Konami is one of the biggest video game developer companies, responsible for many famous and enduring series like Castlevania, Contra, Dance Dance Revolution, Gradius, Metal Gear, Silent Hill and many others. Though the company is not commonly associated with racing games they have released quite a few of them and many of the games are of high quality, as can be expected from a company of Konami's stature.
The company was originally founded in 1969 as a jukebox rental & repair business by Kagemasa Kozuki. Just a couple of years later he would switch the focus into amusement machines, partner with Yoshinobu Nakama and Tatsuo Miyasako, and transform the company into Konami Industry Co., Ltd, the name coming from the first syllables of the original founders' last names. In Japanese wordplay called goroawase the name can be read as "573" and the number combination has appeared in many of their games as a small easter egg. In 1978 Konami created their first arcade machines: Block Game, which was a shameless copy of Atari's Breakout, and Space King, which was an even more shameless copy of Taito's Space Invader. It wasn't until 1981 and the release of games like Frogger and Scramble that the company found its own footing in the emerging arcade market.
The 80's were a busy time for Konami. In addition to their arcade output, they started developing games for the PC, MSX and NES/Famicom systems. In '84 Konami's first racing game Road Fighter was released in the arcades. The game is played from a top-down perspective and rather than driving on a racing circuit, the goal is to reach the end of each straightforward point-to-point stage without running out of fuel while dodging other cars on the road. The game was popular enough to be ported to the Famicom and MSX home systems by Konami themselves. The company clearly holds the game dear, as it pops up as references and sequels in their gaming catalogue every now and then.
The company's next racing game, Konami GT, came the following year and is basically just Road Fighter from a different perspective. Once again the goal is to just get to the end of fairly straight point-to-point stages while dodging other traffic, and fuel consumption acts as a timer this time as well. The game is also known as Konami RF2 Red Fighter which makes the connection blatantly obvious, though the game is not an official sequel to Road Fighter. That title is still over 10 years away.
In 1986 Konami took a step away from Road Fighter's mold with WEC Le Mans 24. It's the first video game ever to depict the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, which also means the game only has one track, the Circuit de la Sarthe. But Konami focused their attention on this single track and designed it to resemble the real thing as closely as was possible with the hardware at the time. In addition, the game has a day-night cycle, with the graphics reflecting the change as day turns to dusk and dusk to night. Naturally the game can't take 24 hours to complete, so a full play-through takes around 10 minutes as the player goes through the course four times.
The original arcade machine's Deluxe version was quite the beast as well. Not only had it force feedback to help the player feel every bump on the road, the whole cabinet was placed on a 360-degree spinning base, allowing it to turn with the driver's movements. Automobile Club de l'Ouest, the organization behind the real-life Le Mans competition, gave the game their official approval, making WEC Le Mans 24 one of the first racing video games to be officially tied to a actual motorsport event.
In 1987 Konami had already established itself as a shooting game developer with Gradius and Salamander. The company decided to try mixing their shooting games with racing games with the release of City Bomber, a quirky top-down racing game / shooting game hybrid. At a glance it looks like an updated version of Road Fighter with the familiar point-to-point track design, but the car's ability to jump, shoot at the other vehicles and even collect power-ups (one of which resembles the shield from Gradius) gives it a decidedly shooting game feel. Released the same year is another hybrid title Fast Lane, though in this one the racing parts are mostly superficial, as the game is a maze action game very reminiscent of Sega's 1979 title Head On.
1987 also saw the beginning of Konami's F1 Spirit series. Since the games were released on home systems only, they featured a full-fledged career mode with the player starting their racing life with stock cars and eventually graduating to Formula 1. The cars could be customized and in races the game tracks the amount of remaining fuel and the condition of brakes, engine and front and back wheels separately, necessitating strategic pit stops. The 1993 Famicom game F-1 Sensation isn't officially a part of the series, but it is quite similar to F-1 Spirit 3D Special.
Another series for home consoles was started in 1990, though this was restricted to Nintendo's hand-held consoles. The Motocross Maniacs titles are 2D side-view racing games with the tracks filled with loops and alternative paths and the driver has to properly rotate the motorcycle in the air in order to land safely, not entirely unlike in the more recent Trials HD. The first game was released on the original Game Boy with the sequel, nine years later, appearing on the Game Boy Color. The Game Boy Advance saw another sequel as well as the licensed title Disney Sports: Motocross, though the latter is not officially associated with the series. Naturally it features the Disney cast instead of generic drivers and the tracks have been somewhat subdued.
Meanwhile Konami had released a steady stream of racing games in the arcades and in the mid-90's came out with three titles all using the ZR107 arcade hardware. Midnight Run: Road Fighter 2 is the first official sequel to Road Fighter but it's quite a different game in many ways. Instead of a simple top-down racer with scenic point-to-point courses, Midnight Run's races take place in laps around Japanese highways at night, amidst skyscrapers and civilian cars. The game's name and setting are most likely references to the infamous Mid Night Club which had also inspired the Wangan Midnight manga series a few years earlier.
Winding Heat is the other side of the Japanese street-racing coin with the races taking place on narrow, winding mountain passes. Like with Midnight Run the available cars are all unlicensed, but their resemblance to real-life vehicles commonly associated with street racing in Japan is obvious, even the classic Panda Trueno is there. The game uses an improved version of Midnight Run's engine, so the two games are siblings in more ways than one.
Speed King goes into a completely different direction by offering a high-speed futuristic racer that could easily be thought of as a clone following the success of Psygnosis' Wipeout, but both games were released in the same year. The exact date of Speed King's original arcade release is unknown, but Wipeout wasn't released until September so there's a fair chance Speed King actually precedes the more famous racer. Speed King, known as Road Rage outside Japan, also had an incredibly impressive arcade machine that would rock the player in every direction as they zoomed around in the neon-lit city of Neo Kobe. The game takes place in the same universe as Konami's cyberpunk adventure game Snatcher and there's a plethora of references to it and other Konami titles, including Metal Gear and Road Fighter.
Out of these three games Winding Heat is the only one that got left in the arcades, with Midnight Run and Speed King receiving ports on the Playstation. Sadly, both these ports fail to bring across the excitement of the arcade originals. While the reduction in graphical quality could be expected and accepted, Speed King suffers from a very low draw distance, making it look like the track magically appears in front of the player as they race. Midnight Run doesn't offer analogue controls at all, which is especially odd considering the Speed King port, released a year earlier, does include them with neGcon support.
Konami also had another very promising-looking futuristic racing game in the works in 1995 called Vic Viper and it would've featured the player craft of the Gradius series as one of the controllable vehicles. For reasons unknown the game was cancelled and only a few screenshots have ever surfaced, but the game's full soundtrack was eventually released by Konami.
In 1996 the first instalment of a new series was released. GTI Club: Rally Côte d'Azur features the somewhat unexpected sight of supermini cars racing in the streets of a small town in the French Riviera. The environment is charming and the player is allowed to explore the town even beyond the race course, which also enables the player to use small alleyways, stairs and other out-of-sight paths as shortcuts towards the goal. It's very reminiscent of Italian Job. Two sequels would follow, GTI Club: Corso Italiano in 2000 and GTI Club: Supermini Festa! in 2008. Both have familiar gameplay but the locations have changed from France to Italy, to England and USA respectively. Supermini Festa! even includes the France and Italy courses from previous games, so it packs the most content out of the bunch.
The first GTI Club received a port to the Playstation Network in 2008 as GTI Club+, featuring HD graphics, online multiplayer and new gameplay modes. Sadly, due to an expired license it has been delisted from PSN and can no longer be purchased. Supermini Festa! was ported to both the Wii and the Playstation Portable, but the latter has been delisted as well. The Wii port is quite good, not even forcing motion controls on the player, and being a physical release can still be acquired easily nowadays.
In 2001 the company took a page out of Nintendo's playbook and released Konami Krazy Racers, a character kart racer very much in the vein of Mario Kart. As can be expected the cast comes from Konami's famous franchises, meaning that Dracula can go against Gray Fox and Vic Viper in a Mystical Ninja-inspired old-time Japanese rural village. Instead of red and blue turtle shells, the competitors throw red and blue missiles at each other. It's all very much by the numbers, hitting every mark on a checklist of kart racers without anything special popping out. The game also received a sequel to iOS and Android in 2009, though this one wasn't developed by Konami themselves. The most interesting fact about the sequel is that it features two characters from the Silent Hill survival horror games, not exactly something one would expect to see in a bright and colorful racing game.
The latest of Konami's big, console-exclusive racing games Enthusia: Professional Racing was released back in 2005. It has a career mode somewhat similar to that of Metropolis Street Racer, has hundreds of licensed vehicles to unlock (though not nearly as much as the contemporary Gran Turismo games) and it's more simulation oriented, a first from Konami. The game has an interesting feature of having an option to display a graphical representation of the g-forces affecting the car as well as current tire stress, helping the player understand the car's behaviour better. With ~25 courses there's a fair amount of tracks though only two of them, the Nürburgring and Tsukuba, are real-life courses while the rest are fictional, including the Dragon Range touge course. The game has often been compared to Sony's Gran Turismo 4 which was released a few months prior, but opinions vary on which one's the better and more realistic game of the two. For Konami's first and so far only foray into the realm of console sim-racing, it's still a worthy accomplishment.
So why aren't Konami's racing games more well-known, when many of them are so good? For one thing, their strongest racing game presence has been in the arcades while their far more famous series are on the consoles which are more accessible to players around the world, easily overshadowing their "niche" racing titles. Their elaborate arcade machines also gave the players experiences that simply couldn't be ported to home environment. As it is, most of their arcade racing games never received home ports at all and out of those that did, the ports were often subpar (Midnight Run, Speed King) or have since been made unavailable (GTI Club+). Even their very latest racing game Road Fighters, the fourth sequel to the original Road Fighter, is arcade-only. Hopefully Konami can bring out a few more excellent racing titles in a way that more players have the chance to experience them.
Here are listed all the Konami-developed racing games.
Developer Showcase: Konami (by Ghegs, published on 31st of July, 2014.)