It's a cliche (perhaps even the cliche) of handheld gaming that it's best enjoyed while either sitting on the bus or the bog. And while we've yet to play Ridge Racer in the loo (our PSP somehow feels too new and shiny for that sort of thing - yet), we have played it while making use of our fine public transportation system. And such is the degree to which Ridge Racer totally absorbs you, it's directly responsible for our esteemed editor completely missing his bus stop the first time he played it. The muppet.
But Ridge Racer is that great - and easily the highlight of the Japanese PSP launch line-up. After the debacle of R: Racing, this takes the Ridge series back to its roots: pure powerslide-fuelled arcade racing fun, replete with a stunning graphical sheen.
And what graphics. If Sony were specifically looking for a launch game that immediately shows off PSP's visual capabilities, they couldn't have done much better than this. In fact, Ridge Racer doesn't look far short of being up to PS2 standards: it's that good. From the shimmering sunsets, to the working rear-view mirror when you adopt a first-person perspective, when you first see Ridge in action, it's breathtaking. Even otherwise cynical observers have been heard to mutter words to the effect of, "It's like the future... but now".
Yet games cannot exist on pretty outward appearances alone. If the gameplay isn't up to much, it doesn't matter if it's better looking than an episode of The OC. Luckily, as you've probably gathered by now, Racer handles like a dream, not least because it's probably the first ever handheld 3D racing game that actually plays in exactly the same way as its full-size console counterparts.
The game is based around the single-player World Tours mode, which boasts a total of 12 tracks (all of which are also offered in reverse as well) taken from the original Ridge Racer, Rage Racer, Ridge Racer Revolution, R4 and Rave Racer. Each round consists of a number of races in which you must finish in a certain position. Complete all the rounds to win a tour. Simple. As you progress, additional tracks and cars are unlocked (you begin with just three vehicles), while it's also possible to create custom tours from the 24 circuits.
The handling is classic Ridge, so it's powerslides a-go-go: if you've played OutRun 2, you'll know exactly what sort of drifting madness awaits. For the first time in the Ridge series though, powerslides actually have an additional tangible benefit: as you drift around corners, nitro meters begin to fill up. As each one is filled, you'll be able to execute a nitrous boost by hitting the right shoulder button. It only sounds like a minor (and derivative) addition but it does add another particularly satisfying dimension to the racing.
The sense of speed - even with the early, slower cars - impresses although there are moments when it can just feel as if you're sliding from left to right as opposed to actually 'turning'. While playing the game, the PSP itself sits in your hands nicely - as long as you're a D-pad driver. As mentioned elsewhere, while the analogue nub works well, it's too low down and using it does feel uncomfortable.
Aside from the World Tours section are self-explanatory Single Race and Time Attack modes. But it's the Wireless Battle function that is the other feature of real interest. The ability to play lag-free handheld Ridge via WiFi, with as many as eight players, is little short of a seminal gaming moment. And it's so easy to set up, we managed it straight away even with the Japanese menus to contend with.
Our only hiccup while playing Ridge Racer was that - once - during the World Tours mode, the game completely froze at one point and subsequently crashed. Annoyingly, we lost the save from our last race but, beyond that, there didn't appear to be any other ill effects and we simply restarted the PSP. Indeed, the rare crash aside, sheer visceral handheld thrills have never been better than this.
Ridge Racers is due to reach these shores as part of the UK's PSP launch line-up in March. Looks like it's going to be a month of missed bus stops and, er, prolonged toilet breaks.
Ridge Racer is out now in Japan and will be released in the UK in March