Back in the early 90s, a young Kazunori Yamauchi was working at Sony Music Entertainment Japan, publishing 2D Super Nintendo platformers, when he was drafted by the original PlayStation development team’s Shuhei Yoshida. Yoshida needed software for Sony’s first-ever games console and it turned out Yamauchi was overflowing with ideas. One of those ideas would be a true game changer; a racing game like no other made before. A realistic, 3D, home console driving simulator, packed with largely attainable, licensed cars, and bigger than any car nerd could’ve imagined. It would completely reinvent the genre. It would be the crown jewel of the original PlayStation; in the company’s words: the greatest racing game of all time.
It would be Gran Turismo.
However, the first time Yamauchi floated it, the idea sank.
Sony simply wasn’t interested.
However, Yamauchi had suspected his realistic racer pitch might be a little too radical and he was already prepared to pivot to a different project. The game? Motor Toon Grand Prix; still a racer, but its wacky cartoon sensibilities and the proven mainstream appeal of kart racers at the time made it seem like a safer bet for Sony. Yamauchi and his team threw themselves into the silly but stealthily sophisticated Motor Toon Grand Prix, which arrived in December 1994, just two weeks after the launch of the original PlayStation in Japan. The Japan-only original performed well enough for Sony to request a sequel and, in 1996, Yamauchi and his Polys Entertainment team released a follow-up – which was distributed worldwide.
With a pair of successful first-party exclusives under his belt, Yamauchi re-pitched Gran Turismo to the powers that be.
This time, they went for it.
Which was handy for Yamauchi, considering he and his team had already been developing it in the background since the very beginning.
Work on Gran Turismo actually began way back in 1992, two years before the PlayStation was first released – and well before the game itself had even been officially greenlit. Assembled by a team that started at just five and grew to about 15 people, the original Gran Turismo came together over five years – which was actually a huge length of time for a game back in that era.
The scope of Gran Turismo’s vision made for a massive amount of work for such a small team and, as such, Yamauchi and members of his Polys crew were regularly found sleeping under their desks overnight. This was Yamauchi’s dream project, and he was all-in.
But there was no guarantee Gran Turismo would be a hit. In fact, despite his devotion to the project, even Yamauchi himself fully expected it to be a niche game. Console gamers had demonstrated a desire to see their favourite arcade racers distilled onto home consoles, but it was really the PC space that was playing host to the emerging world of racing simulators. Would Gran Turismo resonate with console players? After all, Yamauchi was preparing to dish up a dose of drastically more difficult driving to a gaming community primarily used to far more effortless arcade-style drifting; a mainstream audience for whom selecting manual transmission while playing Daytona USA at the bowling alley was probably the most meaningful mechanical customisation they’d ever made.
Yes, MicroProse and Papyrus were making huge strides on PC with a racing rivalry that spawned some of the most respected motorsport sims ever made. Yes, Codemasters first brought the very excellent TOCA Touring Car Championship to the original PlayStation in 1997. But there was simply no blueprint for the colossal car game Polys Entertainment were making here. Not on a home console. Not anywhere, really.
The result, however, was a blockbuster that literally rewrote the rules of the road.
First released in Japan in December 1997, Kazunori Yamauchi’s niche dream game became a monster critical and commercial smash. By the time it arrived in North America, Europe and other territories in mid-1998 it had already soared its way to more than two million sales in Japan alone. The tiny team at Polys Entertainment, which in 1998 became Polyphony Digital, had produced what would ultimately be one of the most important racing games ever made.
Gran Turismo’s realistic handling meant that gamers needed to focus on their racing skills more than ever. This was no arcade racer. You couldn’t just yank the steering with reckless abandon, and you couldn’t cannon through the courses completely ignoring the brakes. Gran Turismo demanded respect. If you didn’t know how to corner correctly, the 100-page instruction booklet and racing strategy guide would teach you. Driving lines, weight shifting, drifting; you name it. If you didn’t want to read it, Gran Turismo shipped with a series of in-game driving tests players needed to pass before they could compete in the championships, anyway. This was a game that required you to prove you were good enough to play it – and, if you weren’t good enough, it was determined to make you good enough. The first game designed for the original DualShock controller and its extremely welcome analogue sticks, Gran Turismo proved not only that consoles could host serious racing games, but that gamers were well and truly ready for much more than arcade ports in their living rooms.
Then there was the tuning; almost everything that moved, cranked, or made noise on your car could be traded or tweaked. Gamers were introduced to a world of fascinating car customisation they never even knew existed, and motorheads were won over by a car game that actually understood their passion for tinkering.
It also had an engaging in-game economy. Gran Turismo wasn’t a free-for-all sandbox; we had start out in its cheapest cars and grind out race wins to afford upgrades, as well as purchase and collect new and used cars. Yamauchi and his team had turned a racing game into an RPG – and turned the key on a brand-new sub-genre of racing.
That doesn’t cover everything, though. We haven’t mentioned the graphics, and as quaint and primitive as the early 3D-era seems now through a modern lens, it can’t really be understated just how astonishing Gran Turismo looked back in the late ’90s. Despite being made up of barely 300 polygons, each of Gran Turismo’s cars were instantly recognisable and packed with as much detail as the PlayStation’s puny processor would permit. Whether you were ogling the cars as the shiny models rotated in the showroom or watching them dice on track in the stunning replay mode, no racing game looked as good as Gran Turismo did.
And let’s not forget the music: Ash, Garbage, Feeder, and a Chemical Brothers remix of Manic Street Preachers Everything Must Go that I still can’t play in my car without imagining I’m hurtling down the last sector of Trial Mountain. This was real rock, and it made Gran Turismo an important part of the evolution of video game soundtracks. It’s easy to forget that licensed soundtracks of pre-recorded music by existing artists weren’t always the norm for racing and sports games; it was only the shift to the CD format that began to make this possible. Gran Turismo can easily stand beside the likes of Road Rash, Wipeout, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as a key trendsetter from this era.
Of course, then there were the cars themselves. Yamauchi’s obsession with automobiles saw Gran Turismo blow out into something way bigger than anything we’d ever seen before. There were over 150 cars in the original Gran Turismo. Sure, maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot today, when modern day racers are arriving with hundreds and hundreds of cars – but 25 years ago 150 cars was a borderline baffling number. The standard version of Need for Speed II, released the same year as GT – in early 1997 – had nine licensed cars. You could count them on your hands and still have a finger left over to scratch you head in confusion at what Polyphony had achieved; over 150 cars, all crushed onto a compact disc. A compact disc that already had 11 songs on it. It was absolutely unprecedented.
GT’s immense car catalogue didn’t just make a splash with gamers, though; it went on to make waves throughout the real-life motor industry and absolutely helped alter the destiny of at least several now extremely iconic Japanese cars. While the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution were well-known to rally fans – and the Nissan GT-R had been involved in touring car racing in Japan, Australia, and the UK – all three of these manufacturers have attributed popularity increases in their models directly to Gran Turismo, and launches in new markets like the US came in the wake of GT’s release.
For instance, while the first seven Lancer Evolution models were only officially released in Japan, the cult, all-wheel drive rally legend debuted in the US with the Evo 8, with Mitsubishi claiming there was no doubt that Gran Turismo played a huge role in its decision to launch in the USA, admitting the car wouldn’t have attracted as much attention as it did in the United States without the game.
The impact of GT wasn’t just felt by Japanese carmakers, either; little-known TVR, one of only two UK car brands available in the original Gran Turismo, reportedly enjoyed a six-fold sales increase in Japan following its appearance in the first game. Gran Turismo was making true stars out of its cars, and it would begin to change the way the car industry looked at video games.
Out of nowhere Gran Turismo had become a true phenomenon; a bona fide bestseller all over the place. It eventually shifted just under 11 million copies, going on to become the all-time best-selling game on the original PlayStation.
The meteoric rise of Gran Turismo would continue throughout the remainder of the PlayStation generation. Gran Turismo 2, which arrived in Japan and North America in December 1999 and PAL territories a month later, quickly proved the success of the original was no fluke. GT2 more than tripled the amount of cars available in the game – to almost 650 – and was subsequently so huge it had to come with a second, scratch ’n sniff disc to accommodate its massive girth. A much-loved instalment, which kicked off with one of the series’ most fondly-remembered intros, GT2 would go on to sell well over 9 million copies, making it the third-bestselling game on the PS1.
The arrival of the PS2 brought with it the next chapter of the Gran Turismo series. Well, not straight away, but eventually, after a brief delay, which is something GT fans had to get used to. The incredibly anticipated Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, which hit Japan in April 2001 and the rest of the world two months later, was like something out of the future, bringing never-before-seen levels of fidelity to GT’s victorious brand of vehicular veneration. It was more than just a smash hit; selling more than 15 million copies it’s the best-selling Gran Turismo game in the whole series, and the second highest selling PS2 game of all-time. 2004’s Gran Turismo 4 – the mammoth successor that did everything GT3 and much, much more – would go on to slot in just behind it, at third on the all-time sales charts.
Things did change a little for the GT series after that, and Yamauchi has since conceded that the PlayStation 3-era was actually a nightmare for the Polyphony team. There was a lot of pent-up demand for Gran Turismo 5, which landed in November 2010, a lengthy four years after the launch of PS3 following a string of delays. That hunger would ultimately help it become the second highest-selling game in the series. But the game itself ended up being a bit of an uneven experience, and one which heavily relied on giving GT4’s ageing garage an HD refresh to try and make the old PS2 car models passable on PS3. It also lost a little of its usual idiosyncratic charm by leaning a little too hard into its quirkiness, and doing baffling things with some of its most exciting content.
The Greatest Racing Games Ever
One good example is its use of the famous Top Gear Test Track, which debuted in GT5 just as the show itself was surging in popularity worldwide. However, as opposed to doing something on-brand with supercars, GT5 opted to make your first race on it a… slow slog in a VW Kombi – and follow it up with another race between a bunch of 1944 Kübelwagens, a car designed for moving Nazis around during World War II and chasing Indiana Jones. GT6 made a similar set of missteps, again rolling out those PS2-era relics and doing daft things like… taking players to the moon. To be fair, GT6 really was a better product overall to GT5… but it only sold half as many copies, fewer than even GT5 Prologue.
After GT6 Polyphony pivoted to the esports-focused spin-off Gran Turismo Sport in 2017, and it would be nearly a decade until the studio would deliver GT7. The positive news is that, except for its terrible microtransaction approach and an early update debacle that saw the game offline for over a day, Gran Turismo 7 is an accomplished return to that magical automotive formula the original established a quarter of a century ago.
With five console generations and even a PSP instalment under its belt, the Gran Turismo series is the biggest wheel down at the Sony cracker factory: the highest selling PlayStation series of all time. It’s hard to imagine, if Gran Turismo hadn’t been made, that no one else would’ve ever merged RPG design with realistic racing and a mountain of cars and arrived with something that resembled it. Millions and millions of people proved they wanted this sort of game to exist, so it only stands to reason that at least one of them would’ve stood in a position to make it, one day. But would it have had the same first-party muscle Sony brought to the table? Would it have inspired Microsoft to create the Forza Motorsport series to overtly rival it? And would we even have the Forza Horizon series without that?
We can probably never really know. But one thing we do know, is that the impact the arrival of Gran Turismo had on the evolution of racing games as we currently play them, is simply massive. Like Street Fighter II, or GTAIII, or Halo, Gran Turismo changed the trajectory of an entire genre, and is one of the most influential racing games ever made.
Not bad for a game that was initially rejected.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can chat to him on Twitter @MrLukeReilly.