Sony's PlayStation and Namco's Ridge Racer
have gone side-by-side through history. When the original PlayStation game system needed a champion to demonstrate where this 3D system was going to take gaming, Namco brought over its amazing new arcade Ridge Racer
to the console. And when the PlayStation 2 needed a showcase star to help this system instantly slam the door on any competition, Namco brought its star Ridge Racer
back out as a show car setting the pace lap. The game has never really been an out-and-out system seller -- the original RR
was grinding itself out without having more tracks to race, and the PS2 game was quickly overshadowed by GT3
as jeers of "Ridged Racer" followed the early launch effort. But Ridge Racer
has always been there, and the loyal fanbase that PlayStation has earned over the years built much of its dedication on top of a special affection for this racing game.
That passion is about to be rewarded in a big way -- the third PlayStation gaming system is the PlayStation Portable, and naturally, Namco is there with a Ridge Racer launch title. It's not only one of the very best games in the PSP launch line up, but it's new gameplay mechanism and all-encompassing compilation of tracks, it offers some of the most raw fun you will have gotten out of this series' entire run.
For the PSP game, Namco added a layer of shine on the series by shifting the gameplay to make more out of the drift mechanism that the game is best known for. Sliding through curves and slipping the back wheels into a skid on a straightaway used to be just for kicks, but now, you earn power for your Nitro Gauge when you drift. Build up enough and you can kick on a speed boost to power you through the course. It's a mechanism that made long-time aficionados fear this game had fallen off that line Ridge Racer walks between real racing tension and goofy arcade play. In play, however, the Nitro system reinvigorates the game and still maintains the balance. You'll never get that tremendous break-away speed out of a Nitro boost that you would in racing games dependent on a turbo system -- this isn't a Mario Kart mushroom -- and it's not even enough speed to out-and-out dust opponents. You can never depend on a full set of Nitros for the win. It's just enough speed to feel fast and to get your blood going for the intense curves ahead. And while the speed increase can give you the edge, getting that boost charged up can cost you. You lose momentum slightly every second you're sliding (and can really wipe yourself out if you lose control of a drift or come out of it with a fishtail), while driving full-on feels like you are ever-accelerating. It's fun as hell to keep the tail whipped through a giant corkscrew turn, but if you come out in the end with a 20 or 30 MPH dropped off speedometer, you may not get back what it cost you with the Nitro earned.
Handling on the PlayStation Portable game is sharp and smooth. The analog nub on PSP will likely take lumps for its handling in racing games until developers perfect the programming curve needed to feel right with the short stick, but that's not a problem here at all. Partly, that's because the developers avoided any conflicts -- the analog controller responds almost entirely digitally, leaving the steering to your ability to manage drifts and cling to race lines. It's much less of a trade-off than it sounds -- neGcons and Jogcons are great collectibles, but this racing series never got much out of them, and was perfected on a D-Pad (RRV on PS2 was just as tight with a D-Pad, and often preferred.) The response curve is what gives the game its feel with either the D-Pad or the analog controller (a balance that NTS never got right with the recent Ridge Racer DS, and kept getting away from with every analog trick it tried.) Both analog controller and D-Pad methods of control are nicely tuned for trustworthy handling at high speeds -- some of our editors preferred the quick whip of the analog pad, while the D-Pad's placement better suited others. Being that this series is one of the few arcade-style racing games that's made even more fun by the challenge added with manual transmission shifting, the racing thrill is equal to any console Ridge Racer title.
Collecting tracks from all around the Ridge Racer franchise, the PSP edition puts together a complete package that celebrates the series. Tracks from each edition of the franchise are present (including a few only seen in arcades), plus four new tracks added to the PSP edition. Mirrored courses are counted as tracks, so the full slate comes up short of impressive, but what's here is prime material from the series. Certain courses build off of previous tracks, sharing a few curves but expanding roads out where barriers once were to roll out on entirely new sections of track and brand new moments of visual splendor. Our only knock on the package is that Namco stopped well short of mining all the possibilities laid out in this collection. The World Tour mode winds you through the game's tracks through Basic, Pro, EX, and finally the new MAX Tour routes, but almost all of the races are just battles through a common field of 12 racers. Variety doesn't come in until you have worn many of these tracks ragged -- the progression through stages is padded out way too far, with the Basic tour slogging through too many forced stages before more experienced players can move on to the harder tours and the more challenging face-offs further down the line. The Custom Tour seemed a novel method of managing limited time on a bus ride, but the lap-count rules still don't change (it just amasses a random count of stages, based on how long each takes to finish), so you might as well just put time into progressing through the game's main tours until you're finished or stuck. The game feels like well-enough was left alone, when there was plenty of room for a quicker progression system with options to play through the entire tour for bonuses and additional cars.
What you can't fault is the design quality of the visual presentation. Namco set a quality bar with Ridge Racer on PSP that even big-budget games from developers with more time since the Japanese PSP launch are struggling to match. This game books along at a whipping framerate that never hitches, and the sensation of speed on the in-the-car view feels fast even in the dawdling early cars. Namco puts on its usual show of effects and tricks, with highlight mapping on buildings and gorgeous lighting effects on the cars themselves. A few programming tricks have been sacrificed -- that well-known RR big-screen monitor found on walls in a few courses is instead turned into an animating billboard, and the low-res reflection maps rendered onto the cars show some chunky dithering when the cars are standing still. But the PSP's screen keeps up without issue at incredible speeds, and aside from some slight smearing in tight pans, the replay footage makes a good facsimile of a real race on the small screen. Of course, it's Namco's design skills at making this series look more real than reality that really sells the game. The color palette drapes every stage in beautiful hues, and the details of flair are characteristically charming -- no matter how many times you've whizzed by the 3D cows or seen the seaplane take off to buzz the course, the effects still catch your eye and give you warm feelings all over. That chic design also carries over to the musical collection. You might need a break from the hyper-active announcer after a while (and have the option to turn him off in the main menu), but with 30 tunes that include remixes and original versions of Ridge Racer classics, plus an endearingly manic new first theme, the game is its own soundtrack for some of gaming's most memorable tunes.
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