Might as well get juiced
– Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Bridges to Babylon (1997)
“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage“.
It is the 17th June 2005. “Axel F” by Crazy Frog is the UK No. 1 single. Batman Begins, produced by Charles Roven, Emma Thomas and Larry Franco, opens at the top of the Northern American box office. THQ publishes Juiced, developed by Juice Games, in Europe. The release had originally been scheduled for 2004 by Acclaim before they filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in September of that year, leading to their assets being auctioned off. Subsidiaries Juice Games and Fund 4 Games co-owned the Juiced property and sold it off to their new acquirers, THQ, who themselves funded an extra six months of development to improve the game. The development of this game was troubled indeed, with four different studios having different levels of creative input and ownership.
This explains a lot about the game, not least its status as an ironic joke – especially amongst the Need for Speed players. In the early 2000s, Need for Speed popularised the previously niche street racing subgenre and its culture in a way that no other gaming series had ever done. Naturally, what is popular is imitated and Juiced‘s legacy is that of a shamless, uniqueless imitator that doesn’t attempt anything new and instead tries to merely be a less interesting version of its inspiration without as much effort. The initial gameplay previews created that impression, and is one of the three reasons that the game remains forgotten at best and infamous at worst.
The second reason is that even the very title, Juiced, has become a joke – a way of saying “nitrous” without actually saying “nitrous” but still trying to sound just as badass. Such sarcastic dismissals of it come from three things, and one of those is the title, which inspired such jokes as “out of juice” or “the juice is loose” or something about there being no sugar rush, diluted, too… meh.
The third is why Juiced, to a lot of gamers who didn’t even play it, lives in infamy. Put yourself in THQ’s position: you’ve spent six months funding improvements to a video game you acquired from a developer that went bust and you need to make it worthwhile. The marketing really needs to drive hype in the game. It needs to sell. What kind of trailer do you make?
Well, the trailer they decided to make seems to have been conceived by a 14-year-old. Two guys are sitting in a car playing the game… somehow, look it doesn’t matter – they start modifying a car and notice that it’s having an equivalent effect on a woman standing in the bus stop nearby. So, they start experimenting and eventually find a way to remove all her clothes and slap the Juiced logo on her. I’m not here to assess its moral qualities, but this is all some people needed to see to decide their opinion of it. The problem is, though, that if they like the advert, that’s great for the advert. It won’t necessarily get them interested in the product.
14 years after its release, if you ask a gamer about Juiced – and they’ve even heard of it or remember it – they’ll probably all respond in at least one of three ways: “The Need for Speed clone?”, “I like it ironically” or “I remember that commercial”. It’s unfortunate but the game itself has been somewhat overshadowed by its desperate marketing, lack of initial appeal and troubled production. There’s no way of knowing how it would’ve turned out if everything had gone to plan and Acclaim had published it as they originally intended, but THQ did feel it necessary to spend six months making it (what they considered) better.
Overall, 2005 was a good year for the street racing subgenre. Electronic Arts published Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Burnout Revenge, Rockstar Games published Midnight Club 3: Dub Edition and Midway Games published L.A. Rush. Three instalments of pre-established street racing franchises, only one of which is still releasing new instalments. SRS Street Racing Syndicate was also launched by Eutechnyx but failed to spawn any sequels. Throw Juiced in there and its getting a crowded space. With the choice of so many proven titles available, why should anyone have cared about Juiced? Perhaps, in the end, it doesn’t matter how good it could’ve been or would’ve been or should’ve been. Perhaps it just came along at the wrong time. There was a sequel, Juiced 2: Hot Import Nights, and while that game has its fans, arguably being more popular than its originator, this initial game remains either a joke, an off-brand copy or something forgotten.
Looking back, I understand why that’s the case. Compared to its more prestigious market competitors, Juiced is a bit boring. It’s not very challenging. It’s easy to win races so most of the time it feels like driving around on your own. The cornering physics aren’t very good, so it feels like driving a speedboat. Where it matters, it doesn’t really hold up. And yet, it is unique in numerous ways, mostly the social aspect. While street racing games focused a lot of attention on the culture of street racing, that culture had never been utilised as a mechanic, an aspect of the gameplay and progression system itself. Upon starting the game, you’re asked to choose an insignia and create a crew name. Then, you’re asked to choose which flip phone you want to use. Do you remember flip phones? I think we should still be using them. We could download Crazy Frog videos in 144p and make them our ringtones to annoy everyone on the bus.
Anyway. The other crew leaders in Angel City (which is definitely not just an ersatz Los Angeles) can call you and invite you to events. Each event takes place on a designated day across a calendar beginning on 1st January, so you can follow it in real time. It’ll take you a very long time to complete but you’ll but playing it in the most realistic, dedicated way, so it’ll be more worthwhile when it pays off. Those crew leaders also value different aspects of street racing, and will give you respect points when you adhere to them. It’s a cool idea, being able to see each crew leader’s respect points for you compared as a bar chart, so it’s a shame that the respect point system is also tedious and broken. Respect points can be earned and lost so easily that they become arbitrary very quickly, eliminating their value. Respect points can be gained for so little as taking the lead, maintaining the lead and generally being a good driver, but can be lost just for making any physical contact with another driver’s car. But that’s okay, you still win some at the end anyway just for even attending. Respect points grant privileges and access, they can be used to used to buy your way up the ladder. They’re essentially a form of currency, and currency is based on value, therefore has ever-diminishing value if hyper-inflated.
Like I say, it’s a nice idea – the respect points system as a financial market and the use of a real time calendar – because it differentiated Juiced from its more high-profile contemporaries that didn’t include them. But ultimately, a couple of gimmicks like those aren’t enough to make a game stand out. It’s a street racing game, so what matters the most is the quality of the racing. Unfortunately, there isn’t an equalised power-to-weight distribution, which will always create a dissonance between the game and the player, and that can kill the experience. Why should anyone put up with that if they’re also winning and remaining ahead of the others on their own? The aesthetics just aren’t interesting, so the setting isn’t interesting either, so why should anyone want to drive around it?
Juiced had a lot of potential, because the ideas that went into it took a different approach to a street racing game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t effective. The gameplay itself was written-off almost straight away because there was nothing special about it when there was a considerable abundance of better-received alternatives. So much time had been spent on improving the game, but the end result leads me to suspect that it actually went into the progression structure and mechanics around the gameplay, not the gameplay itself.
Now, Juiced exists as a cult title, remembered fondly by some of those who actually played it, but not as the breakout hit that it must surely have been hoped to be. You’re unlikely to hear about it from anyone who isn’t as interested in racing games as I am.
Unless I’m wrong about the whole thing. Have a look at this and decide for yourself:
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog, covering the World Rally Championship and generally posting about what he’s been playing, at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.
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Categories: Racing Column