The Making Of Ridge Racer – How An Arcade Game Launched Sony’s Seminal Console

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Racing games often go hand-in-hand with console launches. The thrill of fast-paced, rubber-burning action can demonstrate the power of new hardware and give gamers that immediate ‘wow factor’ shortly after pressing the power button.

Namco had incorporated that sense of adrenaline and excitement in their arcade titles during the 1980s, before accepting the challenge to bring their pioneering arcade racing title, Ridge Racer, to Sony’s PS1.

Developed in around eight months to coincide with the launch of Sony’s first foray into the console market, Ridge Racer’s jump to the PlayStation is nothing short of astounding.

The story of how Namco almost produced their own console following a disagreement with Nintendo, pivoted to create a theme park, and then revolutionised 3D graphics with help from the team that designed combat flight simulators for The Pentagon, is an undeniably unusual one, but a tale that gave the original PlayStation a system seller in 1994.

This is how an arcade game launched Sony’s seminal console.

Namco Vs Nintendo

Promotional flyer for 1987's Final Lap arcade release.
image credit: gamesdb

At the tail-end of the 1980s, Namco was riding high on successful ports of classic arcade titles including Galaxian, Pac-Man, and Mappy for Nintendo’s Famicon, and its purchase and sell of the majority stake in Atari Games following the video game crash of 1983. The Tokyo-based firm diversified its portfolio during the decade, expanding beyond software development and even venturing into the food service industry by acquiring the Italian Tomato café chain in 1986.

A string of popular arcade hits followed with titles such as 1987’s Final Lap and 1988’s Winning Run (running on Namco’s System 21 game board) becoming commercially successful juggernauts in Japan, and emboldening Namco to invest heavily into 3D development hardware. Namco’s continued support for the Famicon during this period produced excellent returns for Namco shareholders, largely due to the favourable terms of Namco’s licensing agreement with Nintendo.

Namco's President and Founder Masaya Nakamura posing in front of a Pac Man arcade machine.
image credit: Namco/wall street journal

However, that status quo changed when the licensing contract between Namco and Nintendo expired in 1989, with Nintendo removing the favourable terms from its contract with Namco during the renewal process. The revised terms greatly upset Namco’s President and Founder Masaya Nakamura, but despite his protests, Namco’s board of executives renewed their agreement with Nintendo under the new terms.

The same year, it was reported that Namco had begun development on its own home console as a rival games machine designed to compete with SEGA’s Mega Drive. While Namco’s console never saw the light of day, the development provided insight into home console hardware design and limitations.

Namco System 22

Namco’s arcade experience led to the creation of several 3D titles in 1990 and 1991, with the most notable games being the 3D rail shooters Galaxian3: Project Dragoon and Starblade. These titles ran using Namco’s proprietary System 21 arcade board, delivering 3D visuals that far exceeded the capability of the home consoles from Sega and Nintendo.

Namco’s Wonder Eggs theme park promotional video

To further diversify their portfolio, Namco entered the world of theme parks with the opening of Namco Wonder Egg in Futakotamagawa, Tokyo in 1992. Wonder Eggs was a tremendous success that buoyed Namco at the start of the decade (the park also appeared as a stage in Tekken 3 several years later). The increased revenue from Wonder Eggs allowed Namco to invest further into other technologies and in 1992 Namco unveiled their successor to the Namco System 21 arcade board, the System 22.

Namco System 22 arcade board
image credit: Wikipedia

Namco’s System 22 boasted a heap of technological advancements over its predecessor, most notably the ability to render 3D models with texture mapping. To achieve the new graphical features required for the System 22, Namco collaborated with American computer graphics firm Evans & Sutherland.

The firm, based in Utah, had previously supplied combat flight simulators to The Pentagon and developed training software for commercial ship pilots before helping to create the first 3D graphics cards for PCs in the early 90s.

Evans & Sutherland’s experience with 3D graphics gifted Namco the opportunity to produce a revolution in arcade game graphics. A bespoke GPU, the ‘TR3’ (shorthand for Texture Mapping, Real-Time, Real-Visual, Rendering System) was produced for the System 22, allowing for the aforementioned texture mapping, Gourand Shading, transparency effects, and depth cueing. The first title to take advantage of the new arcade board was Namco’s Sim Drive.

Sim Drive Gets The Wheels Rolling

image credit: Namco

August 1992 saw Namco debut Sim Drive at the Japan Amusement Machinery Manufacturers Association (JAMMA) in Tokyo.

While Namco had produced elaborate and expensive arcade cabinets before, the Sim Drive unit consisted of a giant, curved wrap-around screen with players jumping into the driving seat of a real Mazda Eunos MX-5 Roadster, modified to control the game. Namco had previously worked with Mazda on 1990’s driving sim Eunos Roadster Driving Simulator with Sim Drive becoming a spiritual successor of sorts.

Sim Drive exhibited Gourand shading and texture mapping, making use of Evans & Sutherland’s advanced TR3 GPU to deliver a 3D graphical showcase. Following the reveal of Sim Drive at JAMMA, Namco produced a limited number of units for distribution throughout Japan in December 1992.

“The Most Realistic Driving Game Ever”

The cost of producing arcade cabinets using real-life vehicles is, understandably, prohibitively expensive. While Sim Drive was received positively by those who played it, Namco acknowledged that mass production for the title wasn’t feasible and that the game would need to evolve to become something more than a glorified tech demo. Sim Drive had inadvertently paved the way for Namco’s next big arcade hit, Ridge Racer.

Sim Drive proved that 3D racing games with high-fidelity graphics and solid frame rates were achievable with the new Namco System 22 board, but the driving experience lacked panache and excitement.

Yozo Sakagami talking about the origins of Ridge Racer in 2011.
image credit: nintendo

Inspired by the drift-racing trend popular among Japanese car enthusiasts at the time, Namco’s general manager, Yozo Sakagami, opted to ditch traditional track racing and instead set Ridge Racer within the mountains of Japan. The shift in setting allowed Namco to implement cars that didn’t need to slow down around corners. Vehicles that could drift around corners at ludicrous speeds to keep the gameplay fast and exciting.

Sakagami explained the emphasis on speed during an Iwata Asks interview in February 2011, proclaiming that “it’s a simple word, but we aim for speed. And the exhilaration that comes from that speed is where it all begins”.

Despite what many would refer to as today as a decidedly ‘arcadey’ feeling driving model, Namco advertised Ridge Racer as “the most realistic driving game ever” on promotional materials for the new title.

Promotional flyer for Ridge Racer's arcade release.
image credit: gamesdb

It took Namco less than a year to develop Ridge Racer in the arcades, with the initial batch of units appearing in Japanese arcades in October 1993. The typical arcade cockpit featuring a replica seat, peddles, gearshift, and steering wheel was well-received by fans and critics and became a huge hit, eventually becoming the highest-grossing arcade game in Japan in 1994.

Despite the lofty production costs, Namco also produced a stellar premium version, known as Ridge Racer Full Scale, which once again, used a modified Mazda MX-5 to play the game on a large wrap-around screen.

A New Challenger

Ridge Racer arcade screenshot of cars racing along a beachside road.
image credit: gamesdb

Sakagami’s decision to push for a mountain-top drift-racing game had paid off and the appeal of Ridge Racer was undeniable.

Speaking to Digital Foundry in 2014, Sakagami revealed that “Bandai Namco was also trying to develop the 3D system with low cost for console games at that time. Then, we heard the concept of PlayStation from Mr. Kutaragi and decided to work together.”

Sony’s Ken Kutaragi had spent years working with Nintendo on the ill-fated CD-ROM add-on for the SNES. After the partnership between Sony and Nintendo broke down over a licensing disagreement, Kutaragi pushed Sony’s then-CEO, Norio Ohga, to continue the project without Nintendo. Ohga agreed to pursue the development of Sony’s first home games console, the PlayStation, but knew that a console would be worthless without games to play on it.

Ken Kutaragi photographed outside with the blue debug PlayStation.
image credit: sony

Where Nintendo had cultivated a home-grown assortment of developers from years in the video game industry, the executives at Sony had considered gaming a flash-in-the-pan and a temporary fad that would eventually recede. As such, Sony lacked the first-party support to develop games for PlayStation and instead would need to look to third parties who would want to develop for the new system.

It was following the fallout between Nintendo and Sony, that Ken Kutaragi approached Sakagami and Namco about bringing Ridge Racer to PS1, with the added stipulation that the game should be ready to coincide with the PS1’s launch in Japan on the 3rd December 1994.

Racing Home

With the clock ticking, Namco set about developing Ridge Racer for PlayStation in April 1994, just eight months before it was scheduled to launch.

The task was enormous. Simply porting Ridge Racer from the Namco System 22 to the PlayStation was unachievable due to the technological differences between the two platforms. Instead, Namco’s team had to effectively recreate Ridge Racer from the ground up.

The PlayStation simply didn’t have the horsepower to run Ridge Racer in its native high resolution of 640 x 480 pixels with a 60fps framerate like the arcade original. Instead, Namco halved the target resolution and the framerate, dropping it down to 320 x 240 while running at 30fps (with players in PAL territories effectively driving with the handbrake on with 25fps).

Ridge Racer PlayStation gameplay showing a red and green car racing beside a beach.
image credit: sony/moby games

One of the greatest drawbacks of Sony’s new hardware was the introduction of loading screens that broke up the arcade-style experience but were necessary due to the CD-ROM format. Yozo Sakagami challenged his team to overcome the problem before launch, adamant that the Ridge Racer home experience be as seamless as possible.

Namco’s developers, the same team that produced Ridge Racer for the System 22, developed a novel solution to the loading screen issue that threatened to put the brakes on the drifting action between races.

Instead of loading data throughout the duration of gameplay, the team opted to have all the game data loaded into memory before the title screen appeared. To distract players from the lengthy loading process, Sakagami chose to run a playable version of Namco’s 1979 arcade hit Galaxian during the initial boot-up. The same technique would also appear in other Namco titles, with the home console version of Tekken shipping with Galaga during the loading process.

Galaxian gameplay of a ship shooting at enemies.
image credit: Namco/moby games

Ridge Reception

Despite the technical downgrade of the home console release, Ridge Racer made a stunning impact upon release, quickly becoming the standout title of the PlayStation’s Japanese launch lineup.

Critics loved it too, with Famitsu scoring Namco’s port a stunning 37/40 overall and Edge Magazine awarding Ridge Racer a 9/10 and dubbing it “the killer app” that Sony needed for the fledgling console. In the Summer of 1995, Ridge Racer appeared at E3 and won the coveted ‘Game Of The Show’ Award, ahead of the western release in September of the same year.

Blue sportscar drifting in Ridge Racer.
image credit: sony/moby games

For many, including Yozo Sakagami, Ridge Racer is the beginning of a new era of racing games, with the developer musing during his interview with Satoru Iwata that “Ridge Racer began as an arcade game, and I view it as the origin of racing games”.

Sony’s gamble with third-party developers had paid off, with Ridge Racer selling an estimated 859,085 units within the first twelve months, making it one of the best-selling titles during PlayStation’s inaugural year, and cementing Sony’s new console as a serious contender in a market previously dominated by Nintendo and SEGA.

Crucially, Ridge Racer proved more than capable of rivaling SEGA’s Daytona USA, whose port to the SEGA Saturn, while still fantastic in its own right, was considered inferior compared to Namco’s PlayStation debut.

While the series has now sat dormant in Namco’s garage since the 2016 mobile release of Ridge Racer Draw & Drift, the original will forever be known as the title that helped launch the PlayStation to the world, one drifting mountain pass at a time.

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