Publisher: Bandai Namco Amusements America
Release: March 2014 (Asia) / February 2017 (North America)
Players: 1-4, simultaneous, linked
Hardware: ES1+ PC with a custom I/O board
ARCADE EXCLUSIVE?: Yes
Rating: Green Label – All ages
Synopsis: Experience a drive along the famed Bayshore Route in Japan, powering up a fleet of cars as you follow the story, then battle recorded ghosts online in this American version of Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune 5
There is no lack of racing games on the arcade market, but there are a few which enjoy more attention than others. Usually a popular game will get a sequel; Infrequently, one of these games will build a strong & loyal fanbase. For The Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune (WMMT) series, this falls into the latter, and I’ll be touching on why as we review the 5th release in the franchise.
As you likely noticed in the stats above, there was quite a gap between the Asian release of WMMT and the North American one. It should also be noted that the game was never officially released in Europe. The reasons for the delay were never made public, but for most fans, many were just happy that we eventually received the game, after Bandai Namco decided not to bring #4 to US shores.
While I have played many racing games over the years, the enthusiasm behind this particular one kind of mystified me (same with Initial D). I never had come across the first two games, and only played the 3rd once at a trade show. The only racer that I had really sunk a lot of time into was Atari Games’ San Francisco Rush 2049. So when Bandai Namco announced that Maximum Tune 5 would be coming to the states (sans the Wangan Midnight part of the title), my curiosity piqued as I saw people clamoring for news and information on it.
To make a long story short, I eventually decided to grab a twin Maximum Tune 5 unit (complete with kiosk) to add to my own arcade. I did so after playing it some and doing research into why people love it so much, while I almost went for a Mario Kart Arcade GP DX instead. After owning it for a while and spending a bit of time playing it, I can easily say that it is my favorite arcade racer around. Let’s get into why.
Starting The Game
When you first sit down to play, you are asked if you have a Banapassport Card. If you are a casual gamer (then you probably aren’t reading this, but you can surprise me 😛 ), then you will want to select no; If you want to get the most out of what this game offers, then you’ll want to buy a card if available. Both the game cabinet and the kiosk should be capable of vending the cards for a pre-determined amount, although I’ve seen some locations say that you have to buy them from the front desk. Either way, if you are going to play this game more than a few times, you really should get one of these cards.
I made a video for my arcade that details how to use the kiosk, so I’ll plug that here. This shows many of the available features that the card gives you, but not all of them:
If you just bought a card and you scan it, you’ll need to enter in some information. Fortunately the game gives you plenty of time for data entry here (over 100 seconds). You will also then pick the type of car that will take up one of the five slots on the card. They have a great selection of vehicles to chose from, covering Japanese, American, and European brands, although fans always are asking for some updates in this regard to add more. Unfortunately, that isn’t free for Namco to do, and since I’ve got the game, I have not seen them add anything like that to the game (if the 5DX+ update comes along, then it will add that, along with some other things).
Once you have your car selected, you then chose your game mode: Story, Online Ghost Battle or Time Attack. I’ll detail those in another section below, but I will use this part for one piece of criticism towards the game – the loading screens are absurdly long. At least they do give you more than enough time to read up on the story if you are playing that mode, but don’t worry – the game didn’t crash. If it does, you get a big yellow error message, not a freeze. I hope that in a future software update that they can improve this.
You also get to chose the time of day that you race, whether it is Day or Night. It’s worth racing each course as both to see differences between the two.
When it comes to a racer, then there are certain things that you expect to see – driving a car, a steering wheel controller along with gas/brake pedals, maybe a stick shifter. Maximum Tune 5 has all of those, although many overseas find it “uncomfortable” that the stick shifter for the American build has that located on the right instead of the left. One of the reasons I did pick MT5 over MK is that I kept having people ask if we had a racer with a stick shifter, which prior to this purchase, we didn’t.
It goes without saying that not all arcade racers are created equal, and it’s not just about the cabinet design, the theme or which cars it’s licensed. While all such racers offer a fantasized version of the art of driving, the question boils down to how “arcadey” (unrealistic) are the physics. Maximum Tune does not feature absolutely realistic car physics, but it is closer to simulation than it is to fantasy. If you start a game and don’t push the gas, the car will just sit there. Drifting is possible to do with a little practice, and it’s absolutely essential if you want to win races. It is somewhat forgiving on the crash physics – I’ve never encountered anything that sent me into a spin out, and your car won’t explode like it does in Rush 2049 if you run straight into a wall. Thanks to the handling, the sound and the in-game physics being what they are, it does feel like you are driving a car, not a hovercraft, so that’s another plus.
Generally racing game tracks are broken up into Open Circuit or Closed Circuit courses, with said courses being put together by game designers or basing those off of real-world tracks. Maximum Tune does a little bit of everything, with it leaning more on the open-circuit courses than closed ones. I don’t know how exact the game recreates the famous Bayshore Route in Japan, but it’s satisfactory to me (only oddities are things like the first race, which is almost a straight drive for most of the course). One annoyance on the highways for more courses are the yellow vehicles, but these can usually be avoided and provide for another iconic image for this game.
As you drive, there are race indicators that will appear shortly before you approach a potential hazard. These are signs that will pop-up with a distinctive audio bleep so you can be ready for what lies ahead. You also know how far from the end goal you are in kilometers. These aspects have been borrowed by some other games out there, but as far as I know, they’ve been a staple for Maximum Tune since the beginning.
I’ll get into more detail on the type of races you experience down in the modes section.
Hey, You’ve Got An RPG In My Driving Game!
Since Bandai Namco has got the driving part down to a science that seems to work, we have to look at other aspects of the game that make it stand out from the competition. This is mentioned in the title – Maximum Tune. Borrowing an idea from RPG games, where you “tune” your characters by leveling them up, this idea is put to fantastic use in this series. Because of it, and a nice fleet of vehicles to choose from, the game comes with enormous replay value. It pulls this off so well, that I am honestly surprised that few other arcade racers have tried it. I can tell you that if I ever had the opportunity to restart the Rush series, I wouldn’t hesitate to use a similar system.
There are two statistics that you level up as you play through the Story Mode – Power (aka horsepower) and Handling. At first, you pick which of these to focus on; Eventually you’ll reach a point called “Fight Tuning” where it doesn’t matter, as you get to select how much goes into either category before you start the race. I believe if you play a perfect Story however, that you can max out the car in both aspects, but if you lose even one race, it can hamper those efforts. The highest amount of horsepower that one can reach is 830.
While the Story mode changes the abilities of the car, you can also change the appearance by participating in Online Ghost Battles. I’ll detail this mode more below, but it’s by winning races there that you unlock new car bodies, tire hubs, stickers and more for your car.
If it wasn’t for this aspect of the game, then it would lose a lot of it’s appeal; It would be Dead Heat, which is a much more casual-focused game. Keep in mind, you cannot enjoy this aspect of the game if you don’t have or use your Banapassport.
Ok, it’s finally time to detail the modes. There are three principle modes as mentioned: Story, Online Ghost Battles and Time Attack.
Story Mode – Arcades aren’t usually known for their narratives, so when I first saw how extensive this mode was, I was nothing short of surprised. Given that the game came from a Japanese manga, the style of characters and loading screen art is from that, but I do not know if there was a specific manga that this game is based on, or if they created all of this just for the game. Most of the story follows people into street racing as they tune up their cars and battle some personal demons.
As you play, the loading screen gives you the setup of what is happening with some characters, then as you drive, character faces and text of what they are saying appears on the screen. To be honest, this is a bit distracting at times, as characters will have these long textual conversations while you’re trying to stay focused on weaving through traffic. It’s not that the text gets int he way of the road, just that I would have preferred voice overs with the text, so I could keep my gaze on the action instead of trying to do that and comprehensively read at the same time. Because of this, I can’t remember anyone’s name or everything about their situations, other than Devil Z seems to be a possessed car and many tuners have lost everything because of it.
The stories take place over 5 scenes, each scene being a level or track that you race. There is always a rival that you have to beat, although sometimes the game pulls a head fake by introducing a rival onto the road that you don’t have to beat. I can’t recall how many story scenes there are total, but I think it is at least 80. If you win, then you are awarded a certain amount of Tuning Points, these points need to reach certain thresholds to increase your Power or Handling. Lose a race, and you’ll get half the points or worse.
Online Ghost Battles – While playing the Story Mode is necessary for you to power-up your car, most fans seem to be much more interested in the rivalries that spawn from this mode.
Every Maximum Tune 5 machine has to be connected to the internet for this one to work, where the game records a player’s race and allows you to race against their ghost. I don’t know how accurate the ghosts are – sometimes, I have witnessed a ghost stop dead in its tracks, while others it seems like my car should outclass them, but they still maintain an edge.
Regardless, this is where great rivalries are born between players as well as locations. Every ghost shows where it was recorded, something that bolsters that competitive feel. Often when you sit down at the machine and enter this mode, you’ll find a challenge, where someone has beaten your ghost. This gives you the chance to beat them back. It’s a lot of fun. The only annoyance is that the records are not affected by your present course, which can allow them to drive through a yellow car/truck that if you hit, will stop you almost cold. It’s annoying when that happens, but more incentive to git gud I suppose.
At the end of every battle, you are awarded Dress-Up Points instead of Tuning Points; This is what unlocks those car parts I talked about earlier. I do not know what the maximum limit is here, but rest assured that you’ll have to race many battles to unlock everything for your selected car.
Within this mode are two other interesting things to explore – Crowns and the Japan Challenge. Crowns has become one of the primary replay drivers for my Maximum Tune that this game has. There are 11 courses that can have a crown claimed. If you do so, someone else can challenge and if they beat your ghost, they take the crown. You can then try and take it back. I have some regulars who will come in every week to do this, the back-and-forth keeping them interested in place of software updates.
The Japan Challenge is a single player mode where you race against Japanese player ghosts across Japan. Your challenge is to “conquer” all of the regions and districts in Japan by beating each of these ghosts. Most regions have several districts to race, and there are some odd cars that pop-up here that you can’t access in the game otherwise. I really enjoyed playing this part of the game; Here’s what it’s like to complete it along with the rewards you earn:
Versus Race – Naturally, when you got to an arcade to race, you tend to want to race against a friend or stranger, and this game allows you to do so without any trouble. Bandai Namco has restricted these to sell as a dual pair or a quadruple set, guaranteeing that coming across just one out there isn’t going to be a problem.
There are two Versus modes you can play – regular or Extreme Vs. Extreme Vs. was a new addition to Maximum Tune 5 that changes four major aspects of a race: There are no more race indicators; The distance to the goal is hidden & adjusted; the track is reversed; the reversal introduces new course hazards you might not be ready for. If you want spicier races, this is the way to go.
Time Attack – Last but not least (depending on who you ask), is Time Attack. I’ve seen fans argue about this mode online, some calling it the “original essence of the game,” referring to Ridge Racer. It is true that the MaxiTune series evolved from Ridge Racer, but that’s as far as I’ll get into that argument. 😛
Time Attack is exactly what it sounds like – your rival is now the clock instead of someone else. I believe that the courses are a little longer here, as the distance to the goal always seems to be much longer than in other modes. This is a great way to sharpen your skills and learn the tracks…or to put some kilometers onto your car.
Titles & Ranks
I’ve mentioned various points and virtual items that you earn when you complete the modes, but one that seems more universal across the modes is your Title. I have no idea how many titles there are, but there are quite a few. It seemed to reward me the most in this regard while playing the Japan Challenge, but I believe the same is said for the Online Ghost Battle Mode in general. There is also a car rank that I think is determined by your kilometers driven, but I’m not 100% sure on that one.
You also receive trophies for victories in Versus matches, Online Ghost Battles and quite a few for claiming a crown. Some guys on the leaderboards of my machine have hundreds of trophies, which just adds another element of replayability to this one.
Given that the original game was released in 2014, it’s pretty solid. The player car models are really well done and have the right amount of reflectivity in their textures, although there is no car damage to speak of. Yellow cars/trucks on the road are kind of bland, but they don’t need to be anything fantastic since they’re fodder. The game runs at 1360×786 pixels, a somewhat odd resolution for a game to do, but not unheard of; Everything screams along at 60fps, so that’s great. The sense of speed feels spot on, although I can’t say that I’ve ever driven a real car as fast as I have in this game.
I assume that the environments are based upon real locations (something that I know for sure they did in the case of Dead Heat), which helps add a sense of realism to the game. Obviously the roads are not populated with traffic like you find in Japan, but that’s ok. I do enjoy some of the little Namco Nods spiced throughout the city courses, such as the billboards showing Dig Dug and Pac-Man on the yellow trucks.
Color seems to be well-balanced – not too muted, not too saturated or vibrant. Most of the time you are driving through a concrete jungle, but for some of the harder drifting courses, you will go through the mountains. Those are pretty lush, but don’t expect to see any mind-blown effects thrown in like god rays or bloom.
The pre-game menus look fantastic, with a bright style to them. The UI has a clean look to it, that changes a little depending upon your view. It can get a little busy, although they keep everything to the peripherals, so combined with the 42″ screen and the way the seat is setup, it works to immerse you into the action. The text is easy to read, so no complaints there. I just don’t care for reading too much when I’m trying to navigate a course. If you like manga-style drawing, then you should also appreciate this.
There are a few cutscenes in the story mode, but they usually aren’t fancy. Once in a while the scene will start in the middle of a race, which is jarring, but it’ll happen when the road is straight.
For criticisms, there is no anti-aliasing to speak of, so expect to see jagged edges. The weather is always clear, so you also won’t see any fancy effects like water, rain, puddles, or fog. The lighting system isn’t the greatest, nothing like HDR, but it’s adequate.
Maximum Tune 5 features the combined songs from Maximum Tune 4 and 5, produced by Yuzo Koshiro; You can also unlock songs from Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune 3, although admittedly I haven’t looked up the trick for doing so.
I believe that all of the songs fall into the Eurobeat genre, which is not everyone’s cup of tea (some of my regulars turn the music off and just listen to the engine growl), and while I couldn’t tell you the name of a single Eurobeat artist or popular song, I personally enjoy the soundtrack that Koshiro composed here. It evokes the feelings of a highly competitive street race, which is all I think that you could ask for. Some of the songs are just instrumental, some have vocals, but I enjoy a vast majority of them.
The game also makes great use of sound. There are distinctive bleeps that will play when a character pops up to speak, when a race indicator appears, when you are within 1000m of the end goal, and so on. I just really wish that they could have hired some voice actors to act out the lines of the characters in Story Mode.
This is all enhanced by the surround sound system built into the cabinet. It’s interesting how it manages to isolate everything into the spot of where you are sitting – it really isn’t super loud when you are standing some feet away from the game, but when you sit down, it seems to drown out the rest of the arcade cacophony. The only other thing I could ask for is a more powerful bass system, but that’s really a minor complaint.
In an age where more games are starting to remove the brake pedals and stick shifters, MT5 is happy to snub that trend and demand a little old school skill from it’s players. All of the controls are high quality, standing out from what you would expect from typical Suzo Happ driving controls. The steering wheel handles perfectly, while nailing the look of a real steering wheel. It doesn’t nail the feel completely, in that it is not made out of leather; But you would easily notice the difference in quality if MT5 was sitting next to another modern arcade racer.
This same quality goes into the 6-speed stick shifter – that’s right, 6, not 4. The only problem I have here is that kids and adults alike love to slam these as hard as they can almost once a day. Knock on wood, my shifters are still working…I dread the day when they’ll stop due to the abuse. I guess I’ve got a little more time out of them between signs asking people to be nice to the shifters and occasionally asking someone to calm down. Not everyone appreciates that and some get immaturely snarky when I ask them to knock it off, but they won’t have to spend several hundred dollars to fix it. For the purist, note that there is no clutch pedal…I doubt we’ll ever see one again for a regular arcade racer.
Speaking of purists, not everyone was happy that Bandai Namco Amusements America came up with a very different cabinet design from the Asian versions, but outside of those fans, I’ve not heard anyone complaining.
They created a variation of the US-made Mario Kart Arcade GP DX cabinets to create these ones, making them a little bit taller to incorporate the card dispenser. They have a different color scheme to them as well, but if you see these next to a Mario Kart, you’ll notice the similarities. The cabinet does used LEDs, although they don’t over-power anything. The only place where you’ll get some blinking lights is on the back, where the color of light indicates the current game status (Yellow = cards present; Red=no cards). The marquee is one place that could have been done better with the lighting – it’s a dual-layered marquee with the front piece of plexi supposed to be lit-up by some LED strips inside the cab. Unfortunately the effect is usually too subtle to really be noticed, almost looking like there is zero marquee lighting.
There is only one type of American cabinet that Namco has made for this, sold in a set of 2 or 4. This set includes the kiosk that is in the video up near the top. The kiosk comes with a dollar bill acceptor and a touchscreen, allowing people to modify their cars in a way that you normally wouldn’t have the time to do while sitting at the game.
The card dispenser is easy to supply and use, although people usually aren’t prone to put several dollars worth of tokens into the game machine to get them; Most just use the kiosk, which comes with a dollar bill acceptor.
The seat can slide back and forth in case your legs are too long or short, but note that there is no auto gas function for kids.
As I have said online before, Maximum Tune 5 replaced San Francisco Rush 2049 as my favorite arcade racing game, but it’s just so much fun and has so much depth to it. There is more than enough to explore, but the tuning and Online Ghost Battle challenges give you constant reasons to go back and race again. The gameplay is tight, solid and immersive – if you screw up, you know it’s your fault and not something that the game did (except for maybe one weird glitch where the game freezes for a few frames when you approach a small tunnel on a certain course, although I’ve never had that cause me to run into a wall 😛 )
It’s fun to race this one alone, but more exciting to race against a friend or even a total stranger. Because of how this game is designed to promote friendly competition, I’ve seen it create far more camaraderie than any of my other video games. It’s almost like pinball in that regard. As an example, I have a gentleman who used to only come in with his grandkids every once in a while. After he discovered MT5, he now comes in every Saturday morning to play, not just tuning his cars, but going for the crowns. He’s become a friend at the business, but I’ve also seen him showing the game off to others and some of his rivals coming in and going at it. You don’t get this kind of “magic” from every game.
We’ll separate this into two: Recommended for Operators, Recommended for Gamers.
Operators: To the last paragraph in the Entertainment section above, that was the primary reason I decided to go with Maximum Tune 5 over Mario Kart. Maximum Tune has a community around it that few other games have. It is possible that MK would be a better earner, but I don’t regret grabbing this game, as it’s turned me into more of a destination than most other games could. There are some local tournament features that I have neglected to use, and probably can’t use them until things return to some kind of normalcy, but they are there. Do note that there is a monthly fee per seat attached to this game – Namco has said that it’s supposed to fund their network as well as future content updates, but unfortunately in the two years I’ve had the game, there have been zero updates. That was supposed to change this Summer, but you can add that to the list of things that COVID-19 has ruined. Still, I hope that they pull through later this year, while also hosting a nationwide tournament.
Gamers: Absolutely I would recommend playing this game. It’s one of the best drivers available on the American market today, and one of the best driving games of the past decade. There is so much for you to come back to, exploring the various modes and building up your skill to challenge others. In some ways, this feels kind of like a console game instead of an arcade one, but Namco really figured out the balance on this, and it’s perfect.
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