Unlike the first instalment of this Reject Games mini-series – the F1 ’98 review – this is not a game about Formula 1. It’s also something of a rarity, and in 1999 a company named TYO produced a game for the Sony Playstation based on that year’s edition of the Formula Nippon series, Japan’s premier single-seater championship.
Known today as Super Formula, the championship’s roots began in Japanese Formula 3000 prior to becoming Formula Nippon in 1996. In the seasons prior to this game’s release, drivers such as Ralf Schumacher and Pedro de la Rosa became championship winners en route to Formula 1, and hence this aspect of climbing the ranks to F1 is what Formula Nippon focuses on; the blurb on the back of the case declaring categorically that Formula Nippon is undoubtedly “the best training for Formula One drivers”.
The gameplay, graphics and various other nuances will be dissected further, but Formula Nippon brings an absolutely killer mechanic into the game and it’s not something that – sadly – has been attempted by anyone in a Formula 1 game: career progression through different categories. Formula Nippon allows the player to begin in karts and progress to Japanese Formula 3, before rising to challenge for the eponymous Formula Nippon championship. If only Codemasters could implement the climb from GP3 to F2 to F1 in their current-day offerings…
Having the tangible progression through the ranks is a highly-commendable gameplay inclusion, and offers depth to the game rather than simply offering a series of single races. Once you progress from karts, the player enrols within a driving school to help develop skills in the more nuanced higher-category series. Although the concept is brimming with potential, the execution is not exactly perfect.
On loading up the game, the first thing the player will hope to do is take one of the Formula Nippon steeds for a canter around Japan’s finest circuits. As expected, Formula Nippon includes all the circuits from the 1999 season, but given that the series visited only five venues over the course of the year, this means that there’s very little variety here. The inclusions of Sugo and Mine offer some welcome unfamiliarity to the bulk of the Western audience, and many will have experienced Suzuka, Motegi and Fuji in other racing games.
The circuits are fair imitations of their real-life counterparts, but those familiar with Suzuka in particular will immediately recognise a few shortcomings in the Formula Nippon interpretation; it feels far too enclosed by barriers, leaving some of the sections feeling far too tight, apart from the Degner/underpass section which is conversely far too wide.
However, perhaps adding an element of challenge to the circuits isn’t such a bad thing, because once some time is spent working out how they respond, the Formula Nippon cars are horrendously easy to drive. It’s far too simple to take the first corner and Spoon at Suzuka flat, as long as the steering inputs are relatively deft. It’s perhaps advisable to sit and play with transmission settings, since the speed at which corners can be taken means that the cars become serial rev-limit botherers on any vaguely straight piece of circuit.
There will come a time in anybody’s experience of Formula Nippon where they fall off the circuit, and navigating the car back to the tarmac offers its own unique challenge. Firstly, it emerges that rather than using the barriers as…well, barriers, each grassy patch or gravel trap comes fully-equipped with an invisible wall, which it’s sometimes possible to become stuck on.
After making it back to the track and off of the grass, the car expresses some further weird behaviour, producing copious amounts of wheelspin at the rear akin to a worm-ridden dog dragging its bottom across the carpet. You certainly need dogged determination to get this far into the game.
As perhaps should be expected, the karts are very responsive, almost to their detriment. There is a pair of kart circuits in-game in addition to the five full-size circuits on offer, and it’s very easy to oversteer into the ninety-degree corners (of which there are plenty) and ride the kerb. This doesn’t sound too bad, but the kerb mechanics are unpredictable at best; sometimes it’s possible to carry on as normal, but on other occasions the kerb is more than happy to throw the player off somewhere between the grass and the (invisible) wall, leaving them with the arduous journey of returning to the track.
It’s not the end of the world if you go off, though. Racing the AI is a very easy process, and they’re happy to churn around the track at a leisurely pace. They defend reasonably well without being cheap, but once they’ve been passed they only become a further worry when lapping them, provided the race is long enough. To that end, progressing through the career mode is very straightforward provided the player isn’t too clumsy. As an added bonus, every time you win (or even finish) a race, you’re greeting with a congratulatory “GOAL” message.
There’s very little to say about the overall graphics of the game, they’re very reasonable for the time, and have an almost “Nintendo 64” quality to them – the circuits are a little bit fuzzy and washed-out, but the textures are good. The car models are also decent if not a little boxy, although the Formula 3 car looks far clunkier than its real-life inspiration. Draw-distance – which was a huge complaint in the F1 ’98 review – is excellent here, and the field of vision offers a good level of immersiveness to the player.
Sadly, the cameras are a little bit frustrating, and considering games like F1 ’97 had already been out for two years prior to Formula Nippon’s release, it’s a bit of a shame to have only four angles to choose from. In particular, the cockpit view feels particularly lazy, simply overlaying a dashboard onto the screen like that seen in Grand Prix 2, which was released four years before.
Formula Nippon has some brilliant ideas, and the career progression feature is a phenomenal idea. Tying in a driving school to this also has some merit, and features some VERY familiar faces who will guide you through learning the more powerful machinery. It’s also an incredibly strange game, and the driving physics are as inconsistent as they come. The AI is glacial, but there’s a lot of novelty value in Formula Nippon; the developers have covered a lot of new ground with their ideas and that’s very commendable. Sadly, the glaring bugs and weird physics begin to grate and quickly, the novelty begins to wear off.
This is a real diamond in the rough. There’s some fantastic potential, but Formula Nippon is far too wild to make anything of it.
With thanks to Miguel Rocha, who provided further gameplay notes.