One of my fondest gaming memories revolves around the launch of the Sony PlayStation back in the mid-1990s. I was in my early twenties at that point, out of college, married, and a dad. I'd been what would have been called a "hardcore gamer" in my youth (up through high school, actually), but then I sort of lost interest. I started doing all those "grown up" things and just didn't have much time or interest in gaming. So, when the PlayStation originally came out, I didn't buy one. I did, however, work as an assistant manager at a Blockbuster Video store (oh the horror stories I could tell you…) and we had a kiosk with a PlayStation, a Saturn, and the greatly lamented Virtual Boy. Needless to say, this kiosk was a really bad idea—productivity in my particular Blockbuster Video store dropped significantly while those kiosks were up and running. And while the PlayStation launch (and its aftermath) was pretty light on good games, there was one title that kept me and my boss occupied through many a boring afternoon: Ridge Racer. The shiny graphics and the ease of the pick-up-and-play game mechanics kept us glued to the game for what seemed like months. Each day was a constant series of races to see who could get the best time on each track. We played the game almost obsessively, until they finally pulled the kiosks from the stores.
Ridge Racer didn't get me to buy a PlayStation (that honor fell to Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and Suikoden), but it did certainly rekindle my passion for the medium. I had a lot of fun with games from that era, but Ridge Racer will always hold an extra special place in my heart because it alleviated the tedium of my dead end job for so many afternoons.
So, how fitting is it that in 2006 I'm sitting on my couch with a shiny new Xbox 360 playing a copy of Ridge Racer 6? Pretty fitting, in my estimation.
Say what you will about the Ridge Racer games (and we've all heard the various complaints), it's hard to deny they're fun. They're almost an anachronism in a gaming world where innovation and style are generally viewed more important than enjoyment (even if the innovative game sucks it still gets critical praise for being different in most cases). And yet, Namco keeps churning out sequels and variations on the theme. Ridge Racer 6 is no different.
The game's greatest strength is also its hugest flaw—it's Ridge Racer. The series hasn't evolved in any meaningful way in over a decade. It's an arcade racer that anyone can pick up and play. It's not a deep game, it's not a "driving simulation", and it's certainly not something for gearheads to spend hours obsessing over. What it is is a simple game where driving fast is king. If you want something more than that, you're best advised to look elsewhere. All the things that made the previous games fun (or lame, depending on one's view of the franchise) are back here—with one key addition: drift racing.
That's right, everyone's favorite street racing phenomenon is now a key component of the Ridge Racer experience. Not only will players be required to drive fast, but the developers have taken things a step further by entirely eliminating the need to use that pesky brake button. See that hairpin curve? Don't slow down, just manually adjust the nose of your car so that you can slide right through the turn, then accelerate back to full speed as you come out! You'll never have to buy brake pads again!
And really, that's Ridge Racer 6 in a nutshell. The game that had the sole objective of "drive really fast" for all these years now has a new wrinkle: Drive really fast and skid through every turn. While games like Project Gotham Racing 3 are doling out "kudos" for pulling off cool maneuvers and Need for Speed is showcasing great computer A.I., Ridge Racer is like the kid who comes to show and tell with a pocket full of pogs while everyone else shows off their PSP—he's gonna be sitting by himself at recess.
All that being said, there's some fun to be had in the experience that is Ridge Racer 6—at least for a while. Driving fast and skidding through turns is pretty easy and moderately fun in a "don't strain your brain" sort of way. Blasting NOS at every turn can let players live out their "Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious" fantasies as well. Then reality comes crashing back in—in the form of repetition. Ridge Racer 6 boasts a ton of different race routes, but the gameplay is so simplistic that the track variety never matters. Every race tends to play out in the same fashion—move up through the pack, drift, hit the NOS, lather, rinse, repeat.
This issue might not be so bad if there were a ton of cool unlockables to acquire for improving one's driving acumen, but sadly, there's not much to get excited about in this regard. The game has a ton of cars, but none of them are licensed—so you'll spend a lot of time unlocking a series of increasingly more generic roadsters to scratch your lead footed itch. Telling one make-believe car from another in terms of performance is generally an exercise in futility since they all seem to drive in essentially similar ways.
The cars sure are shiny, though! While most of Ridge Racer 6 looks like it would have been at home on the original Xbox, the developers have at least put some extra polish on the vehicles. They're shiny and they reflect all kinds of crazy light, but they never take any damage, no matter how many times the player drives them into a wall. The environments are less impressive, with a noticeable lack of textures throughout. In a lot of ways, a typical race is sort of like driving a shiny new Ferrari through a tunnel papered with crayon drawings from a kindergarten class. Ok, it's not really that distracting—but you get the picture. There's a noticeable difference in the quality of the car graphics and the surrounding environments.
Audio-wise, the game is pretty disappointing. There's a lot of generic techno-pop (which seems like a requirement for racing games these days) and a super-annoying announcer dude who's trying way too hard to be street. Fortunately, you can shut this guy off—and that's a feature you'll be taking advantage of after about two races.
Despite my sarcasm and nit-picking, Ridge Racer 6 is a decent game. It has moments where it's genuinely fun, but these are too soon replaced by a sense of tedium as the "been there, done that" element comes to color later races. Playing online mode could alleviate some of these problems, but let's be honest—people who have an Xbox 360 are playing games like Project Gotham Racing 3 and Need for Speed: Most Wanted to get their online racing needs met. The biggest disappointment of all though is how the game just doesn't look or feel very "next gen." Granted, this is the critical buzzword that will appear in every Xbox 360 review until a really great title comes along, but it's also justified. There's really nothing to set Ridge Racer 6 apart from the racing titles we could be playing on the original Xbox, which leads the more cynical amongst us (e.g. yours truly) to wonder if we really needed the next gen to start this early. That's an argument for another day though. Ridge Racer 6 is the weakest of the three 360 launch racing games, but it can still provide a few hours worth of entertainment.