Version tested: 3DS
Uncharitable Nintendo fans might wish Satoru Iwata spent less time interviewing developers on his website and more time commissioning new Marios, Zeldas and Pikmins, but if Nintendo's president ever tires of ordering more stationery and chasing Shigeru Miyamoto around the office then he should have no difficulty attracting freelance writing commissions. Certainly not when his insights are as weightless and poetic as this one: "When you're driving well in a racing game, you often get into an egoless state and rise above yourself."
That's Iwata talking to Namco Bandai's Yozo Sakagami, who enthusiastically agrees, and many of us will know why: because it captures perfectly the meditative trance into which we descend when, at least once every console generation, we locate the magic centre of a new Ridge Racer.
For Ridge Racer 3D, it comes at the start of the second phase of the Grand Prix mode, as the third-tier cars come online, speeds hover across the 320km/h threshold, and the slow-paced track-by-track repetition of the first three hours coalesces into an hypnotic blend of perfect muscle memory and extrasensory feedback, your inputs no longer fully conscious and the anchor tethering your mind to the moment fully, beautifully broken. You're no longer racing; you flow.
Er, where was I? Ridge Racer 3D is another arcade racing game from Namco Bandai and, as usual, muscular racing cars housed in glimmering speedway shells hurtle incontrovertibly between the guiding rails of various slick neon cities, breezy mountains and immaculate ruins. Ridge Racer is famous for its lovably ridiculous powerslides, drifts that convey cars through hairpins at impossible speeds with barely a glance at the brake, needing little more than a practised whip-crack of the analogue nub (or in this case, circle pad) to rein in.
It doesn't want you to slow down, and almost won't let you – even if you spin your car or thump into walls and other cars, you will struggle to arrest your momentum, although you may surrender track position to the elastic AI. Ridge Racer 3D subscribes to all of the above, and comments from the developer suggesting the controls have been dumbed down are simply not true - or perhaps just optional stabilisers lost (and frankly unwanted) somewhere in the dense Japanese menus.
The heart of the game is Grand Prix mode, a non-linear, threaded progression through miniature race series. Familiar tracks (Seaside Route 765! Etc.) come and go and you're gradually sprinkled with new cars, points (which can be spent on other cars) and musical unlocks. At key points you graduate to a new car class, adding many more km/h to the speedometer and drawing you further into the trance. There are also Time Trial and Quick Race modes, and a "Tour" option where you specify how long you have to play and what kind of experience you want (calibre of corners, for example) and the game stirs up a quick race scenario to suit.
There are also nods to the 3DS' new feature set. You can use your Mii or take a photograph to illustrate your driving licence (which tots up miles driven and percentage complete), and this also acts as an in-game avatar, hovering above your head for multiplayer racers to admire, for example.
And while it is more likely to be successful in the dense, handheld-obsessed metros and electric cities of Japan than the broad, antisocial streets and boroughs of the UK, the StreetPass Duel system, which downloads ghost data from anonymous opponents you pass in the street, should give you a more testing and authentic series of challenges to overcome than the outrageously duplicitous AI duels of the past. (F*** you, Soldat Crinale. Absolutely violate your own face.)
But of course the most interesting aspect of Ridge Racer 3D is those last two characters in the title. A Ridge Racer 7 patch for stereoscopy-loving PlayStation 3 fans means this isn't actually the first 3D game in the series, but it is a powerful argument for there being more, because the glasses-free effect achieved by the 3DS' elegant slider is excellent.
Simulation racers like Gran Turismo 5 benefit from 3D because it helps you to spot braking distances and turn-in points a bit more effectively, and that is also true of Ridge Racer 3D. But Ridge Racer's true depth – and our never-ending affection for it – derives from the way it draws you into the zone, and the sense of depth beyond the glass of the main 3D screen is like a hand at your throat, drawing you into the image. The slightly rough, cartoon visuals and occasional frame-rate drops are unfortunate but easily forgiven.
Once you penetrate beyond the first few hours of torpid "Basic" races and start earning the praise continually heaped on you regardless by the game's obsequious announcer lady, this is a Ridge Racer experience that could be unlike any other. It has the pace, it has a solid structure and it has a new edge thanks to that magic 3D slider.
So it's just a shame that it doesn't have much new content to back that up. Even a dozen new tracks among the many dozens of recycled ones would have been exciting, but this time at least it was not to be. Instead we're given 3D-enhanced renditions of all our old favourites.
Ah well. The point should be that once Ridge Racer 3D gets going it's as horribly satisfying as any in recent memory. In fact, following a few hours' initial play, I found myself inquiring of our reviews editor whether it would be reasonable to "borrow" our Japanese 3DS to "verify my findings" over the next few days/weeks/years. And if I can't bring myself to part with it despite having logged a bottle-pissing World of Warcraft obsession's worth of time on Ridge Racers 1-7 and the handheld spinoffs, the old magic must still be working.
8 / 10