Racing Column

Racing Game of the Week #7: “R4: Ridge Racer Type 4” (1999)

“Ridge Racer,
Ridge Racer,
Ridge Racer”
– Phillip Turnipseed, “Ridge Racer – ‘One More Win'”

 

FF3-NES-WhiteMage1.png “The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage“.

It is the 16th April 1999. “Perfect Moment” by Martine McCutcheon is the UK No. 1 single. Life, produced by Brian Grazer and Eddie Murphy, opens at the top of the Northern American box office but will ultimately be a failure. Namco releases R4: Ridge Racer Type 4 for PlayStation in Europe.

The original Ridge Racer (1993) had made a lasting impact for the racing genre but its two sequels had come and gone because they were, arguably, too similar to it to stand out in their own right. When R4: Ridge Racer Type 4 was published, it debuted Namco’s JogCon controller, which adapted the design of a PlayStation DualShock to include a jogwheel that could be used for more accurate steering. Another innovation was the use of the PocketStation, which enabled player-to-player trading of unlocked cars and vinyls they’d custom designed. As we approached the new millennium, physical hardware was still very much alive and thriving, so your street cred was based on how much of it you had. This game and its accessories were a part of that; you could take your game data around with you to show off your cool designs and unlocks as a symbol of how good you are at the game. For adolescents, in the absence of actual cars or a real street racing culture, this was the next best thing. It was all about bragging rights that could help you climb the hierarchy of social capital and become the best player of a certain game in the whole neighbourhood.

Which explains the aesthetic of the game. It is one of the most beautiful video games ever designed, not just of its genre. On any track, there’s the temptation to slow down and appreciate the level of detail. And then there’s the cars themselves. No real manufacturers are featured in the game, so all the cars are original models. This turned out to be an advantage, because conceiving them from the ground up allowed them to be more consistent with the overall tone. They’re like concept cars never intended for mass production. The effect of all this is one of timelessness. The cars in the game never really existed, which means they don’t stamp a certain period on it. A game that was definitively of a certain era in its technology has turned out to still have lasting appeal. This is a game that could in fact be set in 2099; the cars do, after all, look like they’re from a sci-fi film set in the future – like the Assoluto Bisonte and Terrazi Troop featured on the cover – and the music is mostly instrumental electronic atmosphere (and can be selected during each race’s loading screen).

But it is set in 1999 – and I know that because each race begins with a date and time. Upon beginning the game, the player chooses from four teams that have their own logos, as well as the manufacturer that will sponsor them. The cars the player drives in the Grand Prix will thus be from their chosen manufacturer and will be emblazoned with their chosen team’s design. The Grand Prix consists of three heats, which themselves consist of eight races. Each heat is won by finishing in a specified qualifying position, such as the final heat being won only by winning first in each of its races. You get four attempts at each race. It’s deceptively simple to grasp.

So simple that there’s almost no progression whatsoever. The credits play as soon as you finish the Grand Prix, which can take less than an hour. After that, replaying the Grand Prix with other manufacturers feels like pure completionism. Of course, there are cars to unlock, and they’re delivered in a full motion video showing them being lowered down on a ramp from a transporter in a black void that becomes the car select screen. It’s pretty neat, but there are 320 of them to unlock in total, and they’re awarded based on your team, manufacturer and final race position, so to actually fill your garage you’ll need to play through the Grand Prix enough times to finish every race in every position with every combination of team and manufacturer.

That’s quite an interesting and unique approach to unlocks, isn’t it? Rewarding the player for sucking. But if you want to achieve the highest position amongst your school’s community of players by winning all nine trophies for these different combinations, it’s the only way. Most of the unlockable cars are just enhanced or modified variants of those you start with, but if you win them all, you unlock a special vehicle that only the most dedicated players can claim to own.

However, the single most annoying aspect of the game is the team manager. As much as the game shows off its platforms’ prowess, the time spent between races resembles a handheld role-playing game transposed onto a larger screen. Each team manager is represented by text that is typed beneath a highly pixelated render of them, like a dialogue scene from… well, you can figure that out for yourself.

They’ll comment on your driving after each race but it’s totally arbitrary. It’s all generic sports coach stuff that has no actual bearing on anything, yet pretends like it does. Also, after completing a Grand Prix, the manager’s character is given his own epilogue in one of those “where are they now?” sequences that play at the end of biopics, explaining just what happened to him. But as characters, they’re so inconsequential that it comes over as self-indulgent and pretentious, and – dare I say it? – bordering on parody.
The whole team manager thing is really not as interesting as it thinks it is. But it’s the only major criticism I have of the game.

The actual racing itself is brilliant. Because it’s Japanese, there’s the obligated emphasis on drifting, which is mostly where the JogCon comes in, allowing for more precise control when throwing the back end out. Due to this, the cars in the game are categorised into either drift or grip, depending on your preferred racing style, and this strikes a fine curve between arcade physics and realism that makes the game so replayable.

It’s this replayability that explains why it was the one racing game selected for inclusion on the PlayStation Classic. It makes perfect sense because it represents better than any other racing game what it was like to be a gamer in the late ’90s and early 2000s. When physical technology ruled the roost, mobile hardware was all the rage and the exchange of content had to be conducted in person. The sheen, the style, the coolness. The interpersonal value and the timeless urban futurist design. The accessories and attachments. Oh yeah. It’s all there in R4: Ridge Racer Type 4.


By the way, this is that special vehicle you unlock. This is what used to make one the envy of the estate:

 

The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.

 

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