Gran Chaser (Cyber Speedway)

While it may be difficult to imagine now, there was once a time where the “futuristic racer” was a formidable sub-genre. The two kings of this space, F-Zero and WipEout, were fast and cool visual showcases for their respective consoles, through multiple generations. Yet in the shadows of these giants, there were many others vying for the throne. Some found moderate success, like Extreme-G, which started on the Nintendo 64 and spawned three sequels across multiple platforms.

Most futuristic racers, however, never found the success of F-Zero, WipEout, or even Extreme-G. From AeroGauge to Tube Slider, there are many games in the genre that are now almost totally forgotten. Sega Saturn exclusive Gran Chaser (or Cyber Speedway in the West) is one of those titles.

For a somewhat obscure title, Gran Chaser has some serious pedigree behind it. For one, the game is a spiritual sequel to the 1993 PC title CyberRace, which was developed by Cyberdreams (Dark Seed duology). Both CyberRace and Gran Chaser feature sled (the hovercraft vehicles you race) designs by Syd Mead. Mead is a legend in the field of sci-fi art and design, having worked on Aliens, Blade Runner, Tron, Short Circuit, Turn A Gundam, and more.

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While CyberRace was created by a Western developer, Gran Chaser came from a company in Japan, Nextech. Now known as Nex Entertainment, the company has had a hand in multiple Shining games (Wind, Tears, Soul), Shin Megami Tensei: NINE, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Crimson Shroud, Crusader of Centy, and somewhat embarrassingly, the PS3 port of Bayonetta.

Despite the talent behind it, Gran Chaser received little attention surrounding its release. I had subscriptions to just about every game magazine available at that time, and I don’t remember seeing any previews or ads for it. To be honest, I had never even heard of the game until I picked up a copy for 108 yen in Akihabara last month. This is a shame, because as a fan of futuristic racers, it’s totally in my wheelhouse.

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When you start up the game you can choose typical race modes such as time trials and races against the CPU, but what makes Gran Chaser interesting is the story mode, which was pretty rare in racers at the time (and still is today). The story is not necessarily gripping, nor is the presentation especially interesting (it’s just voiced narrative atop static backgrounds), yet it’s still compelling. This is primarily due to the art design, which has a very cool mix of Eastern and Western influences- you see everything from Macross to Star Wars to Blade Runner in the imagery.

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At the end of the day, the story mode is still just a series of races. Fortunately, the racing in Gran Chaser is pretty solid, even today. The sleds control well- they’re floaty (obviously), but they don’t feel as sensitive as the game’s contemporaries, where sometimes it feels like the slightest directional input could send you crashing into a wall. You can fire projectiles in Gran Chaser, and because of the floaty-but-forgiving controls, aiming is no problem.

What is a bit of a problem however, is the pop-in. Famously an issue with the original port of Daytona USA (and many subsequent Saturn racers), Gran Chaser suffers from draw distance pop-in, so it often appears that chunks of the track are being placed in front of you as you race. It’s annoying for sure, but never renders the game unplayable.

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Another key aspect of the presentation is the music, and your space mileage may vary here, depending on your personal tastes and which version you play. In the Japanese version (which is what I played), the music is a pretty rad electronic soundtrack that definitely fits with the look and feel of the game. The Western release however, went the WipEout route of licensed music, with a soundtrack by a group known as “Bygone Dogs.” I had never heard of them before or after this game, but apparently they were big enough for their name to be on the cover of the North American version:

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The Bygone Dogs version of the soundtrack is more rock, and to be honest, I definitely prefer the triumphant synth of the Japanese game.

Cyber Speedway (North America):

Gran Chaser (Japan):

If this whole situation reminds you a bit of Sonic CD’s two soundtracks, there’s actually a connection. Spencer Nilsen, who composed the music for the North American version of Sonic CD, produced the Bygone Dogs tracks in Cyber Speedway.

While Gran Chaser may not be the most well-remembered of the futuristic racers, it remains an interesting collaboration between East and West. Gran Chaser was a fun pickup for me not just because of its unique lineage, but because it offered me an opportunity to play a “new” futuristic racer in 2014, and that’s pretty cool.

 

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