A Brief History of the Midnight Club
Before Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption became gaming juggernauts – constantly releasing new downloadable content for their online modes to generate recurring revenue for Take-Two Interactive’s Overlords – Rockstar Games developed several different titles, including the Street racing game Midnight Club.
The bold, neon-drenched car title sat alongside a video game take on 1970s film The Warriors, controversial survival horror Manhunt, and the equally divisive Canis Canem Edit in the developer’s lineup.
These were the happier days of PlayStation 2, where it seemed studios could release multiple titles in a variety of different franchises, sometimes within the same calendar year. As technology has evolved, so have player expectations.
Smooth frame rates, 4K resolutions, ever larger and more detailed open worlds, and immersive online modes are an expected norm. Consequently, the development time and cost of a ‘AAA’ version has increased exponentially, resulting in fewer releases from any single developer.
Rockstar that generates $2.5 million a day with GTA V (August 2021), has only released three brand new games in the last 10 years. Three.
It seems that in this current era of gaming, keeping up the online cash inflow is more relevant and that may explain why the last Midnight Club releases date back to 2008.
With rumors circulating earlier this year based on comments during an investor call and then again last week when Video Games Chronicle found a job listing, hopes for a return are high. While we remain skeptical so far, let’s take a look at the Midnight Club games so far and update ourselves on when Rockstar made a racing game.
Midtown Madness (1999)
We start the history of Midnight Club games with something different. Midtown, no midnightMadness was an open-world driving game set in Chicago and developed by Angel Studios and published by Microsoft for the PC.
With licensed vehicles like the then “new” Volkswagen Beetle, they captured the zeitgeist of the late 1990s. There were a number of races to participate in, the most important key point. Vehicles could be damaged and there was even an interior view.
Midtown Madness 2 followed just 16 months later, also on PC, this time starring the Audi TT as the cover star and filmed in two locations: London and San Francisco.
A third game was released in 2003 for PC and the original Xbox, but that was created by Digital Illusions.
You see, the second game in this series was released in the same year as the first Midnight Club game, created by the same Angel Studios in collaboration with Rockstar. By 2002 Rockstar had bought Angel and this became Rockstar San Diego – abandoned the Midtown Madness franchise and Red Dead Revolver was finally completed by 2004.
Midnight Club: Street Race (2000)
To welcome the millennium, Midnight Club: Street Racing was Angel Studios’ first game for Rockstar, releasing in October for the then-nascent PS2.
Now, which should come as little surprise, this game focused on driving cars in an open-world environment. Sound familiar?
Two environments were presented in the game, London and New York. You started your underground racing career in a yellow cab before working your way up the pecking order by winning races.
Aside from the taxi, most of the vehicles mimicked the Japanese tuning scene of the time, except they lacked the licensed vehicles from the Midtown Madness releases and, well, weren’t set in Japan.
The format is simple. Flash your lights on a rival, follow them through checkpoints and hopefully end up overtaking them for a race win.
A launch game for the console, the only other system it appeared on was the Game Boy Advance, this version developed by Rebellion Developments, now the Sniper Elite games.
By today’s standards, the first Midnight Club game is primitive – the press hype boasted “hundreds of fully modeled mailboxes” – but the setting was groundbreaking and helped pave the way for more open-world driving titles.
Midnight Club II (2003)
With Angel Studios working on not one, but two games, Smuggler’s Run games for Rockstar, Midtown Madness 2 for Microsoft, and a Test Drive spin-off for Infogrames, the wait for a sequel to Midnight Club relatively long.
Now officially Rockstar San Diego, it set out to significantly expand the franchise’s reach. This time it was on Xbox and PC alongside PS2. There were also three open-world locations: Los Angeles, Paris, and Tokyo.
As if that wasn’t enough, motorcycles were shot alongside cars alongside vehicle controls in the air. The scope was significantly larger than the team’s first Midnight Club and previous Midtown Madness creations.
While it looked better and the amount of content was larger, after the novelty of the monosyllabic personalities of rival racers and two-wheeler riding wore off, Midnight Club II wasn’t characterful enough.
I have fond memories of chasing, oh I don’t know, 30 minutes through Paris in my city, a rip-off of a Renault Clio V6.
The problem was that while the sequel was undoubtedly a step forward for the series, only a few months later Need for Speed: Underground was released, and that took the street racing crown and my attention away from the Midnight Club sequel.
Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition (2005) and DUB Edition Remix (2006)
The third iteration really got down to business as it was inundated with licensed vehicles for the first time.
We lived in an era of smooth R’n’B when Usher created both the first and second best-selling songs in America just months before the release of Midnight Club 3. Likewise, Pimp My Ride had just debuted on MTV and the subtitle was created thanks to a collaboration with American automotive lifestyle magazine DUB.
That meant Cadillac Escalades with more chrome than paint, fittingly featured alongside a modified Chrysler 300C on the game’s cover. It is very his time.
To give credit to the game, it decided on a theme and made it holistic. Gone was the globetrotter and three US locations were added: Atlanta, San Diego and Detroit. Customization of cars was a significant addition, with wheels and fenders adorning the vehicles. They could even make a boring Volkswagen Phaeton look relatively interesting.
Back then, the Great Pride was the “most complete vehicle customization ever seen in a video game.” This also meant the introduction of making money for the first time. The added depth meant this is the highlight of the series for many.
Once again on the PS2 and the original Xbox, as well as a PSP offshoot, this was before the age of downloadable content. A year after the initial sale date, the remixed version added a new UI, more races, 24 more cars, and a revamped version of Midnight Club II’s Tokyo area.
Midnight Club: Los Angeles (2008), LA Remix (2008) and Complete Edition (2009)
The ’00s are about to turn into the ’10s, the EDM act digitalism is ripping up the dance floors, and BlackBerrys are still in fashion—just barely.
The last Midnight Club game so far – Los Angeles – dealt with this topic. Like its ancestors, MC:LA is a time capsule. Or in other words, it’s a bit dated.
The soundtrack pumps, big rear wings are a must, and you had an in-game cell phone with a QWERTY keyboard to communicate with your rivals.
You also begin your journey through the street racing scene in a low hatchback, in my case an MK1 Volkswagen Golf – which was a problem as development was icy through the early stages.
I’m all for the feeling of earning something, that’s what the early Gran Turismo games do so well. But in the Midnight Club game, I felt like stepping into a faster car was numbing rather than numbing. Even if you collected a faster whip, it was still just a Ford Focus or a sluggish Pontiac Firebird.
The city, however, was a dramatic step in the right direction. For the time this was a detailed replica of LA, although perhaps a little too yellow in tone. You could zoom out of the game’s map in a quasi-3D view, which felt like a 2030 feature.
“With Midnight Club: Los Angeles, our goal is to evolve on every possible level and stay true to the hardcore gaming experience the series is known for while making it accessible to casual gamers and car enthusiasts,” said Jay Panek , producer of Midnight Club series at that time.
If that sounds like it’s trying to appeal to everyone and no one at once, you’re pretty much right.
Enjoyable open-world high-speed racing with punishing difficulty spikes and vehicles that lacked momentum. However, 16-player online multiplayer was not to be scoffed at.
However, if you pushed, at least there was a sense of reward. But I suspect few people did.
This game also made its way to the PlayStation Portable with LA Remix and a year later the Complete Edition bundled with all the downloadable goodies such as the “South Central Upgrade And Content Pack” which brought with it a new section for the game world.
It’s still unknown if Midnight Club will return, but the rumors above are intriguing.
With new Need for Speed and Test Drive Unlimited racers on the horizon, a new Midnight Club would have to deliver something new to be a commercial success. Resting on one’s laurels doesn’t guarantee success as they were somewhat mixed and at least 13 years old.
However, I see potential in an online-inspired open-world racing game. Just look at how popular driving events are in GTA Online and The Crew 2 that still back Ubisoft’s bottom line.
If I worked at Rockstar, I would now offer a spin-off title that leverages the GTA experiences combined with the established Midnight Club nickname. Here’s hoping…