Namco was willing to reward the most diligent players with the occasional goody. They did it in Ridge Racer Revolution through the Galaga mini game but they really wanted players to earn the rarest of prizes in Ridge Racer Type 4. It was a daunting task for die-hard racing fans to unlock all 320 cars in R4. Those that did earned the greatest mascot-based car ever. A three-wheeled car shaped like the iconic Pac Man was the big surprise. Up until then Pac Man was simply referenced as a sponsor sticker or as the livery for an entire racing team but he had never appeared as an actual character. From that point forward Pac Man would appear in almost every sequel driving a unique vehicle. Whether it was a small coupe, a rocket sled or even a ship featured in Galaga or Xevious the legendary ghost chaser would help add some whimsy to the universe.
Sony was reaping the rewards of having Namco develop AAA titles for their console. It was enough to make the other manufacturers just a little bit jealous. Nintendo wanted to have a solid racing game of their own for the Nintendo 64 that was not a sequel from the in-house Mario Kart series. They tasked Namco to develop a version of Ridge Racer that would be as good as every other version but would fit on a cartridge. This was going to be a programming nightmare for the team at Namco. They had developed their own arcade engines, were among the pioneers of 3D technology in gaming and had found a way to translate the arcade experience to consoles. As talented as they were they seemed to be tasked with the impossible. The N64 cartridges with the most capacity were 64MB while the smallest were 4MB. By comparison a CD-ROM could hold 650MB worth of data and left space for two dozen music tracks as well. The hardware was among the most complex to program for and even though Namco had developed some games for the console they had not tried anything as ambitious as a new version of Ridge Racer just for the console.
Published in 2000 Ridge Racer 64 was a brilliant title. It achieved fantastic visuals that were on par, and some would argue superior to R4. It didn't have the sheer number of cars of R4 but the 32 that were in the game and the collection of tracks from Ridge Racer and Ridge Racer Revolution including the exclusive desert Renegade track were nothing to sneeze at. It also had 10 fantastic music tracks that preserved the electronic traditions of other games in the series and even the option for 4-player racing. The system really got a chance to shine thanks to Namco as well as the programming talent of the DigiPen school (which Nintendo was a main benefactor of).
The title provided a genuine challenge for long time arcade gamers as well as console vets. There was nothing watered down about the experience. In fact Namco made sure to include a few surprises for audiences. The game included the classic Galaga '88 mini game and some of the cars featured the stickers and themes of classic arcade games. The biggest shocker were the "cars" that they hid in the game. The studio included the ghost Blinky from Pac Man and a Pooka from Dig Dug. Sony would have been upset if Pac Man had been placed in the game, to keep some sense of exclusivity they included the ship from Galaga '88 as the ultimate prize. Players learned that they could destroy the competition with a spaceship that could accelerate in a flash, turn on a dime and had the fastest top speed in the game. Of course the trick was that players had to beat the ship in order to unlock it. The lesson learned from battling the Devil 13 all those years earlier had returned. Players had to race dirty and block the Galaga '88 at every opportunity and just stay ahead of it until the finish line.
The new millennium would see many changes with Ridge Racer. The next generation was coming out and Sony expected Namco to have a game ready in time for the debut of the Playstation 2. The new architecture and storage media would allow Namco to release a racing game for a home console that visually was on par with their best arcade efforts. It would be a chance to take back the bragging rights from Sega. But in order to do that they had to deliver a game worthy of the Ridge Racer legacy. The next blog will highlight the title that tried to change everything.