Ridge Racer DS
Namco's latest comes in for some stick.
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There's a reason people don't use pens to steer cars. Try to guess what it is.
If you chose, "Because it's a stupid idea and it will never work," you win! If, on the other hand, you started shifting uneasily in your seat and thinking "Yeah, but what if they did this," and envisioning madcap steering wheel gizmos with styluses flailing and dials and readouts sprinkled all over the screen and crazy men screaming "YEAH! FINAL STRETCH BABY!" and Space Invaders playing on screens as you drive past, then you probably work for Namco. Or NST. Or whoever ported this from the N64. And you probably ought to ring up your car insurer and apologise in advance.
Stick to what you're good at...
To be fair though, the idea of using a touch-screen to turn a steering wheel might sound doable on paper. It's just that, having spent a very, very long time swearing profusely at Ridge Racer DS [and, readers, by profusely, he means enough screaming to warrant neighbours filing an anti social behaviour complaint -Ed], we have to wonder whether any of the designers actually did stay with the game beyond that critical paper phase. If they did, surely they would have realised that moving a stylus tip left and right of an invisible centre point would never be as accurate or intuitive as using a directional pad or analogue stick, because you simply can't judge that pivotal middle area of the screen without glancing down or receiving the sort of tactile feedback you get when an analogue stick is centred under your thumb.
And having witnessed that, they wouldn't have left us with a pair of alternatives that are, respectively, even more uncontrollable on the one hand and similarly lacking in necessary feedback on the other. Using the D-pad to steer may be the most natural thing to do, and we stuck to it for hours, but the digital input is too imprecise and you wind up overcorrecting all the time and bashing into things - and porting the notoriously frustrating Ridge Racer 64 and its shoddy collision detection was always destined to accentuate that, literally at every turn.
Using the thumb strap is ultimately the best option, even if it feels incredibly strange to begin with (and reminds us why everybody in console-land uses analogue sticks instead of releasing laptop-style touchpad controllers). The idea is that it accepts input left or right of wherever your thumb strap point first touched the screen, in much the same way that Super Mario 64 DS creates an "analogue zone" when your stylus tip first touches the screen, and measures input within a certain radius of that point as if you were edging an analogue stick away from its upright position. The result, in the case of Ridge Racer DS, is a more controllable but unnervingly uncomfortable and intangible steering mechanic that we've never quite been happy using. Even if it is the most effective of the three.
The controls, then, are a bit of a mess, albeit one you can work with - and that doesn't get Ridge Racer DS off to a good start.
You can buff that out
As we struggled beyond our initial reservations about the control scheme and got stuck into the meat of the game (which, although we feel a bit redundant pointing this out after all that jabbering, is an arcade racing game that involves going very fast and doing silly powerslides - called "drifts" - around tight bends. Just in case anybody is suffering from retrograde amnesia and doesn't know what "Ridge Racer" is), it became apparent that while matters don't go and make things worse by diving rapidly downhill subsequent to those first few frustrating attempts at "Quick Race", they don't really do that much in the ascendance either.
Apart from the redistribution of screen clutter between top and touch screens (on top: time remaining, current placement; on bottom: a giant representation of a steering wheel, a small track map, lap times, gear shifting information, and for no good reason a total lack of a rearview mirror), RR DS is virtually a straight port of the N64's Ridge Racer 64, and that means some 20 Grand Prix races and 32 cars to unlock in total. Thanks to the DS's new feature-set and what we can only assume was a creeping sense of guilt on the part of the developer, all that's joined by a new six-driver wireless multiplayer mode, which happily lets you race against up to five pals with only one game card between you. But more on that later.
In terms of the single-player action, the game splits your attention between Grand Prix and Car Attack modes. The Grand Prix consists of various track layouts derived from three key island road structures, including reverse versions, and the goal is to finish first in a field of around 12 - do so in all three of your currently available races and you win a trophy and unlock the next three. Car Attack, on the other hand, consists of tackling various cars one-on-one on each of the GP tracks to unlock them for use in subsequent races, and obviously you'll want to be doing that as you go along, or you're just going to make things harder for yourself.
And, frankly, Ridge Racer DS is plenty hard enough as it stands. Just steering effectively is a pain in the rear spoiler, as we've pointed out at length, but that's by no means the only source of the often crippling frustration we felt when we played it. Another perhaps even more crucial failing is the way the game seems to totally louse up drifting, surely the single most important thing about the entire driving experience in a Ridge Racer game.
Tails of woe
As in every other Ridge Racer, you can drift on the DS in order to take even hairpin turns at outrageous speeds - all you have to do is release the accelerator as you turn in and then clamp it back down as you exit, steering away from the near side to stop the car fishtailing, or, for slower turns, clamp the brake and then the accelerator instead as you enter and exit. Except, in Ridge Racer DS, managing to stop the car fishtailing is not just an art, it's an abstract, mangled-faces-upside-down-inside-a-volcano-dancing-a-jig-reciting-Nietzsche kind of art that simply makes no sense. In the end we got so frustrated trying to straighten the bloody cars up after turns that for a while we gave up drifting more or less completely. On the one or two turns per track where it was absolutely unavoidable, we simply slammed into the barricade and drove off. With any car capable of reasonable acceleration this proved a damn sight less restrictive than drifting and then slamming back and forward into barriers and other cars as we attempted to exit. Drifting does get a bit easier with time, and with better cars, but only marginally. Never enough. And did we mention there are no gravel traps or any other spillovers protecting the lightning pace of the racetrack from the brutal solidity of the trackside furniture? Imagine how this dovetails into our fishtail dilemma, and truly understand our silly pun at the top of this section.
But wait! There's so much more aggravation still to get through! On top of being unable to control the game particularly easily, skewering its unique selling point (or at least coating it in Baby Oil), and designing tracks that give you no margin for error (or any margins at all for that matter), the team behind Ridge Racer DS has also failed to rein in the outrageous AI opposition. Although you can make steady progress in Ridge Racer DS for a good few hours, happily (or at least not too unhappily) conquering the first few tiers of competition, by the time the game introduces the reverse stages the requirement to place first is really quite brutal. It took us several hours to overcome three tracks on the fourth tier when most of the rest had capitulated after just a handful of attempts.
The AI's not content with just being fast though. We're not saying they cheat, but they do seem to get the rub of the green more often than not. Any time you slam into a wall or an AI car, you take a massive dip in speed, but they generally don't. What's more, you can't help but slam into the buggers, because the default bumper cam (despite being by far the best option for Ridge Racer games, and a darn sight better than the third-person view here for a multitude of reasons) makes it very hard to judge small gaps, so you wind up hitting cars when you think you should snake through them, or worse, as happened on a few occasions, you come too close together at one side of the track leading into a tunnel or narrowing road and the game holds you both up for a fraction of a second and then spits your opponent out with a burst of unlikely acceleration. Yeah. And did we mention the AI cars often swerve to get in your way?
More woe: despite having two whole screens to play with, there's something about the viewing angle and the quality of the visuals (which are often very bland, even for an early 3D racing game, and even if they are characteristically Ridge Racer) that makes it too hard to react quickly to sharp turns, particularly if they come in anything approaching quick succession, and this renders the game needlessly frustrating on any course more complex than a few straights and light turns. Granted, you could make an argument that it's at its most satisfying when you finally grasp the track design and start turning previously soul-destroying chicane into white-knuckle rides through an adrenaline shower. But we'd counter that with the assertion that games like Ridge Racer Type 4 gave you those thrills during the first few hours you spent with them anyway, rather than forcing you to take a cheese grater to your tolerance levels, and that the process of getting really good at those tracks gave you an even bigger thrill than anything Ridge Racer DS can deliver. Oh, and we'd also beat you round the head with various clubs bearing slogans like "CRAP CONTROLS", "STUPID COLLISION DETECTION" and "CHEATING AI".
In the end, we found Ridge Racer DS so frustrating that when it did eventually let us win, we even suspected it was being dishonest about that. We began to wonder if it had some sort of stress-o-meter, which used the built-in microphone to gauge the volume and severity of our complaints and then introduced subtle computer aids when our wailing reached crescendo. We have no proof of this of course, but it did seem a bit easier after we took to threatening it in-between races and hoping it would wilt in terror.
So, er, what do we say in its defence? We've been bashing it more or less all the way through, after all. Well.
Chief amongst Ridge Racer DS's achievements is the game's wireless multiplayer capability. Six players racing along using just the one game card is quite a feat, and the downloading parties have only the loss of commentary and music to bemoan. Or, in this case, celebrate. You can even use AI opponents to plug the gaps in your starting grid if you're particularly suicidal. And even though we think it's a badly designed racing game for the most part, when every party is suffering the game's problems simultaneously it's something of a leveller.
Furthermore, despite the level of ranting and raving this game fostered in us (and, believe us, the severity of abuse was so acute that our neighbours probably recalled the time we played the last level of The Getaway on PS2), we still can't help turning on the DS to play it every now and again, perhaps while we're waiting for a file to upload, or an email to come back. It fills the time - so often badly, and with malice aforethought, but it does. Whack on a track that doesn't involve too much drifting - preferably in Time Attack mode so there are no other cars around - and you can even derive quite a lot of pleasure from just whizzing around without too much incident.
Still, it isn't going to take much to top it. There's just too much about it that gets up our nose, and however much we jam our finger up there trying to straighten it out, favouring the outside line or not, it still slides back and forth just out of reach. Which seems like a suitably unpleasant metaphor to close on.
As a port of an N64 game, Ridge Racer DS is another example of the technical burden the DS can happily shoulder. It runs at a solid 30 frames per second throughout, and looks exactly like it used to do. As a product in its own right though, it's beset on all sides by problems. The course design lacks variation and is too restrictive with no room for error; error which is piled on regardless courtesy of poor collision detection, awkward controls, and an unreasonable difficulty curve that slopes too far upwards too soon - regardless of whether you have less trouble with the drifting mechanics than we did. Racing games, particularly quick-fix arcade racing games, shouldn't be this frustrating, and no game should ever kill you off with design failings more than it knocks you back when your skills are in question. Yet, wireless multiplayer aside, we can't help but feel that's the only thing Ridge Racer DS particularly excels at.