When the tires kiss the street

Racing simulations are probably great. I wouldn’t really know, given that whole thing where I am terrible at them.

I’ve said as much before. Gran Turismo? Lovely. Forza Motorsport? Amazing. My skills at them? Not so much. I’m much more inclined to Ridge Racer Type 4.

I can no longer go so far as to say it is the greatest arcade racer of all time. Criterion Games has probably made the top three on that list, if not the top five. Still, there is something in at game that I keep going back to.

That says something when it comes to a PlayStation game. I think it likely that the PS1/N64 generation of consoles will go down as the worst ever when it comes to how well the games stand up. Those early polygonal graphics were, well, ugly, and for the most part no one had yet figured out how 3D games should control.

Racers never had this problem. Going back to the earliest entries in the genre, they had been using the faux-3D behind-the-car camera angles that translated seamlessly into the 3D space. The practical upshot was that, from the go, racers were able to refine their games, rather than defining.

The Ridge Racer series was one of the first to push that refining process. From its arcade start it was one of the best-regarded games of the generation, equaled only by Daytona USA among others in the genre.

Daytona, tragically, never made such a successful transition to the home consoles. Ridge Racer did, becoming such a staple that there has been a Ridge Racer launch title for at least four home consoles and two portables. Successful as they’ve been, though, the quality has varied wildly on the games, and for my money none has yet surpassed R4.

It takes some thinking to figure out why this is. After all, no list of “greatest games” has ever included a Ridge Racer game over Gran Turismo, nor would I even argue that it should. Then again, that is not to say that these games had no influence; I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the afore-mentioned Criterion’s own Paradise City from Burnout Paradise owes more than a little debt to Ridge Racer and its setting in Ridge City. Still, I don’t think that really says enough about what I love.

Ruminating reveals a few reasons why I love the game so much. The racing is great, incorporating elements of drifting that would have made me a lot more successful if I had understood them way back when I first played it. Fucking shockingly, the game’s narratives are actually sort of interesting, as barebones as they are. There are four racing teams, each of which has a distinct story. They are just dressing for the racing, a small perceptual “why?” for the drivin’-real-fast parts, but they add a little frisson that I find enjoyable. The graphics are good, especially for the era, and the car designs and tracks are rad. It all just… works together.

None of these things are the thing, though. The thing that really matters is, in what is fast becoming a grand tradition on this site, the music. The earlier Ridge Racer games were very good, even to the music, but this game was different. It was great.

One of the constant questions about games, at least in the overly pretentious places that I follow, is how music fits in a game’s creation. The sound design is obviously important to creating the game’s mood, from realistic to madcap. The graphics and design give us the literal metaphor by which we relate to the game. The controls, at their best, keep us from chucking the controller across the room. These things and more have developed a place in the idiom that can be easily understood.

Music is different. It is most often just a passive aspect, something that keeps the game from being silent as we run and jump and play in whatever world we have chosen to inhabit. Even the greatest and most influential games tend not to use the music for anything more than decoration.

This is a fact of game creation that is being explored and pushed against in some circles, even as a lot of the biggest games, from Grand Theft Auto to Rock Band, give up on creating music in the first place, instead licensing tracks that people already know. This track licensing was barely possible before the advent of CD media for games (although it certainly did happen from time to time).

This was one area where the original PlayStation has a chance to stand up. The graphics are frequently comical, but music licensing was not yet rampant. This meant that the games got original high quality music, some of which is legendary. I posit that R4‘s music might be the best of the bunch.

This folds into the role music plays in gameplay. On their face, R4‘s songs are just another static soundtrack, but in practice, they are much more. I picked my brother’s brain for memories that I might fold into this post, and he remembered the music just like I did. On listening to it again, he was taken right back into the game. Sure, the music may have just been meant as decoration, but if you were going to master the game, it also served as a marker. Reaching a certain point in the race by a certain point in the song became, at least for us, a de rigeur part of the game. The music told us if we were good enough.

Just like my brother, I listened to the soundtrack again. Just like him, I was pulled right back into the game. And maybe that is what game music is about. The Mario theme was just a song, but we all still know it nearly thirty years later. That has to mean something.

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