I’ve written about cringe & wince -worthy games, divulged into early anime -esque titles, and somehow even brought a Harlequin into my gaming discussion. Hell; my first post to this blog was about a racing game. Can I somehow put all of that cringe together and wrap it back around to motorsports?

Sure I can.

In my Season of the Sakura piece I wrote about early “anime influenced” games in the United States. In the time period leading up to the later 1990s these instances in gaming were far and few in between, and many were often ‘localized’ and altered to remove references of their Japanese origin. In going over this idea in my head I was trying to recollect the first time I saw “anime” in a game in the US that wasn’t necessarily a strict anime or manga -sourced title – keeping in mind this would be the “ah ha” moment for me – and this is the one I remember; ‘Formula One: Built to Win’ on the NES.

F1:BTW was developed by a Japanese company called Winkysoft. Winkysoft is likely not known to many westerners, other than they produced the NES game Tom Sawyer and also published a game utilizing the Macross license in japan. F1:BTW would be published by the now-defunct SETA Corporation. SETA published a solid amount of titles for Nintendo properties for roughly twenty years, focusing primarily on puzzle titles. They published three Formula One inspired racing games total, two on the Super Famicom (SNES) that were self developed/published and the one here on the Famicom (NES) developed under Winkysoft, F1:BTW.

Many individuals who played the SNES/Super Famicom have likely came across or seen SETA’s two efforts for that console. In the United States they were called ‘F1 ROC’ and ‘F1 ROC 2’; in some regions they were known as ‘Exhaust Heat.’ They were decent arcade -style driving titles for the time, especially compared to some of the other 16 bit offerings that featured high level open wheel racing such as Formula One and Indycar. Prior to these however, SETA would produce F1:BTW, and it’s a very interesting Nintendo case study for racing games.

Racing games for 8 bit consoles were all over the map, so to speak, in regards to how to present racing to the player. There were in-car played titles, such as Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge, overhead driving games like Micro Machines, difficult to control mini-sprite single screen games like Super Sprint, and fairly ambitious scrolling isometric games such as RC Pro AM. Racing games lent themselves well to this generation of consoles due to 8 bit gaming largely coming out of the “points” or “arcade board” era. Side scrollers were all about completing stages (levels, boards, whatever you called them) whereas most racing games gave back some arcade appeal to players. They were titles that you could pick up quickly without a lot of acclimation, and as quickly pick up again should you lose.

Additionally the vast majority of racing titles outside of some select computer entries such as ‘Indianapolis 500; The Simulation’ could not effectively portray various concepts of racing dynamics. Games not played from isometric, overhead, or side scrolled effectively could not relay to the player the concept of corner entry and exit on track. Instead, items such as track side objects and such were the “penalty” for not taking ideal lines or just attempting to accelerate as fast as possible. Many racing titles well into the 16 bit era played similarly in concept.

No F1 fans; you’re not seeing things. While published by Camerica, Codemasters – of current F1 game fame – produced Micro Machines, a great grandfather to their modern F1 titles.

Regarding F1:BTW, the most immediate stand out of anyone who is familiar with Formula One will likely see the entire word in the title – ‘Formula One’ – yet on the box there is no mention of an official license of any sort. Many F1 games in Japan were often licensed by FOCA, or the Formula One Constructors’ Association, as FOCA often considered themselves a legal representative body alongside the FOA (Formula One Association), although not able to actually govern the sport. Instead of companies paying astronomical rights costs to FOA many game companies simply paid smaller rights to FOCA, which would give the developers access to utilize constructor and driver’s names but often at the exclusion of considering the title as a full fledged simulation. In some cases just well known drivers’ likenesses were utilized, and dozens of racing games from this time period featured prominent drivers as part of the game’s titles.

In the 16 bit and prior time period of gaming these situations often worked well since racing titles typically did not serve as full simulations; they would only include a handful of drivers and teams. Games prior to the early licensing days were often limited in what they would display or present to the player, and would employ palette swaps on sprites, limited drone movement opponents, etc. Later with advances in how games could replicate motorsports more intricately (primarily 3D modeling) companies required more thorough licenses to ensure what they were attempting to portray was replicated properly or be at mercy of developing a title that no one could associate a real intellectual property with.

The nutshell is the game got away with using ‘Formula One’ without seeing repercussion – and many games during this time and prior did.

To any casual player F1:BTW would be your typical racing title. You start out driving a Mini Cooper in various entry level races across North America. As you progress you’re given the chance to drive the Vector W2 – the Vector company’s first concept supercar – and a Ferrari F40, prior to moving into Formula One. The game’s AI is quasi-‘rubber band’ type, in that they just seemingly drone around the course and when being passed for position will force themselves onto a ‘rail’ to follow your line. Most of the races have to be completed – and won – multiple times in order to gain funds to progress.

However players that want to take their chances can go to Vegas and… gamble! Yes, players can GAMBLE THEIR CURRENCY IN A NINTENDO GAME!

This just kills me; doubly so considering how contested the topic of gambling and micro-transactions are in modern gaming.

There are plenty of games that feature gambling aspects as challenges or side-games. Here though, the casino can literally make or break your play through. You can spend a lot of time winning races and money, then go to the casino and lose it in very short order. And don’t get this game wrong; it can be a VERY long play through for a racing game. You will easily spend over a dozen hours of play in the various races moving up the classes to Formula One. Or on the play through you just so happen to win big at the casino you can win big money to advance.

Yeah, yeah; you’re still wondering where I’m going with this game though right?

Every sub and select screen you’re greeted by the greatest big hair & big eyed anime girl ever. SETA made no attempt to alter any of it’s obvious Japanese artwork influences – and they’re great.

Hell yeah I’m ready to move into Formula One.

Once you do make it into the later portions of the game it begins to take a dramatic turn from prior. When you enter the Formula One championship you’re given a very loose representation of roughly half of a Formula One calendar from the later 1980s, although one of the circuits is Circuito del Jarama in Madrid; a circuit that had not held a Formula One race since 1981. From here you’re unable to select the course you wish to race on and have to play the races in a season order. Absent as well is the earlier game’s interface with cute-sy anime characters and overall tone.

Further good ‘ole anime -worthy cringe though, well… it’s not here. I actually wonder having played F1:BTW if maybe it has assets that weren’t meant for the title in some manner or similarly repurposed. The way that there is a map screen to progress to the various cities to race is odd for a game of this type as it could have been simply selectable icons or even simpler a list. Also why cute anime girls for the text screens? No manga or anime series I can think of (that was well-known) in the later 1980s combined anime and racing. This game being released in 1990 missed that by one year when Future GPX Cyber Formula would release in 1991. Hell, still even yet, why a casino as a major function of the game?

Ultimately it’s all just thoughts in my head, but playing the game makes you think about all of these things going on.

SETAs subsequent attempts at Formula One titles with F1 ROC and F1 ROC 2 were pushed more towards realism of Formula One. While F1 ROC still did not obtain an official license, SETA eventually pursued a FOCA license for F1 ROC 2 which included actual teams and drivers. F1 ROC starts players directly into a fantasy Formula One team battling among fantasy representation of teams and drivers from circa 1991, while F1 ROC 2 took cues from it’s F1:BTW older brother and reintroduced the ladder system albeit in a more realistic progression. Players in F1 ROC 2 start out in Group C prototypes, move into F3000, before finally moving into a Formula One team of their choosing. A dire departure from both were also their anime influences, replaced by more life like representations of characters and drivers.

There would also be plenty of more games combining anime and racing, but that’s more cringe topics for the future.