[This is the first entry in a countdown of the best Ridge Racer games. I recommend you read the introduction before reading this; it includes a brief history of the series and links for each entry.]
Real Racing Roots
No one knows how the race began or how its drivers became known as Rage Racers.
They live dangerously close to the edge; pushing both their cars and themselves to the limit. They feed on the burning fire of competition; are fueled by the rush of speed; and share an overwhelming desire for victory.
For these elite few, the whole world is their speedway; but there can only be one ultimate...
This self-serious text is what you're treated to at the very start of Rage Racer's Grand Prix mode (with an even cornier version gracing the Japanese release), and it perfectly sets the tone. Aesthetically speaking, Rage Racer is very much "the edgy one," something that remains conspicuous even as the series would adopt its more-grounded look moving forward.
The breezy arcade aesthetic of previous Ridge Racers has been traded in for a more realistic and aggressive approach. Skies are a little less blue, ripping guitars now feature prominently in the soundtrack, and the cheesy, enthusiastic announcer is substituted by a sultry voice that says stuff like "let's get it on" before a race and "teach this sucker a lesson" or "take this chump for a ride" as you approach rival cars. It's not necessarily a bad look for a game (contemporaries like Road Rash had a grizzled charm all their own with stuff way harsher than this, after all), and the game looks outstanding when you think about what else was coming out in 1996, but when the gameplay is still as arcadey and over-the-top as ever, it all just feels a little jarring and not enough like Ridge Racer. Imagine if the latest SSX had kept its reviled "Deadly Descents" identity before it released, and you have an (admittedly exaggerated) idea of what Rage Racer is like compared to the rest of the series.
For as much as it can stick out, the aesthetic does have some bright spots. This is the Ridge Racer that introduces the concept of distinct car manufacturers, and with it comes great little details like unique HUD speedometers for each brand of car (a touch that would skip R4 but return for much of the series afterwards). When it's not laying down guitar riffs or beating you over the head with repetitive samples until you're making new nonsense words out of them in your head ("play-doh, mountain of play-doh, mountain of play-doh" and "Aku-Aku" are two I've come up with), the soundtrack employs drum and bass music to great effect. It's a genre all but made for racing cars, and tracks like Silver Stream clearly influenced the smoother, more cohesive soundtrack that R4 would have.
Unfortunately, when it comes to actually playing the game, it pales in comparison to almost every other game in the series. While the basic driving still resembles the classic Ridge Racer formula, you're almost discouraged from drifting in Rage Racer, with lengthy drifts often leading to drops in speed that just take the fun out of everything. While the game introduces the mechanic of speccing vehicles with either a focus on gripping the road or drifting, navigating the course just doesn't feel rewarding no matter what your setup. You end up having to brake during some turns, which just feels like Ridge Racer sacrilege.
It doesn't help that this is one of the hardest games in the franchise. The twists and turns of Rage Racer's courses are orders more difficult than almost any RR game before it, and that's before you unlock faster vehicles in the Grand Prix. Even the lone respite from brutal corners, the high-speed Extreme Oval, proves challenging thanks to highly competitive AI cars. If that wasn't bad enough, most of the later cars in the game, 6 out of the 13 total, only come with manual transmission. This forces you to stick to upgrading older cars and makes unlocking the outlandish endgame vehicles a hollow victory if you aren't into shifting gears yourself. A lot of arcade racing games would reward players for using manual transmission in ways like having slightly higher top speeds, but locking damn near half of a game's vehicles behind it is simply overkill.
All this being said, I almost feel bad putting Rage Racer at the bottom of the list, since it's arguably the most important game in the series when it comes to the growth of Ridge Racer as a whole. So much of the Ridge Racer's identity as a console series has roots here: the more comprehensive single-player mode, the distinction between grip and drift, the canon of car manufacturers, the more ambitious vehicle designs, and even Reiko Nagase are all brought into the series pantheon by Rage Racer. It's one of the weakest in the series from a gameplay standpoint, but I at least respect Rage Racer for laying the foundation for what Ridge Racer is after arcades.