The game has three modes of play: arcade, story and time attack. In arcade mode, the player picks a car and then has to face off against a number of computer-controlled adversaries, across a range of tracks and driving conditions. Each of the AI controlled opponents behaves in a convincing way, and actually put up a good fight without resorting to dirty tactics. However, it seems as though they never drop too far behind and always lurk within a few hundred metres regardless of the speed differential. This is no bad thing as it makes the racing closer and more exciting, especially when an unforced error sends the distance meter tumbling from two hundred meters towards zero.
The story mode lets the player take part in the battles and events from the Initial D series. In the main, the player gets to assume the role of the central character, Takumi Fujiwara, in his dad's Toyota AE86 GT Apex (known as the Corolla in the UK). Fans of the series will love dispatching Takumi's onscreen rivals, and it should be noted that many of the challenges play out quite differently to the arcade mode. For example, one of the early stages is a recreation of the Gumtape Deathmatch: a race from the series where Takumi has to drive with his right hand gaffer-taped to the steering wheel, effectively restricting the amount of steering he can use.
Naturally, no driving game would be complete without the ubiquitous time attack mode, and players will find the bulk of their time spent perfecting their skills using this feature. All of the expected options are there, including a ghost car option. Criminally, this is the only way that two human players can effectively race against each other, as the game contains no two player mode - neither iLink or splitscreen racing is supported. This is a startling omission for a game that is focused totally on head-to-head racing.
Within the arcade and time attack modes, the game also allows players to upgrade or tune their chosen vehicle, with a system that initially seems to be a poor man's Gran Turismo, but on closer inspection turns out to be a simple and flexible system of rewards. Once one of the thirty-plus vehicles have been chosen, the player is given the choice of one of four tuning paths. Each path adds on various trick bits to the car, whether it's mufflers to increase power, body kits and spoilers to improve handling, new wheels to improve traction or some stickers for that Max Power look. Each tuning step along the path is automatically added to the car once the player accrues enough points, earned either in the arcade or time attack modes. Tune-ups affecting exterior components make a visible difference to the way the car looks, which is a nice touch.
Initial D fans will also be pleased to see that by selecting an appropriate tune option their car will evolve into one from the series. For example, select the RX-7 FC and tune path A and the end result is Ryosuke's car: the White Comet of Akagi. Select the eight-six and tune option A and the ultimate result is Takumi's set of wheels. There are also special tunes available once enough points have been earned. For example, the eight-six gets the AE101 high rev race engine and the Lan Evo IV gets the WRC misfiring system. Beyond this the game provides opportunities to swap parts with a different tune course as the points total masses.
Graphically, the game is very slick indeed. The original anime series used a combination of hand-drawn visuals for the out-of-car sequences and some impressive (for the time) CGI for the street battles. Fortunately things have moved on a bit since then, and the game showcases a very detailed graphics engine, which moves at a near-constant 60fps. However none of the original style from the anime has been lost, with the cars and courses looking like an update from the anime as opposed to a complete reworking. Races in the arcade and story modes are all linked together, with narrative screens either lifted from the pages of the black and white manga books, or full frame colour with a little animation. As a result the game remains true to its roots, and puts the player inside the world of Initial D.
Mention has to be made of the in game music. Normally, for a Sega driving game the expectation is to be subjected to the painful wailing of some guy whose leather pants are on too tight, backed-up with an electric guitar noise indistinguishable from the sound of a drowning cat. Fortunately in the case of Initial D, Sega have a licence with a very strong musical content to draw on. In fact, you can buy CD compilations of the music from the series and a lot of these tracks have been implemented in the game. The musical genre Eurobeat, which can be described as a Japanese take on European dance music from the early 90's, wont be to everybody's taste, but it works in the game surprisingly well, providing the perfect soundtrack for attacking the downhill.
On the sound effect side it's good news too, with spot on engine sounds, including the distinctive sound of the Wankel rotary engine in the RX-7. Apart from that, the only other effects are a fine tyre squeal and the clonking sound as the front wheel drops into a gutter.
In conclusion Initial D Special Stage is a fantastic driving game that actually brings something fresh to the genre. It succeeds because it not only provides an arcade adrenalin buzz, but also encourages experimentation and improvement until the potential of the car and player have been fully realised, which will keep players coming back for more and for longer.
Text by: Trevor Bradbury (Madbury)