Ridge Racer: Where it All Began

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Namco’s Ridge Racer may have declined somewhat in terms of popularity and relevance at the time of writing, but there’s little denying that during its heyday, this series was one of the most important franchises in gaming.

Most notably playing a significant role in solidifying the PlayStation’s position as the leading console of the 32-bit era in particular, the Ridge Racer series remains for many the benchmark to which all 3D arcade racers — a sadly dying breed — should be compared.

So where did this all start?

Pole Position

Before we get specifically into the first Ridge Racer, it’s worth taking a look back even further into the history of developer Namco, since arcade racers form an important part of its back catalogue, right back to the earliest days of gaming.

Perhaps most notably, Namco was responsible for 1982’s Pole Position, a game which defined many of the key features of 3D-style arcade racers that we took for granted throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

Pole Position incorporated both time trial and competitive racing gameplay. It required players to complete a qualifying lap before taking on a race against seven other cars around an adaptation of Japan’s Fuji Speedway racetrack. It implemented both the time trial and the race itself primarily through the use of a countdown timer — completing either of the events required you to ensure that this didn’t reach zero, and it could be extended by completing laps. This convention would remain an important part of arcade racers for several generations — these games needed a way to squeeze a few more quarters out of players, after all!

Pole Position II, effectively an expansion for the original game.

Pole Position provided players with a realistic (for the time) experience, featuring a steering wheel and pedal controls, smoothly scaling sprites to create a 3D effect, and the subsequently popular technique of using a swaying vanishing point on the road graphics to simulate driving “into” the screen and going around corners.

And it was seriously popular. 21,000 cabinets were sold in North America from its release up until the end of the following year, resulting in gross revenue of nearly $61 million (equivalent to about $151 million at the time of writing) from hardware sales alone… and that’s not even getting into how many quarters would have been fed into these machines during the height of their popularity.

Final Lap

Namco followed up Pole Position with a sequel in 1983, as well as numerous other titles throughout the ’80s and ’90s that showcased their improving hardware. Of particular note were the games in the Final Lap series, considered official successors to Pole Position, which incorporated multi-cabinet link-up play allowing up to eight people to race one another simultaneously — a revolutionary feature for the time.

1988 saw Namco release Winning Run, a racing game that used flat-shaded polygonal graphics rather than the simulated 3D of scaling sprites of earlier racers. The game predated Atari’s Hard Drivin’ by a year and Sega’s Virtua Racing by a full four years, making it one of the earliest full 3D driving games in arcades, and an extremely impressive technological accomplishment at the time — albeit one that is rather less well-known today than Sega’s title in particular.

Winning Run

In 1992, the same year Sega released Virtua Racing, Namco ran a location test for a game called Sim Drive. This would be the first title to use Namco’s new System 22 hardware, an arcade board which incorporated then-cutting edge graphics technology such as Gouraud shading (allowing for more realistic lighting effects using colour gradients), depth cueing (which ensures objects are displayed in the correct “order” and disappear behind things that are “in front” of them) and, perhaps most significantly, texture-mapped polygons.

Sim Drive was a quasi-sequel to Eunos Roadster Driving Simulator, an earlier game from 1990 that Namco had produced in collaboration with Mazda to promote the latter’s MX-5 vehicle. Ultimately Sim Drive never saw widespread release, though it did come to a few arcades across Japan throughout 1992 and enjoyed some positive press coverage. Mostly, however, it acted as a prototype for what would become Ridge Racer.

Developed in just eight months, Ridge Racer was originally intended to be a Formula 1 game similar to Winning Run, but was subsequently adapted to incorporate a then-growing trend among Japanese car enthusiasts that remains popular to this day: drift driving. Little concern was given to whether or not this would appeal to a worldwide audience; looking back on the game in conversation with Jonti Davies of Retro Gamer in 2015, designer Fumihiro Tanaka commented that it was “a naïve time” in which Japanese developers tended to just make games for an assumed generic audience of gamers rather than tailoring titles specifically to different markets.

Fortunately, as it happened, gamers around the world responded very positively indeed to Ridge Racer’s exaggerated drift handling and high-speed cornering as well as its cutting-edge visuals. It was a great fit for arcades, providing an exciting experience that — initially, at least — could not be recreated on the home systems of the time.

The PlayStation version of Ridge Racer that would go on to become so legendary was no straight port of the arcade game. The technical limitations of Sony’s home console compared to the System 22 board meant that the whole thing had to be reprogrammed from scratch rather than adapted, and ended up taking as much time to put together as the original arcade release. The team even went so far as to create their own graphics libraries for the game because they felt the ones provided by Sony were too limited; even then, the game had to be downscaled to a lower resolution than its arcade counterpart, and a considerably lower frame rate — 30fps for the NTSC version and 25fps for the PAL edition.

At the time, though, no-one really cared about all this, because even a slightly gimped version of Ridge Racer on your television was still absolutely gobsmacking. Previous generations of consoles had enjoyed arcade ports, but this was the closest home players had ever got to “the real thing” outside of investing in their own cabinet. And, despite the game’s limitations, which we’ll get to in a moment, it formed an important part of the PlayStation’s library in the early days.

The original Ridge Racer takes strong cues from Namco’s early arcade racers, with roots stretching all the way back to Pole Position. It features a countdown timer, opponents that are there primarily to get in the way as obstacles rather than be actual AI-driven competitors — indeed, you’ll notice despite supposedly being in a field of 12, many of your opponents are simply “pre-placed” later in the track to get in your way on later laps — plus a very limited selection of courses that you’re expected to learn inside out… and a strong, strong sense of immediacy.

This latter aspect is probably the main counter to the complaint that Ridge Racer only has two different tracks to race around (four if you count the reversed versions) — having its roots in the arcades, it was never intended to be something that you sit down and devote hours of your life to, hence its total lack of a persistent career mode or indeed any sort of progression beyond a few unlockable cars and the aforementioned reversed tracks.

Ridge Racer is a game that you boot up when you just want to race, and you don’t want to mess around with buying cars, buying parts, adjusting gear ratios and all that sort of thing. Load it up, jump in, hit Start, race. Simple as that. Immediately appealing. Hard to master. Incredibly addictive.

The PlayStation version in particular was clearly designed with this philosophy in mind, since despite a fairly lengthy initial load time (masked by a playable game of Namco classic shmup Galaxian while you wait — with the unlockable extra cars being immediately available if you “beat” the minigame) there are no subsequent load breaks during the game itself — the whole game is in memory, meaning you could whip out the CD and replace the game’s love-it-or-hate-it ’90s techno soundtrack with your own music. More importantly, you hit “Start” and you’re straight into a race with no waiting around. Impressive stuff.

The different cars in the game feature subtly different handling, with some being easier to throw into the game’s iconic drifts than others, and the course itself is set up to demand a combination of conventional cornering and crazy drifts to get the perfect racing line. And what a course; while, yes, you will get sick of it before long if you play the game a lot, there’s little denying that it has a whole lot of personality about it, with Ridge City and its surrounding environs forming a suitably iconic backdrop for the series as a whole, effectively acting as a “character” in its own right.

Ridge Racer was clearly designed to be a thrill ride as much as a fun driving game, with the course taking you through a number of different environments at different times of day across the various difficulty levels, and dynamic aspects to the scenery such as low-flying helicopters filming the action help the whole thing feel much more “alive” and exciting.

The amount of content in the game may be shockingly limited compared to what we’ve come to expect from full-price games today, the opponent AI may be non-existent, the cars may sound like vacuum cleaners, the lack of analogue controls on a standard joypad is initially offputting and the announcer’s voice might just be the most irritating sound in the world, but there’s little denying Ridge Racer remains a noteworthy and highly playable arcade racer — not to mention a title that would go on to be highly influential.

Is it still worth playing from a modern perspective? Absolutely; just go in with the right expectations. This isn’t a Forza or a Gran Turismo for you to invest hours, weeks, months, years into. This is a game that you fire up, play, enjoy, then forget about for a while before fancying another quick blast on a few months later. It’s simple, immediately appealing but tough to master, and just as fun now as it was back in the early ’90s.

More about the Ridge Racer series

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