Note: you can find a better-laid-out copy of this post on my personal blog. I’m integrating captured game footage in ways I can’t reproduce with the GB editor.
Before I begin, some valuable context: a week ago, Ridge Racer DS – a launch-window port of Ridge Racer 64 – was the only game in the series I’d put any serious time into. If you’re shocked that I played a ton of Ridge Racer DS – by most accounts an iffy port of an iffy entry in the series – you clearly don’t remember how dire the early days of the Nintendo DS were. Hell, I bought Yoshi Touch & Go and convinced myself that it was worth it. I played a lot of Ridge Racer DS, and I remember enjoying it. I’m sure Ridge Racer DS wasn’t the greatest introduction to the series, but despite my ten year break, hitting my first ridiculous slot-car-esque drift felt like coming home. (Weirdly, R4 offers a car type without the traditional drift mechanic – what’s the point?!)
Ridge Racer Type 4 is a fine arcade racing game, but what really sets it apart is its striking visual and musical style. Every moment in the game feels like it was deliberately crafted – no element feels like it was thrown onto the screen without a designer getting their hands on it. Even the typography is distinctive. It’s a game that was clearly developed with an artistic vision. This level of cohesion and polish is still pretty rare, and it must have been nearly unprecedented in 1998. As far as I’m concerned, R4 is one of the most stylish games ever made.
Check out this hot menu. Note how every piece of the interface animates. Note the background animations cued to the menu music. Note the way the dialogue text fades in. Note how slick (yet clear and informative) the progress screen is. Note the cool (and totally unnecessary) stippling effect on the course data screen. Even the loading screen – while austere and blurry by necessity – has a certain distinctive flair to it. At every step, R4 is confidently strutting its style, and I love it.
The intro and accompanying theme are cheesy (“He’s the one for me; There’s no place I’d rather be; To the finish line; Everywhere you look he’s right on time!”), and in today’s context would probably be picked apart for perceived sexism, but I think there’s something endearingly earnest and unpretentious about the vibe. It knows what it wants to be and it goes for it.
R4 is less distinctive in-game, though it’s still quite elegant and cohesive for the time. It gets a lot of mileage out of lighting – deriving flair from what might otherwise be a fairly ordinary-looking game. The fact that the game used Gouraud Shading was apparently a big deal at the time. Edge of the Earth and Brightest Night quite effectively capture the je ne sais quoi of night driving; Wonderhill’s dusk setting is evocative, and provides plenty of opportunities for the game to show off its adaptive car lighting; Heaven and Hell – despite being a different branch of Wonderhill – manages to differentiate itself to a surprising degree by using cooler hazy midday lighting.
The usual PS1 fixed-point jittering and texture perspective issues are here in all their glory, and they sometimes converge to make the track geometry maddeningly indistinct. I can’t blame Namco for that, but it does impact the game, and I wish it didn’t. If you watched some of the linked video, you’ve probably seen moments in which I totally misjudge a turn, and the lack of visual clarity plays at least some role in that (but also, I’m not very good at the game, and haven’t yet memorized the courses). I‘m looking forward to playing later entries in the series (Ridge Racer 7 and Ridge Racer PSP in particular) and getting to experience Ridge Racer on hardware that can accurately and smoothly render 3D models and textures (i.e. not the PS1 or DS).
I knew going in that R4 was stylish, but I didn’t know that it had a surprisingly in-depth story mode. R4 doesn’t just share visual trappings with Persona 4 – it also presents its story in a way that brought to mind some Persona social links. The French team’s story revolves around a young woman navigating – and ultimately coming to terms with – her arranged career, arranged marriage, and transparent daddy issues. The Japanese team’s manager is initially hostile, but slowly warms to you. He eventually opens up about his guilt over his role in the death of his friend and teammate Giuliano (who turns out to be the son of the hardass Italian team manager). In the surprisingly (for a racing game) poetic epilogue, he comes to terms with the incident, and decides to race again. The team managers reference your performance, and assign you cars based on their budget allocations and confidence in your abilities. Also, just in case you forgot that R4 came out in 1998: you receive fan faxes. R4’s stories are nothing profound, but they’re oddly compelling.
I, of course, have to mention R4’s fantastic soundtrack, which draws from a wide variety of influences to produce an iconic mix that nicely complements the game’s visual style. The title track (“One More Win”) is remixed throughout the game, including the aforementioned intro, the course data theme, the climactic final course theme, and the catchy house remix featured in the credits. The menu theme does a great job of getting you hyped to race. I could highlight practically any of the course themes, but in the interest of brevity, Your Vibe, Lucid Rhythms, Burnin’ Rubber, and Quiet Curves are favourites.
While I’m sure no control method will ever rival the Jogcon (which I’d love to try and probably never will), I think the Vita’s nimble, low-travel analog stick is very well-suited to R4. When I booted the game on the PS3 to capture footage, I ended up using the imperfect d-pad in lieu of the comparatively-sluggish-feeling DualShock 3 analog stick. R4 benefits a lot from analog control, and the Vita’s analog stick provides a nice compromise between immediacy and granularity.
R4 has been a welcome reminder that – despite my lack of engagement with the genre – I do actually care about racing; I just don’t care about cars. I’m sure Ridge Racer’s irreverent and slapdash approach to cars makes it feel archaic to many accustomed to a genre that’s consolidated around realistic car enthusiasm, but to me, it’s a breath of fresh air. I don’t need fanatically-modelled licensed cars I’ve never heard of; I don’t want to master racing lines or meticulously tune car parts for maximum performance around the Nürburgring; I just want to select automatic transmission and hold down the accelerator and do ridiculous drifts around hairpin corners. I get that out of Mario Kart, and I suppose I could still get that out of the recent Ridge Racer games, but it seems like arcade racing is mostly a relic of the past. Here’s hoping Drift Stage and 90’s Arcade Racer reignite the genre.