1995 was an exciting time for video game fans. Optical storage media felt like it was the first step into a laser-based future, every 2D game was made by people with years of experience in the craft, and every 3D game seemed to be bursting with enthusiasm for this underexplored frontier. The future really was now, as SNK used to say.
At this point in time one of the most stunning 3D games on the planet, a herald of the 32-bit revolution arriving in homes all over the globe, was (and still is) a PlayStation exclusive.
£299.99 for the console, £39.99 for the game.
A few cables plugged into the biggest TV in the house and…
Galaxian pops up, beepy boops and all. This is, quite literally, not what we paid for.
I am of course talking about the bold (and once patented) load-distracting start to Ridge Racer; the PlayStation’s launch day port of Namco’s flagship arcade game, the daring newcomer trying to snatch Sega’s racing crown, the key player in Sony’s fight to prove their new and then unproven hardware (how strange it feels to write that in 2022) wasn’t only able to compete with Sega’s Saturn but totally outclass it.
Against all common sense, this unusual introduction to a brave new world of gaming worked. I remember being in awe of this cutting-edge format, one so generous and technologically impressive Namco were able to chuck in eleven playable seconds of an older arcade game in as quick bonus. The fact that what I did in this entirely separate minigame could unlock extra features in the main game felt like nothing short of witchcraft.
Then comes Ridge Racer proper, a flag bearing the game’s logo our title screen. This is probably the only moment the game’s quiet, content to let this incredible scene do all the talking. I know it sounds ridiculous to talk about something that’s now so ordinary (and was always easily skipped) in this way but it’s true, this really was a watershed moment in gaming. Ridge Racer made its home debut before Chrono Trigger in Japan and yet this console game was able to display a real-time 3D flag, one moving in an unseen (or with various button combos, user controlled) breeze and bearing a texture map of such high quality it could show readable curved lettering. That’s a phenomenal achievement.
This brief period of quite awe is soon smashed by a riot of sound and colour as Ridge Racer effortlessly spirits us away to a high speed tour of its unforgettable track, the quickfire back-and-forth between sweeping aerial shots and bumper-close camera angles working in perfect harmony to show off the game’s long draw distance and fine detail respectively. We zoom past the waterfall, perhaps catching a glimpse of the helicopter or the plane as we go, before we return to the long start/finish straight with the shining glass-fronted skyscraper looming in the distance. “We want you to feel like this when you race with us“ says Ridge Racer, every curve in the attract sequence skidded around sideways at full speed.
Ridge Racer is always ready to put on a show, a single lap turning blue skies into warm orange hues before stars appear in the night sky, Pac-Man’s face smiling back at you from the side of a hotel as you zoom past the coastline in the dark. The extended section of the track used in the advanced and time trial difficulty levels is literally under construction, it’s unfinished state almost implying that Namco had to hastily cook up something extra just to challenge you. The tight bends, claustrophobic high walls, and machinery create the perfect contrast to the relaxing seaside palms and wide roads found elsewhere. Even the announcer gets in on the act, his infectious enthusiasm always on hand to compliment your driving prowess or warning of upcoming problems as he talks over an energetic soundtrack that can only be described as the best 90’s night out you never went to.
Every show must have a star, and in Ridge Racer is the mysterious jet black car waiting to surprise Extra mode time trial players. It’s the fastest thing out there and a real pain to beat, but what makes it so memorable is how much personality it has. This car may be in the race but it doesn’t bother lining up on the grid with everyone else – with you – instead it’s parked up on the side of the road just ahead and has the sheer cheek to let you drive past before making a move, screaming off into the distance and daring you to catch it if you can.
As impeccable as the presentation is it’s the layout of the track itself that keeps you coming back.
Like Devil Crash‘s perfect pinball table you neither notice or care how many are available in other games, because in that magical Ridge Racing moment you’re certain the course right in front of you is as good as racing games will ever get. How could anyone not want to race on this beautiful ribbon of asphalt, every curve and dip brought to life in different ways by the change in rhythm and speed between the basic and extended layouts, as well as Extra’s reverse mode?
Of course “racing” doesn’t mean the same thing as “handling like a real car” in Ridge Racer’s world, with neither the sliding or the collision detection making any effort whatsoever to mimic realistic car-to-road-to-car behaviour (the same can be said of Virtua Racing, Daytona USA, and really every other arcade racer from that era). It works because the rules are always clear and the reactions of your chosen vehicle – every last one of them plastered with happy callbacks to Namco’s successful past – are consistent. Rev your engine in a certain way to always get the best start. Tap-tap-tap around the corner (as nifty as they looked, nobody had a neGcon) the way you’ve done a hundred times before. That dependable “snap” back to normal control as you pull out of another physics-defying drift. It feels the way throwing a fast car around a street track should, your car lurching and leaning in a way that communicates rather than replicates the thrill of the race.
Ridge Racer’s an unbelievably important game, one that cemented Sony’s place as a serious contender in a console gaming market that was at the time groaning under the weight of the console-corpses of numerous “too big to fail” electronics manufacturers, confident underdogs, and long-established companies. It (and Tekken) put Namco in direct competition with Sega – back then an untouchable publisher who always made the best games with the hottest tech – in arcades all over the world, their “battle” shaping series (even entire genres) that are still going today. It’s a launch window game that feels as fresh as a daisy, even decades later.
But most of all it’s Ridge Racer. The sequels all went off in their own directions (most of them at least good), leaving this eternally colourful original not behind, but standing proud. If ever a game deserved to be called a timeless classic, it’s this one.