Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Review: Crazy Taxi (PlayStation Network)

Game: Crazy Taxi
Released: 1999 (arcade), 2000 (Dreamcast), 2010 (PlayStation Network/XBox Live Arcade)
Version Reviewed: PlayStation Network

The happy couple looking happy.
These last few weeks have been quite eventful. Prince William has married the rather lovely Kate Middleton, Bin Laden is sleeping with the fishes, hundreds of millions of Europeans have consulted Google Maps to find out where Azerbaijan is after the Eurovision Song Contest, Nick Clegg got his ass kicked in the local elections, all kinds of crap is going down in northern African countries, a footballer is annoyed that news of his affair has been made public after a gagging order was put in place to protect his anonymity, and Ryan Giggs is suing Twitter for unknown reasons. But, the main news for the last month or so has been that Sony's PlayStation network has been unavailable after an "external intrusion" brought it down.  It's mostly back now, and order has almost been restored to the world. Its downtime is now nothing more than a hazy memory, a period in time when gamers whose balls have yet to drop took to the blogs and forums to whinge and moan and threaten to get an Xbox 360 (the PSN's EU and US blogs are great sources for pre-pubescent rants), websites made up news based on vague rumours and Sony demonstrated their complete lack of PR skills. But, there have been some positives. For me, apart from becoming obsessed with attempting to grow tomato plants in my Homebase mini greenhouse, I've gone almost a month without getting verbally abused by 12 year old kids criticising my skills on Black Ops, or saying derogatory stuff about my "momma". I've also not had the PlayStation Store luring me in to buy games that I'll never play, Instead, I've actually played some of the ones I downloaded from it before the hackers got busy. And one of those games is Crazy Taxi. For those who don't know (not that anybody ever reads this blog - I think I'm writing it to myself!), Crazy Taxi was an arcade game published by Sega back in 1999 and ported over to the Dreamcast a year later. When Sega went rogue shortly afterwards, the game also appeared on PlayStation 2 and Gamecube. And now it's available once again, for download on the online services of Xbox and PlayStation (when it works).
Crazy Taxi's no nonsense title screen. Taken through my camera, hence the crappy quality.
Drop off number one. Done.
The idea of the game is simple. You take on the role of a cabbie, whose job is to pick up passengers and drop them off at their destinations. The faster you do it, the higher your score, and the more passengers you can subsequently pick up and drop off. Extra tips can be earned by performing a Crazy Jump (flying through the air, usually off some sort of ramp), Crazy Drift (skidding around corners), Crazy Through (driving closely past other vehicles without hitting them). You are guided to your passenger's destination by means of a green arrow, which Sega apparently got a patent for. Take too long and your passenger would give up and get out of your car, and then mysteriously disappear into thin air. The distance to your passenger's destination is determined by the colour of the circle that they stand in. And that's pretty much it.

Options - they're not as wonky in the actual game
The arcade original featured one sunny San-Francisco style city and started you off with 50 seconds. You would earn extra time by picking up passengers, and more time when dropping them off. The aim of the game was simply to last as long as you could before running out of time. The Dreamcast port included an extra city in a similar sunny location in addition to the arcade game's city, the ability to set whether you wanted to play for 3, 5 or 10 crazy minutes or by arcade rules, and a bundle of mini-games to test your skills/patience called Crazy Box. As the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade versions are based on the Dreamcast port, all of these features have been faithfully included. Even so, there have been a few changes made, some good, some not so good. But, before getting on to the changes, let's look at what hasn't changed.
Intact from the original are the game's locations, characters and menus
As already described, the game's features, modes and options haven't changed. The characters, taxis and city maps are still the same and the game plays identically to how it did a decade or so ago. However, that decade hasn't been too kind to Crazy Taxi. When I first played Crazy Taxi in 2000, I was amazed by the smooth visuals and arcade-style controls. In the rerelease, the graphics and textures, despite being given a HD makeover, do seem a little rough in places, especially in the "downtown" areas of the cities. The game has always suffered from pop-up (where the scenery suddenly appears as you approach it rather than gradually form) and this is now more noticable than ever seeing as newer games don't have this issue. Also the controls make the car feel a bit awkward to control. Of course, the controls are exaggerated, as is the whole premise for the game, but the car just doesn't really feel like it responds as it should. This may just be because I've played a lot of other sandbox driving games since Crazy Taxi's original release and the controls are now simply dated. That's not to say the game isn't fun to play - it's great fun. It's just not as much fun as I probably remembered it being. However, there's another reason for it not being as fun as it was - somebody's being tampering with the game.......
Some hi-def driving action right here
As mentioned earlier, there have been some positive changes. Firstly, the graphics through gameplay are now in glorious High Definition, and even though this emphasises the game's dated textures, it still makes thing look quite nice and shiny and new(ish). Unfortunately, Sega don't appear to have tarted up the graphics on the title screen and menus. In fact, they seem to be in a lower resolution than they were on the Dreamcast. The other change is the addition of an online leaderboard which suits the game really well and takes it back to its arcade roots.

And now the negatives, and although these seem mostly cosmetic and superficial, they actually make a great difference. Many people complain about in-game advertising nowadays, but in the original Crazy Taxi, advertising was implemented brilliantly. Some of the destinations in the game were real world places: KFC, Pizza Hut, Fila, Tower Records, etc. Because of licensing issues, these locations have now been replaced by generic locations. For example, KFC is now Fried Chicken Shack, Pizza Hut is now something else. The buildings clearly look like KFCs and Pizza Huts, but with different names. They look a bit like when companies go out of business and a no-name buyer purchases the building but just changes its name and signage and attempts to cash in on the previous owner's brand image - a bit like how loads of old Woolworths stores reopened with names like Wellworths and Alworths and just appear to be a budget, knock-off versions of the original, using loads of the old furnishings as they can't afford to renovate the stores. Going into them feels weird. These new stores feel like they've sucked the life out of what the stores used to be. And the city in Crazy Taxi kind of feels the same. It's as if its been hit hard by the recession and been taken over by cheapo pound shops and nasty takeaways. It just doesn't feel like the vibrant, living city that it was years ago. The well-known brand names gave the city some personality, which the city now lacks.

Also related to licensing issues (in other words, Sega not wanting to spend lots of money) is the change in soundtrack. The original Crazy Taxi featured music from The Offspring and Bad Religion, and this contributed massively to the appeal of the game. The choice of music was a perfect match for it. Music, more than anything else, evokes memories, apparently. You hear a tune, and you instantly associate it with something; you visualise an event or recall an era. Something seems wrong when you begin your game and don't hear the familar "yeah yeah yeah yeah" from the start of The Offspring's All I Want. Instead you're treated to generic pop punk tunes. Although the music is clearly similar in style and isn't terrible, it just doesn't feel right. In a game like Crazy Taxi, where the music was such an integral part of it, changing it takes a lot of the game's appeal out of it.

Of course, the complaints above are just the whinges of a thirty-something who isn't happy that a game isn't how he remembers it. It's a bit like when you go back to your old school or into an old workplace and see that things have changed. Your instant thought is, "It was better when I was here," despite this probably not being the case. And I think that's the effect that the PSN version of Crazy Taxi has had on me. I've allowed some cosmetic changes to affect my overall opinion of the game (wooooh! I managed to get effect and affect the right way round!). It can't be denied that Crazy Taxi is definitely a fun game and still has the classic easy to play, hard to master qualities that made it a hit first time round. For people downloading it for a blast from the past, they may be disappointed as some of the past has been left behind. For those new to the game, the changes won't really bother you and at £7.99, Crazy Taxi represents quite good value for money.