There were few companies with an output like Squaresoft in the mid to late 90s. Over the course of the PlayStation's lifetime, Squaresoft produced original IPs at a rate that hasn't been seen before or since for the company, especially in their second life as Square-Enix. In addition to original games such as Parasite Eve and Xenogears, Squaresoft also took bold steps with their established franchises with very different entries in the SaGa and Mana series. Racing Lagoon represents another title in that bold time period when Squaresoft thought they could do anything and have it work. The game was directed by Hitoshi Sasaki, who also was the game/graphic designer for Bahamut Lagoon, another cross breed RPG released on the Super Famicom. Tsukasa Fujita, notable for being on the Final Fantasy Tactics team, is listed as the designer for the game. To round out this oddball cast of Squaresoft's cult hits is the producer Akitoshi Kawazu, most notable for being director in the SaGa series. The rather bizarre script was written by Motomu Toriyama, who later directed Final Fantasy X-2 and the Final Fantasy XIII games.
Racing Lagoon is described as a "high speed racing RPG" and leans heavily on an aesthetic similar to the street racing anime/manga series Initial D. It draws direct parallels to the series from the music to the 1986 Toyota Corolla AE86 the player begins with. The game begins with an ultra stylish intro that immerses you in the world of 1999 Yokohama. The contrasting color palette of dark and light blues or greens do a fantastic job of painting a pseudo-neon haze over the pixellated Yokohama. Those nostalgic for grainy, low poly cityscapes will find a lot to love about Racing Lagoon's visuals. The car models are very well done and are at the same level of a Gran Turismo 2 or Ridge Racer Type 4. The story segments play out over static prerendered backgrounds with the CG model characters acting over them. The game tries to translate a very manga style art direction for the characters direct into the CG models, but the characters end up looking just ugly and awkward.
The plot revolves around Sho Akasaki, a young street racer for the Bay Lagoon Racing team with amnesia (of course) fighting against rival gangs in Japan to become the Fastest Legend, while also searching to uncover the mystery behind his lost identity. Somewhere along the lines, WON-TEC, an evil corporation, and a drug called DIABLO get thrown into the mix as the plot moves along. While the game is heavy on the narrative, the nature of its racing genre means the casual player can navigate through the game easily.
Racing Lagoon is broken up into a series of nights with the player navigating around Yokohama challenging other street racers, completing optional side events, and advancing the story by visiting locations on the overworld. The structure is very innovative for its time. All of the non racing action takes place on an overworld map in which you can drive around freely. You can challenge any car on the road to a race simply by flashing your lights, and you may even get challenged by another racer as well in semi-random encounters (they can be avoided by simply getting out of the car's way). Upgrading your car or purchasing new parts requires you to drive to the local tuner or body shop. This type of freedom in a racing game would eventually be major selling points for racing titles such as Midnight Club and Need For Speed's Underground series. The overworld map itself is designed quite well and looks similar to the one found in Parasite Eve, but benefits from the freedom of movement.
The game handles car upgrading in a much more interesting way as well. Your car is made up of three parts: Engine, Body, and Chassis. Each of these parts are treated as individual pieces of equipment, meaning they can be swapped out and mixed up with just about anything barring some restrictions for drivetrain and body type, and each has a number of slots for inputting individual parts and accessories. These parts can range from turbo kits and new brakes to cosmetic items such as rims, body kits, or stickers. The flexibility allows for some excellent experimentation and fun combinations, for example: a super powered V6 Beetle Bug with a bosozoku body kit.
The actual racing in Racing Lagoon leaves much to be desired however. The sense of speed simply isn't there, and it's difficult to tell the difference between the types of cars and drivetrains, which was crucial to the excellent driving feel in Gran Turismo 2. While the game's arcade style of racing can be forgiven, it simply isn't deep or engaging. The car drifts on its own around corners simply by turning sharply, but can also correct itself almost as easily, so there's no interesting or rewarding driving mechanics that can be found in an arcade title like Ridge Racer.
The flow of the game can also be quite erratic, especially because the difficulty seems very inconsistent. In most races you're leaving your opponents in the dust or stand no chance at all. Since most of the game revolves around gambling your own upgrades against the opponents, you'll often end up losing ground when you're trying to grind for new parts or to beat a difficult rival. Since you're racing on the same two or three tracks multiple times, the game gets repetitive very quickly, and even after North Yokohama opens up, the variety is still not there to keep the game interesting.
The game does throw in some varied race types and sidequests to try and mix things up. There's a taxi cab side job the player can do for extra cash. There are some special event races where the player is restricted to certain cars or unable to use the brakes. The coolest race type is the Chicken game where you and another racer drag race to the end of a dock, and the first car to stop loses. It's an ingenious race type that hasn't been emulated in another game since.
The music is by far Racing Lagoon's most standout feature. It was composed by Noriko Matsueda (who did music for Front Mission 2) and Takahito Eguchi, who teamed up again for the Final Fantasy X-2 soundtrack. The smooth combination of jazz and fast paced electronic dance music and fits well with racing or just cruising around Yokohama. The variety in the soundtrack is outstanding with intense trance like EDM tracks and the many sudden wails of a saxophone solo that keeps you wanting to progress just to hear another great tune. Breaking up the exciting race mixes are oddball electro jazz tunes played with a funky bass or toe tapping keyboard accompanied by a snare drum that simply hits every beat right on the mark. The overworld theme in particular is downtempo, catchy, and instantly gets stuck in your head. Racing Lagoon is a gift to the ears. Its soundtrack stands up well on its own merits.
Racing Lagoon is another one of Squaresoft's daring experiments from its most brave and schizophrenic period of existence. The music and the style of the game are worth experiencing, but the gameplay quickly becomes too repetitive to make it last, and itts few good ideas are mired in its awkward gameplay choices. It's an inglorious end to the short-lived "Lagoon" name and, with the release of Final Fantasy VIII less than a year later, also seems like an omen for Squaresoft's slow drift away from these kinds of genre experiments.