Join on us on the 9th of every month leading up to the 20th anniversary of the North American release of the Sega Dreamcast on 09/09/19 as we talk about some of the games that made the system have such a lasting impact.
By the time the Dreamcast arrived on the market in 1999, it was during the last days of traditional arcades and thus the system was home to a lot of stellar ports of arcade titles from the likes of Capcom, Konami, Midway, Namco and of course, Sega themselves. One of the most popular and biggest arcade ports to hit the Dreamcast early in its life span was Crazy Taxi, a game that has had a longer life than a lot of the games from the Dreamcast’s library as it was ported to countless other platforms, even mobile devices. From a glance, Crazy Taxi looks like a quaint time capsule of the time period in which it was developed with its blatant product placement and iconic soundtrack, but if you look deeper you’ll see a game that’s a master class in game design and one of the best games Sega has ever produced.
With its arcade roots, Crazy Taxi is a deceptively easy game to understand: As one of four drivers, you’re tasked with picking up customers and driving them to their destination and the faster you accomplish this, the more money and time you’ll pick up which translates to a higher score as well as more playtime. The ultimate goal is to accumulate the highest score as possible by picking up as many customers as you can in a single run while also getting extra tip money by doing things like weaving between oncoming traffic, jumping off ramps and drifting around corners. Customers have different color rings around them which indicates their trip length and fare: a customer with a red ring will not have to be taken far which means you can pick up a lot of them but the payout is small, and on the exact opposite end of that spectrum are green rings which come with a huge fare but need to be taken farther. On top of the main timer, there’s also a sub-timer that a customer has which determines how much time you’ll get once you deliver them to your destination. Though it isn’t stated in the character select screen nor the instruction manual, each of the drivers: The green spiky haired Axel; the cool and collected Gina; the always smiling BD Joe and the veteran Gus have their own strengths and weaknesses, whether that’s a higher top speed, faster acceleration or better handing over rough terrain.
Like any great arcade should be, Crazy Taxi is easy to learn but difficult to master, and that’s why it has such longevity outside of the arcade as it’s a game that you can equally play for a few minutes at a time or sink hours into learning the nuances of its mechanics and brilliantly designed map. Crazy Taxi takes place in a shrunken down version of San Francisco as clearly evidenced by the hilly area you’ll drop down early on provided you go straight from your initial starting point when you’re told that it’s time to make some ccccrrrrazzzzyyyy money. Starting out the roads are wide open and filled with customers on either side of the them, allowing you to learn the differences in the customer types, earn a lot of money upfront by weaving around traffic and practice maneuvers like the Crazy Drift which isn’t that important starting out, but becomes crucial to your success as you go deeper into the playing field.
The key to getting that coveted high score in Crazy Taxi is by surviving the ticking clock long enough to do one whole circuit of the world map, but that’s easier said than done. Early on you can survive a lot of mistakes, but the second you cross the freeway next to the baseball stadium, the game becomes a lot more difficult. It’s in this almost B area that the map becomes much more cramped, demanding precision Crazy Drift’s else you run the risk of fares jumping out of your cab for not getting them to their destination fast enough and it’s a lot harder to find the optimal routes here also. Getting that high score and even topping it one day demands you learn exactly what customers to pick up such that you’re always moving forward, never backward, developing strategies on whether or not to do a large amount of red/orange fares or a series of long green ones to get you around the map with as much time and money as possible.
It’s impossible not to talk about Crazy Taxi without bringing up its Offspring and Bad Religion filled soundtrack and the licensed destinations like Pizza Hut, KFC and Tower Records. Should it have been released today, Crazy Taxi would probably be eviscerated over how much in-game advertising is present, but there’s something about it that gives the game a certain charm. Perhaps when combined with the soundtrack, it simply makes Crazy Taxi a game that’s a joy to revisit because it reminds you of a far more innocent time or maybe even how hilarious it is that a team of Japanese developers selected both the locations and songs because it was what they were accurately representing the youth of the time. Whatever it is, the songs and brands of Crazy Taxi make up its soul in an odd way and even though you’re still getting the same game more or less in ports to the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 which are devoid of such branding, there’s something about bringing someone to a generic pizza joint while listening to a song that you have no idea what it is that makes it feel like you’re only getting half of a game in a weird way.
Before the Dreamcast’s end, Crazy Taxi would get a sequel developed from the ground up for the console market, the aptly titled Crazy Taxi 2. Two great additions to the otherwise unchanged formula were the Crazy Hop technique that allowed you to jump over cars and reach higher short cuts and the ability to take on multiple fares at once. When it was brought to consoles, Crazy Taxi came with a new mode called Crazy Box which was a series of mini-games and challenges to test your ability with the more advanced techniques. This was refined in Crazy Taxi 2’s Crazy Pyramid which came included with far more manageable series of challenges, but for all its refinements and additions though, Crazy Taxi 2 is nowhere near as good as its predecessor. Some of that has to do with the new drivers who aren’t nearly as memorable as the first game’s cast, but most of it falls on the map. Crazy Taxi 2 takes place in a fictional recreation of New York City, but it opens like the back half of the original game and it makes it overwhelming to learn right from the start. Crazy Taxi 2 isn’t bad, in fact it’s quite fun like the original, but it misses what made the first game so great.
For a game that literally has the word “crazy” in its title, Crazy Taxi hides a great deal of superb game design from a title where you’re tasked with bringing someone to Tower Records while listening to “All I want” by The Offspring. Crazy Taxi worked both as a “just one more go” arcade title as well as a home console title with how much fun it is to play near immediately while still demanding the player to learn its cleverly designed map in hunt of the highest score possible. You can play Crazy Taxi in a number of ways, but it’s recommended to experience it either on the Dreamcast or one of the early ports that contained all of the licensed music and businesses. It’s still fun to play on both the PS3 and Xbox 360, but it’s not quite the same without the elements that made the game stand out for better or for worse.
Come back in a month as we travel from Europe to the Antarctic and learn about the friendly but naive king who met a very nasty queen.