once you get the hang of things, I managed to clear Story Mode twice as well as Mission Mode (called Practice here for whatever reason) with relative ease. The classic D vibe and the racing battles from the series are definitely here, and if you happened to be gaming circa 1999, these 640x480 CGI cutscenes will definitely take you back in time!


Tokyo Highway Battle (1996, PlayStation 1)

Rating: ★★★

As part of the acclaimed Shutokou Battle franchise, Jaleco's Tokyo Highway Battle was one of the more prominent early-era PlayStation racers. It was released early in the console's life cycle—practically a launch title—which means sparse graphics, no analog support, and some notorious "rubberband AI" (remember that phrase?). Even so, I had a really good time with this game. The three available courses are all fun to race on and the upgrade paths in Scenario Mode are surprisingly robust for a pre-Gran Turismo racer.


There is no touge to speak of (it is called Tokyo Highway Battle after all) but there's plenty of one-on-one drift racing action, plus it seems as though several of the vehicles are modeled after Initial D, including Takumi's Trueno and Iketani's Silvia. Which speaks to the immediate success of the series as this game was released roughly a year after the manga debuted. However, it's worth noting that drift gaming existed well before Initial D; the Shutokou Battle series actually predates Initial D by approximately a year.


Tokyo Highway Battle definitely is not for everyone; it requires an old console (or an adequate substitute) and as far as 3D racers are concerned it's about as dated as they come. On the positive, the US version has no import hassles or language barriers and can be found online for ten bucks or less. If you're nostalgic about the era of compact discs, memory cards and classic JDM, you may have a good time with this game. I certainly did.


Touge Max 2 (1998, PlayStation 1)

Rating: ★★★

Unlicensed or not, the Japanese import Touge Max 2 is one of the best tofu delivery simulators I could find on PS1. There are several challenging touge tracks to choose from as well as several cars from the series, including of course the Trueno. Day and night settings for each course, and finally, analog steering! My DualShock worked perfectly fine with this game.


Having said this, it's still a 25-year-old-PS1 game, which means it's pretty rough around the edges. This alone is probably enough to dissuade most, but if you're interested in nothing but recreating the Initial D experience in a classic gaming environment, Touge Max 2 is a fine option.


If you're looking for even more Initial D-influenced gaming options for your PlayStation 1 and don't mind imports, your options are plentiful. I researched a wide assortment of Japanese PS1 drifters for this article, including Shutokou Battle R, Kottobi Tune, Racing Lagoon, Side By Side Special 2000, Naniwa Wangan Battle, and the extra-wordy Shutokou Battle Gaiden: Super Technic Challenge - Road To Drift King.


Drift Streets Japan (2015, PlayStation 5)

Rating: ★

Drift Streets Japan is a budget-priced racer with a heavy focus on arcade-style drifting… and that’s it. There’s no street racing involved, each track is basically one extended stunt level that boils down to tapping the gas and rocking the left stick back and forth to maintain the longest drift possible. Unfortunately the controls are so loose that the game feels more like snowboarding than drifting. It’s very simple and easy to master, with the platinum trophy achievable in just around one hour (!).


The Trueno is not licensed in Drift Streets Japan, nor are any other vehicles for that matter. Instead there is a knockoff called the AE68 (as opposed to the real AE86), and there’s also a fictional version of Initial D’s Mount Akina in the game which incidentally looks nothing like the imposing mountain pass from the series. All in all, this game may provide a couple of hours of touge entertainment if you can find it on the cheap. It clearly borrows influence from Initial D, even if it doesn’t reach that lofty goal. Sim enthusiasts—and most race fans in general—should steer far clear.


DriftCE (2019, PlayStation 5)

Rating: ★★★★

DriftCE plays out like a cross between Car Mechanic Simulator and your favorite drift sim. Here you can tweak and install parts to your heart’s content, then put your vehicle on the dyno and take it for a test spin to check out the results. The customization and tuning options are deep, it’s one of those satisfying upgrade paths that has you saving up and looking forward to that new intake manifold or camshaft.


DriftCE plays up the simulation aspect of drift racing and is quite difficult to master, safe to say it has the highest learning curve on this list. I constantly found myself losing control of the vehicle and sliding out until I learned how to feather the gas pedal and handbrake. Parts installation isn't exactly intuitive for us non-gearheads (I accidentally installed a complete rotary engine setup!), but it's extremely rewarding once you get the hang of things. I seriously recommend completing the garage challenges if you don't know much about mechanics, they act as a sort of tutorial for the various upgrade path options for improved car performance.


The Trueno is officially licensed in DriftCE but it's hardly the best drifter in the game. I ended up sticking with the Mazda RX-5 at the start, the handling is better than the Trueno and it's the only car that will get you through the garage challenges. After I upgraded to a fully-tuned version of Keisuke Takahashi's Mazda RX-7, the game became much easier.


As much as I enjoyed DriftCE, I had to deduct one star for no night driving option. I understand this game isn't meant to be a pure Initial D simulator, but come on; the Trueno and RX-7 are included and there are some fantastic touge tracks. Even the some of the PS1 games had night driving! Nonetheless, if you’re into the finer aspects of drift racing or even learning about tinkering under the hood in general, DriftCE may be right up your alley.


Assetto Corsa (2013, PlayStation 4)

Rating: ★★

I decided upon Assetto Corsa instead of the sequel Assetto Corsa Competizione as the original features Japanese DLC with the one and only Trueno. And this is an Initial D article, isn't it?


Unfortunately a major part of Assetto Corsa's appeal is missing from the console versions, namely the modding. Yes, there is a Trueno and it's a decent replica, but the PC mod features a stunningly accurate version of the Fujiwara's AE86 all the way down to the cup holder, not to mention picture-perfect maps of Mount Akina. Without these incredible mods, Assetto Corsa plays out very much like any other vanilla racer from the PS4 era. The game also places an emphasis on GT racing as opposed to pure drifting, which places it further away from the Initial D vibe I was searching for. As a result, Corsa is the game on this list that I spent the least amount of time with. Having said that, it sounds like you're in for a good time if you own a gaming PC.


Need For Speed Unbound (2022, PlayStation 5)

Rating: ★★

Being a AAA title from EA, Need For Speed: Unbound is by far the most polished game in this article. The racing action is as dialed-in as one might expect, ripping through the city streets to compete in races and time trials is a blast. The audiovisuals have that patented EA polish and the car physics are incredibly solid, but this doesn’t mean Unbound is perfect... far from it.


Unfortunately the game is dragged down by a lackluster story mode and one of the more annoying cop systems I’ve ever come across. Post-race you’re often left with no option but to outrun the cops that hunt you down, jacking up your wanted level to the point where the game becomes one drawn-out game of cat and mouse. At one point I shut the game off after spending 15 minutes with the police glued to my tailpipe. Some might enjoy this frantic style of play but I felt as though the non-stop chases heavily detracted from the single-player experience I was looking for, which was underground street racing. It’s worth noting that the game’s online mode—which most gamers will undoubtedly prefer—does not have these issues.


Toyota apparently decided they don’t want their brand associated with street racing, therefore their vehicles have been removed from the NFS series. So if you’re looking for that authentic Trueno experience, this is not your game. Earlier games in the NFS series do feature the Trueno, but Unbound does not. The closest you can get is reskinning a Honda Civic, which is a shame as some of the user-created decals match the Fujiwara’s famous car almost exactly.


CarX Drift Racing Online (2017, PlayStation 4)

Rating: ★★★★★

Just when I thought the titles couldn’t get any more generic, along comes CarX Drift Racing Online. I honestly wasn’t expecting much from this game, so you can imagine my shock when it turned out to be anything but another run-of-the-mill drifter. In fact it’s one of my favorites of the entire lot.


Like Drift Streets Japan, CarX ’s gameplay mainly involves chaining drift techniques into lengthy combos. But unlike DSJ, CarX gets it right with super-crisp drifting action, tight physics and extensive customization and tuning options. The game also looks fantastic, it’s one of only two  modern titles on this list that doesn’t feature a native PS5 version but I barely noticed.


The word online in the title did give me some reservations as I’m typically a single-player guy. Fortunately there is lots to do for us soloists, including a plethora of cars and tracks to unlock. Each course has reverse and night settings, as a result I found myself glued to some of the more compelling tracks, going for that gold medal, one-upping my own high score or leveling up to unlock the next course. And while’s there’s no 1P vs. CPU Mode to speak of, there is a Time Attack mode for those who prefer to focus on all-out speed.


There are no licensed makes and models in CarX, but the game basically gifts you a fully-loaded pseudo-Trueno (renamed “Hachi-Roku”) from the outset. From there it’s a simple matter of hopping into the livery editor and downloading a custom-made Initial D fan reskin, which results in arguably the most authentic version of the Panda Trueno outside of the official games. The touge aspect is solid; once you unlock the Kami Road map, Mount Akina is basically yours to conquer.


Inertial Drift (2020, PlayStation 5)

Rating: ★★★★★

Finally, Inertial Drift clearly gets its title and most of its inspiration from Initial D. It’s a unique over-the-top arcade racer played with twin sticks, where the left trigger controls steering and the right controls drift. It’s a novel approach to drift control and it totally works. You can flat out fly on the early tracks with beginner cars, but you’ll definitely face a challenge with the more advanced cars and stages as the difficulty ramps up. In addition, the game features a boatload of gameplay options that kept me coming back for more.


Inertial Drift features no officially licensed cars or tracks, it’s 100% fictional from start to finish. But this actually works in the game’s favor as it forgoes realism to focus squarely on neon-drenched drift and touge racing. There are fictional versions of the Trueno and Mount Akina, so if you’re looking for that classic Initial D vibe in a console game (it even features a Eurobeat soundtrack!), this spaced-out racer may just be your best bet. - BW


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Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
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