Rage Racer: Point of Divergence

While the arcade installment Ridge Racer 2 and its home conversion of sorts Ridge Racer Revolution went in slightly different directions, it was the third “generation” of Ridge Racer games where the two approaches finally diverged completely.

1995’s third arcade installment Rave Racer again acted as more of an evolution from the previous games, featuring more detailed graphics and a couple of new tracks as well as the circuits from the original Ridge Racer. Notably, it was also the first Ridge Racer game to put a strong emphasis on a female “mascot” character in its epilepsy-inducing attract mode; some conjecture this is actually the first appearance of longtime series “image girl” Reiko Nagase, though the hotpants-clad polygonal model doesn’t look a lot like how we came to know and love her in later installments.

1996’s Rage Racer, meanwhile, was a complete reinvention for home systems, featuring an actual single-player “campaign” of sorts to work through, with gradual progression and car upgrades as well as the abandoning of arcade game conventions such as tight time limits and checkpoints with which to extend it. The immediacy was still there, but now the game wanted to keep you in your seat for more than five minutes at a time.

Rage Racer’s Grand Prix mode sees you forming your own racing team, which you can name whatever you like (within a rather restrictive character limit) and promote with your own custom pixel-art design on the bonnet if you have the patience to draw something with a limited selection of colours and a PlayStation controller. (Or indeed just clumsily scrawl a knob or obscenity on your car for childish comedy value.) From here, it’s up to you to work your way through five classes of race to prove you really are the ragiest Rage Racer there ever was.

Although the game features five classes of race, the selection of tracks is still fairly limited. This time there are four in total, only three of which are available in the first two classes, along with the usual reversed versions unlocking later in a special “Extra GP” mode. In typical Ridge Racer fashion, most of these courses consist of alternative routes around the same map, and indeed the divergence points are made pretty obvious in this installment by large, prominent junction signs showing you which way to go.

The courses themselves are a lot more aggressive-feeling than the previous games, appropriately enough for a game with “Rage” in its title. There are lots of steep hills to climb, crests to leap over and tight corners to drift around; there’s a pleasantly intense feeling of really slamming your car around the corners and pushing the engine to its limits on the straightaways. They’re a lot of fun to drive around, and a nice change from Ridge Racer and Revolution’s tracks.

The aggressive feeling carries across to the tone of the whole experience, too. Right from the CG intro, it’s clear we’re dealing with a game with a certain amount of “attitude” to it; if Ridge Racer was a polite youngster keen to impress, Rage Racer is an angsty teenager. The colours are darker and more muted, the overall “look” is more realistic and even the voiceover (which we can assume to be Nagase, though it seems somewhat out of character with her subsequent depictions) urges you to “teach this sucker a lesson” rather than whooping and hollering like the hyperactive announcer from the original games.

The artificial intelligence of your fellow racers is noticeably more aggressive than in previous installments, too. Overtake a rival and you’ll see them struggling to get past you again, keen to take advantage of any mistakes you might make. They’ll get in the way on tight sections of course and be in just the wrong place as you slide around a corner, meaning you’ll have to time your manoeuvres carefully to succeed and come out on top.

Aside from simply working your way through the five classes of race, the main longevity of Rage Racer comes from collecting and upgrading all the available cars. Much as in previous installments, each car manufacturer has its own “specialism” in terms of performance — the car you start with is balanced, then there’s a manufacturer that focuses on handling, another for acceleration and another for top speed. The manual even explicitly states that you will need the latter for the later fourth track, which is simply a high-speed oval, but this brings up another point, too; different cars are “better” for different classes and tracks, so it’s in your interests to experiment a bit in order to get the best possible result.

You’ll need to earn money to do anything, however, so you’re stuck with the basic car to begin with. That said, this is more than enough to beat Class 1 with, particularly as you can customise its handling to a certain degree through a slider that adjusts whether it errs more on the side of “grip” or “drift” handling, as seen more explicitly in later installments in the series with cars that were fixed one way or the other.

Earning money is achieved through podium finishes in the races of a particular class. You have a limited number of chances to record a podium finish in all of the races, and you move on to the next class once you have a suitable result in all the races of that class, but before that happens you can repeat races you’ve already beaten in order to improve your result or just to grind for more money. You can even upgrade your car to a class higher than the one you are currently competing in, though you won’t unlock the trophy for that class of Grand Prix if you do so. You will still get the money for finishing and advance to the next class, however, so whether or not you resort to this will depend on how much of a completionist you are, or how much you value pixelated shiny things.

Money can be spent on new cars or upgrading your existing cars, with the latter costing considerably more for each subsequent class you upgrade it by. There’s theoretically nothing stopping you upgrading the starter car through to an endgame monstrosity, but it will be very expensive to do so, and much more practical to simply buy cars of the appropriate level as they become available.

One thing that is a little frustrating about this system is that once you clear a class of Grand Prix, its “level” of cars appear to no longer be available for purchase, so if you miss out on a trophy because you didn’t know about the “don’t upgrade your car” rule (and the game doesn’t make this clear as you play, it only tells you in the manual), you can’t go back, buy a crap car and repeat the class. You can repeat the races to just earn money, but the trophy is beyond your reach until you start a new game, which is a bit of a bummer — though that said, playing through all five classes doesn’t take that long in total, so the game is clearly built to be replayed in the pursuit of better results, so this approach is presumably intentional.

Rage Racer is an obvious advance from the format set by the original Ridge Racer games and an important installment for a number of reasons. As we’ve already discussed, it marks the divergence between the home and arcade versions of the series and is the first official appearance of Reiko Nagase, but it’s also the first game to feature Namco’s new sound team led by Tetsukazu Nakanishi and Hiroshi Okubo, and we can already hear hints of what would become the distinctive late ’90s “Namco sound” in Rage Racer’s Red Book audio. This particular audio aesthetic would become most immediately identifiable in later games such as 1998’s Ridge Racer Type-4 and Anna Kournikova’s Smash Court Tennis, but it’s clear from Rage Racer’s soundtrack that the seeds have already been planted for the distinctive blend of funk, jazz and electronic dance music late ’90s Namco would become known and loved for.

It’s also an installment in the series that tends not to get a lot of attention, perhaps because it occupies a curious middle ground between a complete reinvention and the limited content of the earlier games. Indeed, its reception was somewhat split on its original release, with outlets such as IGN criticising the fact that, although a solid racer, it didn’t feel like a huge advancement over the original games, and GameSpot’s Jeff Gerstmann noting that it still featured the unrealistic collisions from the earlier installments in which computer-controlled cars tended to always come off better in a crash.

Type-4, as we’ll explore shortly, is obviously a much better realisation of what Namco was aiming for with a specific-to-home Ridge Racer title, but Rage Racer remains enjoyable and playable in its own right. Its aggressive racing is fun, its rollercoaster tracks are enjoyable to drive around and its structured experience combines the pick-up-and-play immediacy of its predecessors with some much-needed depth.

It’s an interesting curiosity if nothing else, and remains historically significant even if it tends not to be remembered quite so fondly as some of the other installments in the series.


More about the Ridge Racer series

Header art by Kei Yoshimizu [Keica] from Rage Racer Remix: The 20th Anniversary Sounds album.

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4 thoughts on “Rage Racer: Point of Divergence”

  1. I’m lucky enough to own this one, which the cover-art geek in me is very proud of. Not sure about other regions – but the NTSC-U/C release of Rage Racer remains one of my favorite presentations on the PS1. A blurred track backdrop, with the game’s distinct red and gold logo, and the title in raised gold foil. It feels like buying an expensive car.

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    1. The PAL one is pretty similar in terms of design, but I don’t think it has the fancy-pants gold foil. Also my copy is slightly water damaged and has a scratched disc that plays havoc with all the music except the first track, so I may replace it at some point in the near future 🙂

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