Retro Respawn – Ridge Racer Month Part Three – Rage Racer

Ridge Racer Month continues with our penultimate week where we look at the third game in the series in the form of Rage Racer. Though there are plenty of similarities between Rage Racer and its two elder siblings, there are also some notable differences that we will cover in more detail as the article progresses. Next week we’ll be closing things out, and I’ll be bringing in my pal, Adam, once again for one of them there tandem articles, so if you like those, then you have permission to get excited. Go on, don’t be shy, you can even do a wacky dance of joy if you like. Seriously, go on, I’ll wait…

Are you sufficiently jazzed? Good, let’s take a looksee at Rage Racer!

Backstory

Released in the winter of 1996 in Japan and then in the spring and summer in the US and Europe, respectively, Rage Racer is the probably the first game in the series that really “felt” more like a console game than an arcade game. Everything from the opening CGI animation (featuring the debut of series mascot Reiko) to the more standard menu screen give off the vibe that Rage Racer was a game that was made with Sony’s grey slab in mind first and foremost. Ridge Racer Revolution was also made specifically for the PlayStation, but it still retained that more arcade-like feel in its presentation.

Rage Racer received decent reviews upon its release, with the Official PlayStation Magazine over here in the UK awarding it with a whopping 9 out of 10. It did receive some criticism as well though, with some reviewers complaining that it was still a tad too similar to the previous two games in the series and that not enough improvements had been made to evolve or tighten up the driving. I was aware of Rage Racer because it was on the version of demo1 that came with my PlayStation, but I’ll be honest and say that it didn’t actually twig with me that it was the third game in the series because it didn’t use the Ridge name.

The fact Rage Racer was a racing game from Namco that used the initials “RR” should have probably tipped me off that it was part of the Ridge Racer lineage, especially as the gameplay is so similar, but I was a young doofus who just thought it was a Ridge Racer clone that was trying to use a jazzy name. In my defence, Rage Racer certainly looks different from the two previous games, and as I mentioned, it also doesn’t have the same feel that the first two games in the series did, so I guess I can maybe be forgiven somewhat for not putting two and two together back in the day.

Gameplay

I could pretty much copy and paste a large chunk from the previous two articles when it comes to the actual driving in Rage Racer as the core gameplay really hasn’t changed that much. As in the previous two games, I eschewed the “drift” tactic and focused more on going for cars with better handling and then working the brake at the right moments to get around corners without hitting the side of the track or losing too much speed. In a neat twist this time though, you win money by finishing in the top three in races, which you can then use either to purchase new cars or tune-up your current ride to improve its stats.

As with the first two games in the series, you race on one track with three different routes, with each route increasing in difficulty. However, where Rage Racer differs from its two elder siblings is that it operates a class system that opens the door for you to unlock even faster cars in the store for purchase. You start out on class 1, ironically enough, and by finishing in the top three on all three routes, you will then unlock class 2 and so forth. The initial car you start out with is pretty bog standard, so you will likely find yourself grinding out victories in the lower classes so that you can either afford to do it up or purchase a new one.

This does mean that the game can feel a little “grindy” at points, and it can be really annoying when your car just isn’t powerful enough to get you onto the podium. In a neat addition, you can now just restart a race if you finish outside the top three without having to go back into the menu screen again, but the negative is that you only get 5 chances to do this, and if you use all of those chances up, then all progress on that particular class is wiped, and you have to start all over again. This feels like a somewhat unnecessary bit of difficulty that has been shoehorned in to artificially extend the game, but you can at least save the money you have earned and reload a save, which seems to reload your chances as well.

My one overriding thought of Rage Racer was that the hit detection didn’t really feel right, especially when you drove one of the smaller cars. You would think that driving a smaller vehicle would make it easier to overtake opposing racers as the smaller size should allow you to sneak past in sections where a larger car would struggle, but on more than one occasion, the game treated it as if I’d collided with an opposing racer when there was genuine air between us. Considering that bumping into another racer slows you down considerably and costs you precious seconds, this was a situation that frustrated me more than once.

The opposing racers are less aggressive in Rage Racer than they are in Ridge Racer Revolution, and they also seem to have become more gormless sometimes too as they’ll tootle along in the middle of the track like a pensioner doing 30mph in a 50mph zone. Considering that the courses can sometimes be quite narrow, trying to get around these slowcoaches is an exercise in frustration. Hey, maybe that’s where the “Rage” aspect comes from? I certainly found myself swearing at the TV when I came to a critical point in the race and found I was about to lap the 12th or 11th placed racers, only to then clatter into them as they ambled along like they were on a casual drive to the corner shop for a pint of milk.

Despite the frustrating elements though, Rage Racer is again a perfectly cromulent arcade-styled racer. Anyone can pick it up and play it, but those who wish to dedicate more time to it can still find a richer racing experience hiding under the surface. Any long time readers of my work will know that this kind of racing is much more up my alley than the more dour simulation driving you’d find in a Gran Turismo. It would have been nice to see a bit of innovation considering this was the third game in the series by this point, but the base gameplay still provides solid racing fun.

Graphics

Rage Racer certainly looks different from the previous two games in that it favours a more photorealistic approach. This means that the bright, vibrant colours of the first two games are replaced with a faded, even grey, look where emphasis is placed on realism, and I have to be honest and say I quite like it. It’s not a view that’s shared by everyone, but I was genuinely quite impressed with the visuals in this one, especially some of the water effects on things like waterfalls and docks. When you consider that it was released in 1996, Rage Racer is pretty easy on the eyes.

In fact, the only aspect of the game that doesn’t look that good are the cars themselves as they tend to look blocky and sometimes give off the feeling like they are made out of cardboard. It’s strange that the actual focus of the game isn’t the nicest looking aspect of it, but the scenery looks more appealing to my eyes than the vehicles. Some of the lighting in particular looks great, and the tracks themselves hold up pretty well from a visual perspective.

Sound

Despite its name, Rage Racer has a pretty chilled soundtrack, for the most part, with the music being more atmospheric and airy than high tempo and blood-pumping. Considering the more realistic visuals, I think the more relaxed music makes for a nice accompaniment, and I generally enjoyed the music in Rage Racer. One notable difference, however, is the Grand Prix menu music, which is good, blood-pumping stuff that reminds you of some of Namco’s best arcade character select tracks. As for other effects, the engines of your cars roar as you’d expect, and the usual thuds and prangs can be heard when you collide with the scenery and other racers. Overall, Rage Racer has a decent soundtrack, and I liked it.

Longevity

The big black mark against Rage Racer is that it has zero multiplayer, with not even the link cable providing any joy like it did for Revolution. It’s especially galling as they’d had three games to work out how to add split-screen multiplayer by this stage, and not only do Namco not provide that, but they don’t even keep the workaround from the previous game either! Considering that Mario Kart 64 could support four-person multiplayer, the fact that Rage Racer can’t even manage it for two players is nothing short of pathetic and really counts against it, in my view.

Aside from that, the game provides a decent single-player experience, with Grand Prix mode being there for you to win races and earn money to buy better cars, whilst Time Trial allows you to have the track all to yourself so that you can try and get the fastest time. I did eventually hit a wall where I needed to either buy a better car or jazz my current one up so that I could finally advance, which led to some considerable grinding. Honestly though, I didn’t really mind that I had to keep doing the same races over and over again, which is probably a good indication that the basic gameplay loop found in Rage Racer is a good one.

Would I Recommend It?

I would recommend Rage Racer if you can find it for under £10, which is possible if you’re willing to shop around a bit. Any more than that is probably too much, especially as the first Ridge Racer game is probably the more culturally significant and, thus, worth more effort to attain. Despite that though, Rage Racer is a fun experience, for the most part, and the class system gives the game a bit more substance. It really does feel like a standalone PlayStation release and not just an arcade game that has been ported to the home market, which marks it a definite step forward for the series. Having no multiplayer option leaves a very sour taste though, especially as Namco really should have known how to sort that by this stage.

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