The Underground Arcade Racing Scene: A History Of Initial D Arcade Stage

“I live my life one quarter token at a time…” – Vin Diesel, The Fast and The Furious…paraphrased

If there is any precious memory I’ll hold onto from the otherwise lame action/street race film The Fast and The Furious, it is this line Vin Diesel states to Paul Walker in the final quarter-mile drag race. To people who play arcade games, this was how they lived their lives in the days of their youth. To me, I still feel that line deep inside the recesses of my heart whenever I sit down at any Initial D arcade cabinet, ready to challenge any opponent in the digitized world of tōge racing.

If you’ve been keeping up with these Initial D articles on GUG, this is the article that means the most to me when it comes to Initial D fandom. To me, Initial D is broken up into three main aspects—manga, anime, and arcade—and the arcade scene is where I remain a fanboy of this series. If you were to ask me, “so what is it about Initial D that you like,” I’d say the Initial D Arcade Stage series is what truly defines my love for the franchise. What makes this series so interesting and great? I fully believe that without Initial D arcade games, Initial D as a whole would’ve faded many years ago.

When it comes to arcade racers, there are a plethora of them to choose from. Racing games in arcade cabinets have been around since the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and have evolved over time for the better. I grew up playing arcade racers at fun amusement joints and in the dark corners of smoky bars, and my first such memory is of playing Taito’s Special Criminal Investigation. As the sequel to the much-lauded Chase H.Q, it was the slickest game on the floor. Whether or not I knew it, this began my life-long love of racing games, solidified many years later with what became my main obsession: Initial D.

My Backstory

I fondly remember first seeing Initial D at a mall arcade in Massachusetts back in 2003. While I was wandering around the mall waiting for my friend and her mom to meet up with me, I saw the Initial D Ver. 2 game front and center at the arcade entrance, and I hopped on. I played a few races, and got my first card. Because I got more into anime during my sophomore year of high school and found out about the series, I had a vague knowledge of the franchise.

My next time playing Initial D wasn’t until early 2004 when I visited Adventure Landing in Raleigh, North Carolina, and discovered it had Ver. 2 cabinets. I begged my folks to take me there on weekends just to play. I remember becoming exhausted in no time because of how fast-paced the game is as I crashed into every corner, all while my friend and I laughed our butts off at how much fun we were having.

A year later, when I was working my first real job at a construction site, I’d spend part of my meager high school money and drive over to the nearby Crabtree Valley Mall for a couple of hours on the weekends to get some time on the Initial D Ver. 3 machines at Cyberstation. Any chance I got to invest in improving my car on the magnetic card we used to store our data was one step closer to me getting better at the game I fell head over heels in love with.

I spent so much time researching the courses, understanding the driving tactics the pros were using, and getting faster times on the machines. Over the years, I feel I’ve gotten much better the older I’ve grown, and between getting time on my own machines and others I’ve come across on occasion, I always leave my mark in time attack. Being skillful at Initial D isn’t the only important aspect of my love for the game, however; it’s the people I’m able to meet while behind the wheel.

If arcades are meant to be a social gathering place where you can build lasting—and even find lost—connections, then Initial D is the machine through which I’ve built countless connections over the years. One particular person I’ve known longer than any friend in my life is my buddy, Josh. I’m not sure how it happened, but Josh and I were working at R’Zone at Toys R Us during the Christmas season of 2005 after I got out of high school and he was in his senior year. While getting to know each other—and I’m not sure who brought it up (it was probably me)—“Initial D” was muttered in our conversation. I remember my paraphrased words coming out along the lines of, “wait, you play Initial D too?”

Josh took me over to his house one night after work to show me he had Initial D on his Playstation 2 in his loft. I didn’t even know the game was available on a home console, especially one that was still on the market. There I was, playing Initial D written to a blank DVD-R holding the controller intensely as I barrelled through Myogi on his CRT. That was the start of a friendship that led to us playing Initial D in arcades over the years at Animazement or driving from Raleigh to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to the one arcade that had the new Initial D 4 machine.

Driving through a downpour while on one such trip, I hit a giant puddle of water which somehow caused my 1995 Mercury Sable’s power steering to malfunction as we drove to the arcade. Josh asked me if my car was going to be alright, to which I looked at my ride for a moment and went, “… eh, we’ll look at it after we play Initial D, it’ll be fine.” Three hours went by before we left, and that sketchy Sable got us home in one piece. That was a good day. If video games can build a friendship (or act as the building block to one), Initial D did that for me. 

How a typical Cyberstation might’ve looked like in the early 2000’s.

Initial D has also gotten me to reconnect with people I once knew. Interestingly enough, I met one of the workers at the Cyberstation who I was cool with and played with us. We even did the only instance of a “gum tape match” where players were duct-taped to the steering wheels to re-enact the race between Takumi and Shingo. Fast forward from 2005 to 2016 where I met that same former Cyberstation employee in the arcade area at Animazement that year where Arcade Impact had Initial D 7AAX ready to go for the attendees.

I noticed his driver’s name was one I hadn’t seen in over a decade. After our friendly but heated race, I chatted with him and we both knew who we were from those Cyberstation days. After some brief catching up on where we’d been and what we’d been doing for over a decade, we traded contact information, and once a year at Animazement I’ll try to race him at the same machines if we run into each other. Although that was my personal interaction with one such player which was peaceful, in-person races weren’t always happy social gatherings. Other locations are where trash was talked and backed up behind the wheel. These were the internet forums for several Initial D groups that were worldwide.

Many race teams formed up and duked it out at their respected locations. One group forum I joined for a while was a team named Kishu, based out of Canada. Canada seemed to breed Initial D teams and players that made their mark upon global time attack times on any course. For a country that stays pretty cool year-round, the arcades were the hottest places in that country. Toronto, Alberta, and Edmonton were the three hottest places that hosted Initial D, and it was where you’d find the best of the best in North America.

One of two cabs that make up an Initial D set…

I quickly discovered the arcade scene for Initial D wasn’t just for people on my continent but on a much more global scale. Over to the east, Japan, China, and Taiwan hosted the best players, pitting driver-against-driver in the hotspot arcade amusements from the streets of Shibuya, Akihabara, and other locales across east Asia. Initial D might’ve been smaller than Dance Dance Revolution and the fighting game community, but from what I could tell, it could get deadlier and more competitive than any of those other gaming communities combined. All in all, at the end of the day, when you’re out of tokens (avoiding punches thrown after a race and shouting matches), players had nothing but respect for one another, which showed online…somewhat. Even stories of former hotshots who would play other vets years later in the streets of Hong Kong still honor one another on the virtual downhill roads of Initial D

The Machine Itself

So what makes Initial D so special as an arcade racer? What about it draws so many people to plop in quarter after quarter? I’d say there are a lot of factors as to why someone would enjoy Initial D. You don’t really have to be knowledgeable about the series to understand the arcade games, but it does help.

First and foremost, the games are designed to be fun. Games have to be fun for people to continuously pop tokens or quarters into them for hours. Racing games may not be for everyone, but if the allure of Initial D gets you when you first sit down to play, it sure won’t ever let go. I’ll argue heavily that SEGA makes quality arcade games. They seem to take the allure and feel of their past hits like Outrun and Daytona USA and put that into the world of Initial D. So if you enjoyed SEGA’s older driving games, then this is right up your alley. 

Me working “under the hood” of my Initial D cabs…

As of this published article, there are ten versions of the Initial D arcade game, going back from 2002 to 2020, with the latest game being Initial D: The Arcade. The arcade hardware has used up to four different systems throughout the series’ lifespan that was standard to what SEGA developed games through at that time each version was released.

The first three games, which are known as Version 1 through 3, used SEGA Naomi 2 hardware, which run the games off GD-ROM discs connected to the Naomi 2 hardware housed under the seats of the arcade machines. I know more about the hardware of Version 1-3 because I own those versions. The best thing about Versions 1 through 3 is the fact since they all run off the same hardware, swapping out the GD-ROM discs between the three games and switching the security chips lets you play those 3 versions at any time. I’m not familiar with how the other systems run the games since I never had the hands-on experience to fiddle with them. Hopefully, someday, I will.

What makes Initial D distinct from other arcade racers is the fact that through the card reader system in all the machines to date, you can store all of your data about your car, upgrades, and even character profiles onto a card designated to that version of the game. The card system with Version 1 through 3 made you cycle out your card over a period of plays, and I believe it’s due to the player having a functional card to keep their data on before it might deteriorate over time. I still have my cards from the early versions, and as of yet, I do not have a card reader for the machines that I own.

As for Initial D 4 and onward, to my knowledge, the renewing of the card isn’t required since the material is much thicker and more sturdy. The only other system like the card reading system that predates Initial D Arcade Stage would be Taito’s Battle Gear series, which allows the player to save their data on an actual key they can use on the arcade system when they play. Because of the Initial D card system, Namco adapted that to their Wangan Midnight arcade series. Now that we are familiar with how the arcade works, let’s sit in the driver’s seat, shall we?

My Initial D play cards for the arcades. Newer versions on the left, older cards on the right.

The game itself may look simple, but there is a lot going on, and by learning the game’s different tricks and tactics, you’ll find it has more depth to it than a simple arcade racer. Any Initial D game has what I call a “gimmick” of sorts or, in other words, certain ways to handle the wheel and shift the knob to have a competitive edge over the opponent. I’ve made this argument to other Initial D players and many have disagreed with me that certain tactics in the machine to have an edge over the other player or the CPU isn’t counted as a gimmick, but part of the game.

I’d argue it’s a gimmick because each version has some new tactic to learn to have that edge that players discover eventually and share with the community. It’s the same as how fighting games have combos and special attacks, and how they change from game to game. A fighting game is fun, but having those special attacks gives the game a bit of flavor in order for the player to have an edge over the opponent. Most driving games I know of before Initial D didn’t have these gimmicks, as far as I’m aware.

Over the years, “experts” of Initial D have shared how to perform such driving tactics as the 5 in 4 out, Machine Gun Shift, braking tactics to get the car to drift, shifting “spots” on cars to get a bit of a boost at the beginning of a race, and so on and so forth. As helpful as these tactics have been for some people over the years, I’ve also laughed at how ridiculous kids look when they do Machine Gun Shift and their butts are about to fall out of the seat. In a sense, I feel my way of doing things has really made me a better driver over the years. A quick bit of advice I can give is this: Learn the courses! If you know how to tackle every corner in order to avoid touching the guardrails, you will do better than 98% of most people who touch the game. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.

Playing The Game At Home

Let’s say you’re a person that doesn’t live near a hot arcade that is privately owned like Galloping Ghosts, or isn’t a franchise like Round 1, or you’re thousands of miles away from the hot, busy streets of Akihabara. What can a nerd do to get ahold of Initial D to try it out? Well, you actually have a few options thanks to…THE INTERNET!! Initial D has had its name played on home consoles since the late 1990’s on nearly every popular video game system. The thing to know is most of the good Initial D games are available on Sony PlayStation systems.

Your best option to play Initial D at home would be getting Initial D Special Stage for the PS2, Initial D Extreme Stage for the PS3, and Initial D Street Stage for the PSP. I’d flip my rocker if Initial D were ever to come to the PS5 or Nintendo Switch at some point, but only time will tell. The games I listed for home consoles are fairly priced on ebay, and you might find deals for them on other websites that import games.

Me driving around on my arcade cabs…

Sometimes you can get lucky and purchase your very own machine, which happened to me a few years back. For a number of years, a local joint that was half an arcade and half game bazaar had Initial D in the far corner of a back room for a couple of years. I would go talk to the owner about how much he would be willing to sell both cabinets to me for, and based on their condition, it was higher than what I was willing to spend. Fast forward a bit and the owner moved to a new location, leaving all his old stuff behind, including those Initial D arcade cabinets.

The store had become a thrift store for about a month and I saw the machines were still in the same corner, untouched by the rest of the world. He made an offer for $300 for both machines, which I graciously accepted. My brother and I were able to haul the machines to our garage in our apartment community where we currently reside. It’s enjoyable to go out there every so often to play a game I absolutely enjoy from the depths of my heart. It’s even more fun to have people come over and enjoy playing the machine because that’s what arcades are for to begin with. Maybe someday I can finish refurbishing the machines to how I want them, and get people to play and enjoy them the same way I do. 

This particular article for GUG is a big love letter for an arcade game. I don’t see myself as any different from how a man feels about his trophy room-worthy accomplishments, or how he feels about the muscle car that resides in the belly of his garage. That is how I feel about Initial D. I feel many people might have that one game they are passionate about that not only defined them but was comforting to them growing up. That’s how geeks are, and that’s how we operate. So if you ever see an Initial D cabinet in the corner of an arcade hooked up to the wall, sit down and give it a play; it may change your life the same way it did mine.

Dustin Kopplin

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