How Initial D changed my life — First Stage

Part One of a Three Part Series.

I had thought about writing about my obsession with Initial D for a long time, but it had always seemed too silly or not worthwhile enough to put on paper. I had a bit of a complex about whether it would be too embarrassing to share that part of my experience. But with the benefit of a decade and a half of hindsight, it has become abundantly clear to me that the several years that I had played the Initial D arcade racing game competitively from 2002 to around 2005 was in fact the single most important formative experience of my life. Because it was such a unique experience for me personally and in such a niche area that most people would typically not know about or have encountered, I decided to write a chronicle of my experiences in hopes that readers will find it interesting and perhaps illuminating in one way or another.

Act One — First Contact

Flyer for the Japanese Version of the Original Initial D Arcade Stage game

Back in 2002, when I was a 14 year old kid just entering high school in Scarborough, Ontario, like a lot of kids that age I started hanging out at the mall even though I had little to no money to actually shop or even buy food. But tons of kids (particularly those who were not focused on their academics, of which at the time, I was definitely a part of) hung out there, so it seemed like the thing to do to kill time before going home.

The closest major mall was called Scarborough Town Centre, a large, sprawling mall of over 100,000 square metres which has gone through numerous facelifts since its initial opening in 1973. Tucked in the corner of a bustling food court was a busy and loud arcade called ‘Games Maximus’.

You can see it at 1:45 of this video of Scarborough Town Centre from the 1990s:

Games Maximus was awesome. It was a happening spot to be and had a decent selection of games, both old and new, and a diverse and interesting crowd. It had a solid mix of shooting games, fighting games, racing games, and others. After school, the arcade would be crawling with middle and high school students like myself looking for a spot to hang out, play games, and watch others.

Most of the time, since I had to be pretty tight with money, I would satisfy myself just watching my friends play. Soul Calibur was really in at the time and I enjoy watching friends duke it out on the fighting game cabinets. If I did spend any of my money, it would be on games that would maximize a function of affordable price, duration of play time, and overall enjoyment. The game that fit this criteria best was Power Stone, which, if you played it properly could probably net you almost 20–30 minutes of game play for just a quarter — that’s value, son.

The game that intrigued me the most however was a new and expensive machine, recently ported to English from Japanese — Initial D Arcade Stage.

Act Two — Initial (頭文字) D

Initial D Manga Cover

Let’s back up a second. So for those who are unfamiliar, Initial D was originally a Japanese manga series by mangaka Shuichi Shigeno about the illegal mountain pass racing scene in Japan, which began its serialization in 1995. The manga series was widely popular both in Japan and overseas and quickly led to an anime adaption and various spin offs. The series was also turned into an Arcade game called Initial D Arcade Stage (IDAS) in 2001. IDAS was one of the first arcade games to use card reader technology which allowed players to save their car, upgrade and customize it, and link to an internet ranking system which would allow players to register their best times online and compete on a regional, national, and international basis.

The game itself was amazing — absolutely light years ahead of the existing racing game contemporaries like Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Crazy Taxi or San Francisco Rush 2049. The graphics were beautiful for the time, the mountain passes faithful to their real life Japanese likenesses, and the racing mechanics faithfully reproduced ‘street specific’ techniques that were shown in the manga and anime series such as the Gutter Run on Akina or the Inside Line Jump on Irohazaka. The other notable aspect was the soundtrack to the game — the uncompromisingly intense, Engrish-dominated style of dance music called Eurobeat. As unlikely as it seemed, Eurobeat and illegal Japanese mountain racing went together like peas and carrots, which led to a renaissance of Eurobeat and Para Para music in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s.

But back then, the game was seemingly too expensive for a Ninth Grader like myself with no real stable source of income. Compared with Power Stone, which cost a quarter for perhaps an average of 10–15 minutes per play, IDAS was one dollar per play — with each race running roughly 3 minutes or perhaps 6 minutes in total if you included loading, selection, and customization screens. This meant that I had to be content with just watching older kids and adults burn through rolls of loonies. But after watching on several occasions, my interest was peaked and after I had been introduced by my best friend to the Initial D anime (which is fantastic, I highly recommend it to anyone who either has a passing interest in cars or anime) I knew that I just had to play this game, financial calamity be damned.

Act Three — Early Days

IDAS Usui Course Map

I mustered up the courage to buy my first card (the name I put on the card was, uninspiringly, VINCE) and played my first game under the instruction of one my good friends who had several weeks of game-time experience to draw upon. After winning my first race against the easiest CPU opponent in the game, I rashly felt myself ready to engage in my first battle against another player — a classmate of mine who had perhaps 10 games under his belt. However, I had personally watched almost all of his races and after analyzing his racing style, felt confident that I had a cleaner racing line than him and a more refined technique.

Our race was a fateful one. I still remember it to this day, some 14 years later. It brings to mind that old poker adage that you often forget your big wins, but you can recount with haunting specificity the bad beats of your career. The course we raced on was a mountain pass called Usui, which was a step up from the beginner course, Myogi. There were essentially only three tricking turns in Usui which could not be taken full throttle. Two of the turns were typical hairpins that could be safely taken by lining up on the outside lane, slowing down to the safe speed, turning in towards the apex, and exiting again on the outside lane (out-in-out). The third, called C-121 (near the bottom left of the Usui track map linked above), was a tricky turn that started off wide but then narrowed and sharpened significantly at the exit. It was at this corner where, despite leading for three-fourths of the race, I crashed and allowed my opponent to pass and eventually beat me. I was devastated, since it was my first race against another human opponent and I knew I could have won if I didn’t make such an obvious and correctable error. I literally had nightmares about it and played the loss over and over in my head at night and even at school.

So, like so many things in life, it was through a painful failure and not success, that drove me to improve. I approached the project with a commitment and fervor that I had never had before and quite honestly have never had since. I read everything that I could about IDAS online on boards, forums, and websites about the game. I watched and rewatched time attack videos in order to memorize courses — turn by turn, checkpoint by checkpoint, uphill and downhill, and with different cars with different drive trains.

During school, I would often stop paying attention in class to fill my agenda to the brim with Initial D related notes which was written in a shorthand that might have looked something like this:

  • Akina DH — FD
  • CP1
  • Right — 126 apex, 130 exit
  • Left — 123 apex, 127 exit
  • CP2
  • etc, etc.

Slowly, after painstakingly putting in many hours of research, study and practice, I began to improve in all facets of the game. I was able to clear the single player portion of the game with ease and was on my way to chipping down my personal best times in all courses. Still, in order to 100% tune a car to its maximum potential, the game required the player to accumulated roughly 1 million points on a card. The average single play would perhaps net 4000 points for the car, which meant that in order to full-tune a car for time trial competition, assuming plays were one and done, it would cost roughly $250 — money that I just did not have at the time to spend towards anything, much less video games. This lead me to adopt a new strategy towards tuning my car…

Act Four — Fishing

Initial D machines at Funland Arcade, Downtown Toronto, circa mid 2000s. Photo Credit: spot778

I was very short growing up. In terms of growth spurts, mine happened very late compared to the other kids. When I had started my Initial D career in Grade 9, I was maybe just a bit over 5 feet tall. In fact, I was so short that on the Initial D Arcade machines, if my back was against the seat, I would not be able to properly reach the steering wheel and pedals. Therefore, I would have to do a weird thing where I stayed near the front of the machine and had to pull my body up by the steering wheel in order to reach the pedals. Since there was no back support and the bucket seat sloped backwards and downwards, I would have to use my core to somehow stabilize myself during driving. Needless to say, this was extremely difficult and my driving performance suffered significantly because of it.

In order to remedy this problem, I came up with a makeshift solution. Since I went to the mall right after school, I always happened to have my schoolbag (usually crammed with books) with me at the arcade. If I positioned the backpack on the back of the seat, I could prop myself up so I had back support while still being able to reach the wheel and pedals. In addition to greatly enhancing my ability to drive, it had the added advantage of looking absolutely ridiculous. I looked like a 10 year old kid driving when people saw that I was using a backpack to prop myself up — it looked like my mom was the one who came up with the idea and she would come pick me up at the arcade after shopping or something.

This perception of being a little kid who had no idea what he was doing made me an extremely attractive versus target. In Initial D, similar to games like Street Fighter, there is a challenge system. Players could turn on and off the ‘accepting challengers’ option. If someone was challenged, the two players would battle and the winner would get a large number of points and get to keep on playing while the loser would get a smaller number of points and be given the option to re-challenge for a dollar or exit the game. In other words, a good player could potentially be able to keep accepting challengers, keep playing, and keep accumulating points on a single dollar if he had multiple challenges and was able to continue winning. The problem of course is that it is usually immediately obvious if a player has a high level of skill, which would dissuade other players from challenging.

This is where the pre-pubescent backpack aid kicked in. Because to others looking in, I was a little child who could not properly reach the pedals, I was the ultimate target to challenge and defeat for easy points. In the early days, when I had ‘Accept Challengers’ on, there would be a line up of people who wanted to challenge me. While my skill was not yet at the level where I could defeat all my opponents, I could certainly have my way with the average player. But because I was immediately underestimated because of my childlike appearance, I was able to milk those preconceptions as long as possible in order to essentially have other players pay for the points necessary to tune my car.

For example, I could be playing and I would notice two friends who are hovering around my machine scoping out the competition. I would have my Accept Challengers on and start racing sloppily, hitting the odd guardrail, taking sub-optimal lines, etc. Usually after watching me for a while, they would conclude that both of them could easily beat me. Usually the lower-skilled friend would challenge me first. During the wait screen, there are options for the incumbent player to look at the ‘battle level’ and racing history of the opponent in order to assess their relative level of skill. I would use that information to calibrate my level of performance during the race. If I thought that I could beat the opponent at 60% performance, then I would race at 50% for half of the race then up it to 70% during the second half of the race to try to look for an opportunity to pass. This process was called fishing. In the end, if I had executed everything correctly, then the opponent would have found it to be a competitive race and would try to re-challenge multiple times, tuning up my car in the process. It was also possible to chain-fish, where if in defeating the lower-skill player multiple times, you did not reveal the true extent of your capabilities, the higher-skill player would still believe that they could beat you and you could repeat the fishing process at a higher level of skill, assuming that you possessed that capability. Obviously these were some ethically questionable tactics, but that never really entered my idiot 14-year-old brain.

The result was that I was able to fish extremely often when I first started, which financially subsidized the tuning of my car substantially. At my peak, I could sometimes rack up fishing streaks of 10 games in a row on one play — which would amount to around 40,000 to 50,000 points on a dollar alone. In the end, I was able to full tune my car for significant less than $250, perhaps around $90-$100. Furthermore, because I had done this numerous times and at different arcades, word got around and soon I had a reputation that dissuaded new challengers. The realization that one had been fished is extremely vexing and could have resulted in arguments and fights, had I not proactively attempted to defuse the situation by being as civil and sportsmanlike as possible, frequently offering a ‘good luck’ before races and shaking hands after races. Still, there was no feeling quite like laying the smack down on players who underestimated me because of my age and appearance.

Act Five — Community

Project Kishu, one of the major Initial D racing teams in North America

It was only after I had full-tuned my car and gained a small name for myself as ‘the kid with the backpack’ that I started getting to know the wider community of like-minded Initial D racers in Toronto and later Canada and Internationally. This exposure evolved naturally from my attempts to gather as much information as possible in terms of Initial D videos and guides. The pursuit eventually led me to an online forum, (now defunct) created originally by other Initial D enthusiasts based in Toronto.

The forum functioned not only as a repository for valuable information like course guides, arcade locations, videos, car customization options, and shift point listings, but also as a community hub in which players could meet other players, learn from each other, and organize races and competitions. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading and posting on the forums and attempting to contribute my knowledge to the community while simultaneously learning from the best players out there. As an example, there still exists an Initial D Akina course guide that I wrote for the Playstation 2 port — Initial D Special Stage, that remains on GameFAQs to this day.

It was also through the forums that I learned about new, cutting-edge driving techniques, like the feint, 5-in-4-out, and ‘eraser’ techniques that had literally been imported from Canadian players who had come back from places like Hong Kong and Japan to learn from top racers there.

Top Initial D players naturally began organizing themselves into competitive teams, primarily based on geographic region. In Toronto, there were the Greater Toronto Racers (GTR). In Montreal, the Montreal Mountain Kings (MK). Out West, there was Project FISH, based out of Vancouver, and Project Kishu, based out of Calgary and which I was a member briefly. Internationally, there were competitive teams springing up everywhere, but particularly in Hong Kong, where teams like Windblade and Prodigyz Opus ruled the roost for years.

To get a sense of the competitive Initial D scene in those days, here is a competitive match between the Greater Toronto Racers and Montreal Mountain Kings from back in 2003 (warning: gratuitous profanity and potato-quality video):

The discovery of a dedicated and passionate community had a huge impact on me. Back when I started high school, in part because I was so small for my age and in part because I was a sarcastic smart-ass, I was painfully shy. Talking to other people aside from my closest friends was extremely difficult, and because of that I didn’t go out much and preferred staying at home and playing games on my computer when there was no more schoolwork to finish.

But Initial D changed that. All of a sudden, the urge to go out and meet other people, to race, and to improve outweighed even the tremendous fear I had of going outside my comfort zone and meeting strangers and going to places I had never been before on my own. Akin to the idea of dojo challenges, top level players would go all around the city to scope out new arcades and hopefully challenge and battle the best local players they could find, or set impressive new time records on the local machines in order to mark their territory. I also became enamored with that idea and so after school, instead of going to the closest arcades to my home, I would take the bus and subway by myself often over an hour to places like Pacific Mall, Metro Square, Lovegetty, Downtown Toronto, and Etobicoke. The hope was always to encounter more opponents and to learn new things.

To be continued in Part Two. See you next Stage!