Culture, Gaming

Replay: Ridge Racer (PSP)

Ridge Racer (PSP), Namco, asset 03 (1280x720)Publisher: Namco  Developer: Namco  Format: PSP  Release: 2004, 2005 (US, EU)

When it launched alongside Sony’s first handheld game system in December 2004, Ridge Racer for PSP was a game out of its time. It was Namco’s attempt to recreate the technological leap that the series had signalled a decade earlier on the original PlayStation. It was also the Japanese development team’s chance to push against the current in the globalised racing market and reclaim its relevance. And it was a proposal that simple, neatly executed ideas were the ones that would work best on Sony’s powerful handheld.

The PSP was a hotbed for returns, remasters and reboots of series in its early years. Many notable PS1 franchises, such as Wipeout, Twisted Metal, Ape Escape and MediEvil, all had PSP iterations out to rekindle the flame of past glories, and welcome new players. But it was Ridge Racer that perhaps faced the steepest challenge. Absent since its spotty arrival on the PS2 in 2000, Namco’s racing series had stalled. With the exception of Burnout and Mario Kart, arcade racing was increasingly out of vogue. RR’s staple gameplay – accelerate into the turn, angle up, drift around the turn at impossible velocity and repeat – had lost its appeal. Meanwhile, the likes of Gran Turismo, Need for Speed and TOCA Race Driver lavished audiences with more realistic driving stimulations, real-world cars and career modes with more challenges than there are days in the year.

Cars, or machines as they are referred to in Ridge Racer, vary from ones with restrained drifting capabilities to ones which are easy to put into drifts, yet harder to line up, making the higher tours a challenge simply to maintain the optimum racing line

Led by game director Masaya Kobayashi and producer Isao Nakamura, Namco’s answer was to make Ridge Racer feel fresh again by doubling down on the series’ core tenants: pinball-fast speed, mesmeric music and arcade purity. Its 12 courses, chosen from previous titles, including the arcade-only, Rave Racer, reflected this sensibility. Seaside Route 765, the very first course from the 1994 original, offers a well-balanced introduction. Downtown Rave City, with its towering, Tokyo metropolis and neon-lit tunnels, is a graphical spectacle for the PSP. While the snaking corners of Union Hill District and Greenpeak Highlands are prime for revitalising the series’ rollercoaster gameplay.

Ridge Racer for PSP wasn’t meant to be a revolution: it was an evolution in the form of a ‘best of’ collection. And the music and gameplay continued what began with its clever course selection.

Ridge Racer (PSP) 01, cockpit (480x272)
The addition of nitrous boosts – charged by performing high-speed drifts – added a fresh dimension to Ridge Racer’s gameplay and gave new players reason to master the art of drift racing

Going sideways never looked so stunning
Immersing yourself in Ridge Racer’s world tour is easy to do thanks to its pulsating soundtrack. From the control room-esque beeps, whirrs and stopwatch ticks of ‘Departure Lounge’, to the aerodynamic techno of ‘Night Stream’, and 28 other hyperactive tunes, some newly created, some remixed classics, RR’s arcade racing experience is made several magnitudes better because of a soundtrack pitched to reflect each high and hairpin bend of your circuit life.

And as abstract as that life maybe, Ridge Racer for PSP was precisely the opposite of the dull, sterile world simulation racing games regularly presented. It was stylish, as well as inviting, without being overbearing. Each car wore the game’s charm on its ever-colourful chassis. And it ran at a captivating 60 frames per second. Simple controls – just three buttons, plus the nitrous boost, charged by executing well-timed drifts – meant adjusting to Ridge Racer’s particular racing nuance was more accessible than it had ever been. And yet, the game retained enough depth for racing fanatics to plough hours into.

Ridge Racer launched alongside Sony’s PSP in Japan (titled Ridge Racers) on December 12, 2004, followed by North America and Europe in 2005. Praised as a technical showpiece for Sony’s handheld, the game went on to become one of the PSP’s best-selling titles (one in five people picked up the game at PSP’s UK launch on September 1, 2005). Namco had achieved the improbable by reviving its flagging racing franchise. The series would go on to continue its hot-streak with launch titles for the Xbox 360 and PS3. Though the more recent 3DS and PS Vita entries have soured the series’ image, its PSP edition is still held in high esteem.

From the sparkling smile of series mascot, Reiko Nagase, to the quick-fire courses and pick-up-and-play structure, there are no lows in Ridge Racer for PSP. Only an enticement to retry with the knowledge that, with each lap, the symbiosis between you, your handheld and the thumping rhythms in your ears is growing steadily. Victory is assured. It’s only a matter of when and which of the sublime tunes will cheer you over the finish line.

Ego boost

Ridge Racer (PSP) 05, replay (480x272)The game’s post-race replay mode was a surprisingly absorbing distraction. The lighting effects, cutting-edge for a handheld at the time, and the game’s 60 fps speed were translated beautifully by dynamic camera angles. The thrill of arcade racing is solidified in the act of witnessing your car’s rear end kick out as the machine skids around a bent at absurd velocity. And Ridge Racer bends physics to the absolute limit. The result of this is that, more often than not, your on-track drifting skills look twice as good seen from the chase cam of a virtual helicopter as they do from behind the wheel. Still, for as much ego-stroking as RR does, wise drivers keep their gloating in check, lest they get their backside handed to them racing against another human player or, worse still, by the game’s higher level AI drivers.

For more gaming retrospectives, see my Replay archive.

Images: Namco/Bandai Namco