When the first Ridge Racer released for the PSX, I was instantly hooked on the game. At that time, such speed, intensity, and graphical flair hadn't been seen on a home console. Not to mention it took ninja reflexes and dedication to master all it had to offer. It's only shortcoming was it left me wanting more, for the whole game was terribly small. Revolution offered the same adrenaline-soaked racing, yet was the same 'three courses in one' as the last. Fast forward to the present, and I find that a revamp has surfaced...in the most unlikely place.
Now what we have is a Namco game, not developed by Namco, and released on a platform they have never cared about before: the Nintendo 64. This left me guessing right and left; would the newbies - NST - do the series justice? Why didn't Namco themselves develop it? How would this fast paced racer do in a market mired with 'sim' and cutesy cart games? Where did I leave my keys? Anyway, I had cast all doubt aside and took off for what I can now call the best N64 racing game to date. Ladies and gentlemen, the new king of the 64-bit road has arrived; Ridge Racer 64.
For being a first time effort, I have to hand it to NST for making such a seamless product. I was hard pressed to believe that this game could have been done by anyone but Namco. Yet that 'Nintendo Software Technologies' logo kept flashing at me, forcing me to succumb to the truth. Not that that's bad though; the game includes everything the RR's of old (specifically RR1 and RRR) have to offer. The powersliding, physics, and a good deal of the tracks and cars have been borrowed from RR64's older brothers.
Let's get down to the basics. Gameplay is old fashioned Ridge Racer; no Dual Analog or easy drifting is here. To move up in the ranks, gamers will have to learn the apex of turns, how to tackle S-curves, and utilize the ever reckless - yet effective - powerslide. Go into a turn, let of the gas, sharply turn, and then hit the gas again or tap the brakes to start the slide. Once in a slide, maneuvering through the turn and realigning in time for the next straight-away is the real challenge. Heck, I used to think of myself as an experienced Ridge player, but RR64 painfully reminded me that I needed to brush up on my skills. So anyone out of practice or new to this game may have to invest some time in mastering the basics, but it pays off. The rush that can be had tearing through one intense curve after another justifies the practice.
Control is handled surprisingly well on the analog, which is responsive and smooth. I couldn't get my hands off the d-pad though, which does just as good as the stick - even better if you've always played Ridge Racer that way. Every car handles differently to suit different tastes, but I found a few of them to be rather touchy while others handled very sluggish. Then again, this game doesn't take physics seriously and given enough time, almost anyone can adjust.
The game consists of the original Ridge Racer track, the Revolution track, and a brand new course. Each has three paths and mirrors to each path. This provides over 18 races to test the mettle and skill of those brave enough to take the challenge. Gamers won't be racing in just any run-of-the-mill auto either; all the cars of the Ridge Racer series are back with a few new beasts to boot. Each has their own acceleration, speed, handling, and grip ratings so there's bound to be one that will fit personal tastes. To further tweak the game, options such as collision and drift modes can be selected. This opens the game up so that just about anyone can play. I have a few gripes with the gameplay though; my first is the lack of diversity. Sure 18+ races are nothing to scoff at, but they all take place on the same three areas which can kind of bog the game down. Also, opposing AI in the later rankings (expert level and up) can be downright brutal. I had a hard time getting as far as I did, and was tempted to send my controller flying through the window.
To compliment the blistering pace of the gameplay, NST blesses N64 gamers with some heart-pounding visuals. Every texture is incredibly crisp and clear, which is a far cry from the muddy textures of other N64 games. The frame rate is kept at somewhere at the 30fps level continuously, with the only hint of slowdown happening in replays. Most impressive would have to be the tracks and cars; meticulously detailed, incredibly modeled, and realistically lighted. I marveled as packs of cars tore through beautiful beaches, stunning canyons, and rustic forests never missing a beat. All the while, real time lighting is in full effect, complete with reflections, headlights and tracer effects that would make Namco envious of the power NST has tapped. In fact, if I could point out any game that comes close to looking like a Dreamcast title, RR64 would be it. However, not all is perfect; as said before, slowndown does happen in replays, there is some draw-in issues, and while the game is crisp, there's somewhat jagged poly edges.
Finally, we come to the vital area in which you'll be impressed or disappointed - the music. As much as I'd like to say that the anthems of old are here, there are apparently lost. Cartridges can only handle so much, which means RR64 gets some rather repetitious, uninspired, and downright boring techno music. I really wished that NST could pull off another amazing feat and at least bring some of the old RR rave music, however low quality, but it was not to be. Another blow to this amazing game is the sickly sound effects. Cars roar instead of purr, the announcer is back but less enthusiastic, and every sound is flat and dull. At least the music and SFX volumes can be controlled independently, but other than that the audio aspect just can't match up to the high caliber of the gameplay and visuals.
In conclusion, if you've been a longtime Ridge Racer fan, then this new installment will not disappoint. For those not familiar with the series but are looking for a frantic N64 racer, this is right up your alley. As a nod to the Ridge Racers of old, plus a little something extra added in, RR64 is a great racer, a great game, and one of the best N64 titles to date.
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