If there’s any racing game series that deserves to be called ubiquitous then Ridge Racer definitely fits the bill. Sure, EA rolls out Need for Speed these days to just about anything with a processor and a screen, but Ridge Racer has now appeared on so many platforms in so many guises that we’re beginning to suspect that it’s illegal to launch a new console without it. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. While there are a few duff instalments - Ridge Racer V on the PS2 and Ridge Racer DS spring instantly to mind - you normally know what you’re getting. At worst, it’ll be a good, solid arcade racer. At best, as with Ridge Racer IV on the first PlayStation or Ridge Racer 2 on the PSP, you’ll get one of the finest racers on the system.
And so it goes with Ridge Racer 3D. It’s not the 3DS showcase game it could have been, but it’s a safe bet that if you (a) like arcade racing games and (b) have just bought a 3DS, then you’ll be happy that you bought it. We suspect, however, that this is will go down as one of the good Ridge Racers rather than one of the great ones.
Visually, it’s a slightly mixed effort. On the one hand, the 3D effect works really, really well, giving the track ahead a real sense of distance, and objects a perceptible depth. When it’s working, Ridge Racer is all about keeping your focus locked on the horizon and reading every twist and turn of the track ahead, and the third dimension actively helps here. On the other hand, Ridge Racer 3D doesn’t quite match up to what you might hope for from a Ridge Racer on a brand, spanking new handheld games machine. The graphics are a bit primitive, the textures look rough, and fancy-pants lighting and blurring effects are nowhere to be seen. It looks marginally better than Ridge Racer 2 on the PSP, but there’s still a vast, oceanic gap between this and Ridge Racers 6 or 7 on the 360 and PS3.
The controls, however, work superbly. Ridge Racer has never been about realistic handling - the ludicrous, artificial drifting that kicks in when you stab the brakes then place your thumb back on the accelerator is one of those things that you learn through hours of play, rather than because it makes any sort of intuitive sense. All we can say about Ridge Racer 3D is that if you’ve spent those hours and developed the drift instinct, then this will seem instantly familiar, with the new 3DS thumbstick doing wonders for steering around corners and maintaining control while sliding sideways.
The boost and slipstream mechanics are also carried over from recent Ridge Racers, allowing you to pick up speed and accelerate past rival racers by driving in their trail, and a three-part boost gauge you fill by drifting. The nitrous can either be accumulated and spent once one block is filled, or you can fill two or three blocks for a more effective boost. The AI, meanwhile, is as elastic as it ever was, with cars miraculously slowing down to give you a fighting chance, or speeding up to give you some competition when you forge ahead. It’s occasionally irritating, but it helps keep each race exciting from the start line until the checkered flag.
The good news, then, is that Ridge Racer 3D looks and feels like Ridge Racer in 3D. The gameplay is as oddly compulsive as ever, and there’s a lot of single-player content here to work through, with a lengthy Grand Prix mode that takes you through a series of branching championships, earning credits and unlocking new cars, new custom options and new championships as you go. The further the game goes on, the better it gets, as new cars up the speed and the pace, and necessitate a whole new level of focused concentration. The problem isn’t that this isn’t Ridge Racer; it’s that it doesn’t do anything that new.
For instance, the tracks are classic Ridge Racer - full of long straights, twisty ascending and descending sections and tight turns, and packed with fabulous scenery, ranging from waterfalls to coastal villages and Buddhist temples. However, they all seem to be remixes of old Ridge Racer 6 and 7 efforts, which don’t always look so great given the 3DS version’s graphical limitations. Worse, each is recycled mercilessly in backwards and forwards variants, across the Grand Prix mode. And while the Grand Prix mode works perfectly well, it’s a bit of a lazy, dated single-player structure, with little beyond the lure of new cars and custom bits to keep you going. There’s compensation in the form of time trial modes and a rather nifty quick tour mode - you tell it what time you have and it works out a selection of events to fill it - but you can’t help wishing that Namco would do something just a little more exciting.
It’s also a shame to see one key feature missing. We do get Mii support, with the option of a Mii picture or a digital photo hovering above your car when you race in multiplayer games, and there’s some good use made of Nintendo’s StreetPass feature, where sleeping 3DS consoles can swap ghost-race data, allowing you to race against strangers without actually playing them online. However, real simultaneous multiplayer is limited to local play, with no online option whatsoever. We know that this is how the Japanese market likes it, but what about us in the West?
Finally, we have to moan a bit about the audio side of things. The soundtrack is exactly what you’d expect; all pumping dance and trance mixes, best listened to on headphones with the sound turned up near maximum. However, there’s no way of escaping the spectacularly annoying commentary, with a young lady who misses no opportunity to mention your superb cornering, the fact that you’re slipstreaming, or how likely you are to overtake the next guy, at every single bleeding opportunity. It’s excruciatingly annoying, though after a while you learn to rise above it with the zen-like detachment that high-level Ridge Racer play demands.
Ridge Racer 3D has some graphical rough edges, but it’s a perfectly decent Ridge Racer, and a thoroughly entertaining arcade racing game. However, the only really new things it brings to the series are the StreetPass duel mode and 3D, while the recycled tracks grow tired long before you’ve exhausted all the events that the career mode has to offer. This is definitely one of the better DS launch titles, but if you’re looking for something fresh and new, then Ridge Racer 3D might be a little disappointing.