By stubbleman 0 Comments
You know, I hadn't even planned around this, but this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the original Ridge Racer. So I suppose that makes now as good a time as any to take a look back on the series, and the many games it has brought us.
Ridge Racer has the distinction of having existed since near the advent of 3d gaming, and having existed in regular iterations into the present day. The only other series to really do that is Need For Speed, which got its start a year later, in 1994. So in that respect, there really is no other racing game series quite like Ridge Racer. It’s one of the longest running racing game series ever, and it's one of the few series that’s remained mostly constant in feel and approach throughout its two decades of existence.
It's been a mostly static entity in a genre defined by constant change, which has been a source of pointed criticism from critics. Whereas studios like Bizarre or Criterion were busy finding their own voices in the early to mid 2000s, the Ridge Racer series had already hit its stride and lost it by that point. And in that way, the Ridge Racer games have sometimes seemed like relics of an older time, and in many ways they are. It's just that most racing game series died off before they lived to see themselves become outdated like Ridge Racer has.
But while that has left the series feeling stale in some respects, by mere admission of its age even, those defining characteristics that typify the series are some of the main reasons I've stuck with it over the years. When a series is good, it's usually a bad idea to change it too much. Too many changes and you risk losing what made the experience so compelling in the first place. But why don't we step back for a minute and take a look at that first game in the series?The Need for Speed series has been around almost as long, but it doesn't bear the distinction of having many of the same key staff attached to it to this day. Electronic Arts goes through staff and studios like a fat kid goes through corndogs, and thus has found little difficulty in completely rethinking what it means for a game to be Need for Speed. Which has definitely had its' advantages; it's kept the series fresh over the years, while Namco has struggled for relevance and interest for a while now.
The engines sound like they’re ready to go. Are you all set?
This is the game that started it all. Ridge Racer came out in arcades in 1993, and, for the time, this was one of the best looking games around. Even today it's an attractive game to look at. At the time, it was sort of the underdog competition to Daytona, which was basically the big name in racing games in 93. There was a bit of an arms race between Namco and Sega with their System 22 and Model 2 boards respectively. And while they are very close in terms of fidelity and overall quality, the power of the Sega brand in the arcades made Daytona the winner, at least in terms of popularity.
When you look at a 3d game that's this old, one of the main things you should want to do is check out how they repurposed their already existing skills in 2d art onto this burgeoning new template of 3d games. One of the coolest little bits at the beginning of every race are the pit crew and grid girl walking off screen, both of which are 2d sprite art, animated in 2d and moving in 3d space off the screen, not unlike something like Doom or Wolfenstein just less complex since you don't have any camera or movement control.
The one track on offer here, that's right just one track, is still pretty cool looking, and is thoroughly arcade-y feeling with the palm trees and whatnot. The game has three variations on the one track, that are separated out based on difficulty. The more difficult variants add sections of track while adding stricter time limits between checkpoints. The selection in cars is similarly slim, with four to choose from, each with different top speeds and grip types, for the sake of variety.
But let's talk about the driving some. The graphics are good for more than just drawing the eye. The game runs at a buttery sixty frames and uses that to feel nice and nimble on the track. It's not the fastest game around, but it feels good. The fidelity also makes it so that you see nice and clearly ahead of you at all times, which is always important in a racing game.
But graphics aside, the steering is probably the main attraction here. It's not as though drifting and power sliding hadn't been done before, but no game has ever quite done it like Ridge Racer. Drifting basically auto-steers you through turns, sort of locking you into a track, which can be a little difficult to deal with starting out.
Knowing when the game is going to release you off of that track, and being able to keep your car from spinning out and losing speed is key to getting your times down. The trick to that is learning that, as long as your car is straightened out just right after a drift, it will let you off that track and your drift will effectively end. So, in addition to getting your line down, you have to make sure and get your turns worked out just right or else you’re going to end up losing a lot of seconds.
Another defining aspect of the original Ridge Racer was the soundtrack. I want you to take a listen to this song, and then listen to this song. Now, probably the first thing you noticed was that both songs are badass as shit. But what you may have also noticed, was that they were quite different from one another.
While The entire Daytona USA soundtrack is some of the most classic music Sega has ever produced, it was very much steeped in the traditional sound of arcade racing games, OutRun in particular. The Ridge Racer soundtrack, on the other hand is filled with happy hardcore and rave music, which was something of a change of pace for the racing game scene. It didn't hurt that the composers were at the top of their game with this soundtrack either.
And that different sound in the music made for a game that didn't feel like all the other racing games on the market. While the gameplay and hardware are quite similar to Daytona when you look underneath the surface, the sound really set the two games apart. And while Ridge Racer hasn't ever been the hugest success in the racing game scene, the music has always been a defining aspect of the series without question.
Shortly after Ridge Racer's release, Namco came out with a revision, known as Ridge Racer 2. It's essentially the same game, put out to accompany several periphery additions, such as a third-person view mode, a rear-view mirror, new music tracks, and a day-night cycle on the tracks. But the main addition on offer in Ridge Racer 2 is eight player multiplayer, which Daytona USA already had in the twin cabinets. So it's easy to come to the conclusion that Ridge Racer 2 came about mostly to undercut Daytona USA's success with its' multiplayer setup. But, despite these efforts, and the already amazing base gameplay, Daytona continued to boast the upper hand in the arcades.
You're one genius of a driver. You've gotta teach me!
So Namco went and took their game to the PlayStation. It was a launch title in both Japan and North America, so it released both in late 94 and in 95 respectively. And whereas Ridge Racer sort of always played second banana to Daytona in the arcades, Namco found much more esteem on Sony's burgeoning system. The PlayStation version doesn't begin to hold a candle to the original, graphics wise. The System 22 and Model 2 boards were possibly the apex of arcade hardware, grossly outstripping any consumer electronics on the market for years. So the graphics were destined to take a pretty big hickey.
When it comes to racing games, visibility is one of most important aspects. If you can't see what's in front of you, then you probably aren't playing a very good racing game. And Ridge Racer on the PlayStation had a lot of things working against it from the outset. For one, there was the fact that the System 22 board had way more powerful hardware on it than the PlayStation. Then there was the fact that it was a launch title on an early 3d console. So with the low resolution and aliasing, and these weird, horrible looking geometry leaks in the background distracting as well, the graphics make it kinda hard to see what's up ahead of you.
The way this version lets you off the rails when coming out of a drift feels way more mechanical this time around as well. There was also the fact that the PlayStation only had digital input via it's d-pad, as the analog sticks had not been introduced until November 1996. And Namco wanted desperately to recreate the feel of the analogue steering wheel in the arcade version. This was the circumstance which lead Namco to create the NeGcon in early 1995.
The NeGcon was basically a regular controller, broken in half, with a swivel connecting the two pieces. You would twist the controller along the swivel to turn your vehicle. And it enjoyed a decent amount of success, being the only major analogue controller for the most popular console for around three years. Some of the bigger non-Namco racing games on the system, such as Wipeout and Gran Turismo, had control options built in for the NeGcon. By the way, NeGcon is pronounced neh-gee con, which is a shortened form of neji, or twist controller.
Getting back to the game though, it looks good for a PlayStation launch game, and it comes with some of the additions found in the Ridge Racer 2 revision as well, namely the third-person view. And it also introduced a pair of rival cars known as the 13 Racing and White Angel to square off against and unlock. So those additions made for a decent enough trade off. It doesn't look too bad for a PlayStation launch game, and you got the stupid third person view and two awesome rival cars along with the ability to quarter up to your hearts content.
Time to leave this joker in another time zone ha-Haa!
Rave Racer is pretty much the ultimate edition of the original Ridge Racer. It comes complete with two variations on the track from the original with the addition of two all new tracks. One is a mountain pass, and the other is set in a city, presumably Ridge City. Though any attempts at Ridge Racer lore are a bit premature at this point. Rave Racer also has all of the additions brought on with Ridge Racer 2, with some fairly dramatically improved visuals as well.
Whereas Ridge Racer 2 added some billboards here and there, Rave Racer replaces most of the billboards and adds a significant number of sprites along the side of the track. It sounds like a small touch, but it really adds a lot of life to the already iconic track. Now, when you're passing the beach, you are greeted with a mass of people in swim trunks and bikinis, some with surf boards. And the rest of the track is smattered with onlookers behind the barricades. Like I said, it's a small touch, but a welcome one.
I mentioned billboards, and the Ridge Racer games are pretty famous for cramming just about anything Namco related into every conceivable corner of their tracks. One of the more interesting little additions in Rave Racer is the billboard you see coming out of the first tunnel. What's so interesting about it is the grid girl on it, who looks suspiciously like the girl in the attract screen, who, herself, looks suspiciously like Reiko Nagase. Now, Reiko doesn't officially make her debut in the Ridge Racer series until I guess Rage racer, in 97, but it's a fun little detail detail to catch, as it was a busy couple years for the franchise, and there's a lot of shared DNA among these early games.
The new tracks are pretty cool though. The mountain pass has something of a pastoral feel to it. It's actually kind of a weird track, all told. There's a shortcut of sorts. I'm not sure if it actually shortens out your time, but it's at a hard turn, where you have to be on top of your line, and if you aren't there's a gap in the railing where you can just fall down onto the road below.
The roads eventually converge back, Mario Kart style, and it's just kind of weird. Ridge Racer games don't usually do this. And the weirdness is just compounded by the fact that there is a glitched wall at the beginning of the track that warps you ahead with a rocketing start further on in the track. It's a weird track, but it's got some really cool scenery in it.
The city track is extra cool though. It's all elevated highways, tunnels, construction cranes and skyscrapers. It's very industrial looking, and all of the road markers and signs really help make it feel like you are just tearing ass through these roads at an unreasonable speed. Driving under all the overpasses is really cool too.
Probably my favorite thing about this track, though, is the giant monitor at the end of this big straightaway. It just screams style and has a silhouetted dancing figure on a flashing colored background, kind of like an old iPod commercial. And while that may sound kind of lame, it really sets an awesome vibe in-game.
It's also worth noting that Rave Racer is where the current Namco Sound team took their leave of Namco and went freelance under the name Sampling Masters. Now, Sampling Masters' principal cast consists of SamplingMasters Mega - Shinji Hosoe and SamplingMasters Aya - Ayako Saso. They are backed up by one Sanodg - Nobuyoshi Sano and one J99 - Takayuki Aihara. And these four comprised the sound staff for the arcade Ridge Racers, and the first two PlayStation Ridge Racers as well.
Ridge Racer Revolution took the bulk of its' soundtrack from Ridge Racer 2's remixes and new tracks. So this is the last we'll be hearing from Sampling Masters proper until 2005, with the exception of Sanodg, who makes the occasional appearance before then. It's a pretty tight soundtrack all round. Sano's increased presence in this soundtrack really rounds the experience out a lot.
Hosoe's tracks are mostly really heavy and thumping, and, appropriately enough, lean pretty heavily on the samples. Sano's tracks are much less abrasively percussive. So all in all it's a somewhat more varied soundtrack, and a really solid farewell to some of the series' most defining key staff.
And that’s the last we’ll be seeing of Ridge Racer at the arcades. There is that version of Ridge Racer V that didn’t come to arcades until some time after the PlayStation 2 version. But honestly, that hardly counts. Namco quickly found far more success on Sony’s family of consoles than they ever did at the arcades. So Rave Racer sort of signals the end of one era for the series as another was just beginning.
Come on! Pull up to the starting line and rev your engine!
There’s also this game called Ridge Racer Revolution, for the PlayStation, which came out in 96. With Ridge Racer Revolution, Namco tried making an all new track, complete with novice, intermediate and expert variants. It looks suspiciously similar to the original Ridge Racer track; the whole thing feels like they cut out bits of track, added parts and stitched it all together, with revised, but similar scenery to go with it. But it's a good track. The scenery, while oddly similar, is very cool to race through, especially in the more advanced sections. The half-tunnel along the cliff face is particularly memorable.
They made some changes to the handling too. As opposed to the other cars rubber banding when you get too far away, they made it so that you accelerate much faster. So when you hit something, you get back up to speed much faster. Also when you hit a wall it bounces you backward like it's bumper cars or something, which takes a bit of getting used to, especially when cars will bounce you into corners as they come up from behind. It sounds bad, but it really isn't. It forces you to have a bit more awareness of where the other cars are, and it's a lot less punitive about getting back up to speed like I said.
This PlayStation sequel of sorts does boast some new features outside of the computer controlled cars being assholes now. They also included the unlockable cars from the previous PlayStation outing, the White Angel, the Devil 13th, and the new Devil Kid. This gives Revolution a bit more for you to do in it, when compared against the PlayStation port of the original. Though given the fact that the graphics are pretty much the same, your preference in car handling and tracks will be the ultimate deciding factor in which version is the better of the two.
It was being billed as a straight sequel though, and a vaguely new looking track and a couple unlockable cars just wasn't enough to cut it, especially considering the graphics it was boasting for the time being an extra big step down from Rave Racer the year before. It's not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination though, and suffers more from Namco's predilection for iterative design than any problems with the game itself.
I already mentioned the soundtrack briefly in the previous section, and there's not a lot more to say about it, aside from pointing out that Lords of Techno is still badass as fuck. It's also perhaps worth pointing out that Hiroshi Okubo poked his head in for one track on this soundtrack. We'll be hearing more about him in the next game though. So let’s just move right along into that.
The race is on. Show 'em what you've got!
Rage Racer is kind of a hard game to pin down. It continues the series’ tradition of having one big, long track broken up into shorter pieces, but it's easily as iconic a track as the original. You've got some awesome European streets with a great big Roman style stone arch, which you pass under before moving on to an elevated road passing a massive cliff face with a waterfall. There's a good deal of waterside bits of track and some really tricky turns in the later portions, along with some ridiculous looking stretches of tunnel.
It's a real shame they were so committed to the one track per game rule with their early games, given how imaginative and fun to race the tracks all were. And Rage Racer's very European looking track easily stands up among the others, like I said. So, while the graphics are quite dated three games in, they more than make up for if with some really fantastic art.
They were able to get rid of the pop-in too, which is nice. The aliasing was the real problem in terms of visibility for Ridge Racer and Revolution on the PlayStation though, and Rage Racer does seem slightly better in that regard. The geometry leaks are still on full display though, sadly.
But let's talk about the racing. It's super important how a racing game handles touching the walls and other cars. It's easily one of the most important aspects of a racing game. If you overdo it, and make the car completely freak out as soon as you even brush up against something, it can really kill the sense of speed. And you really don't want that in a racing game, especially an arcade racing game.
Now, it's not that Rage Racer is overly punitive with it's collisions. It's more that you're likely to spend way more time dealing with them than you would with most of the other games in the series. The drifting is just near broken, so you’re going to spend a lot of time hitting walls. Revolution really sort of got it right in this department. You're constantly getting knocked into things by the more aggressive CPU controlled cars, but it works out because you get back up to speed so fast. But with Rage Racer, the drifting is bad and it takes far too long to get back up to speed.
It's really hard to say just what the problem is with the drifting, other than to say that it feels like a gamble every time weather your drift is going to take or not. I know I'm not the only one who holds that sentiment toward Rage Racer though, and if it weren't for all the rest of the game being so above average, Rage Racer could have easily been the black sheep in the series.
Rage Racer is also host to another Ridge Racer game first, the CG opening. It's not exactly a classic by Namco PlayStation game opening standards, but it's significant if only for marking the debut of the face of Ridge Racer, legendary grid girl Reiko Nagase. This was Kei Yoshimizu's first game in the series. Yoshimizu is the man behind Reiko's design, and has been responsible for all her subsequent appearances in the series. Reiko is also, presumably the girl holding the card at the start of every race as well. She also features prominently in the packaging.
But Reiko was merely a symptom of the changing face of Ridge Racer. Rage Racer is definitely a step up from Revolution in terms of style and content. They introduced a few new cars and added customization options in the way of paint jobs, team logos and even a few tuning options. And beyond that, they made a much more cohesive feeling experience in terms of all the things outside of just the race.
Rage Racer is kind of the first game in the series where the soundtrack and menu design started to really coalesce into something greater than its parts. It's one of the series' defining characteristics in my eyes. The way these extraneous features work together make for games that are more than just racing games. I'm sure some of you oldschool Gran Turismo fans know what I'm talking about with the manufacturer songs in the first game. It would still be Gran Turismo without them, but why on earth would you want it without them?
These little flourishes make these games more than just an assortment of pretty cars and tracks with cool looking backgrounds. They make them into a place that you love being in. They are the parts that make you remember these games ten, twenty years down the line. Because it's not the graphics. Those lose their zeal with time. And it's not the gameplay, since these games mostly play worse the farther back they go. And in that regard, Rage Racer marks the turning point in the series, where it went from being sort of like Outrun, with its' sunny beaches and tropical waterfalls, to being something altogether different and equally wonderful.
The first two PlayStation outings were very much just recreations of the arcade experience. They had attract screens and the menus consisted mostly of car select, transmission select, track select and go. And Rage Racer was very much a clean break from the previous entries in that regard.
The soundtracks on the previous entries were definitely a key element to their success, giving them a feel and atmosphere that set them apart your OutRuns and your Daytonas. But this time, the entire game just feels like it better accommodates and embellishes upon the musical talent they had at Namco. It helps that they had some real good talent to fill in for Sampling Masters for this entry.
The talent this time around is the previously mentioned Hiroshi Okubo and Tetsukazu Nakanishi. Okubo has handled music and sound effects on the series from here out, so this is his first time running all that. The soundtrack marks a really good middle ground between the harder, sampling filled sound in the previous games and the lighter, more melodic sound in the later games. I don't know if it was from working with Hosoe and Saso, or if it was a deliberate choice to maintain consistency, but there's a very obvious reliance on harder beats and samples. It's an impressive show of diversity, considering Nakanishi and Okubo were two of the principal composers on Ridge Racer 4 as well, which is categorically different in terms of sound.
It's maybe not the best Ridge Racer game. Like with Revolution, it didn't do enough to stand out against the other racing games of the time with it's dearth of tracks to race on. And the handling is one of my least favorite in the series. But it's still a really cool game despite these otherwise glaring flaws. With the deeper stable of cars, new grand prix mode, and all the other additions, Rage Racer is nothing if not ambitious, and sets the groundwork for one of the greatest racing games ever created, which we will look at come part 2. So I’ll see you there.
- Kris Osborn