Replay Value: 8
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Namco Bandai
One of, if not the most anticipated PSP launch games is Ridge Racers. The PS2 launched with a Ridge Racer game, but that was the last we've seen of the series, until now. Ridge Racers is a compilation of sorts, as it features cars and tracks from many of the previous games in the series. People with way too much time on their hands will be pleased to know that the mascot from Ridge 1-4, Reiko Nagase, is back to tantalize you in the game's FMV opening. The game's menus are in English, though some options and sub-menus are in Japanese, so keep in mind that some subtleties of the game may have been lost in translation.
You can choose from a single race, a time attack, or you can race a series. There is only one series available at the start, and only three cars, but as you win, you'll unlock more cars and more races. Some of the tracks from previous games are Greenpeak Highlands, Heaven & Hell, and Sunny Beach; and cars from other Ridge games include the Himmel E.O, Assolute Fatalita, and the Soldat Raggio. The races start off rather easy, but they can get tough quickly, especially if you don't master the game's drifting system. To earn boost, you must slide around tight turns, and the longer you slide, the better. Some of the slides get a bit ridiculous though, as you'll be perpendicular to the walls, yet you're still going 150mph.
One thing missing when racing is the feeling that you're actually racing against other cars, because it feels more like you're going against the clock. Sure you'll pass cars here and there, but they don't put up much of a fight, there is rarely more than one on screen at a time, and once you pass them they're nothing more than an afterthought, unless you wreck. As a result, the main challenge comes from trying to run a perfect lap, which makes the races feel like a time trial.
The analog control takes about a race to get used to, but once you become accustomed to the stick's range of motion, it works very well. The load times are very reasonable, though they are a hair longer than you'd expect to wait on a console. Many of the races are a bit too long, but the PSP's sleep feature allows you to simply put the unit to sleep mid-race, and you can come back later to pick up right where you left off.
The first of many times you'll be blown away with the visuals is the FMV opening, which features Reiko and various close-ups of a car that has small drops of water running down the sides - the clarity is stunning. Another impressive aspect of the graphics is the large color palette that the game utilizes. The cars are colorful, and the levels, particularly the one where the sun is setting, are nothing short of beautiful. Once the game gets moving, you'll notice a smooth framerate, reflections on the cars, and other little touches like planes flying over and large video screens showing the race action as it happens.
The screen has too much information on it, as there's a speedometer, a map, and the display that shows your current lap position is enormous. Since the screen is so large, this isn't a horrible problem, but the game would be even more gorgeous if the display was a little less cluttered. The replays are ridiculous - they look phenomenal. If you aren't sold on the power of the PSP, just 30 seconds of the TV-style replays will change your mind. They use dynamic camera angles, show more than one car at once in full detail, and they never stutter at all.
The only issue with the game's visual presentation is that early in the game, there's no real sense of speed. This is primarily because you have the slower cars in the game, but even then 150mph doesn't really feel like 150. Since many of the tracks feature uphill sections, you'll often drop below 100mph, which feels like a slow Sunday drive - something that shouldn't happen in an arcade racer. Once you get the faster cars and you start earning more boost, the problem lessens, but it's still a minor issue.
The quality of Ridge Racers' audio, while not perfect, is easily the best ever heard on a handheld. There's a wide variety of music, and the clarity is amazing, especially when using a good pair of headphones. The soundtrack features classic tunes from the Ridge Racer series, as well as remixes of familiar themes. While the sound quality of these songs is good, many of the songs are tough on the ears. You can select a song before the race, so you're never stuck listening to a stinker, but you can't change it once the race starts, which is disappointing.
Ridge Racers features wireless play, but owning a Japanese PSP in Virginia makes it impossible to test. However, various sites have reported that it works very well, it's easy to set up, and there is no lag to speak of.
Ridge Racers isn't a particularly deep game, but it's easily the best handheld racer ever. Will people being saying that this time next year? Probably not, but as of right now the gorgeous graphics and fun gameplay make it the launch game to own.