The love child of 80's arcade and Anime
Namco. What can you say about Namco? They defined a generation of gamers in the early 80's when they released the all-time quarter muncher, the insanely addictive video game, Pac-Man. The yellow mascot garnered more attention than Madonna, though remaining asexual to to this day. Namco again shook the video game world in 1994 when they released the arcade smash Ridge Racer, and followed it up with the mega-hit Tekken.
By porting its hot arcade titles to the Playstation, Namco almost single-handedly made the system succeed, and in doing so helped kill the 32-bit competition: the Sega Saturn.
This year's installment of the famed Ridge Racer racing series has more tracks, more cars, and more depth than any of the previous games. R4: Ridge Racer Type 4 has two other interesting elements: good ol' retro funk, mixed with Japanese eccentricities. A strange futomaki indeed.
One thing that was always annoying about past Ridge Racer games was that each one consisted essentially of one long track. Sure, the races differed in terms of skill, but they were all played out on a single track that became longer during the final levels, as more and more blocked off areas became open ones.
R4 changes this stagnant (and downright lazy) game design by offering gamers 8 different and very beautiful tracks. The first race starts on May 1, 1999, with the last ending the competition on December 31, 1999, at 11:45. By ending it just in time, R4 avoids all Y2K bugs.
You begin the game by picking from one of four racing teams. Each team is rated a certain difficulty factor depending on the kind of tuning they do on their cars (the better the tuning, the easier the time you'll have burning past your competitors). Once a team is chosen, you must pick the car manufacturer you want from a list of four. The companies are imaginary, as are their dream machines.
Now, here comes the tricky part. The game has a total of 45 unique car models, and has 320 different car variations. As you progress in your races, depending on what place you finish, you get a different car type at your disposal. Now remember - there are four racing teams, and four car manufacturers, meaning that the fewest number of games you can play is 16 (assuming that you win every race). Multiply that by 8 races, and just to complete the game you will have to race a minimum of 128 races. But that's not all. The real goal of the game is to acquire all 320 different car variations. In order to accomplish this feat, you must figure out all of the possible ways you can win and lose, race those, and save them to multiple memory cards. After all the sweat and toil, you are awarded a giant Pac-man to race in...Yipppe!
Like the others in the series, the graphics in R4 are magnificent. Of course, it's still a standard 32-bit racer with 30 fps, but the sheer detail of the cars and tracks make each race feel, for lack of a better word, cinematic. From the cars to the landscapes, everything is well rendered. However, it's the light sourcing and gorgeous use of color that makes R4 the new graphical champ on the Playstation. The eye candy is especially sweet during the night races, where you tend to get lost in the bright lights and all-too-cool atmosphere; almost like some kind of Hasselhoff dream of lost glory and Night Rider.
For the most part, the tracks are fairly long, and racing on them with the more powerful cars is adrenaline pumping. R4 feels really fast, because the tracks are packed with tight turns requiring players to use strategic maneuvers such as drift and grip. While the drift and grip techniques do add a certain level of sim to R4, the basic arcade feel of the series remains relatively unchanged. Cars don't move like they do in real life. For instance, there are never spin-outs when cars hit each other, and cars can't fishtail. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Arcade style racing is fun, fast and easy to get into. Namco knows how to make the racing exciting, and unpretentious no-brainer racing is what gamers need to relieve some stress.
R4 gives gamers their arcade fix, but Namco created their product to appeal to the Gran Turismo crowd. Flipping through the manual or looking on the game's back cover gives the impression that R4 is deep and time-consuming. Deep? No. Time-consuming? You'd better believe it.
Many factors limit R4's replay value. Although the game has more tracks than previous Ridge Racers, there still aren't many compared to other racing games, and a season can be finished in 15 minutes. Next, car selection is unfulfilling Without real-world licensing, Namco has made imaginary cars and imaginary car manufacturers. As cool as some of the rides look, driving one of R4's "Lizard" (fake manufacturer) racers is simply not as enjoyable as burning rubber with a shiny new Mclaren F1 or Corvette, like in the latest Need For Speed.
Also, the computer A.I. isn't up to par in R4. Once you have mastered the tracks in Practice mode, you can pretty much breeze through them during the tournaments without breaking a sweat. The computer drivers rarely make any attempt to hedge you off the road or box you out during tight turns. And finally, who the hell is really going to take the time to race 320+ races to get all cars and car variations?
As aggravating as some parts of R4 are, it still has some of the best arcade racing outside of an arcade. It's really addictive, and the game is worth buying for the brilliant night tracks alone. R4 also has another little element: it's charming. The selection, game over, and race status screens all look entirely retro. On top of this, Pac-Man and Mappy (the old arcade game with those mice) sponsor two of the teams. And because R4 is from Japan, we are treated to some of the wackiness the Japanese bring to their games...
Would you ever believe that a racing game could have storylines? Each team you race for has a director calling the shots. After you finish a race, their hand drawn pic pops up, and like on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, you scroll down the written dialogue as their expressions change in the still picture. I must say I enjoyed one such storyline, where the manager of the Pac-Man team is haunted by his memory of a dead fellow driver, Guiliano. Freaky.
If you like arcade racing and can put up with some of the game's quirks, then R4 is your ride. However, for more depth, real cars and more realistic racing, Need For Speed: High Stakes or the game that has become synonymous with ultimate racer, Gran Tursimo, provide more bang for the buck. Then again, in R4 you get to have each race started by a sexy Japanese polygonal model. Hmmm... sex, Pac-Man, and racing. I think I'll go play some R4.