Tuesday, 12 January 2016

64 is the new sequel

Retroactive review: Ridge Racer 64 & WipEout 64

In much the same manner that the word Super was inserted into established franchise titles on the Nintendo SNES, 64 became the number to end Nintendo 64 titles with. Among these titles are two games I've always wanted to check out, mostly because I love their PlayStation counterparts, but also because they seem like solid titles on their platform. The young me in the 90's always joked around with what would happen when a series actually reached the 64th version and these existed, sadly for the two their franchises seem to have halted for many years. I'm talking about Ridge Racer 64 and WipEout 64

These two racing series were for the most part associated with the PS1, although the first two WipEouts were available for the Sega Saturn and PC. Being a huge PS1 player back in the 90's I kind of sceptically overlooked these entries for the N64. I guess that I made this predetermined opinion about them feeling they were merely spin-offs, designed to fit the N64 platform. Partially I was right, but mostly wrong and digging into them reveals new ideas with different takes on established franchises.

Here we are, many years later and I've gone back to take a closer look. I must mention that my screenshots beneath are all from high resolution emulated versions, as I have no capture card for my consoles, making them look far sharper than running on an actual N64. With that info out of the way, let's dive in and see what the 64-bit versions deliver for each title.

WipEout 64

To better understand where W64 stands in the WipEout timeline, compared to the PS1 games from the same generation, W64 lies somewhere between WipEout 2097 and WipEout 3. Indeed it was released in-between these two entries too, although over two years after 2097 and closeer to the third game. It's clearly heavily based on 2097 and could be mistaken for a version of that game. Menues and graphics resemble it closely.

Whether or not it's a true sequel, or merely a spin-off between 2097 and W3 can be discussed. I feel it's more of the latter, though the game bridges some of the gap between the games; a female race announcer, an elimination mode and a debute for a splitscreen mode are introduced prior to W3.

Many of the track layouts in W64 are mirrored versions of ones from W1 and 2097, although with different locations and trackside detail. While I appreciate the smoothed out textures and insanely short loading times of the N64, it's hardware simply pushes too few polygons around. Resulting in a bad draw distance, almost worse than W1, making memorizing of track layouts a key to master the faster racing classes. If you want to avoid suddenly being confronted by a corner popping up that is!

Graphically W64 falls somewhat behind 2097 in my opinion. I had to boot up 2097 to confirm. While I appreciate the lack of polygon warping the PS1 suffers from, thanks to the N64's Z correction, it just doesn't look as good because of the lack of environment detail and the short draw distance. The reuse of track layouts and the rather random design artstyle of them take away some of the uniqueness the PS1 trilogy offered through it's connections with The Designers Republic. This design team was dedicated to the PS1 games art, track design and colour use, resulting in a very modern look in the 90's.

There's a nice selection of music on offer, that fits the WipEout style in electronic music. However, the shortcomings of a cartridge based console versus a CD based one, result in short loops and small collection of  tracks. It quickly gets repetitive and apparent that the licensed music are simply remixed and short loops of the original songs. A large downgrade from the other WipEout games that feature mostly fully licensed tracks. Overall though, the music does it's job and suits the series well.

Moving away from the technical side, W64 is at it's core a good WipEout game. The physics and steering are based off the excellent 2097 model and as such offer a far more tuned and smooth steering compared to the first game. Midway Games have done a great job in making the analogue steering work well too, going from d-pads to the N64 stick. They have clearly had full access to 2097 code from the original WipEout developers, Psygnosis.

The weapon selection is well balanced and the addition of a challenge mode adds variety and replay value. The difficulty is hard as nails though, be warned, but that's exactly like the first two games anyway. All in all, a classic WipEout package as such.

My impression of WipEout 64 is a mildly positive one, while it does justice to the franchise with it's great gameplay feel, music and futuristic artstyle, it's technical shortcomings hinder the game from becoming a must-have title. It just doesn't seem worth it compared to the wildly available PS1 trilogy. Compared to them, it falls short.

In no way is it a bad game, like the flawed WipEout Fusion on PS2 for instance and if you only swear by playing the N64 in this era, then  it's a good option to get a WipEout fix. However, you'll be better off picking up either one of the three on PS1 or the two first games on the Saturn at a cheaper price.



    Ridge Racer 64

    Placing RR64 into Namco's PS1 RR timeline is a more complicated affair than placing WipEout 64. Developed by Nintendo themselves in the US and released in 2000 a year after Ridge Racer Type 4. It utilizes some of R4's artwork, cars and visual style, yet is obviously based on the original Ridge Racer and Ridge Racer Revolution formula. Confusing indeed.

    Racing mascot girl Reiko Nagase priding the cover and start screen aside, this game sets itself in an alternate timeline where RR1 and RRR received a sequel that continued it's style, influenced by RR4's graphics. Yes, I did say it's a confusing release. But strangely enough it works out as a solid title.

    The main mode in RR64 bases itself on completing three races, placing first in all of them unlocks a new batch of three tracks and so on. Of the three, one track is from RR1, one is from RRR and the third, which I found the most interesting, is a unique location for RR64. These exclusive tracks of RR64 are far away from the tropical urban setting of the first two games, more canyon and desert based, but with the more subtle colour palette and softer tone taken from RR4. They end up being the most interesting and best feature of the game.

    I especially liked the night races at this track location. The red rear lights from the cars and light sources along the dark moonlit road, really make the game shine in it's own graphical style. Visually the game does nicely, though it is apparent that the lower polygon count of the N64 make the track details simpler. Playing this game in 2000, after the visually impressive R4 must have felt like a downgrade. Once again though, the N64's strengths in loading times and polygon correction in the distance help make it on par with the first two games on the PS1.

    To my surprise, the option screen lets you choose RR, RRR or RR64 type drift handling separately and even collision physics can be either traditional RR or RR64. While I suppose some RR purists enjoy these options I personally get the feeling of  a game having difficulty finding it's own personality. I left both choices default on the RR64 styles, as this game should be what it is, and not another RR which I can play on the PS1 anyhow. Bonus points for the option to turn off all HUD and racing without any screen information covering the picture!

    While it in no way dethrones Rage Racer and Ridge Racer Type 4 as my favourite RR games, I actually enjoyed RR64. It's a nice progress of the more original RR style from RR1 and RRR. The new exclusive tracks for RR64 are well designed and take benefit of the engine they run on. It's a far chunkier game, with a lot more lifespan than the crudely sparse first games on the PS1, the whole main game has a far better design.

    Although it expands the original RR universe perhaps a little further into it's own style than comfortable for some, RR64 ends up being a strong arcade racer in my opinion. It's absolutely a racing game that N64 owners should have and still should own. Rage and R4 are way ahead though!




      Let me first mention that both games feature up to four player splitscreen! An incredible addition and just proves to me that the N64 always was the greatest home for local multiplayer games in it's generation, long before online became a reality on consoles. Straight from it's unique choice of having four controller ports, this console just has a ton of local multiplayer experiences on offer!

      So two N64 racers then, both are strongly presented previously on PS1, are they worth your time? I really do think so, but perhaps mostly for fans. If you're devoted to each series like me, then it's absolutely recommended, though you've highly likely checked them out earlier! Maybe even in retrospect, if you only owned a PS1 back in the day.

      Of the two games, I would mostly recommend RR64. It feels like a stronger and more unique alternative to it's origins. W64 falls short of doing anything special that it's cheaper and far more available PS1 counterparts do. Justifying it's purchase is kind of tricky, just don't get me wrong, it's a good game on it's own.

      Are there alternative ways to play these games today? The short answer is no, apart from emulation, they are both only available exclusively to the N64. As mentioned before, they both support local four player and can be used with the rumble pak. W64 sadly bases itself on memory pak saving, so you'll have to get one of those to save your game progression. RR64 just saves on the cartridge with up to three different save slots. I must be mentioned that Ridge Racer DS on the original Nintendo DS is based off RR64 and is very similar. Albeit with slightly downgraded graphics, so it might be a suitable alternative to check out, though I have never played this version.

      Well, that's my thoughts on RR64 and W64. It's been fun playing them, even so many years later. Be sure to check them out if you are really into the N64 and racing games from this generation!

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