1998’s Ridge Racer Type 4 is the quintessential PS1 game.
Perfectly embodying the spirit of late ’90s “cool” that Sony was so keen to pursue with its platform, particularly in the West, the game is also a showcase for exactly what the humble PlayStation was capable of in its later years as well as a perfect balance between widespread accessibility and hardcore long-term challenge.
In short, it’s a comprehensive realisation of what Namco had wanted to achieve with the home versions of the Ridge Racer series ever since Revolution, and one of the most consistently enjoyable arcade racers ever created.
From the opening video featuring Reiko Nagase, it’s clear that we’re in for a different experience to usual here. For starters, the game opens with a “cast list” just like a movie, which immediately sets it apart from its rather “faceless” predecessors, and the short film goes on to feature a gloriously ’90s theme song sung by Kimara Lovelace. The tone is established from the start to be simultaneously somewhat cheesy but also effortlessly stylish and “of its time”.
The sense of style isn’t confined purely to the intro sequence, either. There’s a consistent feeling throughout the whole game that it’s been designed to have a coherent audio-visual aesthetic, and it’s certainly striking. The bold black-on-yellow of the menu screens, accompanied by understated but nonetheless memorable music. The blurring tail-lights on loading screens, a look which continues across into the game itself with its use of motion blur on the cars’ lights. The stylised character portraits. The animated transitions between interface screens. Delicious.
Before I drown in a puddle of my own drool over the game’s aesthetic, let’s back up a moment for the sake of those people who may have come to the series a little later or who — God forbid — are completely unfamiliar with the marvel that is Ridge Racer Type 4.
Ridge Racer Type 4 builds on what Rage Racer started by building its core experience around a substantial single-player offering. Rather than offering a single “campaign” as in its predecessor, however, Ridge Racer Type 4 instead encourages repeated playthroughs in several ways in order to unlock all its content.
When starting a new Grand Prix mode game, you have the choice of four racing teams to join. These correspond to the overall difficulty of the Grand Prix, but also feature a different character that you interact with between races, and a different storyline to follow. Easy difficulty sees you joining Team Mappy, for example, a French team run by a rich young woman with something to prove to her rather overbearing father; Normal difficulty, conversely, sees you joining the fallen-from-grace Pac Racing Club as its manager attempts to atone for the death of his teammate in the past.
The storyline doesn’t get in the way — and can easily be skipped for those who just want to get to the racing — but help provide a nice sense of context to what you are doing, and give the races some real meaning. This is further helped by the fact that the game depicts the whole eight-race Grand Prix season as unfolding on specific dates at specific times over the course of the year 1999, with the final race of the whole thing taking place just before midnight on the 31st of December.
In a surprisingly symbolic moment, you find yourself crossing the line for the last time in a playthrough just as the ball drops and the year 2000 arrives, complete with fireworks and celebrations. Taken in the context of the stories you’ve experienced up until that point — and the fact that the default music for this race is a remix of the Lovelace-fronted theme song — there’s a pleasing sense of “finality” and drama to this race, something which is often lacking from racing games that play themselves more straight.
As we’ve noted, though, Ridge Racer Type 4 is far from a once-and-done sort of game, even with this dramatic finish. Not only are you encouraged to play through each of the four team storylines at least once, you also have the choice of four car manufacturers to choose from at the start of each playthrough, with different cars unlocking at key points in the overall progression according to your prior performance. Consistently take first place and you’ll get the best possible cars for subsequent heats. Scrape by and just about qualify and the money men for your team won’t be quite so willing to cough up the money for the latest and greatest hardware, so you’ll have to work with what you have.
In total there are over 300 variations of car to unlock, with over 40 unique car models. In order to acquire them all, you need to play all four stories with all four manufacturers enough times to get every possible combination of qualifying and winning positions, then complete the four manufacturers’ “Extra Trial” modes, which pit you against outlandish and experimental cars that have jet engines or the ability to hover. And your reward for all that? You get to race in an awesome Pac-Man car.
These unlockable cars don’t unbalance the main game, since you’re restricted to using whatever your team provides you at any given moment during the Grand Prix mode. In the Time Trial, two-player Versus mode or Extra Trial modes, however, you’re free to choose any of the cars from those you have unlocked, so there’s plenty of longevity to the game even once you’ve unlocked everything as you try to get to grips with a wide variety of different machines. They can also be used as an impromptu “handicapping” system in two-player races, or simply to see if a normal car that is actually capable of turning corners can stand up to something that has a jet engine on the back of it.
In the races themselves, Ridge Racer Type 4 is sublime. The drift handling has been considerably refined and toned down from the rather aggressive Revolution and Rage Racer, and the course design has been set up with wide, dramatic drifts in mind, with the most drift-friendly corners actually featuring a bit of extra space around their peripheries for you to slide your back end across. This is a welcome addition, as Revolution and Rage Racer’s hard drifting worked with those games’ relatively narrow tracks and sharp corners in mind; by contrast, Ridge Racer Type 4’s drifting feels much more smooth and natural.
At least part of this improved feeling is helped by the switch to full analogue control using either the DualShock pad or Namco’s own JogCon device, whereas prior installments had only used the digital D-pad on conventional pads or Namco’s rather peculiar analogue “twisty controller”, the neGcon (pronounced “neh-jee-con”, if you were wondering, because I certainly was). Since the DualShock was rapidly becoming the new standard for PlayStation controls by this point in the system’s lifespan, analogue steering was finally in the grasp of most players without requiring particularly specialist hardware, and it really helped the overall “feel” of Ridge Racer Type 4 for the better.
Eight different tracks is still relatively limited compared to many more recent racing games, but Type 4’s circuits are varied, interesting and hugely enjoyable to drive around, even once you know them inside out. Rather than confining itself strictly to urban racing around the fictional Ridge City, Type 4 instead sends you to a number of different locations around the world, including street racing, drifting around mountain roads and circuit racing. The different times of day and seasons in which the races unfold give each track a unique identity — even those which are different routes around an environment you’ve previously seen — and the series’ trademark dynamic background scenery means there’s a feeling of “life” to the circuits that is lacking from many more po-faced modern driving games.
This feeling of life and joyful exuberance that the game exudes from every pore is helped enormously by the incredible soundtrack, which is perhaps the most iconic example of Namco’s distinctive late ’90s sound. Blending elements of jazz, funk, soul, house and techno into the mix at various points, the music still holds up extremely well today; while very “’90s” at times, particularly any time Lovelace’s vocals are sampled, it’s still eminently listenable and tuneful — certainly much more so than the rather cacophonous early ’90s techno of the earlier Ridge Racer games, much of which is quite hard to listen to now.
The game still looks good, too. While obviously pushing the poor PlayStation to its limits, particularly in the colour palette department — there’s pretty much no part of the screen that isn’t covered with heavy dithering during a race, a fact that is particularly apparent on modern displays — its performance is consistently solid and, while not a silky-smooth 60fps like many racing fans demand today, certainly more than enough to enjoy the game, and definitely a far cry from Namco’s struggles to get the original arcade game running acceptably on the PlayStation back in the early days.
In fact, as a rather smug demonstration of how far things had come since the original Ridge Racer, Type 4 shipped with an extra disc called the Ridge Racer Hi-Spec Demo, which featured a cut-down version of the original game running in the PlayStation’s high-resolution mode at 60 frames per second, just for the hell of it. This bonus means that the entire Type 4 package is a nice testament to exactly what the PlayStation and its developers achieved over its lifespan — not to mention one of the very best games the system has to offer that still plays very well from a modern perspective.
For many, Ridge Racer Type 4 remains the series’ high point, even two decades after its original release, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s one of the most polished, most coherent-feeling experiences on the PlayStation platform — hell, possibly ever — and a game that is backed up by solid, timeless mechanics and a ton of longevity.
It’s certainly a game I regularly enjoy going back to, even despite its technological limitations, and one I anticipate I will continue to enjoy for many years to come. If you haven’t yet experienced the joy of Type 4 and appreciate a good arcade racer, you really do owe it to yourself to play one of the best of all time.
More about the Ridge Racer series
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