In the late 1990s, a pre-Enix merger Square released some extremely odd games for the original PlayStation. Not all of them were good but it was a period of wild creativity for the publisher, whose pockets had been nicely fattened by the success of Final Fantasy VII. Square brought the blockbusters to Sony’s CD-powered console alright, but with games as varied as wrestling-inspired beat-’em-up Ehrgeiz, stylish survival horror Parasite Eve, and Final Fantasy spin-off Chocobo Racing, it also gave its developers license to experiment. And one of its boldest outcomes was the wonderfully weird Racing Lagoon.
Released in Japan in the summer of 1999, Racing Lagoon is a curious fusion of racing and role-playing set in Yokohama, the country’s second largest city. In the 80s and 90s illegal street racing was a way of life for certain law-flaunting Japanese petrolheads, particularly members of the notorious Mid Night Club. Formed in 1987, these guys hosted high-speed races along the Shuto Expressway between Tokyo and Yokohama, until a fatal crash in 1999 forced them to disband. And it’s this subculture that inspired Racing Lagoon, which sees rival clubs racing for glory on the city’s streets.
You play as Sho Akasaki, a stoic young street racer who has just joined the Bay Lagoon Racing Team. You start the game in a black-and-white 86-LEV, which is based on the famous Toyota Corolla Levin featured in the massively popular Initial D series, a manga and anime about illegal street racing. An interesting aside: the resale price for a 1980s Levin is so high that it’s referred to as having ‘Takumi tax’ after Initial D's protagonist Takumi Fujiwara. The cars in Racing Lagoon look near-identical to their real-life counterparts, but with copyright-dodging names such as the Seven-RX (Mazda RX-7), Celine (Toyota Celica), and EVO-2000 (Mitsubishi Lancer).
Akasaki’s debut race, a loop around Bay Lagoon Wharf against a club called the Night Racers, is your first taste of the game’s driving — but not before a whole heap of dialogue. It’s clear from the offset that Racing Lagoon is big on story, which is a problem if you can’t read Japanese. The game was never released outside of Japan and no fan translation exists, meaning I had to piece the story together myself from scattered forum posts, articles, and wiki entries. As I understand it, Akasaki is an amnesiac with some connection to a sinister mega-corporation called WON-TEC, and the story is largely about him trying to piece his fragmented past together.
When you finally do get behind the wheel, it’s a pretty basic racer. There’s a nice weight to the way the cars handle, but they all feel similar, and almost twenty years on it can't help but feel a little shallow. Even compared to contemporaries like Gran Turismo 2 or the sublime Ridge Racer Type 4, Racing Lagoon has little room for mastery. But when you consider that its development team, the evocatively-named Square Product Development Division 2, had only made a couple of SaGa Frontier games prior to this, it’s perhaps understandable that it struggled to compete with the masters of the genre.
It’s the RPG elements that make Racing Lagoon such a fascinating game, anyway. Between races you’re free to explore the streets of Yokohama in the form of a cute little diorama of the city. This is essentially the world map, complete with random battles. Drive into another racer and you’ll trigger a street race. Beat them and you can take a part of their car for yourself, whether it’s their paint job, engine, wheels, or even the entire body of the vehicle. This is how you get better and faster in Racing Lagoon, cannibalising rivals to create your own automotive Frankenstein’s monster.
Your car has three slots — engine, body, and chassis — each of which can be fitted with a dizzying number of unlockable parts, from rims, spoilers, and decals, to stat-boosting upgrades such as turbo systems, exhausts, air filters, and suspension kits. But it goes both ways, and drivers can win your upgrades too, meaning the game often requires you to grind races in order to win enough parts to beat tougher rivals. Surgically transplanting an RPG structure into a street racing game like this shouldn’t work, but it does somehow, and I’m surprised another developer hasn’t subsequently stolen the idea. Same goes for the chicken races, where two drivers race towards the end of a pier and the first person to panic and hit the brakes loses.
Another thing Racing Lagoon has going is how stylish it is. There’s something deeply aesthetically pleasing about seeing Honda Civics, Nissan Skylines, and Toyota Supras streaking through Japanese streets at night, and the jazz fusion soundtrack by composers Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi is secretly one of the best of the PlayStation era. There are some nice visual touches too, like the way your brake discs glow a hot red as you drift around corners. It’s just a shame the character models are so hideous at times, letting down what is otherwise a supremely classy-looking game.
But for all its style and imagination, Racing Lagoon was poorly received by critics and didn’t make much of an impact on release. Famitsu rated it 21/40, praising the visuals but deciding that its brave mix of genres didn’t quite work. It shifted a respectable 140,000 units, but not enough to convince Square to release it in other regions. Tracking a copy down these days is difficult, although I do know someone who found it languishing in a bargain bin in a secondhand book store in Osaka. It's one of those games that, for all the clever ideas and clear sense of style, has largely sank without trace.
There's a slight melancholy to Racing Lagoon in 2018, not because it especially deserved to sell a million, but because even now you can feel it was a pioneering game. In the years since, a few racing games including Ubisoft’s The Crew, Playground’s Forza Horizon, and Konami’s ill-fated Enthusia Professional Racing have followed in its wake and introduced RPG elements, or given you a role to play as opposed to a being an avatar obscured by a helmet. But none have taken the idea of a ‘car-PG’ to the extremes this did. If you want to be brutal about Racing Lagoon it is ultimately a failed experiment, a weak driving game attached to a so-so RPG. But it’s also an example of Square at its creative peak, taking risks on wild ideas that wouldn’t make financial sense today. That's why we'll probably never see a sequel, even if Racing Lagoon deserved another shot at glory.
Thanks to Erica June (twitter) for the header image.