A recurring source of controversy among video game fans these days is the use of in-game advertising and product placement by developers and publishers, with many feeling that it intrudes on the experience and provides no benefit to the consumer. And while such things are typically frowned upon, is it possible that removing the licensed elements of what is widely regarded to be a good game can actually hurt the product?

That question brings us to the re-release of Crazy Taxi for Xbox LIVE Arcade and the PlayStation Network: a fast, frenetic arcade-style driving game whose utilization of licensed music and brand names are perhaps as well or better known to its fans than the game’s objectives or characters. It has been no secret that for this release, SEGA has, for whatever reason, opted to strip away just about anything which would involve licensing.

And so, the question remains: is this version of the game still “cuh-RAY-zee” enough for you to pony up the fare, or would it be more worth your while to invest that money in public transit?

Cuh-RAY-zee Premise

For those who don’t remember, or are perhaps simply too young to, the premise behind Crazy Taxi is simple: choose one of four cab drivers from the Crazy Taxi Cab Company, and proceed to drive throughout San Francisco (or a San Francisco-like city, at least), picking up and delivering passengers to destinations such as the church or heliport, or more recognizable locales like Pizza Hut or Tower Records, all within a set time limit.

There are two different stages to play, Arcade and Original, and the freedom the player is granted is amazing. You can drive virtually anywhere, so long as you are able to get your car there. This includes underwater, up ramps and across rooftops, and even through train and subway tunnels.

Why is a guy waiting for a taxi down on a subway platform? Who knows? It’s crazy!

The above two stages can be played under Arcade rules (keep delivering passengers to their destinations quickly for extended time, until you run out), or in increments of three, five, and 10 minutes (in which you deliver as many passengers as you can within the set time). In addition, there is the “Crazy Box” mode, which is simply a group of preset challenges, such as clearing a certain distance following a jump off a ramp.

(Not So) Cuh-RAY-zee Updates

As one might expect, SEGA did not just simply dump the Dreamcast version of the game on the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 and call it a day. Contemporary features have been added, which include Achievements, Leaderboards, and even four Avatar awards (at least, in the 360 version).

And similar to fellow Dreamcast re-release/port Sonic Adventure, SEGA made sure to go over the game and give it a nice high-definition sheen. However, they also went above and beyond their Sonic Adventure effort by addressing one complaint some gamers had about the game, now providing a display which takes advantage of widescreen televisions.

As far as the graphics themselves go, they are perhaps best described as serviceable. This is a reworking of a Dreamcast game, after all, and so even with a new coat of high-definition paint, games from this generation need not fear being usurped for any year-end awards for “best graphics.”

Of course, that isn’t to say they are necessarily bad, either. They are the product of a past generation, and they do the job. And in perhaps much the same way some people find old pixel art representations of Mario, Sonic, or Mega Man to be iconic images which trigger nostalgia, so too might those who hold fond memories of SEGA’s final farewell to console production appreciate the vintage look.

Cuh-RAY-zee Omissions

Nostalgia, of course, is where Crazy Taxi should find its greatest strength, yet therein lies its greatest weakness.

No one believes that SEGA has chosen to release this to attract a new audience; this and other Dreamcast re-releases are aimed first and foremost at those who hold 9/9/99 as a significant date in history. Of course, others are welcome to come along and join the fun, but those participants are merely the gravy on SEGA’s mashed potatoes, the icing on their cake.

This makes it all the more ironic, as it is those people who may not have experienced Crazy Taxi before who might get the most out of this release.

As noted before, anything licensed is gone from the game, and unlike the odd Pizza Hut signs found in the background of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game on the NES, brand placement made up a much more significant part of the Crazy Taxi experience. Such things weren’t mere background dressing, but they were a part of your objective, as you delivered your clients to KFC or the Levi’s Store. It blended together in such a bizarre, contradictory fashion: despite the unrealistic arcade physics and action, the world itself had a feeling in itself that was very real.

Instead, driving through the city now feels very fake, almost knock-off-ish. It’s like driving through a strange world taken from the pages of Not Fooling Anybody, as the structures and certain recognizable aspects of the locations remain, but are instead changed to “Pizza Place” or “FCS” (for “Fried Chicken Shack.” Clever, but not clever enough, unfortunately).

Unfortunately, it does not stop there. Perhaps more memorable than the novelty of driving customers to places you recognize in some form or fashion was the original game’s soundtrack, fueled by tunes from The Offspring and Bad Religion. To many who remember the original release of the game, hitting the gas to start a round was practically synonymous with hearing “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” starting up.

Replacing the former talent are the works of (at least) one new band, who tries its humble best to provide a similar sound to what came before. However, in the same vein as the deposed store owners, it feels cheap, and makes the game almost seem like an official knock-off of itself.

To put it another way, consider this: if you can imagine what playing Super Mario Bros. would be like without its signature theme, underground, and invincibility tunes, that is very much what playing this version of Crazy Taxi feels like.

Fortunately, there is the option of playing all the Offspring, Bad Religion, or anyone else you want through the console firmware’s allowance for custom soundtracks (we just tested this out, in fact. Though in lieu of immediately-available Offspring or Bad Religion songs, we used I Came to Play by Downstait). Unfortunately, since it plays from the dashboard as you go to load up the game, it does not really sync up as desirably as one would hope.

Cuh-RAY-zee Conclusion

All in all, Crazy Taxi can be difficult to accurately gauge, since it would be fair to say that nostalgia can really color one’s perception of the game; those who fondly remember the original are more likely to be disgruntled by the changes made to this version, whereas someone who never played it before might never realize anything is “wrong,” so to speak (a theory we hope to put to the test soon).

Strip away the aesthetic changes, however, and underneath is a solid port of a classic title. But, to go back to an analogy used earlier in the review, the game is essentially like mashed potatoes without gravy, or a really tasty cake without icing. It’s good, but if you’ve experienced it as it was originally meant to be, you know it can be just that much better.

Many people have decried Acclaim’s PlayStation 2 and GameCube ports of the original game for various reasons, but admittedly, playing those just seems to somehow feel a little more “right” by comparison.

Perhaps instead of re-releasing the original game on Xbox LIVE Arcade and the PlayStation Network, SEGA could have instead focused on creating a new Crazy Taxi, perhaps for the Wii (a good place for arcade-style racing and driving, especially with all those Wii Wheels out there). That might have then been allowed a budget which would permit licensing the music people love and reacquiring some old brands (or establishing new ones).

In the end, if you need a Crazy Taxi fix and have no other alternative, then this may do. Otherwise, you might consider hunting down one of the other versions, perhaps even get a Dreamcast in the process. Word is that it has some other pretty good games for your money, too.

Crazy Taxi was developed by Hitmaker for the arcade and SEGA Dreamcast, with the latter version ported to Xbox LIVE Arcade and PlayStation Network by SEGA Shanghai. The game released on November 16th, 2010 for the PlayStation Network with the Xbox LIVE Arcade version following on November 24th, 2010 for a price of $10/800 Microsoft Points.