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22 Features

History Lesson: Ridge Racer

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 27th Apr 2014 at 10:00 AM BST

In the past ten years or so, racing games have become so serious.

These days it's all about getting under the hood and tinkering with options without having any idea what they do, adjusting your ride's paint job, escaping the cops, or flipping fools' wigs back in totally rad street races. 'Arcade racer' is a label that barely has any meaning any more. 'Simulation', it seems, is the word of the day.

Ridge Racer, meanwhile, is an homage to the ludicrous. It's all about insane sideways drifting, wildly improbable speeds, huge nitrous boosts and gaily inane voice acting.

And because of all of that, in the same way as Mario Kart, it's got millions of fans who don't give a fig about gear ratios and engine capacities and all that other stuff that gets in the way of pressing an accelerator button and going very, very fast indeed. Braking for corners is a foreign concept in Ridge Racer's world.

In many ways, it's the original racing game. The series basically defines the term 'arcade racer'. It's been around since most of us can remember, and has proven itself evergreen - every time a new generation of technology crests the horizon, there's been a new Ridge Racer to show it off. It's become a real games industry tradition... until this generation, of course.

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The first Ridge Racer started life as a literal arcade cabinet back in 1993, before that concept died an ignoble death. There was also a very rare and very ridiculous Full Scale version, where you actually sat inside a Mazda and controlled the game with the steering wheel and pedals.

It featured a slim but varied selection of cars, three simple courses and a Mirror mode. Over the course of Ridge Racer's history, that course and car selection have expanded further and further, but other than that, it really hasn't changed all that much with the exception of the odd extra feature like nitrous.

It's all about speed, you see. As series producer Yozo Sakagami once explained in an Iwata Asks interview, speed is the at the heart of pure racing, and things like realistic damage, items and aggressive AI drivers, in his view, just get in the way.

"It's a simple word, but we aim for speed - and the exhilaration that comes from that speed is where it all begins," he said. "There are other racing games, but most are driving games or simulation games, and they have their own appeal, but we want a game that will sweep you up in its speed.

"Ridge Racer began as an arcade game, and I view it as the origin of racing games. I've tried to pack in everything that's fun, so I want players to fully enjoy the sense of speed that is the basic component of a genuine racing game."

The series got really famous when the arcade original was ported to PlayStation, just in time for the machine's Japanese launch at the end of 1994. The emphasis on speed and polish was ideal for showing off the new console's graphical power, and it was one of the first games that allowed you to play with a custom CD soundtrack - though Namco's own super high-octane Japanese techno was so good there's no way you would want to.

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That was the start of the Ridge Racer tradition of launching alongside new consoles, particularly Sony ones. After the original PlayStation, it went on to launch with PlayStation 2 (Ridge Racer V), PSP and Xbox 360 (Ridge Racer 6), PS3 (Ridge Racer 7) and Vita. Indeed, the PlayStation 4 is the only Sony system in history not to launch with a Ridge Racer game.

It also crossed over to the world of Nintendo, appearing on N64 and GameCube. It even continued its 'launch game' tradition when Ridge Racer 3D was released alongside the 3DS.

Unlike many other racing games, Ridge Racer has always been economical with its tracks - the first game had only three of them, not counting their mirrored counterparts, and even the 3DS version limits the selection to 30. Ridge Racer 7 had just 21. But this means that, over the years, these tracks have become iconic, appearing time and time again in new versions and looking better every time.

The courses themselves are wide, looping affairs, usually surrounded by beautiful neon cities or winding mountain environments. They're all designed around drifting, and tuned to perfect the sense of speed. Ridge Racer's courses serve the same function as Mario's characters or Street Fighter's combatants - they're instantly recognisable to fans, and endow each new Ridge Racer instalment with a warm, nostalgic glow.

For over 20 years, Ridge Racer has embodied the core principles of racing: speed, simplicity and elegant, even minimalist design. Though it seems Namco has been trying to 'rebrand' it recently and potentially harming what makes the series so well-loved in the process, we hope the Vita isn't the last new system to launch alongside this legendary game.

Take it to the Ridge

If you want to own the definitive collection of Ridge Racer console and handheld games, you're looking at a total of 16 titles.

Here's the complete history to act as a checklist, from the PlayStation original to the free-to-play nonsense released last year. Can the series find its feet (or, indeed, its wheels) once more? Time will tell.

Additional reporting: Chris Scullion