Release Date: December 7, 2004
Namco's popular racing series comes to the Nintendo DS in the form of a five-year-old port from the Nintendo 64 version of the game, and while it's been tweaked to fit on the two screens of the Nintendo DS, the game definitely plays like it's from a different era. The game does have some high points, but the lows overwhelm much of the quality that this title retains. Ridge Racer is the epitome of an arcade racer, featuring insanely unrealistic drifting turns. One of the things that make this version of Ridge Racer different from its PlayStation iterations is the ability to pull of a 360-degree drifting turn. This would normally lead to a smashed up car and assure a last place finish, but in Ridge Racer DS, it's all a part of the fun and style that make the title unique. Unfortunately, the ability to pull of an insane drift isn't enough to redeem this game.
The meat of the game is the Gran Prix mode, featuring 20 different races across a variation of three tracks. The tracks can be mirrored, or reversed, but the fact remains that there are only three of them, which considerably limits the variety of the game. The player starts out with four cars, each one with a different rating in four areas: speed, acceleration, handling and grip. Each rating affects the way the car operates, and some cars are better suited to certain tracks than others. Speed obviously denotes how fast the car can go, while the acceleration rating determines how quickly the car can reach top speed. Handling affects how easily the car can turn and follow the road. Grip comes into play when attempting to pull off a drift, with a lower grip making it easier to drift.
Upon completing one of the Gran Prix classes, Car Attack mode can be chosen, in which the player takes part in a one-on-one race against a computer opponent. Once the opponent is beaten, the new car is won and added to the player's garage; the new cars are necessary to win if the player wants to progress in the Gran Prix mode. The final mode of play is Time Attack, in which the player races against themselves in order to achieve the best time on each track. This mode can be fun for perfecting the racing lines or practicing drifts, so it is helpful for trying out each of the control methods, some of which require a bit of practice.
Several different methods of control are available to steer the car. The Easy mode utilizes the d-pad for steering, which requires almost constant tapping to correct for over-steering. The Hard mode makes use of the stylus to tap on the touch screen and steer the car, and it's almost ridiculous to even think that someone would prefer to use this method of control. The final mode is Expert mode, which also uses the touchpad, but uses it as a sort of replacement analog stick. The thumb strap, which comes with the Nintendo DS, serves as the "stick" which is used on the touch screen. Patient gamers may prefer to use this method, but it takes a lot of practice to really make it worthwhile. The Easy mode definitely lives up to its name, providing the best and simplest way to jump into the action and start enjoying the game.
During the race, the top screen will display the player's current position and how much time is left, as well as the car, track, and all of the action. A speedometer is also represented on the top screen, and the touch screen will display the course map, current lap time, total time, and record time. By far, the most jarring aspect of the touch screen is a huge representation of a steering wheel on the bottom screen. This steering wheel turns and moves with the player's actions, and also serves as the point of control for the Hard and Expert control methods. Each car has its own distinct steering wheel, helping to set the cars apart, as well as provide a change of scenery on the bottom screen. When players are hit by other cars or run into a wall, the steering wheel shakes with the impact. It's an interesting addition, but odds are the player won't be looking at the steering wheel once the action starts.
It's when the race starts that the mechanics and gameplay of Ridge Racer DS start to show its age. Moving to the front of the pack in a field of 12 cars can be an exercise in frustration. The first few races are easy enough, but upon progressing to the fourth or fifth Gran Prix class, things get difficult. It'd be one thing if it were difficult because the opponent's AI was so good, or if the tracks were difficult, but that's not the case here. Starting in last place in a field of 12 cars requires racing to the front in three laps. That wouldn't normally be a problem, but the track is about as wide as a piece of string, making it almost impossible to pass a car that's directly in front of the player without crashing into them. With the crash comes the ensuing loss of momentum. The other car isn't affected at all, while the player's car seems to lose considerable speed.
Add to this the fact that the collision detection is spotty at best, and it turns into an exercise in frustration. Cars often come from behind, ram the player's car, and then end up in front. When passing on the left or right of an opponent, oftentimes the car would drag against the edge of the track, causing a massive loss of speed. The collision detection feels too sloppy, and should've been updated considerably for the DS version of the game. There are three camera angles that the player can use to view the action – a first-person, in-car view and two different angles of above-car, third-person viewing. The collision problems aren't readily apparent in the first-person view, but in the other two views, it's almost comical.
While the collision detection seems like it is completely broken, the drifting system is also a bit strange. When entering a turn, the player could turn in the opposite direction and enter a drift, and the game would automatically send the car safely through the turn, while it drifts facing the wrong way. In fact, the only way to completely avoid crashing into a wall is to drift constantly. While drifting, there seems to be a magical shield or a force guiding the car safely along the road, as long as it maintains that sideways motion. It seems like this would make the game easier, but it really doesn't because drifting causes the car to lose speed, and it remains vulnerable to other vehicles as well.
Another thing that could've used an update during the N64-to-DS conversion was the graphics. While impressive in the N64's day, they feel dated on the DS, and since the DS doesn't make use of texture smoothing like the N64 did, the graphics can look like a pixelated mess. Other times, they can look impressive, such as during the end of race replays, but during the main portion of the game, they leave something to be desired. The car models look decent, but almost all resemble each other in some way. One appreciated aspect was the ability to change the color of the car using a color bar in the selection screen, but only certain stripes or segments of certain cars change color.
The sound is one of the stronger points of Ridge Racer DS. At the beginning of the race, any of the available songs can be selected, which is a nice option. The engine sounds are full and vibrant, giving the game a real racing feel. Also well done is the tire screeching sounds that occur during a drift. One of the best parts of the auditory experience is the race announcer who makes several comments during the race: he berates the player when they fall behind and encourages them when they are coming down the home stretch. While he sounds a bit too enthusiastic at times, it all works within the arcade racing concept of the game.
If there's one reason to play and love this game, the multiplayer mode is it. Utilizing the Nintendo DS game-sharing function, one cartridge can be shared amongst up to six units, making for some multiplayer fun. Racing against friends happens to be one of the most fun experiences that can be had on the Nintendo DS at this point in time. All of the flaws evident in the single player mode can easily be forgotten when there are six cars on the track and you're racing against friends who don't always have the perfect line, as the AI opponents do.
There is certainly a lot to play for here: 32 different cars can be unlocked, as well as the 20 Gran Prix races. Time Attack offers almost endless replayability, and multiplayer mode can be revisited again and again as a fun diversion when friends come over. It'll definitely take a while to see everything this game has to offer, but players will likely give up before they get there, due to the frustration which will almost assuredly set in.
Ridge Racer DS feels like a gaming anachronism. It is out of place in this time period, a visit from the past. It retains some of the fun originally found in the N64 title from five years ago, but mostly it has aged poorly. Collision detection problems and sloppy mechanics plague this otherwise fun title, and multiplayer is really the best aspect of the game. It's unfortunate that the fun of multiplayer mode couldn't have been translated for the single player game. While it's hard to look past the frustrating flaws that appear, there is some fun to be found for the patient and practiced gamer.