“20 JAPANESE GAMES L@@K RARE IMPORT SEGA NINTENDO RETRO!!” yells the eBay listing, the price suspiciously affordable when weighed up against the bundle’s quantity. I bet you already know the sort of “deal” I’m talking about – and you already know to avoid them too. Even without clicking on the imaginary link you can virtually guarantee at least fifteen of them will be a mix of old sports titles and horse racing sims, and a few of those will more than likely be doubles of those unwanted games as well. Individually they’re virtually worthless even from the point of view of an excitable new import gamer keen on grabbing anything they can, certain never to feature on anyone’s “Ten Japanese retro games worth playing” list at any point in time and never to garner any praise or even polite interest if brought up in a “Latest import haul” thread. They’re shelf-fillers for people who hope you can’t read the Japanese title on the spine, cheap donor cases for better games, an-
Hang on – “better games”? When was the last time anyone played one of these horse racing sims? When did any English-speaking fan ever give them a fair go?
I realised I didn’t actually know the answer to either of those questions.
So I bought one. On purpose. To play.
Winning Post EX (coincidentally the only game in the series to see a US release, plainly titled Winning Post), one of the earlier releases in Koei’s long line of horse racing sims, is now in my Saturn collection, rubbing plastic with the likes of Burning Rangers, Sakura Taisen, and Baroque.
I don’t like really horses. I think they’re giant inscrutable kick-machines and best observed cautiously from a safe distance. So the thought of a whole bunch of them cooped up together with brightly dressed people on top, all skittish and ready to run at breakneck speed down a narrow track… It’s not an experience I’m desperate to bring into my home, let’s put it that way.
So it’s odd how relaxing Winning Post EX feels.
It opens with an FMV sequence that doesn’t focus on the hard-nosed business of managing a successful stable or the supposed thrill of the racing itself at all, but a still wobbly-fresh foal getting to its feet and green grass under blue skies. Begin the game proper and you’re formally welcomed to Winning Post by your smiling assistant who then personally takes you through the all-important setup process, including everything from deciding your preferred form of address to the choice of trainer for your horses. It doesn’t quite reach Densha de GO!!‘s level of warmth but it did feel sincerely welcoming, as if the game was making a conscious effort to ease me in and cared I felt comfortable before it did anything else. The same can be said of the sixty-plus page colour manual, which also goes out of its way to not only contain a lot of information but to convey it in as digestible and player-friendly a manner as is reasonably possible.
This isn’t some last-minute panic to lure a wider paying audience into a stat-heavy simulation either (although it certainly is a stat-heavy simulation too), as every in-game icon and menu is clear and useful, Winning Post EX careful to tell you everything you need to know (and plenty you don’t, too), from the current weather to a horse’s grandparents or a jockey’s race strategy, but only if you wish to know it, everything neatly tucked away in a relevant menu. There’s even a glossary of horse-related terminology in there if you want to read it, the game always eager to balance authenticity with accessibility.
As with real-life horse racing there’s always plenty to do, although you don’t have to minutely fuss over every aspect all the time – you literally employ people to do the training/racing/rearing for you, and they do know what they’re doing and tend to be happiest if you just let them get on with it (it’s worth noting here that they all have their own preferences and personalities too). In any case as time goes on these basic concerns get squeezed to the wayside: You have to consider whether it’s worth pushing your star horse for the sake of a shot at winning a big race or if it’s better to let them rest, negotiate business deals with other stable owners, hope a promising young new foal’s going to grow into your next champion before an older trophy-winning horse retires, and plenty more – including the excitement of bidding on new horses at auction or breeding your own.
And so with all that information to hand, all the tools to turn it into something useful at your fingertips, and the all in-game months and years of thought and effort involved, it’s almost impossible to not feel real joy when your best horse wins a race by miles, or to not fret over a new one’s debut – even though all of those important moments are represented in competition by generic sprites and interchangeable grainy photographs of “your” horse. Still, these visual details aren’t the focal point of the game by any means and to be honest I’m not sure if I could appreciate the difference even if they did go to the trouble of illustrating individual horse-faces either. It’s something you’re aware of as you play, but is more of a shame than a real distraction.
I must admit that I don’t feel any urge to buy more Winning Posts in the future – or even to spend much more time with this one – my curiosity has been sated, and I personally feel comfortably done.
I can see this is a quality title that’s been crafted with care and a lot of work, and I can see why people like it. It’s detailed and engaging, absorbing in a gently challenging sort of way. Winning Post EX’s an easy game to lose a lot of time to, each month bringing something new to the table whether that’s an important race or an interesting deal with another owner. I can see I was wrong to ignore them with the cheerily dismissive energy I used to, and while I don’t believe horse-related simulations are a “lost gem” genre in need of a more mainstream home or a rush of fan translations, they do at the very least deserve to be thought of as well-made games in their own right rather than worthless retro bundle filler.