Sunday, 28 September 2014

Looking back: Rage Racer and Ridge Racer Type 4

PS1's Ridge Racer collection in all it's glory, the series' high notes:
You'd be advised to play the NTSC games today, they run faster. The PAL games had great boxart though!

With or without you

There wouldn't have been a PlayStation without Namco and there wouldn't have been a home invasion by Namco without the PlayStation. Sony's decision to team up with Namco for their first console launch was a brilliant one; it would secure them popular arcade titles and go straight up against as a competitor for the Sega Saturn. Namco and Sega competed in the arcades for modern 3D titles of their time; Daytona USA vs. Ridge Racer, Virtua Fighter vs. Tekken and Virtua Cop vs. Time Crisis to name some of the major titles.

As obscure as the whole "arcade" phenomena may seem to the young children of today, they actually meant something back in 1994. They meant a huge deal in fact. Bringing arcade titles to home consoles was important, and bringing the new "3D" games was revolutionary. Sega made their choice line-up of arcade games easily by choosing from their own in-house titles. Sony, on the other hand, had to team up with a third-party developer and so the friendship with Namco began.

Anybody interested in gaming history knows the story of 1994 too well; Sony launched it's PlayStation a $100 cheaper than Sega did with it's Saturn. The Saturn hardware was complex and clumsy to develop for and so Sega messed up their home console versions of even their own star titles Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter with bad framerate and graphics. Sony succeeded in brining great, by 1994 standards, arcade ports of Ridge Racer and Tekken for launch. One could argue that Namco simply was a copy-cat of all of Sega's games, and indeed it was partially true for the arcades. However, Namco prepared themselves better for the home consoles and as such managed the transition from arcade to consoles for 3D games far better than Sega. Ironically, as Sega lead and dominated the 3D graphics race for years before and after.

This arcade port success gave Sony the lead, and Sega had lost that moment in time to win the battle and gain the consumers trust. Though Sega later ported Sega Rally and Virtua Fighter 2, in excellent home versions from the arcade, the sales race was lost. Sega had won the battle in the arcades with Daytona USA far outselling the popularity to Ridge Racer, but at home Ridge Racer was the king. Sony and Namco had put the arcades in your home; an early warning of the arcade scene's death, but that's another story.

In this blog post, for my "Looking back" series, I will focus on the Ridge Racer games; and especially my favourite two: Rage Racer and Ridge Racer Type 4. The third and fourth version on the PS1. First though, lets take a look at the series up until those two fantastic entries.

It began with racing on ridges

The Ridge Racer series has always been centred around street racing in the fictional "Ridge City", focusing on cornering with drifts. It's a pure arcade racing experience with little focus on realism. Taking corners is all about letting the gas go and then pressing it in again at the right moment to get the car to loosen on the back wheels and slide through a corner. Advanced players would progress and learn to slightly hitt the brake to loosen the grip in a far more controlled fashion. The cars vary in there amount of grip, some require a lot of drifting, while others turn sharper and don't loose grip as easily.

Learning this drifting is key to all Ridge Racer games, and then learning each and every track and in turn every corner within them. When to start a drift, when to hit that sweet spot for the apex in a corner and when to straighten up and speed forward on the following straight. It's a ballet in a auto-mobile environment, risk versus reward; the faster and tighter you pass through a corner the better, however if you hit the walls the punishment is grinding halt in speed.

You could argue and say simulator racing games are much more technical and difficult, but then you have missed the challenge and point of a quality arcade racer like Ridge Racer or Daytona USA. They might not be realistic, but they are equally as challenging and difficult to master as the simulators.

The arcade drifting mechanics is something we have since seen in more modern games like the Burnout and the Need For Speed series. Though I would argue that more modern games are far more forgiving when you screw up, as such they miss that risk versus reward feeling, which is key to the pure fun of an arcade racer.

Most PlayStation owners had at least one of these brilliant games!

Ridge RacerRidge Racer 2 and Ridge Racer Revolution are the first three entries in the RR series that are almost difficult to set apart. They were released in a short time span of 1993-94, upgrading on the original formula only slightly for each release.

The first game featured a laughable, but iconic, 1,5 track(s). Requiring you to race at higher difficulty levels and with various cars to progress. RR2, an arcade upgrade of RR1, added a rear view mirror and an extra track. It is often referred to as the best version of RR1 and a more direct competitor to Daytona USA.

As seen above, my recent visit to Tokyo gave me an idea where the urban environments for Ridge Racer are taken from. It's almost like a part of the track itself, when you arrive in this huge city on the elevated highways that wind themselves in between skyscrapers making their way down to ground level. 

The common denominator for these three first games were; sunny tracks with an urban, Tokyo-looking start area, beaches, palms and a seaside. Complete with a cheesy and cheerful Japanese techno soundtrack, a stupid, over-the-top race commentator and, of course, a bikini babe starting the race.

RR Revolution introduced the rear view mirror from arcade-only RR2 for PS1 owners and three brand new tracks with changing daylight. RRR was what the home version of RR1 should have been like from the start, more tracks and options for a player with more time on their hands at home than in a busy arcade hall. RRR dared to be focused even more on the hardcore RR fans, and gave them more of the same formula. As such the title alienated newcomers somewhat. 

Looking back, RRR was a great sequel for fans and is sadly over-looked, not so for newcomers though. The learning curve may have been as brutal as RR1, even more so mater of fact, though each track gradually featured more and more difficult corners, working as a difficulty level. With it's slightly cleaner graphics, RRR compliments the first game perfectly and really should be played if you were on the fence about it back in the day. It's more of an evolution than revolution, but I guess the latter sounded better in a title.

Rave Racer was the next entry and an arcade exclusive. It featured wider tracks with various routes to choose while racing. It changed the art direction towards a more darker style and as such more realistic tone. While still retaining some of the light-hearted and colourful vibe of the previous titles. It was the first RR game to feature an intro and introduced the female character Reiko Nagase as a racing host.

Rave Racer never received a home release, though at one point it did have a cancelled PC port. Rave ran on superior arcade hardware compared to RR 1&2 and would have been difficult for the PS1 to match graphically. As such it marks the point where RR splits from it's arcade heritage into the home versions. Once again it reflects how the market changed at the time.

Then the road rage began

Rage Racer continued the slightly darker style that Rave Racer had introduced, but turned it up a many notches. Gone were the colourful tracks and tropical vibe from the first two PS1 games, in replacement was a more realistic and very gritty look. At first glance the squarish car models and grainy textures looked almost too gritty, but beneath lay a memorable and original racing game. Rage marked the beginning of the series taking a distance from it's arcade heritage and of a game more built solely for a home version in mind, complete with a proper single player championship mode.

What I love about Rage Racer is that it's one of the very few racing games that has an actual atmosphere and a mood to it. As you begin the game you are introduced by this dark, scrolling text intro that explains the back story of the game with a sepia coloured race video rolling in the background. It's probably the only racing game that has given me a slight feeling of a lonely and dark emotion when playing it. This feeling is further enhanced by the detailed, complex and very atmospheric tracks, which are all set in cloudy and dark lighting.

From the stone cobbled streets on the first right turn after the huge and intimidating Triumph Arc look-alike on the first straight from the start line. Right to the steep and winding curves of a coastal mountain route. Each and every track are some of the best designed and distinct looking tracks I've ever played in any racing game, before and since. 

"What I love about Rage Racer is that it's one of the very few racing games that has an actual atmosphere and a mood to it."

You can really tell that the developers put a hell of a lot of work into the three main tracks, the fourth and latter one is simply an oval. However thanks to the dark look of the game, the changing daylight and the sheer speed of cars the oval becomes an intimidating and almost scary experience to drive. I love how the three main tracks all share the same start area, then branch out at the first tunnel after the huge waterfall into separate tracks. Each requiring various skills and cars that suit the track layout.

Rage Racer introduced for the first time car upgrades to the series. Every upgrade changed the look of the car into something slightly meaner and more bad-ass looking. For every upgrade you were excited about how the car behaved and looked. The game even let you alter the grip of the tires. This simple, yet entertaining, upgrade system sadly was removed in the sequel. A huge disappointment, in my opinion.

Car choices were essential for each track; one track would require a car with fast acceleration as it had steep hills. While another track with tight corners would require a more manoeuvrable car with superior grip and turning abilities. These choices were reflected in every race as the leader for each race would be driving the car that was best suited for the track. Giving the player a slight hint at what car to buy if you were having trouble winning!

Each cup in the main championship mode toys around aggressive titles further heightening the gritty and dangerous feel of the racing; from Fury GP to Agitation GP and so on! It was a game that put you on the edge of your seat for each race; one error could spoil the whole race. Even the female announcer tries to get your temper up by spotting out special rival cars, that will be become an extra challenge during the race, and shout out things like "Teach this sucker a lesson!" or "There he is! Take him!". Neat little details I just love!

Although there are a fairly small amount of cars and a tiny selection of tracks, thus making the cups slightly repetitive, I still really put this game as a true classic for the PS1. It's one of the very few racing games that builds up and gives me feeling of atmosphere playing it. From time to time I replay it simply to relive that racing tension Rage Racer so cleverly builds up.

The fourth type

From Rage Racer in 1997 it took two years for RR4 to emerge in 1999. In-between these two titles a significant release had hit the PS1; Gran Turismo. The effect of this ground breaking game was huge. It sent every developer back to the drawing board with the idea of making realistic racers with real life cars, and no longer was it acceptable to release a game with a few tracks and a couple of cars in it. Gamers wanted cars in the hundreds and the huge graphical upgrade GT had introduced, especially the shiny and detailed car models, which were ground breaking in it's time. Racers had to look and play real.

For the third time we see a clear shift towards something new in the racing genre, all in the same console generation alone. First we had the importance of porting cutting edge arcade 3D titles, then we saw the slow change into more home version built main game modes. No longer relying on the quick and dirty single arcade race style. Then lastly we see much larger scaled and detailed games tailored for many hours of lifespan, built entirely for home console gaming. Removed from the boundaries of arcade limitations. The RR series followed this trend and shift in development focus, and gives an interesting historic view of the changes.

The RR series changed it's style, focus and approach once again, and became greatly inspired by GT, though retaining it's original heritage. RR4 had hundreds of cars, eight tracks, more complex replays with shiny bodywork on the cars (though not ingame!) and arguably the best graphics the PS1 ever delivered. The lighting and shadows in RR4 were simply stunning and unrivalled even compared to the two GT games on the system. While RR4 retained the more realistic looking approach that Rage started, it re-introduced more colours again. Only this time with a less vibrant, but more subtle palette, further heightened by excellent shadow effects.

"The RR series changed it's style, focus and approach once again, and became greatly inspired by GT, though retaining it's original heritage."

Each and every track had a distinct and different skyline colour, setting them apart. Two and two tracks shared their starting area, except two unique stand alone ones. Although the realtime daylight changes from Rage were gone, the excellent lighting and shadowing made up for it by miles. I'll say it again; RR4 has to be one of the best looking PS1 games ever made.

One the things I've always been impressed by in the RR series on PS1, considering the technical limitations of the system, are the fantastic draw distances. In most PS1 racing games the track is drawn right in front of you, but not so in the RR games. Especially in Rage and R4 you see the road winding for miles into the distance. Sometimes you even see parts of the track which are much further on, in a section crossing over on a bridge or underneath in a tunnel. Details like these give the series a en excellent quality in it's track designs, almost unrivalled on the console or since.

RR4 featured a storyline in it's championship mode, and invented it's own little Racing Roots '99 league. You choose a team to race for, and winning races would give the team more money to get new cars. As mentioned earlier, the tuning was sadly removed, in favour for this team setup. Racing through one season of the league was a very cool experience; you gradually started to feel that you could win the championship towards the end. The magical last race, that is set on New Years Eve, explodes into the year 2000 with fireworks along the trackside combined with uplifting music.

A fantastic racing experience, sadly spoiled by having to repeat this season over and over to obtain all cars, though for most players a playthrough of each of the four racing teams is sufficient.

Ridge Racer Type 4's mascot racing girl; Reiko Nagase.

Although RR4 looked more realistic, not only graphically, but in the movement of the vehicles there wasn't a doubt that the game was classic Ridge Racer in the handling. Two car manufactures were grip cars; let off the gas to get more grip and turn harder. The two other manufactures were drift cars; let off the gas to drift and slide though the corner.

I love the design and aesthetics of RR4. Right from the great CGI work of the intro to the slick menus, the design is clean, minimalistic and stylish. The music was overhauled and sounded less cheesy and more mature. The RR games have since kept this modern design and it has suited the series well.

Ridge Racer and beyond

Well there you have it, my two favourite games in the Ridge Racer series; the aggressive and dark Rage Racer and the stylish and clean Ridge Racer Type 4. Both are great in their own unique way, both content wise, as well as aesthetically. It's strange to think they're two games sequentially in a series!

Are there any of the later RR games to mention though? I must admit not following the series too closely since the golden four RR titles on PS1, my interest shifted elsewhere. Apart from on the Sony PSP. Ridge Racer V still demands my attention on the PlayStation 2, I need to actually play it properly. I'm currently playing through Rage Racer again on an emulator so I might consider RRV after that.

On my to-do list, the RR game I missed it in the transition from PS1 to PS2.

The PSP felt like a rendezvous with the PS1 launch, by having a RR and a WipEout game at launch. I enjoyed RR on the PSP which focused on all the PS1 era RR games, although it only featured a selection of tracks. My favourite though, is the less known RR2 on the PSP. It has every single track from RR1, RRR, Rave, Rage and RR4 in upgraded graphics! It's an incredible package and warmly recommended for anyone that can get hold of it. You could almost call it the Ridge Racer PS1 Collection or something! It badly needs a release on the PlayStation Network, so PS Vita users can play it too!

The excellent PSP Ridge Racer games, RR2 has all the tracks from the first one and more!

The series has further expanded with some lacklustre boost mechanics to RR6, RR7, RR on the PS Vita and some Nintendo versions. Even on mobiles too. I feel the series needs to get back the more storydriven singleplayer and the "quality over quantity" track designs. An RR game needs to have unique tracks and be focused around the fictional Ridge City world it suits best, it should be about learning the tracks and not just speeding past some random environments (as the misplaced RR Unbounded horribly proved).

I'd love to see a new version that upgrades old tracks and ties the old PS1 versions together!

Friday, 19 September 2014

There's still a few of us!

The Last Of Us Remastered

Platform tested: PlayStation 4

I never played the PS3 release of The Last Of Us and was happy to hear that Naughty Dog were remastering it for the PS4. I finally got the hands on my remaster and played it with superior framerate and resolution to the PS3 version!

TLOU is a cross between an action adventure and a survival horror game and tells the story of when an airborne decease wipes out most of modern civilisation. It takes Joel, the main protagonist, though a journey of a post-apocalyptic USA on a travel where he has to escort a young girl named Ellie across the country. Fighting deceased, zombie like humans, and wild people hunting down others for loot and food.

There's an intense feeling of pure survival at times in the game. Where you are literally gritting your teeth and hoping to survive the harsh and brutal world the game depicts. Be it hoards of nasty zombies and clickers or anarchistic mad-men trying to kill you for food and ammo. You end up feeling like you are actually in a typical post-apocalyptic setting of a movie or tv-series.

Injured beyond belief, low on ammo and surrounded I found myself feeling this as one of the most intense games I've ever played. It totally achieves the desperate fight to keep yourself alive like other classics like Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Fallout 3 managed to give.

A lot of the atmosphere in the game is built up by the fantastically depicted enviroments. It really looks amazing and something you would expect from this new generation, even though it's from the last one. I love the smoothness of the 60 frames per second framerate, it makes the picture quality extremely sharp. I liked all the different places you visited along the way. From emptied streets in cities, to smalltown America, woodlands and even an abandoned water damn.

If comparisons are to be made with other games I think the most recent and closest would be the new Tomb Raider from 2013, which coincidently is also available remastered on the PS4 in 1080p@60fps. Both games depict perfectly a desperation of survival combined with an amazingly presented story. While TLOU is more realistic and darker, TR still has the edge when it comes to a wider variation in locations, somewhat tighter and better controls, and a less linear world that is more free to explore. When it comes to the ending though, TR felt a little cheesy while TLOU is shocking and thought provocing.

One could also mention Alan Wake as fairly close game in style; lonely nature areas, insane and desperate enemies and a overall creepy atmosphere with a few horror scenes thrown in. Think of TLOU as a mix of TR and Alan Wake and you're actually on the mark!

TLOU is a brilliant game that really should be played be anyone owning a PS4, or PS3 for that matter. It is one of the best experiences I've had in a long while when taking in consideration how well the story, characters and gameplay work together.

Sure, there are games that are more varied; there are like four types of enemies and the fighting gets a little repetitive; but it was the same for Alan Wake. Both games drag you back in with interesting plot developments or throwing you into even more desperate situations. TLOU has one last downside that lets my six star rating slip though; I found the gameplay ending a bit low key. Don't get me wrong the last fight is desperate, but there wasn't like a huge final fight to end it or anything. The actual story ending is shocking though!

There is no excuse good enough for not buying this game if you enjoy post-apocalyptic settings, killing zombie like enemies, a little horror and an amazing story with great voice actors.