Grand Tour Legends
$6 on Playdate Catalog
1 hour long
Grand Tour Legends is a crank-operated bicycle racing game where you need to carefully manage your stamina to win. You can pick between three characters with different balances of speed and stamina, and race on three stages (Castle Hill, Alpine Pass, and Ocean Breeze).
I try to avoid getting into technical details, but in this case it’s unavoidable: Grand Tour Legends is only available on the Playdate, a small handheld console with three distinguishing features.
It has a black and white display
…and a crank controller that rotates very smoothly
You crank to cycle – it’s that simple. Crank fast and you cycle faster, exhausting your stamina. Crank slower and you’ll slow down or stop, restoring your stamina. There is literally nothing else you can do in the game. You can’t steer or use boosts or fire weapons: it’s pure, unadulterated cranking.
The challenge, therefore, is to crank as fast as you can without running out of stamina and bonking (a real cycling term). Prospective buyers of Grand Tour Legends are warned “this game relies on precision cranking,” but in truth it was easy to find the optimal cranking rate for each character.
That freed my attention up to enjoy the landscape whizzing past. It looks 3D but I’m sure it’s just a video that plays faster or slower based on your speed, like an old time movie. At all but the most sedate cranking speeds, the landscape is comically sped up – you’ll fly through a town or over a bridge or through a valley in just a handful of seconds, like Out Run.
It’s not hard to reach 3rd or 2nd place in races, but getting any further means you need to crank much closer to the edge, and when you’re almost out of stamina everything becomes misty and you can’t see what’s coming up, like hills and descents. I assume this is meant to be an interesting bit of game design but in practice it makes no difference at all because a) you can still see your all-important stamina meter and b) cranking faster on climbs and slower on descents is ultimately meaningless when it comes to victory given that I got first place without reacting at all.
In fact, it was an hour in before I even thought to see what would happen if I stopped cranking so hard. Sure enough, Grand Tour Legends has “physics” such that I’d coast down a hill even if I’d stopped pedalling, but if I was climbing up a hill I’d quickly come to a halt. Because you’re moving so quickly and hills zoom by in seconds, it’s almost impossible to change your cranking rate fast enough; plus your stamina meter barely varies at a constant rate of cranking anyway. No doubt the world record players on the leaderboard (a whole 2% faster than me) employed a physics-aware cranking strategy, but I still managed to do well enough without it.
While I cranked my way through the three stages – a surprisingly meditative experience, a bit like swimming – I mused that Grand Tour Legends might be better if it had longer climbs and descents, so players would have more opportunity to vary their cranking speed; but then you’d lose the sense of comical speed which is a big reason why the game is delightful. Still, I think it’d be worth it, even if it detracted from the classic arcade racing game feeling where you’re always going all out – a proper awareness of hills would’ve felt more loyal to the spirit of cycling specifically rather than just racing more generally.
Given how hard I’ve been on other games, you might think I’d be down on this game’s near-total lack of game design. Surprise: I liked it! Would I have put $6 worth of quarters into a crank-operated arcade cabinet just to try it out for an hour? Probably!
And that’s what Grand Tour Legends is: an arcade game. Gone are the days when arcades held the most technically sophisticated games. Now they’re all about unconventional input mechanisms that would be too expensive or inconvenient for most people to buy for home, like light guns and dance pads and steering wheels.
Is Dance Dance Revolution a “good” game? It doesn’t have Sid Meier’s series of “interesting decisions”; you’ve got no choice but to step on the dance pad arrows at the moments dictated by the game. But it is unusual and challenging to move your body to hit those arrows in time, and the entire sensory experience of the arcade game – the thumping music, the neon colours, the blaring scores – is overwhelming and fun.
Likewise, Grand Tour Legends has no decisions, but its lo-fi aesthetics are delightful, like your character’s butt swaying mesmerisingly back and forth, the chiptune music, the soaring landscapes, and the sheer silliness of the cranking. There’s a way to make exactly the same game but with none of the whimsy and it wouldn’t have worked at all.
So the Playdate isn’t so much a console as it is a tiny arcade cabinet that uniquely supports crank-operated games. If the idea of spending $199 on such a thing seems ridiculous when a Nintendo Switch is only $100 more, I don’t blame you. But if its whimsy outweighs its ridiculousness for you, then you won’t mind spending a little more again on a novel experience. And to me, every good crank-centric Playdate game feels like an arcade game. They’re easy to grasp with just one dimension of movement – crank to tilt your surfboard in Whitewater Wipeout, crank to speed up or slow time in Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure – and they’re quick to play, since they usually have just one idea.
And sometimes one idea is enough.
Hello new subscribers! This was a shorter newsletter as I was getting nervous seeing my word count go up every week and wanted to try something different. Doing shorter posts occasionally will help me keep a steady pace. Let me know what you think, though!
And if you like longer posts, good news: I’m playing Cyberpunk 2077 and I have a lot to say…
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Gamification is broken: Colin Campbell reviewed my book critiquing gamification, You’ve Been Played, for Gamesindustry.biz. He liked it! “I believe that games can make the world a better place. But as Hon points out, the vast weight of gamification's effects to date have been exploitative and harmful. It will take a lot of effort to reverse this trend, which is why Hon's warning is so timely.”
Marvel Move: I’m lead designer of Marvel’s first interactive fitness adventure, announced today: check out this piece on The Verge! You would not imagine how long this project has been in the works at Six to Start!! It’s going to be really good!!!
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