Ridge Racers

All is forgiven.

Version tested PSP

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Ridge Racer isn't a driving game. It's more like a fairground ride with steering. A lot of these games have warnings on them which say things like, "Don't you dare do any of this stuff in real life because it might be dangerous." In Ridge Racer it should say, "Don't do this because YOU WILL DIE."

When you race into a turn going fast enough and drift (née powerslide) around it at an impossible angle, having to judge the right time to turn the front of the car back to the road so you can iron out the fishtailing and plant your thumb back on the accelerator, you're basically riding a rollercoaster. Except you're controlling it. That is, to my mind, the most obviously comparable sensation.

And when you get cocky and throw yourself impossibly into a hairpin, turning out rather than in and showing your arse to the inside line as you twizzle on an invisible turntable, before exiting at a speed that would seem utterly ridiculous if it weren't already overshadowed in the ridiculousness stakes by the backward-spin-turn lunacy you just perpetrated, it is for all the world like riding one of those centrifugal fairground attractions that blurs your vision by lurching your little two-man pod incredibly fast over short distances. That's how it feels, and as a simulation of that it's convincing enough to elicit very much the same feeling - just minus the nausea.

Ridge Racer isn't a driving game; it's all the fun of the fair delivered straight to your home disguised by shiny reflective digi-chrome and leather-bound racing ladies who can't seem to zip their tops the whole way up.

But then I'm sure you all knew that. After all, like me, you've had about five years to contemplate what made Ridge Racer so good, during which time Namco foolishly decided it was making a racing game after all - and dragged us all kicking and screaming down from the Big Dipper and onto those stupid spinning Tea Cups instead. Ridge Racer Type 4 was like Alton Towers (or Six Flags for our US readers). Ridge Racer V was like coming back the next day with only a couple of hours to spare. And R: Racing was like the queue outside on a Bank Holiday Monday.

And so: Ridge Racers on the PSP. Forget the DS port of the N64 version - this is the first real new Ridge Racer game since number five launched with the PS2. And Namco's rediscovered the fair. To my mind this is the best Sony system launch title Namco's made - it's Ridge Racer the way it should be, with a satisfyingly rollercoastery feel to the drifting whichever way you go about it, and a huge number of tracks based on existing designs from previous Ridge Racers. Familiar but, as we're about to see, different enough.

Because, for one, now it has a turbo boost "nitro" meter, which gradually fills up as you drift round corners (but, cleverly, won't be fooled into filling up through gratuitous sliding) and lets you hold up to three bursts of speed-on-demand at any given time, which obviously changes the way you play without breaking things. Going faster, after all, makes rollercoasters more fun. It also features PS2-level visuals, which is to say it looks very convincing with lovely reflections, draw distances, car models, flying sparks and the like, and certainly looks better than any other handheld racer in existence, but is also guilty of ropey texturing here and there amongst other relatively insignificant blemishes.

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Oh, and it has wireless multiplayer! An excellent addition, that - one person picks a car class (there are six, and a special class) and a track (there are 24 as far as I can tell) and waits in a lobby area, and other players then just search for the game (complete with a nice little sonar effect while they wait) and join in. There is no lag at all, and wireless signal strength seems to be just as good as you'd get from equivalent PC networking kit in the same environment.

Playing Ridge Racers after so much pain and suffering since Type 4 is hugely satisfying, but then it would be even if you'd never played a single game in the series before. Slowing down for corners isn't as nerve-wracking as not slowing down for corners, and that's the way the game's designed - has always been designed. Namco developed a way of building an unlikely but, critically, skill-based cornering routine into a stupidly fast racing game, and making sure that whatever flashes before your eyes at any given time triggers those rollercoaster reactions - and it's an approach that's served them well whenever they've pulled it out since. There's virtually nothing else to say about the "driving" model - the people who made it have mastered the art of exciting.

Well, there is one more thing to say, but we'll come to that a bit later. For now we're in Songs of Praise mode.

So, another good thing: It doesn't feel like it's been rushed. It so obviously has been rushed, because as far as we can work out Ken Kutaragi came up with the idea for the PSP on the back of a beer mat just before E3 2003, which hasn't given anybody long to get their stuff together - not even Namco (who, legend has it, only actually had four PSPs to test the eight player wireless multiplayer with). But you'd be hard-pressed to figure it out simply by playing Ridge Racers.

Everything's so glossy and neatly done. The menu designs are stylish and consistent, with some nice silhouetted icon and background designs that remind me of the title sequence to Catch Me If You Can, albeit with a slightly more conservative, monochrome approach; the car selection screens have the expected spinny 3D models with only the occasional pause as you skip through them, where the PSP presumably has to drag the models off the UMD direct rather than out of RAM (that was the obligatory and not particularly convincing "sentence where reviewer attempts to bluff his way through a technical comment," for those of you keeping track at home); and even the in-game pause menus are slightly translucent, as if to say to Nintendo, "N64? Ha!" In fact, sometimes the game feels so un-rushed it's as if the programmers ran out of things to do and had to start making them up; we can't think of any other justification for inclusions like the Rally X mini-game, because although it pops up when you first start Ridge Racers you don't actually play it while the game is loading. It's just there if you want it.

And there's a lot of everything, too. The main single-player World Tour mode's "Basic" area features nine different "tours" consisting of three, four, or sometimes more races spread across the game's various tracks, complete with reverse versions and the like. Then after doing some of that you start to unlock the "Pro" tours, which have even more tracks per tour, and eventually the "Expert" ones for a total of around 40. You can also just tell the game to create random tours. In each of them you'll be expected to start off placing within the top three or so, and finish first by the time you get to the end of the final road. That's a hell of a lot of racing to get through, yet this is a launch title...

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It's not all 12-cars-to-the-track racing either. There are duel races too. And a Time Attack mode. And a Single Race option. And you're always unlocking more tracks, more tours, more cars, more everything. Compared to Namco's other Ridge Racer launch titles, this one has the right handling and drift model (and there are cars with differing drift styles too, some of which require very little manual intervention to go into a slide, which makes them harder to wield but often better once they've been mastered), a lot of very well designed tracks that look gorgeous and yet rarely overstretch the hardware, loads of cars including some amusingly outlandish ones and plenty enough that go very fast indeed, and it's all bound together with the sort of flair that you have no right to expect from a launch title. It's as glossy and well-formed as the system it's promoting. It's symbolic of it in lots of ways.

Except... That last sentence carries something of a double meaning. Like the PSP, Ridge Racers is glorious in spades, but a bit daft and mildly irritating from time to time. For example, I'm pretty good at Ridge Racer and always have been, and I dare say a lot of other people who want to play this will be even better at it - and so finishing first in virtually every race right up to midway through the Pro circuit is a bit disappointing. I don't want it to pound me into the ground and never let me win, but it could put up more of a fight - early on it's not uncommon to make it into first place by the end of the first of three laps, and that still happens occasionally even in some of the Expert races. And the Basic races can't be skipped. It also takes a while to get up to speed and give you that rollercoaster sensation - to begin with it's satisfying but it feels like the first time round the 'coaster before the operator stubs out his ciggy and turns the crank to hasten your ride back to the turnstyles. So we can say it's not brilliantly structured, even if there's a heck of a lot to explore.

When it does ramp up and winning becomes a challenge, the AI racers seem to cheat more, too. They're not bound to your bumpers with elastic like some AI opposition I've encountered over the years, but I'd definitely classify their approach of moving into your path so you prang them about 60 yards further up the track as cheating. They don't always do this, but only a few times is still too many. What's more, they don't have to be elastic to be evil, because they can annoy you by zooming past with their nitros on the final straight - technically it's my failing for not having enough in the tank to compete, but it still makes me feel hard done by when it happens.

And then there's that one other thing I wanted to say about the driving model: sometimes it's too much like a fairground ride. There's one track in particular where, from memory, you have to do a slide round a not-quite-mild-enough right turn, then do another right-turn over a bridge, a sharper left turn and then another left over another bridge and another right, all of which comes at you pretty quickly, leaving little room for mistakes. Except all you really have to do is start a slide and then straighten it out in time for the second bridge - the game actually pulls you along the racing line in-between with only token wall contact. At least, that's what it feels like. There's another section on a hilltop track that behaves very similarly, and the faster you start going the more of this "helping hand" you seem to notice.

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(Admittedly, this is where reviewing a Japanese game becomes problematic. I honestly don't know if this is some sort of "AI assist" option that you can choose to turn on or off. That's one reason I'm prepared to talk of scores in the final paragraph - well, I know some of you looked - but haven't immortalised a particular number at the very bottom.)

So there. The PSP itself has these sorts of silly issues too - getting movies to work is a massive headache, for example - and, like the PSP, Ridge Racers is generally good enough that the little irritations can be pushed aside. If you're anything like me, you'll still want to play it to completion, and, as I've been at pains to point out, that will take you a long time and you will be justly entertained along the way.

Indeed, the brilliance of the pretend-driving and the way it makes you feel is also enough for the player to ignore the problems that aren't just comparable to the PSP's own, but are actually caused by them - the way the game runs down your PSP's battery something rotten, easily depleting an entire charge in just four hours with the volume turned down, and how much worse that gets when the wireless networking is turned on, and the load times between races.

And yes, "with the volume turned down" does mean that I didn't like the music. (Or the announcer-bloke.) As somebody with no musical taste, however, I'm not going to hold this against it. To frame it in a way you'll immediately be able to understand: I only half-liked the music in the other Ridge Racer games, too. This is very much like that.

The best launch title Namco's made for a Sony console, then, but probably not the best Ridge Racer game Namco's ever made. I'd still take Type 4 over this, and it's difficult to see how that's going to change - somehow less polygons and frames-per-second, even on a huge screen, makes Type 4 more exciting. I don't actually think a direct remake would necessarily be as good. Hopefully though, having found its feet again with Ridge Racers, Namco can work towards refining the handling model so that it sparks our excitement in subtly different ways. As long as nobody over there gets too caught up with this whole "racing game" misconception, the next Ridge Racer could very well be a huge step forward.

And to rescue the key point of all this from that last para, Namco has definitely found its feet again with Ridge Racers. It may not be as brilliant as it could be in terms of structure, and there are even some flaws on the track, but everything else about this PSP debut is a sterling example of why I've consistently thrown caution to the wind every time a new Ridge Racer game's roared out of the Namco garage, and spent vast sums making sure I had it immediately. It's a careful balance of extreme speeds and sensations, into which the nitro system fits snugly and worthily. Do you slide to gain more boost or try to keep up speed by not drifting? Do you pick the slidier car so that you accumulate more boost more often without sacrificing pace, or is wrestling it straight again on sharp turns going to upset the rest of your race? Etcetera.

Given the extortionate demands for import PSP hardware and games at this stage in the console's life, naturally I can't really recommend you rush out and buy this, but I honestly do believe this is going to be a launch title worthy of Sony's domination of the console sector, and that's something that not even the PS2 really had. If I had to put a score on it (and, since nobody's around to tell me otherwise today, and as discussed there are one or two areas the language barrier prevents me from being 100 per cent certain about, I'm not going to), it would very likely be an eight edging towards a nine, and, in this hypothetical scenario, I'd probably also spend tonight lying awake - not excited about tomorrow (Merry Christmas, by the way), but haunted by the suspicion that I was being too harsh. And after getting so much out of this, showing Ridge Racers that level of respect certainly, to sum the game up rather neatly, seems fair.

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