Tokyo Game Centre #16: F355 Challenge

I wanted to cover this because it has obvious connections with both Italy and Japan. In particular, it’s reaching out to Italy from Japan, and since that’s the direction I moved, I feel I can relate to it a little.

F355 Challenge is an arcade racing game leaning heavily to the simulation end of the spectrum. The theory I want to put forward here is that its simulator-ness isn’t just a passable differentiator in a crowded racer market, but a serious outlet for fantasy hobbying. There’s not all that much spare space in Tokyo, and people living there don’t see too many race tracks, let alone drive on them. That’s even truer for race tracks in Italy. And as luxurious as a Ferrari might be in Europe, the romance of an Italian supercar probably only increases as it gets further from home and into stranger lands. I think F355 Challenge is a fantasy outlet so serious, in fact, that it’s not even really a game at all. Let me explain.



Minna no Golf is the original Japanese name for Everybody’s Golf. To understand the image of golf in Japan, you need to realise that this isn’t just a golf videogame for everyone — it's golf for everyone. In Japan, golf is an exclusive sport, with astronomical membership fees, few courses near Tokyo, and scant free time for working people to spend a whole day out at the course. Maybe that’s true everywhere, but in Japan, more so.

Minna no Golf cuts away all the financial, space, and time demands of golfing. It’s just a videogame, though, so doesn’t really scratch the itch for the genuine enthusiast. My gym provided practice nets so you could hit real golf balls with real golf clubs. For space efficiency, they actually had just one practice net in a small unused space on a flat rooftop. It hung vertically with a tee on either side facing the net in the middle. You and some other brave idiot were supposed to whack the balls straight at each other, I suppose. It wasn’t used all that much.

Next to my office, combining the best parts of Minna no Golf, the practice net, and the driving range (also popular in central Tokyo), was “Boxgolf”, signposted down a tiny alleyway. A middle aged man in a suit used to turn up on his mamachari bike once a week at about 10pm — probably having dined at 7-Eleven on the way from the office — with a single golf club tied to the crossbar with a shoelace. He parked the bike on the street: it would have blocked the way if he hadn’t, so narrow was the alley. Boxgolf is a “golf training simulator system”. You stand in a room and hit a golf ball at a simulated golf course projected onto a hanging sheet. Your swing is captured on cameras and immediately replayed to you, presented alongside data about the point of impact, movement of the club head, etc., and a projection of the calculated flight path of the ball along a virtual course. Boxgolf is neither presented nor consumed as a videogame, although all the pieces are there. The input method is unconventional, but we game fans love that kind of thing, right? Anyway, it’s not a game; it’s a serious, high-tech simulation. Of a game.


Nos moutons

Why do I mention all this? Well, my theory is that F355 Challenge is in the same sort of sense not really a videogame. I think it was created as a desperately needed accessible way to (more or less) engage in a pastime made exclusive and inaccessible by financial requirements and (more pressingly for its creator) logistical obstacles. You drive a single type of car, modelled in painstaking detail, you race without checkpoints or (effectively) a time limit, and at the end, you get a printout — a printout! — showing your engine telemetry at each point on the course.

It’s not a game; it’s a serious high-tech simulation for the enthusiast, but with a few optional tweaks it was dressed up to be similar enough to a videogame that Sega would give Yu Suzuki the green light. Just a theory, but to back it up, I’ll note that Suzuki was reportedly the owner of an F355 himself, whence his motivation to build a portal to Monza and install it in his apartment.

He did a good job, too: before the GT Academy convinced everyone they basically were driving real cars on their PS3 (in their pyjamas), this machine is what realised the illusion.


A footnote

I’m disappointed to illustrate this post rather sloppily with an image of a twin type cabinet inviting head-to-head play. That’s not what I’m claiming was the spirit of the original, which had this somewhat preposterous 3-screen set-up, so you could get in on your own and thoroughly block out the real world. Those ones had an H-shaped gearshift and three pedals, too, and were the ones with the printers for race telemetry. The one I pictured isn’t even F355 Challenge; it’s F355 Challenge 2. And it’s not even in Tokyo either: it’s at Helsinki Airport.

But what’s interesting about that? I wanted to write about this one.

Next week, hmmm… what have we got? We’ll definitely be back in the game centre proper, and I think we’ll do something you probably haven’t seen before: a novel take on one of the most classic of classics.

(See all postcards from the game centre here.)




Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people