All Hail the Dark Souls of Racing Games

BILL WOOD | JUNE 8, 2024

Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.

1996. Midnight. Shuto Expressway, Tokyo, or more specifically a lo-fi digital representation thereof on a CRT television. The screen is impossibly dark, save for the road in front of you and a blend of neon yellow polygons in the distance, a vivid reminder that you are driving at night in the big city. A tiny gray blur bounces between the scanlines far ahead, and you have the feeling that this time you might just catch up with it, possibly even eclipse it. Your grip on the controller tightens; the speedometer peaks at 300kph. A series of red and white chevrons signal a hard corner that you drift into with relative ease… and then disaster strikes. A trio of semi-trucks suddenly zoom into view, you reflexively clench your toes and pray for the miracle that never happens. Next thing you know you’re into the back end and your rival has disappeared into the obsidian horizon.


You’ve lost… again.


And make no mistake, Tokyo Highway Battle (Jaleco, 1996, PlayStation 1) wants you to lose. In this game, losing is not only a probability but an eventuality. No matter how skilled you are with a controller in your hand, you will fail at some point. The game taunts you after every loss, suggesting your car isn’t fast enough, you’re not skilled enough; maybe you should give up. And yet there is an urge that compels you to give it one more go, that despite repeated failures there will eventually come redemption… but more on that later.


Coming from someone who managed to beat the Black Car in the original Ridge Racer back in the day, I can attest that absurd difficulty isn't exactly an uncommon trait whens it comes to PS1 driving games. This was partially due to the limited programming resources of the day; sometimes the only way to squeeze value out of a fully-priced console game was to make it extremely difficult to beat. THB really isn't any different in this sense, but whereas many racers of this era firmly adhered to their coin-op roots by delivering an experience based upon the three-initial high score, THB reaches for something different and quite possibly ahead of its time. Again, more on this later. First, a little backstory.


By the mid ‘90s, illegal street racing had reached peak popularity in Japan. Outlaw clubs proliferated the streets of Tokyo, tearing up the highways at speeds of over 200mph. At the same time, the groundbreaking anime and manga series Initial D introduced a new legion of fans to this exciting underground scene. Meanwhile, advancements in 3-D video game technology produced a wealth of quality racing titles, including Genki’s acclaimed Shutokou Battle series, which was brought Stateside under the moniker Tokyo Highway Battle for the PlayStation 1 console and later as Tokyo Xtreme Racer* for other platforms. The Shutokou series focused on turbo-charged arcade thrills in real-life settings such as the iconic Bayshore Route (Wangen-sen), digitally emulating the modern street racing scene on an epic scale.


* - Extreme was probably the single most overused word in the '90s. If you wanted your product to sell you simply called it Extreme and folks took your word for it. Extreme hair gel, Extreme potato chips, you name it. Those who knew their stuff and really meant business always dropped the first E, hence "Xtreme."


As with every racing game, THB’s core objective is simple; get to the finish line before your opponent. It may be a simple objective, but this 1P-vs-CPU racer is not a cakewalk by any stretch. You’ll need not only driving skills but puzzle solving abilities in order to ascend the ranks and face off with the elusive Drift King (real-life professional drift racer Keiichi Tsuchiya). Yes, there are cheat codes that make the game somewhat easier; such codes were practically mandatory in the PS1 era. But honestly, if you use cheats here you may as well not even bother playing because the challenge is everything. There is no Easy Mode to select, and being an early PS1 title there’s not even an option for DualShock analog control. For this ultimate test of racing talent, a d-pad and face buttons will have to suffice.


The heart of THB is Scenario Mode, which consists of a series of races against CPU opponents who are typically more skilled than you. These opponents slice through traffic like a hot knife through butter, leaving you alone to navigate an endless procession of rear bumpers. Tap one of these bumpers and you’re looking at a massive decrease in speed; tapping too many will definitely result in a loss. As if this weren’t enough, your opponent’s car is essentially an armored tank when it comes to collision detection. Direct impact will likely put you into the nearest wall and several car lengths in the red.


You may lose your first several races, wondering what the hell just happened and why anyone would bother with a game like this in the first place. But eventually you’ll notice a pane in the top right corner advertising Speed Shop. And this, my friends, is where the game takes a turn for the better. You see, every race—win or lose—rewards you with currency which can be spent in the Speed Shop. The options here are exhaustive and somewhat novel for a pre-Gran Turismo racer. Some upgrades will net you modest improvements while others will boost your car’s abilities significantly and instantly make you a competitor. Since Speed Shop is a huge part of the puzzle solving process, I’ll let you discover its merits for yourself. Suffice to say this grind is very real.


Even within the level-up mini-game there are challenges. Certain cars with aesthetic appeal and popularity (say for instance, an older model that may have been featured in an iconic anime series) can only reach a certain performance plateau, after which they become non-competitive and essentially useless. Therefore, it’s entirely possible to devote time and funds into upgrading a car only to discover you’ve maxed out its potential. This leaves you with little option except pick out a new car and start the process all over again, as previously purchased upgrades do not carry over from vehicle to vehicle and you can’t sell them back to the shop.


To complicate matters even further, selecting a new car in Scenario Mode automatically deletes all upgrades from your previous car, meaning you're back to square one even if you change your mind and want your old car back. The game gives you no warning this is about to happen; it just happens. I'm thinking this has something to do with the PlayStation's paltry 2MB of RAM, but whatever the reason, multiple save slots are an absolute must.


The good news is that these car upgrades don’t simply net you a massive improvement in speed, but braking, shifting and handling as well. Before you know it, your vehicle will become a serious contender if not an outright beast, and those pesky CPU opponents that once left you in the dust will now be much easier to catch on the open highway, although they’re never too far behind thanks to what feels like some patented rubberband AI*.


* - One of the more controversial gaming conventions of the arcade era was "rubberband AI" or "catch-up logic." Before adequate CPU intelligence was conceived for sports and racing titles, certain developers programmed the CPU to automatically stay competitive no matter how well you performed. As a result, the final portion of the contest was really the only part that mattered. This little trick not only made the game feel more exciting, but also ensured that arcade cabinets remained stuffed with quarters.


Speaking of eras, it’s worth mentioning the distinct audiovisual style of PS1 titles – choppy frame rates, low polygon counts, pixelated FMV and particularly the synth-jazz, hard-edged techno rock and outright guitar wankery that populate the soundtracks. You could say that THB is a prime example of this aesthetic; it certainly ticks all of the boxes and the marketing campaign proudly trumpets "3-D texture mapped polygon graphics!".


Some appreciate the look and sound of old-school PS1 games, others don't. For me, it's a nostalgic throwback to the one of the true golden eras of gaming, an era when 3-D console gaming was finally realized. It seems laughable now, but at the time of THB's release these types of games would have been practically unimaginable outside the arcade only a few years prior. Being able to play them on a home console was still something of a wonder.


Another interesting factoid is that—based on my research—THB was apparently supposed to feature cop chases. How do I know this? The U.S. key art clearly features a police vehicle on the promotional poster, which was then removed on the jewel case. Not enough in itself for solid evidence, but check out this quote from the back cover:


"...There was an awesome view of the Tokyo skyline at night, but no time to enjoy it. At the speed trap I was clocked at triple-digits, so the local heat was in pursuit. That's when the real battle began..."


If you've played this game and are thinking to yourself, "wait, nothing like this remotely happens," it's because it doesn't. Remember, this was an era when you could make up just about any type of highfalutin' mumbo-jumbo in the video game marketing world and get away with it (Sega's blast processing, the 64-bit Jaguar, the 3DO being a decent gaming console... I could go on). But police pursuit does seem like an intended feature in THB, so why was it removed? Time constraints? Technical difficulties? That all-important K-to-A ESRB rating? We'll probably never know.


Okay, so maybe Tokyo Highway Battle isn’t the Dark Souls of racing games, but these two titles do have quite a bit in common. Dark Souls pays tribute to games of the ‘90s with a focus on repetition, pattern memorization and hard-as-nails gameplay, while THB is a prime example of two genres reaching their respective peaks in tandem. Japanese street racing was at its absolute zenith and racing games arguably benefited more from mid-90s technology than any other gaming genre, the combined result of which can still be appreciated and enjoyed to this day. - BW


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Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
The Cramps poster art by Bill Wood.