Asphalt 9: Legends is coming, and it is set to redefine what racing means on mobile. But Gameloft’s journey to this latest installment of their seminal competitive arcade racer series began fifteen years ago under the project name “High Gears.” It would take one year for this game to reach the eager hands of mobile gamers as the original Asphalt Urban GT.
Journey through every one of our Asphalt Memories.
From the beginning, Gameloft’s mission was always very clear – to bring console-quality gaming experiences to mobile. These days that sounds ambitious, but in 2003 it was a true challenge of both technology and design, especially for a high-octane racing game.
Big screen to small screen
Not to be deterred by the task ahead, the original Asphalt Urban GT team looked to popular console games of the era to create their engrossing and competitive arcade racer. These early stages saw many concepts considered, including the idea of a making a more traditional racing experience. Open wheeled racing, rally, and even stock car racing were all considered. But, as the idea developed, the focus shifted to a more "street" feel.
Looking at media from the early 2000s it was a decision that made sense. Movies and games featuring cars were huge, and most shared a single theme: illegal street racing. It was a concept that would allow the Asphalt Urban GT team to focus on reaching their audience of aspirational car enthusiasts and racing fans of all types, rather than segmenting their audience into specific racing disciplines.
With this vision in mind, the arcade racing style that the series is now famous for began to take shape. Though it was still far from what we know the franchise as now, its intentions were clear. Hardware limitations at the time massively restricted what was possible, so while the team was targeting sixth generation console titles (the 128-bit era) the reality was a game closer to that of the fourth generation (16-bit).
Limitations of the time
Despite these restrictions, for mobile gamers at the time, Asphalt Urban GT proved an impressive on-the-go game. Taking to the road in one of the games licensed cars - such as the Ford GT, Lamborghini Murciélago R-GT, TVR Sagaris, and many more – even at this early stage players got to live out their dreams, racing and customizing their favorite speed machines.
Taking on other racers and their supercharged machines, the action focused on high-speed racing in top-of-the-line cars around off-limits locations. “Tracks” included the busy streets of famous cities and more outlandish areas. The freedom and creativity this allowed enabled the team to create clearly differentiated tracks, even with limited visual fidelity.
Eventually, tracks would include cities like New York and Tokyo, along with exotic locales like Vladivostok. Their unique graphical style made them instantly recognizable. Combine this with their different layout and obstacles, and each area felt distinct and exciting.
No holding back
With the races being "illegal" the challenge didn’t stop at the environment though. Other racers were more… aggressive than in traditional racing games. What made this fun though was your ability to respond in kind. Players could sideswipe other cars off the track or just give them nasty fender-benders.
What made this feel special though was how the game would react to your crimes. Breaking the rules during a race would result in a forceful police response. Starting with simple car pursuits, then moving up to roadblocks, before finally calling in helicopters to chase you down.
To help escape the police and beat all of the extreme drivers who were out to claim the prize money, Nitro Boost bonuses were scattered around the track. Collecting these gave racers a vital burst of speed exactly when needed, leaving opponents and police eating dust. Win, claim the cash, and purchase even more magnificent cars to show off your skills - the same gameplay loop players enjoy to this day.
At the time all these design choices made sense for many reasons, from technological limitations to fashions of the time. But no one could foresee how far-reaching these decisions would prove, defining the next fifteen years of Asphalt’s evolution and creating a legend.