Player Agency – Crazy Taxi Could Be a Perfect Game

Crazy Taxi is a near perfect video game. That’s high praise, but nothing unprecedented for the game, as it has been hailed as an arcade classic since it originally came out in 1998. However, when I sat down to play it the other day for nostalgia’s sake, I came away with more problems than I did positive things to say about it. The game is still incredible, and there’s nothing that truly feels quite like it, but it’s so close to greatness that it hurts. With only a few small tweaks the game could turn into a timeless masterpiece. Naturally I don’t have the means to make or even pitch this hypothetical project, and I’m not sure there’s a demand for this kind of game in the marketplace today. That being said, if I were at the helm of designing a quasi-remake/sequel of the beloved game, this is just a little wish list of what I’d like to see in this imaginary game.

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The playable characters are a great example of the awful caricatures present across the game.

The game’s aesthetic is a time capsule of the 1990’s, warts and all. This stylistic choice isn’t innately garish, just look at Jet Set Radio to see an example of this style well made, but the game has aged incredibly poorly. It’s intentions were never artful, and a game as goofy as Crazy Taxi shouldn’t take itself too seriously, but the game right now plays it a bit too straight, as opposed to the over the top satire it’s meant to be. That of course is my opinion based on how I perceive that game, it’s possible the game was trying to be a genuine portrayal of the culture it embodies, but if that’s the case it did an awful job. It seems much more likely the game was targeting parody, but as previously stated it’s in a weird limbo in between satire and straight. The game could still be Crazy Taxi with a completely different aesthetic, and I encourage future game developers to experiment with the style as they wish, but for the sake of this think piece I’m going to critique the game as is. So in it’s current state, I think the punk aesthetic is fine, it just needs to be turned up to 11.

The music is hands down the most obnoxious part of the game, and it has to be the first thing to go. The game seems to think of itself as a bit punk, but saying that it dips its toes into punk culture might even be an overstatement. If the game wants to be punk, an inherently anti-establishment genre, the poppy tunes are the anti-thesis to that, they have to go. The game’s incredibly shallow dive into punk culture means merely presenting the parts of it that have seeped into mainstream culture. I need noise rock, I need no-wave, I need post-hardcore. The soundtrack doesn’t even need to fall under the umbrella category of punk rock, there’s tons of genres that embody that same “Fuck everything!” attitude. There’s hardcore hip hop, industrial rock/rap, and metal just to name a few, and those are still leaning towards mainstream. There are a lot of artists that have one foot in the underground and the other in pop culture, bands that become mainstream despite their abrasiveness. Artists like Metallica, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and Death Grips, for a more modern example. All these artists found their niche and arguably extended their reach beyond that, and made their way to a wider audience, and they would be a perfect fit with their straddling of artistic merit and broad appeal.

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An archetypal example of cel shading, Jet Set Radio.

As for the rest of the aesthetic, it also needs to be pushed towards the more extreme side. It’s a tough line to ride, lean too hard on the aesthetic and it’ll come off as a gimmick, and less focus on it could prove boring. Crazy Taxi’s art holds up about as well as it can due to it’s cartoony style, and in order to modernize it not much is needed besides the upping of the texture quality. Luckily there’s a modern art style in games that would fit Crazy Taxi in every way: cel shaded. The textbook definition of cel shading is “… a type of non-photo-realistic rendering designed to make 3-D computer graphics appear to be flat…”. The most notifiable distinction to a layman is simply the thick bold outlines over every model, making them pop in a very stylish manner. You can see this in games like Borderlands, anything by Telltale, the list goes on and on. Jet Set Radio is probably the defining example, and it’s a great parallel as it too embodies a kind of tongue-in-cheek tribute to punk.

Now for the main issue here that keeps this game from being the greatest thing ever made: the gameplay. The gameplay is already near perfect, but that’s the key word right there: NEAR. Before I talk about what needs to be changed, I need to explain why the gameplay is so exciting as it is. Crazy Taxi is a pretty simple concept, as the taxi driver you have to drive around a small open world picking up passengers and dropping them at their destinations. The fun comes from how absurd the driving in this game is. You don’t obey a single law of traffic, the passengers don’t even seemed to be buckled in. You crash into cars that block your way and shoe pedestrians off the sidewalk so you can take shortcuts. The game lets you attain ludicrous speeds far above any legal limit, and let’s you get insane airtime as you almost literally fly off makeshift ramps.

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There’s just an intrinsic excitement that comes from being able to go so fast and do such crazy stunts with zero repercussions. The problems arise when the game slows down. Basically, the game should never slow down, yet it often forces you to. The core gameplay loop is like so: Drive around until you find a passenger, slow down to pick them up, drive them to their destination so they can exit, then repeat. Notice how I mentioned that you have to slow down, this single action is so simple yet so frustrating. On paper, that probably sounds like a nitpick, but if you actually sit down and play the game yourself it’s immediately noticeable and grating. In game design, every element of the game should reinforce the other, and all mechanics should reinforce the main one. There’s an inherent dissonance in a game about speed telling you to slow down, even if it’s just for an instant. It would be infinitely more fun if instead of having to slow down to park and pick up the passenger, you could speed past them and have them jump inside. Or maybe you could even drift into them, a la this absurd scene from Wanted. This would keep up the pace of the game and allow you to maintain and build your speed for as long as possible. Pedestrians already jump out of the taxi if you don’t get them to their destination fast enough, and they’re capable of superhuman acrobatics in order to avoid your erratic driving, so these aren’t even far fetched suggestions.

The only time you should slow down is if you fail, so you’re slowed as a punishment. This makes the times when you are reaching top speeds that much more rewarding as you need a certain level of skill to reach this point, making the experience feel earned. Maybe crashing into an immovable wall or flipping over and getting temporarily stuck. But maybe you shouldn’t even stop then. Instead of a building blocking your path, you could bulldoze through it. In the original game, you can send cars flying when you run into them, but they impede your momentum a little bit. I say ramp up the cartoony slapstick nature of this and have the cars fly farther, with you not slowing down a bit. The problem then seems that if there are truly no obstacles in your way, where’s the challenge? Tons of modern games have found ways to be fun and even challenging without such strict fail or win states, and some games have ditched them entirely. They’re not an essential feature of game design anymore, at the very least not in a traditional sense. There’s pacifistic walking sims, and games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn where it’s impossible to die. This is the extreme, the logical conclusion to fail states, but Crazy Taxi doesn’t need to be that abstract, in fact it would probably be against it’s ethos to do so. Still, the challenge and “failure” can come from elsewhere. The challenge of the game should just be on getting from point A to Point B as fast and as stylishly as possible, true to it’s score attack roots.

My main gripe with the game was everything concerning speed, but I do have a few smaller points that I’d like to touch on before I conclude. These aren’t really critiques as much as suggestions and little ideas; a series of unrelated points that, while more minor, will create a better game overall. The list follows:

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An original Crazy Taxi arcade cabinet, notice the gear stick on the right. While a fun gimmick in the original context, it translates poorly to consoles without any additional peripherals.

1. Drop the gear changing mechanic. The whole mechanic of switching between driving and reversing is incredibly archaic and frustrating, and it’s clear this was just a leftover from the arcade cabinets before it was ported onto consoles. It’s arguable that all of the game has dated arcade design philosophies in it, and that it’s just an inherent part of the game. This is true to extent, the games score chasing nature and quick sessions are clearly intact because of the games arcade origins, but these design choices actually work perfectly in a modern context, possibly more so then they did when the game originally came out. People are seeking shorter and tighter experiences in today’s busy world, and the immediateness of an arcade title is innately exciting in the modern market.

2. Trim the fat. The original Crazy Taxi entries all have tons of unnecessary mini games. My reason for proposing these extra features be dropped is twofold. For one, this niche is already exhibited in other modern games. The Grand Theft Auto series for example, often devolves into these absurd mini-games in it’s multiplayer aspects. You’d often find mods that would allow you to engage in activities, but as of the latest entry the game has legitimate game-modes such as shuffleboard with cars. And hell, Rocket League is a game entirely about Soccer with cars, and it was a hit! So, we really don’t need another game occupying this niche, especially when the results would probably be lesser than the aforementioned examples. Which brings me to my second point: quality. With more focus on the core of the game, that part of the game will naturally be more polished. There’s no need to tack on extra game-modes, or multiplayer, or whatever a modern publisher demands. A shorter experience that’s amazing from beginning to end is always more compelling than a long experience packed in with filler and forgettable moments.

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One of the many “crazy” mini-games from the original title’s Sega Dreamcast release.

3. Make the locales interesting. Okay, I know I said those points would be brief, but this last one is admittedly kind of lengthy. Let me start off by saying that the San Francisco setting of the first game is far and away the best the series has ever seen. Whether this proposed new entry in the series is a sequel, a reboot, a remaster, whatever, it needs to take cues from the original’s world map at the very least. The locales are fun and the city is a decent enough locale, but it’s the level design that shines. It’s entirely thanks to San Francisco’s architecture, the steep streets lead to moments of absurd airtime, and all the cars and pedestrians provide hilarious obstacles. There are other locations that no doubt would also provoke similar tests of the laws of physics, and be insanely fun, this is only the first that comes to mind. The sequels had a few interesting ideas, but they were generally just lacking in any interesting level design. Perhaps this is because the game is rooting itself into reality too much, and needs to let loose with it’s design. I’m not calling it to launch itself into the sci-fi genre immediately, I’m only saying that the levels don’t have to be a 1:1 mirror of reality, or anything remotely close.

To add an extra layer of challenge it could perhaps be interesting to drop the obnoxious green arrow that’s present above the player character’s vehicle at all times. The point behind this would be to encourage the players to know where the locations where on the game map, making the time pressure even more intense as you’re never sure of the objective fastest route, or even where the location is. This would also ensure that the developers are forced to make memorable landmarks that standout. In replacement of the giant arrow, I propose a new system that follows like so: The player picks up a person in their taxi, we hear the cliched but necessary exchange of dialog where the passenger tells the taxi person where to head, and a picture of the location along with its name pops up on screen.

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The game’s dizzying action is best seen in motion, but nothing comes close to playing it yourself.

So now we have the name of a location, and a picture of it, but how to get there isn’t entirely clear. The player will have to rely on their knowledge of the game world and visual cues in order to navigate there (this whole system is reminiscent of the memories in Breath of the Wild). Dynamic difficulty can also be easily implemented into this system, the longer you take to reach the destination the more disgruntled the passenger becomes. The passenger will naturally start condescendingly reminding you of areas surrounding their destination, and questioning if “you even know where you’re going.” This both fits the games tone, and it’s mechanics. It also just makes sense to have this kind of navigation system should the game still be set in the 90’s, where GPS’s were less advanced and accurate presumably.

The point of this article was to propose a completely theoretical successor to a game that is hardly talked about today, and frankly has little demand (as far as I can see, anyway) in today’s landscape. And I myself don’t have the necessary resources, funds, skills, or licenses to make such a game. So this is simply a pipe dream of mine I’m releasing on the internet for all to see. If by some miracle an executive decides to reboot this franchise (and in this climate, it’ll probably happen eventually) and genuinely cares about making a quality product, then I do hope they also miraculously see this article and take my advice. As I said it’s a pretty far out dream, but I hope there’s a market for it.

It’s been a while since my last article, so I thank you all again for keeping up with me. Expect more in the near future and, as always, thanks for reading.