Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 19...

When it came to indestructible muscle cars smashing through traffic there were several other games that Ridge Racer Unbounded could have been the sequel to. Need for Speed and Burnout were the two most obvious choices. Fans wondered aloud why Ridge Racer? Never in a million years would fans have expected to see that happen to the franchise. Fans after all complained about how unrealistic it was that the cars in Japanese racing games never could get dented and yet the entire premise for Unbounded was that these cars were powerful enough to tear through concrete and steel rebar pylons without so much as a scratch. In addition to the name there was a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that Namco could not acheive.

The studio had given players a franchise that was the definition of street drifting super cars. The focus was on the cars and the races, not about destruction and dirty driving. All of a sudden the laws of physics had changed. Instead of being lightweight and nimble the race cars carried the mass of a runaway freight train and were made out of indestructible material.That type of sudden change with the IP was absurd. It was as if someone that had never played the original Ridge Racer was trying to convince audiences that these were the best parts of the series. Even the official art for the game showed a strong contrast from the previous entries. Earlier campaigns featured Reiko and some futuristic performance cars racing around her. The new campaign featured gang leader Kara Shindo with cars smashing through a wall behind her. Racing wasn't even implied, but destruction certainly was!

Mind you that Bugbear created a very fun game. I would be a liar if I said that Unbounded was not a very memorable experience. In fact had the game been released without the Ridge Racer label I probably would have promoted it heavily to my friends. It was in the vein of the previously mentioned action racers and could be considered one of the better takes on the genre. Visually the game was stunning. The car models and level details appeared completely destructible. Paint chipped, panels shattered and glass sprayed in all directions as racers tore through the streets of Shatterbay city. The cars weren't the only things that broke apart. Walls, windows, pylons, fences and just about anything that a driver slammed into would break apart. It was on par if not superior to the visuals featured in other AAA action racing games including the Criterion remake of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.

Bugbear had developed an advanced 3D engine that they had originally created for the game FlatOut. All it took was the addition for a drifting mechanic and some actual race modes and Namco seemed willing to sign off on the Ridge Racer name. It's tough to knock Bugbear for the quality action racer that they released. There were tons of cars to unlock, race types to master and content to discover. Long-time arcade fans had to relearn the racing experience and it was okay. Instead of avoiding obstacles and opponents the best lines were found by breaking through buildings and creating shortcuts. If opponents were being particularly stubborn then there was nothing more rewarding than sending them flipping end over end with a perfectly executed Takedown, or rather "Frag." Even Burnout and Need for Speed had gone through periods where they seemed completely tapped for ideas. Unbouded slid right into their spot and gave audiences something new.

The visuals in Unbounded were very well done. The game made good use of lighting filters, for example it cast strong shadows across the metropolis as the sun set. Blending lights into long streaks that curved and followed the players as they activated their nitro boost was another unique visual treat. The environments had a sense of realism to them. The signage, architecture, layout, rail cars and supporting details all screamed New York City and the surrounding boroughs. A race played out very much like the best parts of car chases in the movies. Newsstands could be smashed to splinters, sending newspapers and magazines all over the road. Planters and tables would be scattered off the street corners like rubbish in a strong wind. Trees could be bowled over and leaves would come cascading down onto opponents. If a light post were upended then the remaining crater would be left shooting sparks. The flimsy gates in parking garages could be driven through with reckless abandon. Gas pumps could even be toppled, causing an entire gas station to explode in the wake of the racer. Like Burnout and Carmageddon it was basically a way for gamers to get out their aggression and drive in a way that they always wanted to without fear of injury or death. It was the sense of permanence that helped make each lap memorable. In other games the debris and after effects of a wreck would be cleared off the road. Not in this game. Fires would remain burning, craters smoldering and broken fences would remain clipped lap after lap. Players would not only be rewarded for taking down opponents but also targeting buildings controlled by crooked city officials. Creating collateral damage was as important as finishing each race in first place.

Unbounded made good use of cinematic touches to break up the extended periods of destruction. Cuts to slow motion and lap timers that would appear as giant floating letters helped "reset" the attention of the player. After several races the player learned that the game surmounted to destruction pornography. It was most decidedly targeted to young men that enjoyed fast cars and lots of explosions. It was the type of racing game that Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer would have created if they knew a thing about making games. In fact the entire experience of Unbounded quickly became more about the spectacle than the substance. It was something that had caused the Need for Speed and Burnout series to suffer as well.

There was a game that could be considered a predecessor to Unbounded I have not yet mentioned in this series. Blackrock Studio had released a game called Split/Second for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2010. That game was as well rated as Unbounded and the better Burnout and Need for Speed titles. It also featured fictional race cars tearing up fictional courses. The premise was simple, the drivers were competing on a television show that revolved around racing and explosions. Players could trigger level-changing events called "Power Plays." Freeways and bridges would collapse, rockslides would come crashing down and construction equipment would go haywire. All of these things were designed to help wipe rivals off the courses and open up new areas to race through. The game was sheer spectacle and fans couldn't get enough of it.

Arcade fans would remember that the tilt of the screen from side to side when players drifted around corners in both Split/Second and Unbounded was poached from Rave Racer. The control in Split/Second was pretty good for a first-time action racer. Although to be fair Blackrock studio had plenty of experience working in the racing format with titles like ATV Offroad Fury, MotoGP, Hot Wheels: Stunt Track Challenge and Pure. The hardest part for the studio would have been figuring out how to incorporate Power Plays without breaking the playability of the game. It must have taken a lot of work to keep the pace of the game fluid. If the location of event triggers were too close then players might end up wiping themselves out along with opponents. If they were too far apart then rivals would be able to react and get out of the way. Blackrock Studio found the sweet spot and made it so that racers had enough time to enjoy the scale of entire buildings collapsing all around them while finding the right line to make it out alive.

The car designs in Split/Second were a mix of muscle and futurism. There were trucks, and sports cars with Japanese and European influences as well. They were quite unlike those in Need for Speed or any of the other western produced racing games. It made me wish that the title would have had a sequel as was promised in the end credits. The cars in Unbounded did not have the staying power of Split/Second or any of the other western developed games. It was yet another reason why fans of the series could not bring themselves to accept that Unbounded fell within Ridge Racer canon. The next blog will look specifically at the Ridge Racer cars that weren't.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 18...

Namco (now Namco Bandai) published a game called Ridge Racer Unbounded in 2012. The game was developed by the Finnish studio Bugbear Entertainment. To say that it was a change of pace would be a severe understatement. The debut trailer for Unbounded was very dark and brooding. It had none of the atmosphere of the classic arcade series or even the more recent console updates.

In the intro players could see a pristine white race car driving down the streets of the gritty Shatterbay City. It turned down an alleyway that was littered and covered in graffiti. Clearly this town had seen better days. There were a few sponsor logos on the white car, leading audiences to believe that it was a traditional Ridge Racer car. The unseen driver pulled up to a dark corner of the alley and got out. The steam rising from the sewers obscured the character somewhat.

Audiences didn't get a good look at this character but based on her body shape and haircut they could assume that it was Reiko Nagase or a Reiko clone. This driver found a black muscle car in the shadows and got in it. Apparently the racing scene in Shatterbay City featured sinister-looking unmarked muscle cars instead of the sponsored racers from Ridge City. It was a sort of yin and yang for car fans. If this was Reiko then she became an illegal street racer at night when she was not an idol for the residents of Ridge City.

The new "edgy" Ridge Racer Unbounded intro talked about the "outcasts." Apparently Reiko, or someone assuming her role had become one of the marginalized masses. Speaking for them she declared that "we are the unbounded, we are the lawless." What that meant was sort of nebulous. Yes they could have been illegal street racers, like those in the Need for Speed series but as the intro played out it became something much darker. As the intro continued the character fixed the rear view mirror in this new car and winked at the player. It certainly did look like Reiko was driving, only she had slightly longer hair. The license plate on the back of the car read RIDGE. Bugbear was clearly calling out to fans of the franchise in the new opening. What happened next would leave those fans speechless.

Instead of taking her ride onto the streets the character hit the accelerator and came barreling out of the alleyway. She blindsided a taxi cab, sending it flying into other cars and buildings. She plowed through traffic seemingly without remorse or regret. The character went from a friendly face to a crazed psychopath in a matter of seconds. At least in Carmageddon audiences were "in" on the joke that it was a dystopian future and all of the participants in the macabre race were out of their minds. Why the character would do this in the very beginning of Unbounded was not known.

It made little to no sense that Namco would agree to sign off the franchise name on a title this violent . The studio couldn't even commit to naming R: Racing Evolution a sequel to Ridge Racer. That game featured actual cars and no violence whatsoever. The Ridge Racer legacy seemed precious to the company a decade earlier. What the game had become was unrecognizable from its roots. The next blog will begin to peel apart Unbounded layer by layer and try to understand it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Racing Tangent, part 3...

Games like Destruction Derby and Carmageddon set the standard for reckless racing experiences. If the titles lacked anything however it would be realism. The titles did have cars that responded realistically to crashes but the violence and design of the games was way over-the-top, almost to the point of being cartoonish. The games could be interpreted as a satire of western tastes, Carmageddon was based on the cult movie Death Race after all. What some audiences were hoping to see were actual production cars, exotics and sports cars as well, participate in the violent races. When Gran Turismo debuted in 1997 many fans were disappointed that the car models were impossible to damage. These were not necessarily sociopaths looking to practice outbursts of road rage, but rather racing fans that wanted to experience the handling of a performance car if it did get in a minor scrape. Polyphony ignored the requests from the public at large, including the Japanese community, and did not introduce models that could be damaged until much later on in the series. By contrast some of the early PC titles tried to include a sense of realism in their design. The auto magazines like Hot Rod, Road and Track, as well as Car and Driver were licensed to produce some early racing games. These games featured actual performance machines and advanced physics engines. The most popular PC game to make the transition from PC simulator to arcade-style racer to console icon was Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed. The Road and Track name was dropped early on. The end result was a game that answered the question of what would happen if super cars could race against each other on the street. How would the police respond to them and how well would players have to drive in order to avoid the speed traps?

Electronic Arts published the series beginning in 1994. It lacked the advanced visuals, control and soundtrack that made Sega and Namco racers successful during that same time. It made up for it by offering a different experience for players. More important, it was bringing this experience to PC users at home. The games suffered a little bit as they were ported to the consoles but they planet the seeds for a new type of adventure racing that was completely unlike any other series to date. The breakaway hit was Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit in 1998. In the early versions of the game speed traps would be triggered by driving far past the speed limit for extended periods of time. The exotic cars that the player could chose from were equipped with illegal radar detectors. Finding the balance between winning a race and avoiding the cops could be frustrating and rewarding at the same time. By the time Hot Pursuit came out the cops were equipped with their own performance cars, making the chases far more interesting. The publisher explored different versions of the street racing scene as pop culture changed. Hip Hop excess and the import scene gave birth to the Need for Speed (NFS) Underground and Most Wanted revisions.

As graphics engines improved and storage capacity increased exponentially on the consoles so did the ability for developers to really wow players. At the tail end of the Playstation 2 and Xbox consoles and the rise of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 it was possible to create car models that could crumple and break apart in spectacular fashion. Particle effect generators could add smoke, fire, sparks and shattering glass to high speed collisions, making them appear far more realistic than ever before. A developer named Criterion would completely redefine the genre in 2001. The Acclaim-published Burnout series would become representative of the modern racing experience. It combined brilliant visuals, culled from years of PC development, with superb controls. This was no different from earlier NFS titles. Where the two differed was that Burnout rewarded players for driving ruthlessly. The ability to slam opponents into oncoming traffic or flip them over initiated the trademark "Takedown." As much as Criterion would like to take credit for the innovations they were actually predated by the boosting and takedown mechanism in Taito's arcade hit Chase H.Q. The frenetic 3D smashing in Destruction Derby also gave console owners a reason to drive reckelessly. Even the Burnout box art featuring cars exploding and flipped upside down was poached from Destruction Derby box art. The cars in Burnout were not based on actual production cars but were modeled after several of the big names. The lack of licensed cars did nothing to stop the series from becoming a runaway success like the Ridge Racer series was originally. It was the updated spin on racing that made it memorable.

By comparison EA was having a difficult time finding a niche for NFS. The series did have great visuals and fun gameplay but Burnout matched it mile for mile and also threw in the chaos element. EA was guilty of following the trends from other big western publishers. When the major studios had a hit on their hands they more often than not would begin cranking out sequel after sequel on an annual basis. Sometimes the publisher would have two different developers work on the same series and alternate the releases every year so that the games had a two year development cycle. This was the case for EA as they had Criterion Games and Black Box working on the series. Despite two years in the pipeline each game felt rushed and disjointed. The studios never communicated with each other, shared assets or notes. The lessons they learned, mistakes they made or entirely new gameplay elements they created were unknown to each other. There was no consistency and audiences could see this. They had gone through the same thing in other genres, from music to sports titles published by companies like Activision and Ubisoft as well. The NFS series suffered from "sequilitis" and audiences began voting with their wallet.

Eventually EA learned their lesson and hired Criterion to put the franchise back on track. The developer started by remaking Hot Pursuit in 2010, more than a decade after the original hit. It included all of the elements that made NFS a great series. The high performance cars, exotic landscapes, amazing visuals and technically challenging courses. It also threw in new crash physics and highly detailed models into the mix. As exciting as the racing became it also became far darker and more violent than the original developers had meant for it to be. This was a reflection of the trends happening to adventure games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider.

Ever the tend spotters the Japanese were eager to change their own franchises to fit into the new Western aesthetics and capitalize on the buying masses. A remake of Devil May Cry and Bionic Commando, two popular games by Capcom, featured dark and brooding redesigns of the main characters. This decision did not go over well with fans of the classic games. It did not matter if the new titles were developed by Western studios, they still had to get the okay from the parent company. It would only be a matter of time before Namco would follow the trends as well. What they did to the Ridge Racer series could be considered sacrilegious. The next blog will look at the game that left long-time fans wondering what happened to the beloved series.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Racing Tangent, part 2...

Through the '80s the West was in a race to develop the best arcade games, their console games weren't known however for being exceptional. Japan seemed to excel at every step of the process and had created genres on the consoles that would be copied for the next three decades. The best that the US developers could do was play catch up and try to have a game in the vein of a popular Japanese title for the fledgling Nintendo and Sega systems. There was one niche however where the Japanese had no foothold in and would struggle to keep up with. When it came to computer gaming the Japanese publishers did not invest a lot of time or resources compared to the rest of the world. Consoles were growing at an exponential pace and audiences were starved for content. The money was therefore in the console market. Computers were powerful but more expensive and took up a much smaller slice of the entertainment pie. Computer games ran the gamut of experiences. Mostly education titles and the occasional arcade port. Some of the most memorable experiences took advantage of the advanced storage capacity and graphics engines that computers supported. Young developers and self-taught programmers from the West cut their teeth on computers like the Amiga and Commodore 64 in the '80s. They learned how to program simple game engines and trade games with the homebrew community. By the '90s these young programmers were making headway in their own 3D game engines.

Namco and Sega were pouring millions of R&D money to get their in-house teams up to speed with 3D during the '90s as well. The games they unleashed in the arcade were amazing however the computer users in the US, UK and Europe were creating their own 3D titles to enjoy at home. Suddenly the sprite-based consoles seemed obsolete by comparison. When Sony, Sega and Nintendo began to pursue 3D technology for the next generation of hardware some of the best games would not be coming from Japan. This trend would continue from the mid '90s through the new millennium. The Western publishers began to harness the processing power of newer consoles and the talent reserves of computer game designers to create cutting-edge 3D experiences. One of the first things that Western publishers did was introduce the Western ideals of graphic violence into the industry. First person shooters like Wolfenstein (1992) and Doom (1993) were the proving ground for the modding community. Players in the US enjoyed the over-the-top violence provided in FPS titles. As graphics technology improved Western developers seemed to relish in how much more visceral they could make their main characters appear. That especially was the case with the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles. Suddenly characters were presented with as much detail as those used in CGI films.

Naughty Dog for example created an adventure series called Uncharted: Drake's Fortune in 2007. It revolved around the fictional explorer Nathan Drake. The series was a testament to Western gameplay and Western aesthetics. The studio had presented a believable adventure with just the right mix of exploration and gun-fighting to satiate most audiences. The character and environments were not pristine and idealized. Instead they were gritty and detailed. As the series progressed Nathan became slightly more disheveled. When the game was first previewed at the E3 in 2006 the character was clean-cut yet that quickly changed when the game came out and as the sequels came out. He had become as weather beaten as his clothes by the time the final game in the series, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception was released in 2011.

As the Uncharted series progressed audiences could see the world becoming darker and more graphic. This was a precursor to the visceral experience that Naughty Dog had planned in the 2013 hit The Last of Us. The main characters Joel and Ellie were very easy to identify with because they were some of the most realistic characters ever featured in a game. All of the experience that the West had with computer programming was made apparent in the game. In the '90s companies were trying to figure out how to create realistic hair on a character, two decades later they were not only creating realistic hair but also eyes, skin, mouths, muscles and skeletons. These new figures were able to emote with facial expressions and body gestures that were uncannily good. Audiences developed genuine concern for Joel and Ellie as they tried to survive in a world following an epidemic.

By comparison the once popular Tomb Raider series, which began in 1996, had lost its human connection as the years went on. The main character and explorer Lara Croft was the predecessor to Nathan Drake, Joel and Ellie.The developer Eidos did little to keep the content fresh in the series relying instead on the power of marketing. Lara was a very buxom computer model, and sometimes human model in their ad campaigns. Using sex and violence to sell the series to a young male demographic was the top priority for the publisher. The time and money should have been invested into the game itself. In terms of gameplay and level design the series was good but not always the best in the genre. The graphics did get better from year to year but the experience became predictable leading to a downfall for the franchise. As sales declined so did the popularity and even relevancy of the main character.

The success of Naughty Dog did not go unnoticed by Eidos. They decided to create a dark and gritty reboot of Tomb Raider that fell in line with the smaller developer. They copied the realism that had made the Uncharted series popular, but to be fair Uncharted was poaching the exploration, puzzles and action that made Tomb Raider a hit to begin with. There was nothing glamorous about the redesigned Lara. She was still young but looked a little bit more like a seasoned explorer rather than polygonal supermodel. The new Lara would become bloodied and beaten over the course of the new game. The firefights and close combat encounters were much more visceral than ever before.

The realistic and hard hitting encounters were reflective of the more popular titles from the West. In fact since the Western audiences seemed to gravitate towards the new darker, grittier graphics then the developers began pursuing the format for different genres. The concept of the superhero seemed passe' and the rise of the anti-hero in games like Infamous and Prototype became more acceptable. Games that did revolve around comic book heroes presented them in a different light. Instead of colorful spandex costumes the new superheroes wore muted colors over body armor. These visual changes were not limited to human characters either.

Racing games began taking a page out of the new school of game design. Car models were not only expected to be highly detailed and respond realistically, they were also expected to take real damage and break apart like real cars. Minor bumps were expected to take a scratch out of the paint job while a full-on collision was supposed to shatter windshields and tear off body panels. Anything less than that was seen as a failure in the eyes of modern gamers. Of course just because the studios had the technology to create more complex models and more realistic graphics did not necessarily mean that it translated into a better gaming experience.

The post-Destruction Derby world would have to find a balance between combat and racing. It would have to engage the player on multiple levels and not simply feature destructible car models or real-world tracks. The genre for violent racing games would explode (no pun intended) in the new millennium. The roots of the genre were based in the US. The influences of muscle cars and reckless getaways from live-action films would forever color the format. The next blog will look at the shift in racing's accepted format. I hope to see you back for it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Racing Tangent, part 1...

The West had not been sitting idly by letting the Japanese developers create all of the great racing experiences. Atari and Kee Games had been putting the first racing titles into arcades in the '70s. Of course Atari and Midway went on to publish and distribute some of the early Namco hits in the USA through the '80s. Atari though never stopped developing its own memorable titles. The single-screen Super Sprint series, which began in 1986, was one of the oldest arcade releases that had been adapted from black and white to color. It featured up to three human drivers and one computer-controlled car competing on a challenging and tight course. Players were rewarded for picking up wrenches on the race track, which they could use to upgrade the performance of their car in between races. It was one of the first games to offer that feature. Although it lacked the third person camera of Pole Position it was nonetheless a beloved series. The game was ported to multiple consoles and computers and got a follow up upgrade package for arcade owners. The company knew that sprite-based titles were on the way out and by the end of the decade they had released their first 3D title. Hard Drivin' from 1989 was an interesting hybrid of simulator and arcade racer. It was one of the first game to feature a clutch and even a key ignition. Players actually had to start their car before they could start playing and the car could even stall during the course. In Hard Drivin' players chose which path they wanted to drive on, either a road course or a stunt track with a full 360˚ loop. On the way players had to avoid oncoming cars and traffic. The game had very stiff force feedback steering and was one of the most authentic driving experiences ever created. The studio followed up with Race Drivin' in 1990. The game had dramatically improved in the graphics department and the "Super Stunt Track" was a challenging course that few people could claim to have beaten. I practiced that course for a long while and could complete it and the follow-up race against the computer controlled rival "Helen Wheels." The game was completely unlike any of the Japanese-developed titles and that uniqueness drew me to it.. The company had a certifiable hit in the middle of the decade with San Francisco Rush in 1996. The game was ported to multiple consoles and was one of the first real 3D games to make the transition from arcade to home console. Its sequel Rush the Rock in 1997 was an even bigger hit. Proving that the US was in the running for memorable racing experiences. There was a trend that was developing from the West when it came to driving game. Developers did go through different racing genres and experiences, from sim to arcade. However the West seemed to infuse more action into their racers than the Japanese. It was as if decades of action movies and high speed pursuits and shootouts on TV shows had permanently changed the tastes of Western audiences. Going as far back as the Exidy game from 1976 named Death Race where players had to run over zombies in a graveyard. Of course I'm not a social studies major so it's just a random observation. Whatever the case studios in the US and the UK seemed to enjoy a bit more violence and action in their driving experiences. The original Playstation game Twisted Metal, released in 1995, pretty much set the bar for the vehicle combat sub-genre. There were vehicle combat games that came before and after and I might talk about those titles in some future blog. I want to focus on the non-weaponized racing experiences. There was another car-based hit from 1995 that was also on the Playstation. Destruction Derby was developed by Reflections and published by Psygnosis. The game was notable because it featured 3D cars that took damage and responded accordingly during the game. Too much damage to the body, frame or engine could result in overheating and slower performance. Of course too much damage would result in a complete breakdown. The game featured some spectacular crashes framed by a loud alternative rock soundtrack. By comparison the Japanese racing games featured pristine cars that no matter how much they slammed into each other or the course would take no damage. That school of design didn't change until Sega released Daytona USA in 1994. The stock cars would rarely finish a race intact. Fenders would be torn off, the door and trunk would be flapping in the wind. It was as if they were giving the West exactly the type of brutal racing that they wanted. Reflections would go on to create the Driver and Stuntman series. Their work in 3D vehicle handling and damage was groundbreaking. In Stuntman audiences drove an entire host of vehicles that all responded accordingly. Cars could actually be tossed end over end and flipped upside down based on the severity of a crash. In many 3D games, especially those from Japan, it was all but impossible to turn cars over. To many developers an overturned car killed the game playing experience. These things may seem inconsequential today but were important for the evolution of the racing combat genre. Reflections may not be an important name to most audiences but they had predated the frenetic car chase physics in the Grand Theft Auto series by Rockstar / Take Two. The contribution by Reflections to the genre and the rise in high speed action racing wouldn't develop for another decade. Realism rather than reality helped make the impossible seem plausible in 3D games. Cars could take tremendous damage and keep on rolling. Audiences would actually turn out to see the carnage in these fictional worlds. The developer Stainless Software would release the cult PC/Mac hit Carmageddon in 1997. That game took everything that made Destruction Derby fun and threw in violence and gore by the bucketful. Carmageddon was set in a dystopian future, like Twisted Metal, where a tournament was held allowing race cars to earn points for killing other drivers as well as pedestrians. The cars were heavily armored but also very powerful. They could survive a fall off of a skyscraper and keep on running. If the players managed to land on a human or wipe out an entire row of them in the process they would earn "Style Points." The content was so controversial that it was one of the games cited by the US Congress as the reason why video games needed to be censored. The gaming industry fought tooth and nail and developed a movie industry-like ratings system. Carmageddon went on to get a sequel which improved greatly in the 3D modeling arena. Drivers could smash through windows and their cars could fall apart and even split in half depending on how hard they crashed. Stainless lost the rights to publisher SCi. The following Carmageddon games were terrible and the series was pretty much over in the eyes of long-time fans. Almost 15 years later Stainless regained the rights and used Kickstarter to relaunch the franchise. This was celebrated in the community and considered a dark day for concerned parents everywhere. Aside from violence there was something else that the West looked for in videogames that wasn't exactly in tune with Japanese developers. The next blog will look at the shift in graphics once the world of gaming moved to 3D.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 17...

When Kei Yoshimizu redesigned Reiko Nagase and turned the character from a race queen to a mascot for Ridge Racer he had lofty goals for her. The CGI artist and animator was trying to convince the world that a female lead in a male dominated sport was long overdue. He had to break the perceptions from his fellow Japanese developers as well as those from the US. A woman could meet the Western ideals of femininity while also becoming a symbol for power and grace in the process. In order to do that she had to go against the grain. Her short haircut was not only fashion forward, it was something that would never have been expected of a female lead in any Japanese game, manga or animé. It would take more than a decade and a half before audiences became aware of the perspective that Kei and his RR Project members were going for. In the early Rave Racer flyers and promotional material Reiko was posed next to a race car. Yet she wasn't used exactly like a model would have been at an auto show or magazine spread. She wasn't laying in front of the car in a bikini, nor was she holding up a grid card. With arms crossed and a foot in the door Reiko stood defiant. Since it was a Japanese car Reiko was actually standing on the driver's side.

She was not posing next to A car, she was posing next to HER car. The pants and leather jacket were not part of some scantily corporate uniform. This was the real Reiko and this was her ride. Audiences seemed oblivious to this statement. All they had known for years and years was that the drivers were men because racing was a man's game. If a woman was in the title then she was just eye candy, a paddock girl and nothing more. Mr. Yoshimizu was very progressive when he changed the look and purpose of Reiko. If Namco was serious about developing a mascot for their racing franchise then she could not be a throw away character. Reiko had to have as much of a backbone as any action hero. From this point on Reiko would have to perform the double duty as a model and driver.

In the opening cinematic (attract screens had gone out of fashion for console games in the mid '80s) Reiko was actually shown sitting on the hood of the cover car in Rage Racer. The all red with white stripes Assoluto Fatalia was one of the most desirable fictional race cars in the series. She was wearing boots and a yellow uniform. Eagle-eyed players saw it was one of the dresses she would wear after she became a sponsored model. The dress looked like a blend of leather and Nomex, a fireproof material. The sharp yellow and black pattern could easilyhave doubled as her racing uniform. The pairing of Reiko with one of the fastest cars in the game was definitive of the series. It was a blend of style and substance that kept people coming back.

In future revisions of the series Namco did not want to make Reiko appear as a one-dimensional racing character. One that was never seen outside of her racing uniform, like Gina Cavalli or Rena Hayama from R: Racing Evolution. Reiko would be above all else a very feminine character. Mr. Yoshimizu would direct her in multiple openings for the series. Reiko's most memorable of course was her 1999 feature debut in Ridge Racer Type 4. However there was a gap where she wasn't seen for the next few games. In fact Gina appeared as the mascot on the Nintendo DS version of Ridge Racer in 2004 instead of Reiko. When Reiko returned in Ridge Racers for the PSP later that year it was as if she had never left. The model was timing a Soldat Raggio with a stopwatch while she was lying on top of a yellow Assoluto Fatalia. Without saying a word the character stepped down from her car barefoot. This was a nod to the heel she broke in the R4 opening. The character appeared absolutely charming as she met the Soldat on the road. A year later the game made it's debut on the Xbox 360. In the intro to Ridge Racer 6 Reiko was seen lounging in her apartment and dreaming about racing. That build of the game got even more polish and was released on the Playstation 3 in 2006 as Ridge Racer 7. In the new intro Reiko was seen modeling in front of a projector screen, pretending to take a leisurely drive.

The same year that the Playstation 3 had their new Ridge Racer title Namco had released the PSP version of Ridge Racers 2. Sony was reaping the rewards of a long partnership with the company. Reiko had returned with stopwatch in hand to time another race. The model would appear on projector screens on several courses within the game. The most famous celebrity in Ridge City had become synonymous with the tournament. The personality of Reiko was fleshed out with every new video released by Namco. The one thing that had been lacking through most of the new millennium was a connection to her actual racing passion. The studio had forgotten that as playful and sexy as they wanted to present Reiko, she was still a driver at heart. That finally came through in 2011 when the series made its debut on the Nintendo 3DS. Reiko finally left her heels behind and put on a pair of sharp racing boots in Ridge Racer 3D. Every build of the series tended to highlight a particular manufacturer. Although they were all fictional it was still a sign of respect that the Japanese developers had shown the rest of the world. The European companies had gotten a lot of love over the past 20+ years and the USA was finally due for some attention. Reiko was driving the car featured on the box, the Lucky and Wild Evolver. In fact she was performing double duty on the track. She was also driving the final rival car in the game, the Lucky and Wild Marauder.

When Reiko had returned to the series Namco had found its second wind. The studio decided to go back to its roots and try to rebuild. Their goal was to define the Ridge Racer experience for the consoles. The Playstation 2, despite its advanced features had been dismal for the series. They had a lot of catching up to do when other racing games appeared out of nowhere to dominate the market. The definitive Ridge Racer title would take a decade to materialize. The development process would add entirely new chapters to the history of racing games. Some things worked and some did not. Some things would be copied by rival studios and some would better be left forgotten. The next part of the series will explore what happened to the genre while Namco was shifting their operations to focus on consoles rather than the arcade.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 16...

Arcade fans noticed the leggy grid girl Reiko Nagase in the original Ridge Racer. She was the only sprite-based character in the otherwise all-polygon graphics engine. Reiko was designed as "cheesecake" for the male audiences. She wasn't the first character designed for that purpose but most certainly became the longest-lived. In fact when she was put into the game she didn't have a name. By no stretch of the imagination did Namco make up her role. In many professional racing circuits models wearing team livery were used to pose next to the race cars and motorcycles and sometimes accompany drivers to the pit. The term paddock girl became synonymous with the skimpy costumed models. In Japan they were referred to as race queens and dressed sightly more modestly. They often wore pantyhose and one-piece swimsuits in order to minimize the skin show. Reiko had long hair originally and was presented with more class than the typical paddock girls. There was something interesting however about her and her fellow race queens when compared to the women that had appeared as eye candy in early titles.

The race queens in Ridge Racer would keep the long hair and bright costumes for several more appearances. Namco had retconned the other grid girls holding up the title cards as Ai Fukami and Hitomi Yoshino. The developers saw potential in having a race queen become a mascot for the series but it would take a radical internal shift to pursue that idea. When Namco lost the original Ridge Racer team to Sega they began trying to reframe the game and save what they hoped would become a franchise that would rival the earlier Pole Position smash hit. Ridge Racer 2 from 1994 was very much a "safe" sequel from the new developers. It improved the framerate, physics, tracks and car selection but was otherwise a plain experience. It was the subsequent game that really began to push a new direction and establish the elements that would indeed turn it into a franchise.

In 1995 arcade visitors had no idea what type of dramatic shift that Namco had planned. The third game was an experiment. Dubbed a Ridge Racer Project the re-titled Rave Racer had a frenetic soundtrack and wild graphics that made the game play more like a music video and less like a simulator. Even the attract screen was directed like a music video. In the '80s arcade games would just go through a loop of gameplay footage and feature a title screen. As technology improved so did the ability to present graphics and audio with greater fidelity and more channels of sound and color. Developers would sometimes create original music and animations that would play on loop when no one was on the game. These features were designed solely for the sake of attracting players to the cabinet. They did not have to rely on actual game footage to sell the experience. Hence they earned the name Attract Screens. Rave Racer had a short but memorable attract screen, it stood out among its contemporaries because it was not pre-rendered game footage.

When Rave Racer was sitting idle it would start blasting its soundtrack and try to get the attention of arcade visitors. When they would look there would be a polygonal female model posing for fans. Her turnaround animation was inter-cut with images of race cars sliding around corners. It was one of the more innovative attract screens seen in that era. The star wasn't a typical race queen, not by any stretch of the imagination. With a new short haircut and sporting a leather jacket, shorts and a bare midriff this model was the archetypal "hot girlfriend." She certainly looked more approachable than the models wearing corporate logos featured in the previous games. She had actually predated the look used for Ai Fukami by a decade. This model did not have an official name but Namco would hint later on that it was Reiko from the original game. Her makeover was a hit with audiences. The new Ridge Racer team would continue to build an entire mythology of Ridge City around this character.

The studio had begun developing and adapting titles for the fledgling Playstation console in the mid '90s. This lead to Reiko becoming a more refined character. In 1997 Rage Racer introduced an entirely new side to Ridge City. It was as bold an experiment as Rave Racer was. The electronica soundtrack was still part of the experience but visually it was a bit more grounded in European architecture and gritty realism. It still allowed for the over-the-top car physics to sell the action. The short-haired race queen had returned and was given an official name. For the first time in Ridge Racer history audiences got a chance to see this character grow right alongside the driver. The model had started from humble origins, just like the player, and had to work her way up through the different classes. Rage Racer started off with slightly modified production cars, something that an enthusiast could do his or herself over the weekend without any sort of sponsorship. In those races Reiko was dressed in street fashion. She wore torn jeans and a tank top. The corporate sponsors has not yet discovered this "talent." As the player improved in the rankings and was able to afford faster machines and compete against bigger teams they would run across Reiko again and again. Each time her costumes had improved and her presence had grown within the community. She went from fantasy girlfriend material to supermodel status in the course of the game. Her modeling career had taken off in canon but was for a game not often recalled by the game players.

Kei Yoshimizu was the director of both Rave Racer and Rage Racer. He had been establishing Reiko's new look through the '90s. He had created her original models and animation and would continue to update the character over the next two decades. When he started he realized that the flat pixel models from the original Ridge Racer would have to be redone. He started modeling new characters in 3D but felt the crunch of a deadline fast approaching. Namco wanted to get some promotional material out with their new mascot. Kei didn't have a long-haired model to use for reference so he did the fastest thing he could. He shaved his face and took some pictures of himself to work from. He scanned in the photos to create the original textures for the character. He retouched them to give him, or rather her, flawless skin, new lips and changed the jawline a little. The short, tomboyish hair was done out of necessity. Hair had been a stumbling block for many developers and animators. Kei didn't have time to figure out how to recreate the original flowing race queen hair in 3D. He thought it would be better to keep her hair short and a trend was established. Reiko could still be very feminine and even "girly" while promoting race culture.

The revelation that Kei was the basis for Reiko shattered the dreams of some fans. They were hoping to find out that Reiko was inspired a real person but not necessarily a real man. This bit of trivia was not widely known to the arcade community let alone the greater gaming community. Undoubtedly many young men would have been heartbroken to find out. As such Namco was really finding that the virtual idol made for a great mascot. Her likeness was used for some of the pre-designed graphics that players could use as stickers on their cars in Rage Racer. The company would beginning putting the face of Ridge Racer out on ads in Japan as well as the US.

Despite the newfound popularity of the character Namco was not certain if she had staying power. The developer made sure to give Reiko a very strong push in Ridge Racer Type 4. They featured her on all the assets and promotional materials sent out to reviewers. Many of the media outlets in Japan and the US made sure to use a version of the character for their articles and even on the covers of their magazines. Yet no sooner did the studio do that than they dropped her altogether. Instead of casting Reiko in R: Racing Evolution they created a new idol that looked very similar to her named Rena Hayami. In the intro for Ridge Racer V with Ai Fukami was retracing the steps featured in the attract screen of Rave Racer. The muse had disappeared almost overnight. It could be argued that the Ridge Racer series had its most turbulent showing during her absence. Was Reiko the glue that held the series together? The next blog will highlight the importance than one character could have on a series and an entire universe.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 15...

Women had been a part of the Ridge Racer universe since its inception in 1993. In a previous blog I had mentioned that the Wangan Midnight manga series from the '80s had influenced the development of Ridge Racer. Wangan translated to Bayshore, the site of the longest, straightest road in the Japanese toll road expressway system. Bayshore was also a location featured prominently in Tekken as the site of the G Corporation headquarters. Akio Asakura and his Devil Z car from Wangan Midnight inspired the Devil 13 in Ridge Racer. The lead female in the series and rival driver, Reina Akikawa, was actually a model and TV personality. She had a hidden passion for street racing and drove a souped-up Nissan Skyline GT-R despite the objections of her manager. She was sociable and had lots of acquaintances but real boyfriend. She was an unattainable idol to her fans. Undoubtedly she was the basis for Rena Hayami in R: Racing Evolution as well as the other women that would be associated with the Ridge Racer series.

Reina dressed moderately and was never show with any overtly sexual overtones. The women in the Namco games, especially Soul Calibur were not as conservative. Before R: Racing Evolution Namco had actually tried to create a racing personality that players could associate with the Ridge Racer series. In Ridge Racer V that person was named Ai Fukami. The model and "race queen" looked closest in concept to Reina. Ai could be seen in the opening cinema of Ridge Racer V walking down the middle of the Harbor Line 765 raceway flirting with danger as two race cars flew by her at top speed. Ai was a dead ringer for Reina. Both had long legs, sported boots and even the same haircut. The only difference was that one was always a two-dimensional character and the other was a CGI model. Well, also that Ai had a tiny mole on her chin. The "imperfection" gave her tremendous personality, not unlike the beauty mark on model Cindy Crawford.

Ai appeared on promotional material for Ridge Racer V as well as on the box cover itself. Namco wanted to make their racing series even more appealing to their male demographic by playing up the sex appeal of fast cars and hot women. Other games by Namco already had memorable female characters but Ridge Racer was a rare hit that did not feature any human leads. There were no drivers to play as or avatars to identity with. With the introduction of the Playstation 2 and the realization that their audience was becoming older and more mature Namco decided to begin marketing their sport titles with virtual idols. Ai was the one that would welcome fans into Ridge City. There was something sexy about her presentation without going into the realm of pandering like Gina Cavalli. Ai was designed to be featured on other projects if audiences responded favorably to her.

Namco had actually been working on multiple sports titles before the release of Ridge Racer V. The publisher wanted to have a character that they could use to advertise all of the other sports games so they developed a additional virtual idol to cover those titles. Hitomi Yoshino would be the proxy featured in the Moto GP motorcycle racing games, World Court tennis games and World Stadium baseball games. Her costume consisted of a bright top and short dress with the logo of a particular sport. She might carry a baseball bat or tennis racket depending on the promotion that Namco was running with her. Hitomi had even appeared in some promotional videos for the E3 and Tokyo Game show advertising the Ridge Racer series when Ai was absent.

The creation and use of virtual idols was almost exclusively a Namco trademark. No other studio, especially perennial rival Sega had ever considering developing characters for the sole purpose of advertising. The stars of most games were usually enough to win over audiences but what if there were no human characters in the title? Racing games had always advertised themselves with graphics of fast cars on the arcade cabinets as well as on the console box art. Namco tried a different approach. They developed a team of idols to make their arcade and console games stand out. It was not a cheap decision by any stretch of the imagination. Even when companies like Namco were doing well financially there were still questions on budget and turnaround. Spending extra time developing a CGI model and creating a cinema for a character that was not even in the game seemed superfluous. Yet the studio committed to having a model become the representative for the series.

Long time gamers could tell you that neither Ai, Hitomi or even Rena would ever become synonymous with the Ridge Racer series. There was a short-haired model that won the hearts of fans years earlier. Reiko Nagase (the first virtual idol inspired by Reina Akikawa) had been a part of the series since the very first game. She was even given top billing in the opening cinema of Ridge Racer Type 4. Reiko had been associated with the arcade games before Namco lost the original Ridge Racer team. She was also associated with the early Playstation console releases. Namco wanted to develop a new idol once they made the transition to the Playstation 2. It turned out to be a mistake. The muse of the series had always been Reiko, the studio didn't realize it them.

When she returned to the series in 2004, a year after R: Raving Evolution had failed to capture the hearts (and wallets) of gamers the studio went back to what worked. There was no mistake that Reiko was posed on the hood of her sports car like the Kamata Angel 0 icon in the Ridge Racers (for the Playstation PSP) opening cinema. She did seem to have an etherial quality about her. That version of the game would actually become a meme when Sony President and CEO Kaz Hirai over-enthusiastically delivered the line it's Riiiidge Racer to a crowd of not-impressed attendees at the Sony E3 press conference. Reiko did not appear full developed from the mind of the art team. She had to change and evolve with the times just as the series did. There was a learning curve with the Namco designers as to her character development. They had to figure out how to best incorporate her into the games and give her a memorable personality. The next blog will look at the origins of the character. I hope to see you back for that. As always, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to share them.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 14...

The first issue that long-time Ridge Racer fans had with R: Racing Evolution (RRE) was how Namco had tried to distance themselves from their arcade legacy. The studio went for a sim experience regarding the physics and control of the cars. They also licensed actual cars instead of using the timeless racers that they had spent a decade refining. Namco had done a great job capturing the handling of different classes of cars and creating virtual tracks to race them on. Yet they were going after the market that Gran Turismo had cultivated. Sony's Polyphony Studio had spent years making each generation of the game superior to the previous in every aspect. The obsession to detail was well known to fans of Polyphony. The producers were known for fitting microphones inside and outside of cars as they raced them over different terrain just to they could capture authentic sounds. They would travel the world and meet with car designers and even the people that sewed the upholstery for the seats just to gain an ounce of knowledge that they could reflect in the game. Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec had been released in 2001, a few years before R: Racing Evolution had come out, yet it had more than four times the number of race cars. Polyphony had set the bar and the best Namco could do was try to meet it because they would never be able to exceed it.

The title of the game also did not sit favorably with audiences. It featured Rena Hayami, an EMT driver for Ridge City. She represented the hometown of Ridge Racer but Namco could not bring themselves to call the game Ridge Racer 6. It was as if they lacked faith in their concept. Where the game really began to fall apart was in the treatment of the main characters in Racing Life mode. In the previous blogs I applauded Namco for having the courage to make a female the main character and the insight for the villain to be a corporation. Yet I should have known better. As the game progressed it became more and more obvious why the designers at Namco had selected a female lead and female rival for the game.

It would be hard to defend some of the cinemas featured in the game. I mean what purpose would it serve to have a (non-nude) shot of Rena taking a shower after a race? If the star of the game were a male chances are this scene wouldn't have made the cut. I understand that sex sells and if this were a movie about a female race car driver then the director would have done the same thing. But this was a game after all and scenes like this did nothing to advance the plot. When I was younger these scenes didn't mean as much. As I got older and wiser (and got married) I suddenly had a daughter that I had to be accountable for. It was then that I began taking another look at the way women had been presented in the game. I could show my daughter how cool it was that Rena went from driving an ambulance and getting a job offer as a professional race car driver. She was a role-model at that point. Yet a few races into the game the next time we see her she is naked. How am I supposed to justify the decision to do that in a racing game?

Things were bad before the shower scene actually. The very first time players were introduced to rival Gina Cavalli the camera was fixated on her cleavage. Every scene featuring the character was framed to make sure that her boobs were in the shot. Both Gina and Rena actually wore their racing suit zipped down to reveal their bust line. Every other driver and mechanic was zipped up of course. Rena had a modest black bra for everyone to see while I think Gina was pretty much nude under her suit. I should have been celebrating the decision by Namco to introduce a Spanish female main character into canon. Different ethnic groups and nationalities were and continued to be sorely underrepresented in games after all. While I could tell my daughter that Namco once made a racing game where the two main characters were females I would be ashamed to show her how they were represented.

There were other great games that were hampered by what audiences perceived. For example Marc Ecko's Getting Up was a great narrative on graffiti culture as well as corporate and political corruption. Yet before I could show people the actual graffiti portions of the game I had to spend the majority of the time sneaking up on cops and smashing paint cans on the back of their heads. A blow like that would more likely kill a person than knock them out. How was I supposed to convince viewers of the merits of the game if all they saw was violence instead of art? A similar dilemma had happened with RRE. The racing portions were well done but the only thing that would stick out to viewers (no pun intended) would be the boobs.

It wasn't the first time that Namco, or other Japanese studios for that matter, had been fixated on breasts. For example the Dead or Alive fighting game series by Tecmo was notorious for its "jiggling" breast physics and the original Killer Instinct by Rare featured the character Orchid that would flash her breasts at opponents and give them a heart attack. Pandering to the masses had become the rule rather than the exception in other Namco titles. In the Tekken Tag Tournament 2 they featured rapper Snoop Dog and his own level, The scantily clad women dancing at his side would have been typical in one of his music videos, where Namco really went for exploitation was in offering 150 different bikinis that players could earn for their fighters. The shorts and loin cloths they put on the male character were tame compared to the strings that made up some of the female costumes. Sex sold in the short run but only substance could sustain a franchise. Many of the female sword fighters in Namco's Soul Calibur series had become more and more busty as the games progressed. The outfits of many of the characters became tighter and more revealing, making Gina seem modest by comparison. The outrageous bust sizes gave the mostly male fan base a reason to overlook the lack of gameplay innovation through the series. Namco was guilty of following the trends of their contemporaries rather than relying on the strength of their developers.

The studio could not manage to win over audiences with RRE despite the number of innovative ideas they had brought console racers. It was a combination of things that cost the publisher from having a hit on their hands. Competing against Gran Turismo was a major problem, but not capitalizing on the Ridge Racer name and trying to inject sex into an otherwise well laid-out plot had doomed the game from the onset. Namco had actually planned to feature Rena and Gina in several other titles if RRE had become a hit. They would continue to use the characters to sell future versions of Ridge Racer, with Gina being the cover star in the Nintendo DS release of the game. Yet any further developments with the characters and teams would be highly unlikely.

The studio did at least develop a new character inspired by Rena a year after RRE was released. Fans of Tekken 5 noticed that Asuka Kazama had a lot of similarities to Rena. The physical and costume traits were obvious but personality wise they were complete opposites. Asuka was presented as a very immature and ditzy schoolgirl. She ended up playing the fool for the rich schoolgirl Emilie "Lili" De Rochefort. It was a shame that Namco could not find a similar use for Asuka. Her brother Jin was a main character in the series and ran the Mishima Zaibatsu whereas she had been relegated to sidekick status. In fact the objectification was a little more insulting to female fans because Asuka's breasts were the punchline in two different Tekken endings. By comparison Rena was presented with much more confidence and maturity whether she was behind the wheel of an ambulance or race car.

Women had actually been an important part of the Ridge Racer legacy yet Namco did not really know how to present them within the context of the races themselves. The next blog will look at the muses behind the Ridge Racer series.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 13...

The world of Namco was ripe with conflict. Many players overlooked it but the Ridge Racer cars were actually covered in stickers of opposing factions. There were many purposes for the logos. Primarily they made the cars look like actual racing machines. Many actual race cars had memorable colors and patterns as the team livery, yet the most famous also prominently featured sponsor logos on the body. Even non race fans could remember that there were cars with huge Tide, STP, Red Bull or Marlboro logos placed in plain view. The sponsor logos signified the games that the Ridge Racer Project members had worked on as well as the legacy of Namco.

The stickers also served as a reminder of the wars waged away from the race tracks. Conflict and not peace were the driving forces behind every great game. Come to think of it, a well presented conflict was also the root to every great book and film as well. The most heated races, especially the 500 mile, 1000 mile and 24 hour endurance races could make drivers feel as if they had just survived a military battle. The Ridge Racer games were set on the days that there were no major conflicts in the Namco universe, which seemed few and far between. These races, like those from the classic Sega arcade racers, took place on the most utopian day ever. Yet conflict was never very far away.

The largest forces in Namco continuity were reflected on many of the sponsor logos. I don't necessarily mean specific heroes and villains but rather corporate interests. These were the massive companies like G.V.I. which was featured in the previous blog. These were the companies that used race cars to make their brands seem desirable. Even the companies that were terrible villains in Namco continuity knew the power of good PR. Take Geldra for example. The logo for the terrorist organization was featured prominently on several Ridge Racer teams over the years. The group had first appeared in the 1986 arcade hit Rolling Thunder. It was not a racing game but instead a side scrolling action-shooter. In the game special agent "Albatross" from the World Crime Police Organization was tasked with bringing down Geldra and rescuing fellow agent Leila Blitz from the clutches of their mutated leader Maboo. Geldra turned up again and again in the Rolling Thunder sequels. Each time the scale of their operations had become much grander. Expanding to every corner of the globe and even to the nearest satellites circling the Earth. Even though the game series ended in 1993 it would forever remain a part of Namco canon. I would imagine that in the unmarked warehouses and corporate towers surrounding some of the Ridge Racer courses Geldra was busy rebuilding and plotting to take over the world once more. Of course Albatross and his fellow agents would be infiltrating those locations as well.

In the real world there were corporations that used racing sponsorships to sell products or ideology that weren't necessarily healthy or beneficial for humankind. Alcohol and tobacco companies made themselves appealing by aligning themselves with popular sports and celebrities. Some people might find it questionable that recreational drugs could advertise in these venues, and specifically sticker their logos all over race cars. Yet Geldra was in a different league. They were like a multinational defense contractor putting their brand on the cars. It Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics or Boeing advertised on a race car most people in the West might not notice or even mind. However to those living in a nation, say in the Middle East, that was negatively impacted by those defense contractors then sponsoring a race car could be seen as subversive. In a similar fashion tech company Arkbird created the aeronautics technology, the fancy wing, spoiler and body kits featured on many Ridge Racer cars. Arkbird was also the company that created the low-orbit military platform featured in the Ace Combat series. Arkbird and Geldra were parallels to companies like Lockheed Martin or Boeing. They were not the only defense contractors parallels featured in Namco canon.

The most violent corporation with the greatest PR in the Namco world would be the Mishima Zaibatsu. That corporation sponsored the King of the Iron Fist, better known as the Tekken fighting series. The tournament brought out millions of fans and billions of virtual dollars in Namco continuity. It also brought out the greatest fighters, spies and assassins in that universe as well. In the game series fans did not necessarily fight in a competition setting, although some of the matches did take place in arenas. The majority of the conflicts were on the streets or in disputed military zones. Mishima Zaibatsu was one of the largest, if not the largest, science, technology and military contractor in Namco continuity. Yet as powerful and influential as the corporation was they were in a constant battle from within. Three generations of the Mishima clan starting with Heihachi and going down to his son Kazuya and grandson Jin were constantly vying for control of the corporation. It would be four generations of conflict if the series producers would determine the life or death status of Heihachi's father Jinpachi. These men did not battle it out in the boardroom with lawyers, arbiters or hostile takeover attempts but instead with their actual fists.

The citizens in Tekken continuity had no idea that the wars and terrorist attacks in various regions of the planet were often the results of a single families strife. In various comics and games it was revealed that the Mishima clan surrounded themselves with political figures and corporate allies to try and distance themselves from the conflict. By advertising in popular events, including the Ridge Racer series, the Mishima Zaibatsu group made themselves appear like a defense contractor and not a military powerhouse.Yet for each bridge they built there was always a new rival added to oppose them. The biggest obstacle to the Mishima Zaibatsu was the G Corporation, which was run by Kazuya Mishima. The leader in biological technology had amassed a private army that would rival the Zaibatsu. The G Coporation researchers had been on the cutting edge of biotechnology and were able to create clones, halt and even reverse the aging process and tap into the mythological "devil" gene.

The weapons and technology featured in the Tekken, Ridge Racer and Ace Combat titles were always ahead of the curve. They had a certain science fiction element to many of their designs. Wars in the future were decided by the private armies that had access to the greatest technologies, granted they were not far removed from the private contractors of the current era. Except in Tekken continuity the soldiers were sometimes outfitted with strength-enhancing armor and giant robots instead of tanks. Some of the assault troops were completely made up of cyborgs instead of people as well. The leaders of the paramilitary branches of the G Coporation and Mishima Zaibatsu were also some of the most powerful fighters in the Tekken series. Names like Bruce Irvin, Bryan Fury, Raven and Sergei Dragunov carried a lot of weight among fans of the series. These men were mercenaries and leaders of military units from various nations. Some sided with the Mishima clan and some were trying to bring them down.

Even from within the armies there was strife. The step-son of Heihachi, Lars Alexandersson was a self-made leader of the Tekken Force. An expert fighter and brilliant strategist he fought alongside his men rather than made calls from the corporate offices like his half-brother Kazuya or father Heihachi. As such he earned their trust and admiration. He completed a successful coup d'état to assume control of the Zaibatsu military wing. His purpose was not to start a whole new war against the G Corporation but to bring an end to the conflict. He had travelled the world and had seen first hand how much destruction both groups had brought in their wake. The peace would not be long lived. As fans of the Namco titles could tell you it would only be a matter of time before the next firefight would begin. It would give producers a reason for a new Tekken game. Yet for those few months where the guns fell silent the attention of the masses would be drawn to the next Ridge Racer Project. The Mishima clan, Geldra, General Resource LTD., Neucom Incorporated and various other organizations that charted the future of the Namco universe would continue to make their presence felt by sponsoring the teams that turned Ridge City into the ultimate destination for racers and race fans. Yet something went wrong for Namco after they introduced a huge corporate villain into the Ridge Racer continuity. G.V.I. was not the reason R: Racing Evolution failed to become a hit with race fans. The next blog will look at where Namco made some missteps and what they learned from the game.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 12...

R: Racing Evolution was an earnest attempt by Namco to turn an arcade racing series into a memorable console franchise. It did not have violence, zombies, monsters, aliens or even high-profile voice actors like other genres. What it did have however was a solid driving experience and a unique plot. The game could be played in the traditional arcade mode where cars could be raced on a variety of tracks in shorts increments. The heart of the experience however was called the Racing Life mode. In it players assumed the role of Rena Hayami a young EMT driver for Ridge City. At the start of the game she is rushing an unknown race car driver and his team captain Stephan Garnier to the Ridge City hospital. The driver had severe head trauma and Stephan feared that he might die on the way to the hospital. He asked if Rena knew of any shortcuts. She did and decided to cut down alleyways and side streets to bypass all of the traffic. Her actions potentially saved the life of the unknown driver and impressed Stephan. In fact he was so impressed that he offered her a spot on his racing team. It didn't take long for Rena to accept his offer.

It was a bold and refreshing change of pace that the star of the racing game would be a female character. The team at Namco was really taking a chance. The majority of video game heroes (and race car drivers) were mostly men. The addition of a back story with Rena acting as an ambulance driver made her a standout character. Her job after all was associated with heroic traits. It was believable that she had more than a natural affinity for racing. Her job demanded serious driving skills on a daily basis. Many legendary race car drivers came from different walks of life. Carroll Shelby, whom I mentioned a long time ago on this blog, was a world-class driver but was also an accomplished test pilot and had a day job as a chicken farmer. Richard Petty of NASCAR fame (the King in Pixar's Cars film) honed his skills at a young age by running moonshine through the hills of North Carolina. The first licensed female top fuel race car driver was Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney. As a teenager she didn't find school appealing and just wanted to race hot rods all day. Her boyfriend was a mechanic and built her first dragster. She was a naturally gifted driver and won several world championships and tore down many barriers along the way. I wish I could say that Rena was inspired by Shirley Muldowney or CART icon Lyn St. James but she wasn't. Her inspiration was derived more from fictional characters in Japanese racing manga. I will spend more time on the female racing legacy from Namco in a future blog, for now I want to say that it was a great decision to have Rena be the star of the game.

It turned out that there was nothing simple about becoming a professional race car driver. Rena had to work her way through the classes and earn her place on the team. Game players got a chance to enjoy the different stages of a pro drivers life and see how competitive the job could really be. The cars in each class handled differently and Rena, or rather the player, was expected to adapt right away to the changing conditions. What surprised me was the introduction of a villain in Racing Life mode. At first players assumed that the Spanish race car driver Gina Cavalli was the antagonist. The rivalry was framed with Gina being a seasoned driver that had worked her way up to the pros and now felt threatened by a younger upstart. It turned out that Gina was nowhere near the biggest threat to Rena or any of the other drivers. The bad guy in the game not a person but a corporation. G.V.I. (a fictional company) was the benefactor behind Stephan Garnier and his team. The senior shareholders and president of G.V.I. were shown at several points through the Racing Life mode. They were kept in the shadows of a board room. Cigar smoke filled the air and chilled drinks sat on coasters in front of the members. They watched the progress of their most recent "investment" on a projector. Namco meant for these men to come across as extremely powerful and somewhat creepy. They were doing a good job at reflecting the drama that many real world corporations had in professional racing.

Wherever there was money there would also be greed and corruption. It followed every major sport the world over including auto racing. There was certainly a division between what the fans thought they knew and what actually went on behind the scenes. The technology battle between the engine, aeromotive, transmission, tire and manufacturing partners are as heated as those working on billion dollar military contracts. All of those companies guard their patents ferociously yet are always looking to exploit a leak from a rival corporation. Teams are not always transparent. They try to groom a driver that has a personality that appeals to the public yet is inaccessible to the masses. They sometimes have to contend with moles on a crew leaking information to rivals. The more high profile the racing events are the more important the back room dealings become. Imagine what type of pull it takes at a community, county and state level to get a Formula-1 race to happen. People like F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone do not hang out with celebrities as much as they socialize with kings, sultans and presidents.

The logistics of getting hundreds of thousands of fans in and out of a venue is just part of the challenge. Racing organizations have a brand to protect and a certain image to project. The mayor and city council members of a town know what the expectations are if they are selected to host a race. Police will spend more time rounding up petty criminals or forcing homeless people to move out of a district so that visitors get a favorable impression during race weekend. Environmental concerns over excessive noise and traffic on a delicate ecosystem can get overlooked. Permits may be denied for people that try to air grievances or assemble during the event. The people with the money and the political pull can even bend the rules for the racers themselves. All of the major motorsports have an organizing body. They make sure that cars and drivers adhere to specific rules, weights, engines and classes. On race day any car that does not meet the outlined specifications is supposed to be pulled from a race. Yet those in the know have heard a few stories where someone from "upstairs" phones in the officials after a car is sidelined and allows it to compete. A popular driver gets people in the stands, and more important, gets people to spend their money. A savvy team manager and crew chief knows when they can push their luck and get an unfair advantage from the system. They have earned the favor of corporations who stand to make billions while a driver earns millions.

G.V.I. represents the organizations that are so massive that they do not own one, but instead multiple teams under different banners. They do not mind pitting their own drivers against each other just to see which ones they will continue to invest in. In Racing Life mode the story of Stephan Garnier is revealed in flashbacks. He used to run his own team but an accident almost took the life of his star driver. Long-time Ridge Racer fans noticed that the car featured in the accident photo was a Rivelta Mercurio from Ridge Racer V. It was the only fictional car featured in the otherwise all true-life manufacturer lineup. Fans were hoping to see how the Ridge Racer cars would hold up to the best real super cars of the current era. Sadly Namco decided that in this continuity there would be no crossovers. But I digress… Stephan found it difficult to keep going amid the controversy and had to go to G.V.I. for help. The corporation picked him up for his knowledge and expertise. Yet they ran like the mob and expected unconditional loyalty and a hefty return on their investment. With his back to the wall Stephan took a major gamble on selecting Rena Hayami to replace his driver. He didn't tell her what the stakes were when she joined his team, nor that she was actually replacing the driver she had saved at the start of the game. Over the course of several races Garnier crew chief Eddie and rival driver Gina warned Rena about the influence that GV.I. had, specifically that they were capable of pulling the strings of Stephan.

Gina Cavalli turned out to be a friendly rival in the end. Her sponsors at Team Riccardi had stayed away from G.V.I. and their illegal activities. It would take the player the entire game to find out just what made G.V.I. so bad to begin with. Rena and Stephan would be challenged on and off the track. Winning a series would become their only means to break away from G.V.I. Near the end of the game Stephan had enough of G.V.I.'s oversight. He quit his spot and asked Rena via a letter to leave them and join his new team instead. They would become partners and get a fresh start. It took Rena a few more races to make her decision but in the end she would join team Garnier and bring along crew chief Eddie. The news of this decision did not sit well with the senior members of G.V.I. In one final cinema the president warned what they would do to those that tried to leave the "family."

The racing community had its eyes on Team Garnier and G.V.I. couldn't exact any revenge in public. Instead they continued to pull the strings behind the scenes. As a team owner and driver Rena suddenly found it much more difficult to place as well as she used to. Certainly there was a gap with her R&D budget compared to the well-off G.V.I. teams. Yet there was also the hint that G.V.I. was making sure that the calls were coming from upstairs to give her team more oversight from officials and make it harder for them to qualify. Rejecting the advances of corporate benefactors was a risk that many privateer teams have had to endure over the past century. Seeing this type of drama turned into the plot of a racing videogame was sublime. It had not been done before or since for that matter. The team at Namco had demonstrated that they could turn an arcade racer into a simulator title, capturing completely different gameplay elements in the process. This would not have been possible without allowing the villains to dictate the pace of the game. It was something that Namco had become very good at over the past few decades. Challenge and conflict were the biggest motivators in the most successful titles from the studio. The next blog will look at this legacy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 11...

The consoles of the early millennium were amazing powerhouses compared to every previous generation. An increase in media storage capacity, improved graphics, sound and memory meant that the new generation of games could be more immersive than ever before. It was up to developers to entertain their audiences while also providing a suitable challenge. The game players of the '80s and '90s had grown up and expected some more refinement in their titles. They wanted new and unique experiences and did not enjoy playing the same title over and over. In essence they wanted an experience that lasted much longer than the average arcade game. Even the other console hits, like the Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda had to adapt with the times.

Ridge Racer V was a solid racing game but if left audiences wanting. Namco rethought their approach and created a game that pulled many elements from Ridge Racer Type 4 as well as other contemporary hits. It took the studio several years to release a new title. In that time millions of dollars and thousands of work hours were spent in development. The end result was R: Racing Evolution. The 2003 sleeper that was released on the Nintendo GameCube, Microsoft Xbox and Playstation 2. It was a game that the studio meant to be the spiritual successor to the Ridge Racer series. They began by breaking from tradition. It was the first game in Ridge continuity that featured real world production cars and race cars. It was not however the first Namco racing game to use real world sports cars.

A few years prior, in 2001 to be exact, the studio had released the arcade game Wangan Midnight. It was based on the popular manga series that revolved around a group of street racers. Like the Megalopolis Expressway films from the '80s, Wangan Midnight helped inspire the original Ridge Racer game. It was a series that started in 1990, predating the wildly popular Initial D by 5 years. In it the main character, Akio Asakura, drove a custom Fairlady Z that was dubbed the "Devil Z." The impossibly fast and incredibly hard to control Devil Z undoubtedly planted the seeds for the Devil 13 in Ridge Racer. The cars in the comic and game were based on real tuned cars from Nissan, Porsche, Toyota and Mazda. Namco needed to secure a license from several manufacturers in order to make the game true to the comic. Since the company was working on their proprietary arcade hardware they were able to adapt the game and eventually series of games for the PS2 and PS3 easily. The work with the cars and licenses in Wangan Midnight got the Ridge Racer Project team working on something more ambitious.

R: Racing Evolution featured racing in multiple different classes. Granted in Ridge Racer there were classes as well however some of them, like the Duel class, were fictional. From the muscle cars in the Drag Racing category to the four wheel drive beasts in the Rally class, as well as the GT Production and Prototype classes, everything in R: Racing Evolution was grounded in reality. The cars handled believable, they responded fairly accurately and had the sights, details and sounds to help put the players in the moment. The game ran the spectrum of the biggest racing types, ensuring that fans in the US, Japan, the UK and Europe would find something they could identify with. The most famous manufacturers were represented along with a handful of lesser known (to the US) auto companies. It was much more of a racing sim experience than audiences had ever expected from Namco. The studio was taking a break from the arcade experience to see if they could capture the fans of titles like Gran Turismo on the Playstation and Project Gotham Racing on the Xbox. Where they really surprised audiences was in the story-based "Racing Life" mode. The game revolved around two female drivers. A seasoned professional named Gina Cavalli and a young rookie named Rena Hayami.

Players took on the role of Rena and were made to see Gina as a not-too-friendly rival. In fact from the very onset the cattiness between the two was played up for the sake of drama. It seemed a little bit much at the beginning of the game, making the characters appear one-dimensional. The whole story would reveal itself one chapter at a time, highlighted by different races and different classes of cars. Every character introduced would become more well rounded by the end of the game. These characters could be fearful, dubious or arrogant depending on the situation. By providing a decent script and a range of emotions for the animators to work with the characters came to life. In this way players would learn to empathize with them and have a greater understanding and appreciation of race culture.

Namco had taken a page out of their Ridge Racer Type 4 playbook. It was only natural that they followed what worked previously. Ridge Racer V could be interpreted as a "do over" like Rage Racer was on the original Playstation and Namco needed to really step up their efforts in the next release. The studio did change some things around. Instead of speaking to the player in second-person and having them choose between four sponsors and four manufacturers the studio focused on the most important storytelling elements. They put audiences on one team that was as fleshed out as those in R4. This team had a back story, a history that would be revealed from the different characters in the game. The team captain, a seasoned veteran named Stephan Garnier would speak to them directly and in some cases have a navigator / crew chief named Eddie talk to them during a race. All the while players got to experience the different classes of racing, different manufacturers and sponsor cars as well. The developers then created an avatar for players to assume the role of to help place themselves in the context of the story. That character was not the Michelin Man, although his cameo was a high point in the Racing Life mode.

Namco had good reason to create a unique protagonist specifically for the game. It seemed as if the most successful titles in Japan and the US revolved around a human character. Even in the most elaborate science fiction, fantasy or historical period just about every AAA blockbuster had a human character for audiences to play as and identify with. It was true in Metal Gear, God of War and Assassins Creed titles. The stars of those games had a very deep back story and a very rich supporting cast. Audiences were expected to enjoy the gaming experience but they were also expected to empathize with the characters and become emotionally invested in the plot. Namco had planned for R: Racing Evolution to become a blockbuster hit by learning from their contemporaries in other genres. Few racing games have had a story as interesting as the one they had developed. Few racing games ran the gamut of classes and car types with a solid sense of realism. Namco did a good job at marrying the two for a whole new console generation. The publisher wanted Rena, Gina and Stephan to become icons in the world of racing games. They had planned for them to become mascots, as well recognized as the heroes from other genres, yet that did not come to pass. There were a number of missteps that prevented the vision from becoming a reality. The next blog will cover some of the lessons learned from this title.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Ridge Racer Legacy, part 10...

Ridge Racer 64 was an amazing console game but with the debut of the Playstation 2 (PS2) many fans were eager to see how much higher the bar would be set by Namco. Ridge Racer V was seen as a way to reboot the franchise and not simply copy their previous release. As the studio had done with R4 they went in with a clean slate and programmed an entirely new engine from scratch. This meant that the studio would not be re-using any assets from the Playstation. A small collection of cars was developed to take advantage of the higher polygon count and sharper textures that the PS2 provided. Well, it was a good number of cars that could be unlocked to be fair but nowhere near the massive number that R4 had set. The new models were amazing nonetheless and had much greater fidelity than even most arcade cars. The rides captured the spirit of four of the biggest auto manufacturing nations. Without putting an actual production car in the lineup the USA, Germany, Italy and Japan were well represented. France and South Korean manufacturers would be represented as well. Players could easily identify the influences behind each fictional manufacturer based on the familiar stance and lines of each car.

With Ridge Racer V Namco went back to the original idea that they had developed with Rage Racer. The studio had introduced a small number of courses in the game but in much greater detail than those found in any other title. The game had returned to Ridge City and it looked as if every inch of of the city was planned out and executed to exacting specifications. No arcade or console release could match the vividness of the new Ridge City. To help give racers a sense of immersion this time the music in the game was piped in through the fictional radio station Ridge FM. Its host would act as as narrator to the events as well as DJ to the mix of electronic and alt rock acts that were featured on the soundtrack. 

Players began to notice familiar neighborhoods and landmarks from previous visits to Ridge City. It was the first time that portions of downtown were not under construction. New skyscrapers dotted the scenery and new freeway exchanges had been introduced to the circuits. This Ridge Racer Project took careful note of every block and officially began labeling every part of the city. From the futuristic Downtown and high rises of Trading Square to the manicured lawns of City Park and even the natural beauty of Mount Valley. For the first time in almost a decade it really did appear as if Ridge City were based on a real world location. There was still plenty of room to grow and explore as the programmers at Namco began to add information onto the courses for future builds of the game. There were roads that were designed to compliment the new courses. They wove through the city and well off into the countryside as well. Those roads could be seen from the Bayside Line and Above the City courses but were not playable. The map data would remain however for future use.

The team had marked out locations to touch upon in further sequels but what they did with the existing real estate was genius. Through 1999 and 2000 Namco had split their talent between Ridge Racer 64 and Ridge Racer V. Digipen helped develop the Nintendo 64 hit and Sony made sure that the company had the tools that would help get the most out of the Playstation 2 dev kits. Even with the extra attention the team was spread a little thin. For the Playstation 2 the team knew that they had to wow their fans with a solid version of Ridge City if they were not going to put them on random tracks around the world. So they laid out a foundation that they could spend the next few years building on. This foundation was done in the literal sense of the word. The side streets and connecting roads not used in the circuits could be opened up in a subsequent title. Not only that they actually designed some tracks that ran underneath existing architecture. The Airport Oval for example added the staple airport track to canon. The track was actually designed in layers. The Airport Oval was built below ground level. It ran around the perimeter of the runway and adjacent to the airport proper. A series of tunnels prevented drivers from seeing much of the airport itself. The airport runway circuit that most fans would remember was "Aviator Lap." It took place above ground and just a few feet from parked jumbo jets. That track would be featured in Ridge Racer 6 and 7 for the Xbox 360 and Playstation3 respectively. Aviator Lap would take years to model and program so Airport Oval was what the team could introduce to expend the real estate for Ridge City. In Ridge Racer V the buildings and terrain that would make up Aviator Lap were missing assets. Sharp-eyed players could actually spot the columns and framework for future expansions in the distance. The Namco programmers had placed some unfinished models in the background as scenery. These free standing support structures and pylons would eventually become the bridges and freeway system that connected the airport to the rest of the city.

Namco would continue to pave over the roads and infrastructure that they had built in Ridge Racer V through the next decade. While it may not be considered a high-point for the series, at least not as revolutionary as R4, the game did a tremendous job at teaching the Ridge Racer Project members how changes in hardware, graphics and storage would have to be addressed going forward. As powerful as the Playstation 2 hardware was there was still a demand from the Japanese arcade scene for quality arcade racers outside of the home. In 1993 the original Ridge Racer ran on Namco's proprietary System 22 hardware. The 32-bit engine was very far ahead of its time and very expensive to manufacture. By 2000 they were touting the System 256 engine which was a dozen times more powerful and much less expensive. What many arcade visitors did not realize was that the System 256 was architecture designed for the Playstation 2. In this way the studio could "double dip" and have a game developed for the arcade in parallel with the console. Namco was not the only publisher to do this. Konami's Python hardware ran in much the same way.

Namco released Ridge Racer V: Arcade Battle a year after the console. It had a minor bump in the graphics department and also allowed network gameplay and rankings. It had the main courses and a selection of the same cars as the home console but it lacked all of the other modes. It was a beautiful but bare bones racing experience that not many people in the USA ever got a chance to see. By 2001 the arcade scene had pretty much dried up in the US. Those same racing fans however did not miss the greatness of the "next-gen" racing experience. Players could not only customize their rides with colors but they could also swap out engines and add a layer of "tuning" that had been missing in previous versions of the game. The highlight was the hidden content of course. The most diligent of players were rewarded with a special Pac Man cameo. Instead of simply driving as Pac Man they actually were entered into the Pac Man GP. Players assumed the role of the titular mascot and raced against his four rival ghosts. The ghosts sported sunglasses and rode on top of scooters that were capable of putting almost every super car to shame. If players beat the required circuit times then they could unlock Pac Man and the ghosts.

Ridge Racer V was a good game but it felt lacking. Perhaps it was that the team had pulled double duty developing this game and an N64 version during the same cycle. The previous game was as close to perfection as the series had ever reached. Audiences expected a little more immersion in the game and not simply better graphics.