One of the great things about the internet, among all the horrible ones, is that the abundance of online information makes research simpler. I know this is stupidly obvious when written out, but if you were, for instance, buying a video game in the ’90s, you had to read a magazine to know what you were getting yourself into if there wasn’t enough word of mouth surrounding a particular release. Worst case scenario, you’d just make your selection based on box art alone.
Problem is, that saying about books and covers also applies to games and covers — really anything with a cover. And, back in the day, publishers were more apt to aggressively market their games uniquely in different regions, sometimes opting for entire title changes, to give them the best chance of success in every territory in which they were sold.
Racing games were particularly at a disadvantage here, because motorsport isn’t popular everywhere, and more specifically, different disciplines are popular in different parts of the world. But you already knew that.
What you may not have known about are the hilarious ways in which this regional marketing phenomenon manifested itself for those of us in North America.
My go-to example is always 2000's TOCA World Touring Cars, the third game in Codemasters’ classic touring-car racing franchise. The first two TOCA games were essentially fully licensed British Touring Car Championship simulators. The third one dropped the BTCC focus and offered a range of touring cars and circuits from around the world, though it was ostensibly still a game about touring car racing.
I love TOCA World Touring Cars’ European cover. The BMW E46, globe, stark white text against a black background and all the manufacturer logos relay everything you need to know about the game, and do so stylishly.
When it came time to bring TOCA World Touring Cars to the other side of the pond, though, it emerged looking a little different:
There’s a lot to unpack here, and now that I’ve stopped laughing, I’m going to do my best to explain. Jarrett & Labonte Stock Car Racing has almost exactly the same content as TOCA World Touring Cars, and TOCA does not include stock car racing, let alone any affiliation with NASCAR. Despite this, the American version is endorsed by two names any NASCAR fan at the time would’ve recognized. Only, we’re not talking about Ned or Dale Jarrett, nor Terry or Bobby Labonte — all of whom won NASCAR championships. Rather, on the cover are the faces of Jason Jarrett and Justin Labonte, their younger, less celebrated relatives.
So, to recap, what we’ve got here is a British-developed game about international touring car racing, masquerading as a stock car racing game for the American market, endorsed by two storied NASCAR families but not the particular drivers from those families that fans are most likely to know.
Misleading almost seems like a soft way of describing the deception afoot here. Just looking at the cars on the cover, notice how they’ve been blurred in such a way as to almost resemble stock cars if you’re not paying close attention. The one on the bottom right appears to be sponsored by Tide, for crying out loud. (There happens to be a fake Tide-colored Lexus GS300 in the game.)
Oh, and another thing: It’s unrelated to the purpose of this article, but I have to share this amazingly of-its-time commercial made for Jarrett & Labonte Stock Car Racing. It not only includes the title’s stars, but also an overt dig at Gran Turismo for its lack of cosmetic damage. Keep in mind, this came from an era when the most critical facet of an accurate racing simulation was generally considered to be the ability to destroy cars, not realistic handling. Funny how nobody really cares about that anymore!
Anyway, the TOCA-Jarrett & Labonte connection is my favorite example of brazenly deceitful racing game marketing, but it’s far from the only one. There’s also Atlus and Cave’s Touge series, where Touge Max: Saisoku Drift Master in Japan was changed to the Pikes Peak Hill Climb-endorsed Peak Performance for the U.S. This is a game about drifting AE86 Corollas and Mazda RX-7s up and down Japanese mountains; the American version has Robby Unser’s Chevy S-10 on the box.
Occasionally publishers didn’t take Americans for rubes, and the reverse scenario unfolded. In 1997, Activision and Eutechnyx released Car and Driver Presents Grand Tour Racing ’98 in the U.S., a game mostly about rally racing. A month later, it came out in Europe as Total Drivin’. Certainly not as egregious a case of false advertising, though I couldn’t even begin to tell you what Total Drivin’ entailed based on name alone, while I might get there with Grand Tour Racing ‘98. (Side note, Car and Driver got this and Road & Track had The Need For Speed; where’s Jalopnik’s racing game tie-in?)
I’m sure this barely scratches the surface of racing game publishers’ fraudulence from decades past. You rarely see it today, both because the internet has sort of globalized commerce and because the modern perspective seems to be “just tell people what the game is, vague buzzwords be damned.” At the very least, it’s probably resulted in fewer NASCAR fans demanding refunds for touring car simulators they didn’t know they bought until it was too late.