Nice Niche: a brief (and incomplete) history of horse racing video games

A lot happens during a horse race.  It may look like its just a race down a couple of stretches around an oval but believe me when I say there’s a level of depth there that isn’t rivaled in a lot of other ‘sports’.  At least that’s what I’m lead to believe from playing video games based on the sport.

While I certainly am not an aficionado of horse racing games, I know more about them than probably 99 per cent of gamers across the world.  Mainly because only 1 per cent of people probably even know these games exist.  A general search on vgchartz shows that every game on the database including the word ‘jockey’ from the SNES onwards has sold a grand total of  460,000 units – roughly 400,000 of which were in Japan.   Of course, add to that the Japanese sales of Gallop Racer and we’re talking some serious numbers – but still, that’s only in Japan.  The latter point aside, I think we can safely say that the horse racing genre on consoles is niche.

The steep, steep learning curve certainly doesn’t help to propel these games from niche masterpieces to mainstream successes. The barriers to entry are high, and chances are that unless you have someone next to you explaining the intricacies and strategies required while you race, you will never grow to enjoy being a virtual jockey.

But give the games some time, and you may find virtual horse racing is a niche that you wish you’d paid more  attention to over the years.  Of course we all know the G1 Jockey series from Koei and the Gallop Racer series from Tecmo (don’t we?), but virtual horse racing didn’t start there.  In fact, did you know that there was a horse-racing game on the Commodore 64?  Or that a ‘rein’ add-on (which straddled the analogue sticks of the PS2 controller) was released with one of the games in Japan? No? Well now’s your chance to further your knowledge of this oft-neglected niche gaming genre.

Derby Day (Commodore 64 (below), ZX Spectrum, CRL Group, 1984)

According to the internet, this game didn’t exist. Or at least no one actually remembers that it exists. How many copies did it sell though? Probably more than it should’ve done, simply due to the prominence of the ZX Spectrum and C64 in Europe at the time. While not strictly a horse racing game, Derby Day was all about betting on virtual horses. Sound exciting? In hindsight, probably not. But apparently it must have been a good idea, because search Google for derby day video game and you’ll come up with a list of virtual horse-betting games (mostly online) that have been developed recently. Of course, instead of the innocence of this C64 and ZX Spectrum game, these games are designed to take your real money. Have I mentioned I hate horse-racing?

Derby Day (Commodore 64)

Final Furlong (Arcades, Namco, 1997, 1999)

The special USA episode of Game Center CX (if you don’t know what that is, Crunk games is the best source of information) reminded me that arcades have always been a place for really giant, often silly, mechanised machines. Final Furlong is one of the last vestiges of this to be seen in the West (well, aside from those ridiculous Dance Dance Revolution machines), and the cabinets can still be spotted in arcades and cinemas across Australia (and probably Europe and the USA) if you look hard enough. Unlike the West, Japan still has arcades full of these exorbitant machines, something which I find super exciting because they represent a place for the uninhibited among us to do all sorts of stupid things in public without feeling the slightest bit embarrassed. And trust me, I know from experience that Final Furlong is one of those ‘make you look like a a bit of a dick’ machines.  The great thing is though, because the arcade cabinet could support up to 4 players, Final Furlong gave you the opportunity to look like a dick with a number of other friends, and the game still remains an incredibly fun experience with a bunch of mates. Search for Final Furlong on Youtube and watch as comedy ensues.

The game itself, like future jockey simulators, required the player to pace themselves out the gate and play to their horse’s strengths. Going out hard, as I learnt, was the fastest way to lose; and keeping physical momentum on your virtual horse was integral to ensuring that your horse was maintaining speed. This type of depth wouldn’t have worked for any other genre – but for Final Furlong it was precisely that which made the game an interesting, if tiring, depiction of what I had previously thought was an old man’s pastime.

Final Furlong was even so popular that it spawned a sequel in 1999 that introduced the ever-exciting Steeplechase event, though Namco, unlike other Japanese developers, never attempted to bring horse racing to home consoles.

G1 Jockey  (PS1, Ps2, Wii, PS3, Koei, 2000-2008 )

G1 Jockey was arguably one of the franchises, along with Dynasty Warriors, that put Japanese developer Koei into the spotlight. Of course, G1 Jockey wasn’t as big a success as DW, but chances are if you go into any store that sells ‘pre-loved’ video games, there’ll be at least one copy of a game from the G1 Jockey series in the bargain bin.

What I find most interesting about horse-racing sims of the PS1 and PS2 eras is that there was  bona-fide competition between two seperate companies with two seperate series: both Tecmo and Koei had front runners jockeying for first place. While the West was being won over who could develop a first-person shooter that could be half as good as what was available on the PC, Japanese developers were striving for horse-racing perfection – something that was arguably achieved near the end of the PS2’s life cycle with G1 Jockey 4, which was so successful that it was remade to incorporate motion controls in the next generation.

There’s not really a way to make a horse racing game into an arcade experience in the same vain as something like a Daytona or Hang-On.  Aside from jostling for position, there wouldn’t be a whole lot to do if you could go balls-out the entire race and drift around corners.  G1 Jockey, like Final Furlong, requires careful management of your horse throughout the race. Remember, you’re the jockey, not the horse, so you can only control the same things a jockey could:L namely the speed and position of the horse. While it sounds slightly dull, it actually requires a quite a bit of skill, and after the initial resistance of ‘I can’t believe I stooped this low’, you’ll find yourself lulled by the rhythm of the race. This micro management of your horse also requires keeping your horse’s spirit up, both by playing to its preference for position in or outside the pack, and by not beating it senseless with your whip. Who was to know that a little bit of whipping goes a long, long way?

G1 Jockey 2008 (PS3)

What makes the G1 Jockey a fully-fledged console game, however, is its career mode, complete with horse breeding and horse training. Deciding which races favour your horse can mean the difference between losing every race and gaining some momentum and, with it, the trust of other stables. Continued success will see you rise through the ranks to higher stakes and higher quality races. I have no idea what a G1 class is, but I’ll be damned if I’m not aiming for it.

There is also a whole lot of stuff about breeding horses, but honestly I found that so complicated and random that I didn’t bother with it. That depth is there though if you’re so inclined.

This basic horse management was already a good concept, but the addition of motion controls made it an entirely engrossing experience. Despite the fact that G1 Jockey Wii was essentially G1 Jockey 4, the addition of a control scheme that took advantage of the Wii’s capabilities resulted in the game becoming something very, very special. The addition of Wii balance board  functionality for the sequel to the Wii game, creatively named G1 Jockey 2008, took the whole physical functionality of the Wii a bit too far, but the first game still remains a benchmark for horse-racing games on consoles (and it’s a far sight better than G1 Jockey 2008 on the PS3).

Gallop Racer (Arcade, PS2, XBOX,  Tecmo, 1996-2004)

Interestingly enough, while Koei’s G1 Jockey series is the more well-known of the two major horse-racing simulators in the West, Gallop Racer is no also-ran in the race for jockey supremacy and actually pre-dates the G1 series by a couple of years, with the first game in the series being released in arcades in 1996. It also happens to be the more popular of the two series in Japan, notching up an impressive 1 million sales across all games in the series.  The games, however, despite receiving some pretty impressive review scores, never really caught on outside of Japan.

Gallop Racer Arcade

Like the G1 Jockey series, Gallop Racer  puts a focus on the off-track stuff associated with horse racing, as well as managing and pacing yourself throughout the race and playing to your horse’s strengths. If that sounds like a carbon copy of the feature set of G1 Jockey, you’d be right. Not that it’s a bad thing, as to be expected there is only so much you can do with simulating a horse race, and it is a solid foundation on which to build a game that’s essentially about riding an animal as efficiently as you can. But I can imagine that people didn’t buy both Gallop Racer and G1 Jockey games religiously like they may do for other genres. For me though, Gallop Racer‘s arcade roots gave it somewhat of a more colourful and playful aesthetic, which I find slightly more endearing than the look and feel of Koei’s more clinical and dreary G1 Jockey.

Unfortunately, unlike G1 Jockey, the Gallop Racer series didn’t make the transition to next-generation consoles, with the last game in the series being released for the PS2 in 2006.

Gallop Racer 2004 (PS2)

Champion JockeyG1 Jockey and Gallop Racer (PS3, XBOX360, Wii, Tecmo, Koei, 2011)

Which brings me to the latest game in what is a long line of jockey/horse racing simulators. Champion Jockey, released last month for all current consoles, is the first horse racing game from the unified Tecmo Koei – former competitors now unified under one banner (one could draw a comparison to the Capcom vs SNK games), hopefully bringing the best of both games to a whole new audience. While I doubt the latter is true, the game supports Kinect, Move and the Wii’s motion controls, making it the most widely released console game in the genre. Although the genre’s transition to the current generation of consoles has been for the most part lacking, the potential of the genre is still there, and I for one hope that a broader release across a wider range of consoles improves the visibility of the genre across a broader cross section of video game enthusiasts.

Champion Jockey (Xbox360, Wii, PS3) – probably not at a store near you

And finally… Derby Jockey series (Asmik Ace Entertainment, Inc., 1995-2001)

To be honest, I’ve only mentioned this series because I just wanted an excuse to post what has now become my favourite box art of all time. That is one INTENSE horse.

Derby Jockey 2001

[By Sir Gaulian]