Ridge Racer's Hairpin Curve

In the past week or so I've been playing Ridge Racer Unbounded, a game I've been interested in for the better part of the year. When it was first revealed, It was shockingly amusing to see almost no one share my measured interest, and instead spew a lot of angry kneejerk responses -- mainly just repeating "fuck Namco" -- as if the company had made some bold proclamation that they wouldn't make any more Ridge Racer games except this one. I wrote about this episode in SCROLL 02's end-of-issue editorial to frame a larger point about pre-entitled people getting their panties in a twist over a game they just found out about and won't get to play for at least a year. But now it's almost a year later, Unbounded is finally out, and the reviews from critics and impressions from folks online are largely positive, or at best, not very mean.

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I'll admit that the initial anger towards Unbounded was, to a degree, understandable. Word of it came just a little while after Capcom announced their Devil May Cry reboot, which went with a different kind of hero and a general tonal shift that didn't meet anyone's expectation. The pervading view was (and, er, still is) that Japanese giants are scrambling to keep up with the West by tossing their beloved franchises to Americans and Europeans who hang a little too long onto the word "reimagining." And so the collective gamer mood swings continue every quarter, all based on childish fears that someone new will come into their club and squeeze them out. Yet for every blatant molestation of a dormant series, there's a perfectly respectful treatment that everyone can agree on.

For me, Unbounded sits somewhere in between. Besides some music tracks borrowed from older Ridge Racer games, Unbounded is not a Ridge Racer game in the least. But even to an understanding guy like me, it's still kind of uncomfortable. The graphics are bleak, the cars are generic, the shoehorned "story" is never heard of past the intro movie, and the physics feel too realistic, focused on a drift button that immediately gets you swingin' along the road. Even if you nail that mechanic, the game's challenges are needlessly difficult from the get-go, almost devoid of the curve Ridge Racer games usually have, with cutthroat AI opponents that can toss you off the track even before lap one gets started. A course editor is a welcome addition, but when the developer-made courses are obviously cut from the same cloth, with the same road shapes dressed with the same patterns of buildings, the main campaign loses a bit of its appeal. Compared to its immediate competition -- Burnout, Split/Second -- it's just average. So why worry?

But is it actually fair to compare Unbounded to the rest of Ridge Racer? Given that it's obviously supposed to be something else, does that mean it automatically fails at being the original something just because it has its name on it? I don't think so.

Slow and steady

Ridge Racer fans get a lot of guff, usually indirectly, in reviews of recent sequels that call the games samey, too traditional, and other well-worn platitudes. And like other "threatened" fans of things, they have a standard set of defenses, and one of the main ones is the claim that RR games are just simple and proud arcade racers like always, and that the games themselves have always been just fine. I agree with that, but that's because I love arcade racers, so of course I'm going to recognize and deal with sameyness, because I still want the fun that I know I can rely on.

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But I'm also starkly aware that Ridge Racer games have not been putting butts in seats. Since the PlayStation 2, they've only come once a generation, right at the beginning, and then never on the same system again (except Ridge Racers 2 on PSP). At the PS2 launch in Japan, Ridge Racer V was pretty much the best game you could get (and Tekken Tag), because the rest of the lineup was unanimously decided to be crap. With the Western PS2 launch, that wasn't so much the case, because then you had SSX, Madden, and several more worth caring about. It was even less the case when the PSP arrived: most people talked up Lumines, Wipeout and Metal Gear Acid. And now even less so with the PS Vita, where people are drawn in by Uncharted, Wipeout (again), Lumines (again), Rayman, Marvel, and the 20-or-so other launch games. And it's extra precarious, too, because the newest Ridge Racer has been widely panned for having no real single-player modes, not running at 60 fps, and relying on paid add-ons to pad out what's otherwise a husk of a game. That may be expected and even work with Ridge Racer Accelerated on iOS, but could Namco not foresee RR Vita averaging two out of five stars on the PlayStation Store user ratings?

Nevertheless, when "fans" voice their opinion about Unbounded -- and I put that word in quotes only because I can't prove exactly how loyal everyone's been to the series over the years -- the underlying question is, why put the words "Ridge Racer" on it in the first place? The answer doesn't really require a communications degree. Ridge Racer, despite a glacial slide into irrelevancy, is still a brand a lot of gamers recognize. If you like racing games and were big into the PS1, this is a given, and you don't need to play any new ones to remember the name. This is what Namco banks on, and they still make Ridge Racer games, so it makes business sense.

And if they wanted to sign on Bugbear to make a racing game, what reasonable choice did they have but to include the brand of their only active racing franchise? Frankly, this isn't 2004, when everybody was trying to make their own Gran Turismo. Capcom and Konami had theirs, but Namco had the most, and kept throwing in racing games with wild abandon. Ridge Racer! MotoGP! Alpine Racer! Street Racing Syndicate! Not to mention R: Racing Evolution, a sort-of-not-really Ridge Racer spin-off that tried to be more like a sim, but ended up so thorougly boring that it evolved itself into the bargain bin. And that was the one they really tried to push -- ports on every console, ads all over the place, and almost no payoff. 

Since then, the playing field has leveled out, and that's just made it even harder to get a foot in. Racing games, at least on this side of the world, are a two-course meal at this point: You play either Gran Turismo or Forza, and those wanting something less realistic are playing Need for Speed, or more often than not, Real Racing HD. With an ever-dimming spotlight for racers that aren't simulations or at least have real cars in them, if you were a Namco executive, you'd probably start looking for workable options elsewhere, too.

Basically, Ridge Racer is the Dynasty Warriors of racing games. They're both around for system launches, their sequels rarely have any sweeping changes, and they both have a marginalized sect of loyal fans that grumble amongst themselves when a big website predictably gives new installments a bad review. But they're both still around, with no clear end in sight. I don't see Unbounded changing that whether it succeeds or fails, especially when Ridge Racer's lack of change has only made it more unique. The hyper-stylish cars plastered with names of Xevious enemies, the gorgeous track designs, and the insanely unrealistic drifting are what's remembered most, not another game where you break stuff. You should probably get used to paying $5 for new cars, though.