Even today, Capcom’s 2002 racing game Auto Modellista stands out as a bold and striking experiment.
By combining relatively conventional arcade-style racing gameplay with an eye-catching cel-shaded visual style, the game successfully distinguished itself from many of its peers — though sadly, relatively mediocre reviews, mostly focusing on the game’s handling and its attempts to straddle the line between deep simulation and arcade racer, meant that it sold fairly poorly.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out by any means, however — particularly if you are someone who, like me, enjoys the customisation aspect of deep sims but hates “realistic” handling. Let’s take a closer look — and keep an eye on Sunday Driving for the next few weeks to see the game in action for yourself!
Auto Modellista was developed as part of an initiative by Capcom’s Production Studio 1 to create three unrelated games for PlayStation 2 with one thing in common: they should incorporate network functionality for online play. Capcom hoped that at least one of these three games would go on to be a million-seller and establish the company as a noteworthy player in the burgeoning online multiplayer market; Auto Modellista was, sadly, not that game — but its “siblings” Monster Hunter and Resident Evil Outbreak both went on to sell more than a million copies each, with the former in particular spawning an immensely successful and multiplayer-centric series that remains popular today.
As for Auto Modellista… well, its online functionality didn’t even make it into the European and North American PlayStation 2 localisations of the game — though it was reinstated for an expanded 2003 rerelease dubbed Auto Modellista: US Tuned, which subsequently formed the basis for the later Xbox and Gamecube ports. It’s fair to say that the game, on the whole, had performed somewhat sub-optimally for Capcom and thus, aside from an unofficial follow-up called Group S Challenge for Xbox in 2003 — which lacked Auto Modellista’s distinctive cel-shaded visuals and any online functionality whatsoever despite being hosted by a console known for its solid implementation of online — Capcom hasn’t returned to the racing genre since.
This is all rather negative, isn’t it? Fact is, Auto Modellista was treated rather unkindly around the turn of the century… but trying it for the first time some fifteen years after its original release reveals a charming, highly enjoyable title that is well worth your time, particularly if you prefer your racing games to err on the “arcadey” side of things.
Auto Modellista has two main modes: an Arcade mode, which allows one or two players to have a single race on any of the courses in the game using any unlocked vehicles, and Garage Life mode, which is the main single-player campaign.
In Garage Life, you’re initially invited to name your garage and pick one of three different building designs to form the backdrop to your racing empire. As you progress through the game, you unlock a wide variety of decorative items that can be placed in your garage, ranging from posters to put on the walls to tool cabinets, shelves and items of equipment that can be laid out around the floor. In other words, the more you play the game, the more “lived-in” you can make your garage look.
You kick off the game by picking any of the available cars, all of which are from real-world manufacturers early 21st century lineups. The available vehicles range from speedy sports cars to more mundane hatchbacks, and there’s no obligation to start with a slow vehicle and work your way up through the performance ranks. Unlike games such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, you don’t have to “buy” these cars, so you’re free to simply choose one that fits the kind of experience you want to have with the game. Moreover, you can customise, save and change your cars at any time, all without having to expend any sort of virtual currency or grind your way to being able to afford your next clapped-out old banger (or shiny new car) to work on.
This lack of currency also extends to the “tuning” side of things: any car you have unlocked can be upgraded using any of the parts you have available to you. The only restriction is that those parts have to be unlocked first — you do that by clearing races and levels of the overall championship. The actual upgrading side of things is relatively lightweight; you just pick parts, there’s no actual fiddling with specific settings, so most of the game’s performance customisation comes from the combinations of parts you have equipped rather than detailed settings.
For those who know next to nothing about how cars work — hello! — there’s also an “easy tune-up” option, which allows you to pick a course, then decide whether you want more acceleration or a higher top speed, and whether you want to emphasise drift handling or more grippy cornering. The game will then use the parts you have available to set up your car for those conditions with no fuss, allowing you to quickly get into the action.
There are also purely visual “dress-up” parts you can apply to your car; again, these are unlocked via your progress in the game rather than purchasing them with currency, and they range from various bits of bodywork customisation to paint jobs and stickers. There’s even a sticker design feature where you can either draw your own design or make use of various templates — though sadly, it doesn’t appear possible to have different stickers on different parts of your car. Don’t expect a full-on Forza Motorsport-style Paint Shop, in other words, but it’s still fun to deck out your car with your own designs.
Once into the game proper, you work your way through a series of “levels”, each of which has a number of race events and a minimum number you need to clear in first place in order to advance to the next level. It’s worth doing all the races in a particular level, however, since you’ll unlock more rewards that way.
The various races cover a variety of different racing disciplines, including track racing on Suzuka, uphill and downhill drift racing on two point-to-point circuits, two street racing circuits around Tokyo, one of which is in the rain, laps around Tokyo’s highways, a dirt track in the US and a speedway circuit. This isn’t a huge amount of different circuits, but each new level of competition bumps up the aggressiveness of your opponents significantly; at level 1, you’re practically doing time trials, but the further you go, the more you’ll have to fight to maintain first place.
The different types of track encourage you to try out different cars, too. The tight city circuits of Tokyo work well with a small hatchback such as a Toyota Yaris, for example, while somewhere like Suzuka or the US Speedway circuit you’ll want to pull out all the stops and make use of the fastest car you have access to. There’s no penalty when changing cars, and if you’ve found a setup of performance and dress-up parts that particularly appeals to you, you can save that car in a “sub-garage” for later retrieval; you can even name your cars, and these names are used on the lap time leaderboards so you can easily compare different setups.
Reviews of Auto Modellista at the time of its original release heaped scorn on it for its rather “floaty” arcade-style handling, criticising the cars’ seeming lack of traction in some circumstances. However, I can honestly say the way Auto Modellista handles is, for me, anyway, infinitely preferable to the Gran Turismos and Forza Motorsports of the world. This is not a game where you’ll go spinning off the side of the track if you don’t brake half an hour before reaching a corner; this is a game about the thrill of exaggerated, anime-style driving. That cel-shaded, anime and manga-inspired aesthetic — complete with “speed lines” — is there for a reason, and the way the game plays is firmly in keeping with the way it looks and feels.
How it feels is actually an aspect of the game worth drawing specific attention to. It’s hard to recall a game that made quite such good use of the PlayStation 2’s excellent DualShock 2 controller. In Auto Modellista you can feel the road through your controller. There’s a constant low hum of your engine, and you’ll feel every bump as you pass over them. On the Tokyo Highway track, you’ll feel the jolt as you pass over the joins between sections of bridge and overpass; on the dirt track, you’ll feel your tyres kicking up the dust and mud. It really is quite spectacular, and one of the ways the game makes quite a striking impression not just through its excellent visuals, sound and music… but quite simply by how it feels in your hands.
It’s a game that wants you to enjoy it in a variety of ways, too. An in-game mail system provides helpful information about driving techniques, course tips and information about various types of cars. The instant replays after races look great. And the “VJ” real-time vision mixing replay editor is not just a quintessentially “early 2000s” feature, it’s also an absolute ton of fun to use — even if it is a little unintuitive initially. (And don’t expect any help from the manual on that note, either!)
Auto Modellista may have its limitations, particularly so far as the number of tracks it offers — but remember, the early Ridge Racer titles pretty much got by with just two or three tracks and are quite rightly considered to be all-time classics! Ultimately, this is a game about enjoying exaggerated, anime-style racing rather than any sort of attempt to provide a realistic experience — and I like it all the more for that. It’s straightforward, uncomplicated and honest — yet it provides enough substance to actually reward those who engage with it for more than a few minutes.
It’s also a great reminder of quite how good PS2-era Capcom was…
More about Auto Modellista
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