"Listen: us real, human cabbies need you. We have to take taxi driving back. Put me to work for you."
So says Berry, a taxi driver in the new iOS and Android game Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire from Sega. A fine plea, no doubt, but Berry's begging me for a job while toting some kind of alcoholic drink in a poco grande glass and I can't help but wonder if that's why he's out of work in the first place.
But Berry kinda has a point, and Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire reminds you about it at every turn. Virtually every interaction outside of gameplay imparts some kind of commentary about the cab industry's plights in the context of competition from Uber and (soon, possibly) its self-driving cars.
Uber is currently trying to make this scenario a reality. It's been a bumpy ride. The company already has self-driving cars (with safety drivers) at work on the streets of Pittsburgh, and last March we reported that the mayor there is already ticked that the effort hasn't brought as many jobs as he hoped and that Uber started charging for driverless car rides. It won't even share driverless car ride data with Pittsburgh. The same month, Re/code reported that the "driverless" cars had to be taken off the road by the safety driver every mile.
But customers on the street like the convenience, as Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire points out. Humans need to do a lot better if they plan to succeed against this, and that's the point of the game. Uber currently uses human drivers, of course, but riders often dislike taxis for other reasons. I met one potential rider in the game who mocked my cab for looking like it's from 1999 and who preferred to go with the "hybrid blimp with triple-filtered bottle water" from the competing "Prestige Megacorporation," which uses "robot" drivers.
As for Prestige itself, it's owned by a dandified jackass named Edelbert von Güber, who taunts me while The Offspring sings "You don't want to change the world like you say / You're in it for yourself, no one else." Hopefully I don't have to point out the object of the satire here.
"What a quaint little cab," von Güber says, after I buy my first car. "People said as much in the 1-star Yowl reviews I paid them to submit."
And so forth. Superficially, Crazy Taxi Gazillionaire is a revival of Sega's 1999 open-world Crazy Taxi, which first appeared in arcades and then found its way onto Sega's Dreamcast a year later. The idea is basically the same in that you need to pick up customers and get them to their destinations as quickly as you can, but you do no open-world racing here. Instead, you tap on icons representing customers from a bird's eye view of the city, and the cars you hire run to them, smashing any civilian and police cars they encounter along the way. Tap, tap, tap. That's about it, aside from upgrades and occasionally popping Prestige's balloons for some premium currency. Aside from the characters and commentary, it's kinda dull.
But that commentary is biting, and it's worth playing a bit for that reason alone. It captures the near-desperation of people trying to work against the literal machine. Alex, the guy who leads the tutorial, tells me that "If we upgrade that taxi enough, that should reset our [Yelp Yowl] reviews." Ha, good luck with that, Alex.
Yet it's also worth it for the hope, as in this bit from Gena, a driver who responds to the above snipe from von Güber with a John Henry-styled response:
"He's still gross, and still right," she says. "I'm going to give this my best even if the deck is stacked against people like us."