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Remembering classic games: Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec (2001)

GT3 may have been brilliantly noughties, but it was also extremely nice

Published: 03 Jul 2023

Time makes a fool of us all. It’s so easy to look back at screenshots of Polyphony Digital’s 2001 racing sim and let out a theatrical laugh at the notion that such perfunctory polygons could cause such a stir. But you have to understand, at the time our eyes subsisted on a diet of standard definition broadcasts of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps on a CRT telly. Loading up Gran Turismo 3 on our PS2s, therefore, was like staring into the gaze of Jesus Christ. 

Gamers of the time had been trained to expect only excellence from the Gran Turismo name by this point. The first two releases marked a sea change for driving games - suddenly kart racers were out on their arse and it was all about picking braking points in licensed, recognisable vehicles. They called it ‘the real driving simulator’ and you only had to take one corner to find out why.

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But they weren’t expecting Polyphony to push the visuals, the realism, or the outrageously raucous jazz fusion menu music as far as they did in this first PS2 effort. Series creator Kazunori Yamauchi told press at the time that while it had once taken about a day to assemble one vehicle on the PS1 titles, now it took a month. Every smoothed-off edge and twinkling headlight looked simply photorealistic at the time. And the way its 180+ cars felt when you thrashed them around Autumn Ring Mini or the Super Speedway was so much weightier and more authoritative than anything else in gaming, it was like Gran Turismo 3 was visiting from a different, better, universe.

As good as the handling was, articulating weight transfer between corners with incredible precision, that wasn’t the best thing about playing GT3. Instead, it was the rags to riches car ownership fantasy tale it took you on. Everyone starts out like a sniveling Oliver Twist in this game, trundling their way through Sunday Cup races in polite Japanese hatchbacks. And you don’t get much prize money for winning them either, which means the first thing you do after completing the entry level championship is start it again. Please sir, can I have more than a Toyota Vitz RS?

And you can, of course. You can fill your garage with thoroughbred track cars, cultured exotics, concept vehicles and rally monsters. But not until you really feel like you’ve earned them. And that’s what keeps car ownership exciting. You’re not just selecting a new box of polygons from a menu here, buying a new vehicle really means something because you know what you had to go through to amass all those credits. And you know that your game’s transformed now that you’re got a 2000 Mustang SVT Cobra. You’re going to absolutely cream all the Demios and Daihatsu Moves in the next race. Then you’re going to enter the American Muscle championship and realise you’re not creaming your opponents in that category. So you’re going to buy a stage 3 turbo kit and absolutely ruin the thing.

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Gran Turismo 3 Top Gear classic games

Oh yeah, you can utterly botch even the most lithe and responsive car’s handling, with enough ill-considered upgrades, and it’s to GT3’s eternal credit that it gives you that level of agency. We remember whacking so much turbo into a Nissan Skyline GTR-V, a gymnast of a vehicle when it’s at stock tuning, that we practically had to get out and push it round corners. But the thing was so fast, so comically, absurdly rapid down the straights, that on most tracks we could still pass all the AI drivers and take all those sweet, sweet credits to the bank.

Breaking your vehicle only deepened your bond with it. Undriveable as it may have been, it was your undriveable Skyline and Polyphony knew how much this conceit mattered. Why else would a studio go to the trouble of including oil change and car wash mechanics, where you could watch the dirty oil drain out of your engine and the fresh stuff pouring in, replenishing a few horsepower? Anything to deepen the sense that you’d really bought an asset and needed to maintain it, baby it. Tune it. Because it’s taking you to new places. 

There have been four major sequels since GT3, and a quasi-sequel, GT Sport, which put a laser focus on online sim racing at the expense of that familiar car collection journey. In those intervening years Polyphony’s taken us to the moon, challenged us to 24 hour races at Le Mans, and even turned sim racers like Jann Mardenborough into real race drivers through the GT Academy program. Still, for many gamers, the prevailing image of Gran Turismo is here on PS2. Listening to Feeder doo-dooing their way through that song they did, wrestling an utterly bodged 700hp Clio Sport around 2001’s most breathtaking scenery. 

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