Initial D: Special Stage
From the makers of Sega Rally comes Initial D: Special Stage, combining fast arcade thrills with a super successful anime franchise. Read our full review.
Updating the engine of the Initial D: Arcade Stage version 2 game, Sega Rosso brings home the high speed racing thrills of the coin-op version and sprinkles it with a good number of extras to complete their wonderful conversion of the NAOMI 2 powered speedster. Coming to the PS2 in impressive form it's games like Initial D: Special Stage that make us want to marry Sega.
Initial D originated as a popular Manga series that exploded into a super popular Anime series. It then spawned several videogame releases, none of which were memorable and all mediocre at best until Sega got their mittens on the franchise with Initial D: Arcade Stage.
The story of Initial D: Special Stage revolves around Takumi Fujiwara, a tofu delivery boy with great aspirations of becoming a professional racecar driver some day. After defeating the most notorious street racer around, the love for street racing filters through his blood as more rival racers appear out of the woodwork to challenge him and his friends to a series of racing contests. Although the game follows the manga more closely than it follows the Anime, having some exposure to either will help you follow the game's story better.
Initially there was a bit of concern as to how well the cars would control before taking a hold of the Dual Shocks. Having been inundated with sim-like controls in console driving/racing games during the past few years, I was a bit apprehensive about what the cars of Initial D: Special Stage would control like. Fortunately the game sports some solid arcade style controls, bringing about a great sigh of relief.
Each car controls impeccably well, gripping the roads as you round those sharp corners and speeding through those straight a ways. Although the controls tend to feel a tad bit sensitive with the cars making sudden turns at the tap of the digital pad/analog stick, it's still a dream come true when compared to the nightmarish controls of actual driving sims.
The action really is "fast and furious" as you burn rubber around those hairpin turns at high speeds. Even when your vehicle rams into walls and bounces back and forth, it still maintains its high rate of speed, and isn't penalized severely like it would be in many other racers.
With Initial D: Special Stage, if you think you're getting a direct conversion of the arcade game, you're wrong. Initial D: Special Stage plays more like an arcade conversion PLUS. With the generous inclusion of new tracks taken from the anime, as well as plenty of new music and other enhancements, this conversion goes beyond its 'Arcade Stage-Version 2' sibling.
Depending on the game mode you select, you're presented with a vehicle manufacturer screen where you can select from different Japanese vehicle manufacturers such as Mitsubishi, Mazda, Suzuki and many more and then choose from the list of available cars they have to offer. After selecting your car of choice and whatever fancy additions are offered, you get ready for some street racin' action and compete against your rivals on 4 different night and daytime mountain courses.
In arcade mode, you choose a car from a selection of 30 available ones, Afterwards Takumi travels to other mountain locales to challenge the drivers of those areas. Defeating each rival will garner you more points and unlock different upgrades to your car. If you're fast enough you can also register your best times on the Internet Rankings.
The Time Attack mode on the other hand allows you to practice your driving through each of the 11 courses available in the game with No Time limit restrictions. Initial D: Special Stage adds 5 new tricky tracks to the 6 already available from Initial D: Arcade Stage ver. 2.
Of course the meat of the game is the Story mode. In this play mode, players get to experience the main driving portions of the manga series. Containing 31 levels that take players through the manga's First Stage, Second Stage, Third Stage and beyond, it's here that having some exposure to the anime, especially the manga will enable you to follow the story of the game more closely.
Playing through the story mode unlocks some pretty nice goodies such as extra music that gets unlocked after completing each stage, bringing the total number of song selections up to 30, more than its arcade brethrens. Also Story Mode unlocks car profiles that Koichirou Iketani explains during their demonstrations.
In addition to being an excellent port of the coin-op version with some hidden console exclusive gems, the PS2 conversion also brings other extras to the table such as a virtual garage where you can store a number of different cars. This is a very useful feature that significantly increases the replay value of the game, while at the same time preventing frustration from setting in due to being relegated to using the same car over and over again.
Unfortunately even with the amount of pros this game has, it also has a CON or two. The biggest one being the lack of a 2 Player mode! What the hell? In this day and age, 2 Player head-to-head racing should come standard in all racing games since even gamers tend to have friends to. So with that, those looking for some 2 Player Initial D action will have to stick with the linked setup of the coin-op version.
The other CON, which is more of a personal preference, happens to be the emptiness of the roads. It gets real lonely out there because you're either the only car on the road OR you're racing against just one other opponent. I tend to find racing games with plenty of other cars on the tracks to be more vibrant and exciting overall.
Graphically Initial D looks great, with some very nice lighting effects sporting the usual lens flare effect that's prevalent in many games today. All of the cars looked very well modeled, crafted with impeccable detail to represent their real world counterparts.
With such speed, great draw-in distance with very, very little pop-up, and a very respectable frame rate that rarely dips. All of these things and more help round out this most faithful conversion of Sega's NAOMI 2 offering.
The background environments are equally impressive featuring a host of great looking locales ranging from mountainous passages with lush, detailed looking trees, flower beds, and beautiful skylines, to parks with parking lots filled with cars, and roadsides containing more signs than a traffic school pamphlet.
You can select between Day and Nighttime courses and bare witness to other nice effects such as rain, wetting the courses and making them even more difficult to maneuver through, to the autumn leaves that fly towards the screen after speeding over some of them. However, it seems to be the very nice lighting effects during the nighttime courses and the weathering effects that caused the game's very brief slowdown from what we've experienced so far. Fortunately it doesn't happen often and isn't blatantly obvious when it does happen.
In fact, we didn't even notice it in the beginning, but then had Kikizo's own Captain N (Captain Nitpick) comb through the entire game to try and find something trivial to take issue with.
Visually, Initial D: Special Stage looks incredibly close to its arcade brethren. Bringing home the visual splendor of the coin-op version with great looking replays, wonderful graphics and a great sense of speed.
The music of Initial D: Special Stage definitely takes center stage (pun intended). We were literally dancing our butts off while playing the game. The music consists of some very catchy Super Eurobeat dance tracks that just fit the game like a glove.
Unfortunately the sound effects are played back at higher sound levels, drowning out any real enjoyment one could have with the great music. To make matters worse, even though the sound effects have more of a presence, they're not that hot to begin with. The sounds of engines revving and cars colliding with walls were all nothing special and can become quite intolerable. Even though there's an option to shut off the sound effects, there's unfortunately no option to turn them down. Which is going too far in the other direction. Something to change for the western release I think.
Special Stage retains the 11 great default sound selections of Arcade Stage ver. 2 with 20 more being unlocked after playing through the story mode. The voice acting is also worth noting as it also retains some of the great quality found in the anime.
Despite the issues with the sound effects, Initial D: Special Stage is pure musical goodness that's definitely worth picking up an OST of. If you're lucky enough to find one, snatch it up and dance the night away!
Overall, Initial D: Special Stage provides enough fun and challenging play mechanics to keep players coming back for more. Those looking to import and can't read a lick of Japanese should be prepared for the language barrier though. Most of the game's text is Japanese, and you'll need to go through a bit of trial and error in order to figure out the interface and selection screen options. Afterwards, it's pretty much all gravy as it's off to the races to try and blast through the finish lines in top form - a universal language if ever there was one.
Even with the glaring lack of a 2-player mode, there's enough horsepower underneath Initial D's hood to keep your attention for a while. Fans of the Initial D series rejoice, as Sega is probably the first and only developer to do the Initial D franchise some justice. By providing the core Initial D: Arcade Stage engine with some bonus additions exclusive to the PS2 version, the game should serve as a proper interactive Initial D experience.
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