Version tested: PlayStation 2
I've made a terrible error of judgment. Oh, it seemed like a cracking wheeze at the time - "Yes, I'll review a Japanese horse racing game!" - but my devil-may-care cavalier attitude has come back like some karmic boomerang and smacked me right in the mush. Having volunteered for the task mostly out of curiosity and false bravado, I now find myself in the cold sober light of day, faced with the job of actually playing and reviewing the damn thing. And, to be quite candid, I'm more than a little scared.
I won't try to hide it. I know nothing about horses, or the racing thereof. I can't even remember the name of that sweaty hairy commentator who was on Celebrity Big Brother. I don't even have any experience of the previous entries in the G1 Jockey franchise, or of Gallop Racer - it's nearest rival (and I only know that because of our old friend, Google). In fact, the closest I've come is a solitary drunken encounter with one of those arcade cabinets at the Trocadero Centre, which resulted in me thrusting backwards and forwards on a plastic horse torso like some bestial version of Ron Jeremy, before staggering off to be very sick, leaving my virtual steed becalmed and confused in the middle of an empty track. So what to do?
There are three options open to me. The first is to take the obvious route - which we shall call the "Tarrant on TV" route - and simply use the review as an excuse to make lots of quasi-racist jokes about how wacky the Japanese are, how weird their games are and did you know they also have used-knicker dispensers and cartoons full of tentacle molestation? It's sorely tempting, but my conscience recoils at taking such a tediously obvious path.
The second is to stop being such a listless slacker, get off my arse and do some research. Review the thing properly, and let the G1 Jockey fans know exactly how this title improves on what went before, going into accurate detail as to how the game simulates the world of equestrian achievement. But then, in the name of Shergar's ghost, how boring would that be?
Which leaves us with option number three, a hilarious true life account of my charmingly inept introduction to the joys of console horse racing. It's still something of a reviewer's cliché, but as it will probably reflect most people's experience, it seems the best under the circumstances. Plus it's easier to write.
Reins of Terror
In the interests of accuracy, I decide to play the tutorials first, rather than just jumping into the game like a great big clod as is my usual tactic. This is a mistake. My fear is stoked to nightmare levels by a parade of on-screen meters and gauges showing everything from horse stamina to willpower and even which leg it's leading with. These are things that are apparently important when making horses go fast, but even though I study each tutorial, I'm starting to realise that my hopes of playing Burnout But With Horses are destined to be dashed on the rocks of reality. This is more like Microsoft Flight Simulator But With Horses (And Other Stuff).
I glean this much: horses are living, breathing creatures with a will of their own. If you take a horse that likes to lead the pack, and race it cautiously, it'll get stroppy and steam off on its own, exhausting itself early. The same is true in reverse of horses trained to put in a last minute dash - ride them hard and they'll rebel. The game even takes into account the proximity of other riders to make your steed a psychologically complex mode of transport. I am hopelessly out of my depth.
This overwhelming level of detail is naturally carried through to the story mode, where you must define nine personal settings before you even get a sniff of horse. From the obvious (entering your name) to the more technical (choosing a horse owner to affiliate yourself with), it's almost like the game is daring casual gamers to keep playing. For what it's worth, I align my jockey self with a man called M. Hill. He looks like a nob, but one of his horses is called Electromagnetism and that's enough to convince me he's my kinda virtual racehorse tycoon.
Whip crack away
The story mode has the usual oddball Japanese soap opera interludes, complete with whimsical opening text about your childhood love of horses. "Seeing the winning jockey being handed flowers on the podium inspired me to become a jockey one day," gushes a typical entry. I'm having trouble getting into character, as I wanted to be B.A. Baracus at that age. Meanwhile, static painted faces pop up to advise, congratulate or berate you throughout your career, with a level of innuendo that livens up even the most tedious pre-race briefing. "I'm not going down!" exclaims a sassy female jockey, before the trainer implores you to "Pull out everything you've got and make it count". None of this frippery matters one jot to the gameplay, but that's part of the charm, I suppose.
At this point I discover that the game is also supposed to come with a rather erotic looking joypad harness that you strap to the analogue sticks, the idea being that it makes them less like two plastic protrusions and more like the reins on a horse. My review copy lacks this curious addition, so I'm forced to make one of my own using a rubber band and an Action Man swimming hat. It's a clever idea, and it actually works. Sort of. When you've got the hang of it. The trick is to settle into a rhythm of up-downs on your sticks/reins, while keeping an eye on the stamina levels of your horse. You can, of course, whip the blighter if you want more, more, more. I do this too much and the word "BAD" flashes at me in neon pink. This actually turns me on a little bit. Anyway, once you've suppressed the urge to just accelerate like a tipsy monkey this convoluted control system does start to make sense. But you still won't win.
That's because the races are phenomenally hard. Psychotically so, in fact. Time and time again, your nag runs out of puff just before the post. You really need to understand how to work your ride in order to stay in the game but even once you've mastered that it's still an uphill struggle just to stop coming in last, let alone take the lead, and if there were any remaining casual players who had hung on through the lectures and the statistics and options screens in the hope of a good old gallop at the end of it all, it's here they'll run screaming into the night, with visions of Frankie Dettori's tiny face leering after them.
Soundtracked by a schizophrenic selection of in-game tunes, ranging from tinkly Sims-style piano jazz to quaint hip hop beats and even something that sounds like Magical Sound Shower from OutRun rewritten as a sax-heavy porn backing track, there's no denying that my virgin venture into the mythical realms of horse racing simulation has been every bit as strange and sexually charged as I imagined it would be, but I'm also quietly impressed with the sheer level of detail applied to such a minority genre. I'm as confused as a swan in a dishwasher, of course, but also acutely aware that if I actually was a horse fan, this might well be my most favourite game ever.
This is, predictably, a game made with an almost impossibly narrow niche market in mind. Not content to target people with a passing interest in the sport of kings, or people who maybe like a flutter on the Grand National, this is an experience purely for the hardcore dedicated horse racing enthusiast who also happens to like console games. If you're one of the seven people this applies to, then rejoice - G1 Jockey 4 is everything you ever wanted. For everyone else, it has some funny horse names.
Odds you'll like it? 100-1