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What a year 1999 was for PlayStation. Developers had new tools to help them squeeze the last drops of horsepower from the machine, brand recognition was global and gameplay was a priority again after the Great Polygon Rush of '96. Ridge Racer Type 4 rode the crest of that wave, offering some of the best graphics the machine ever produced, along with sublime handling, atmosphere and soundtrack. And, unlike Gran Turismo, it hasn't aged badly in the slightest. In fact, it's still sensational. Let me show you why:
It was the biggest leap in quality the series ever saw, utterly smashing Ridge, Revolution and Rage Racer with its distinct visual, audio and track design style. I mean, just look at it:
Above: Beautiful, eh? This is a PS3-smoothed shot, but it looks great whichever way you play it
No other game on PlayStation captures the essence of a sunny day quite like Ridge 4. Loading it up and seeing the pre-race fly-by on tracks like Phantomile, you can feel the heat rising from the sun-baked tarmac. You can imagine the fat rubber tyres being hot to the touch if one of these cars were to pull over and let you feel its seductive curves. All of this is achieved with impeccable art design and lighting that makes low-memory textures somehow look... well, good. Having blocky 3D grid girls at the start just adds to the atmosphere - that this is a race event that people have come from miles around to witness.
Above: You know what? That ain't half bad for an incidental character on a PSone. Come on, she's cute!
It's not just a collection of car graphics moving around track graphics in a low-powered games console. This feels like a real place with real people. And it's got a real icon in the shape of its covergirl, Reiko Nagase. How many times did we watch that intro at the start of the game? I think she deserves a screenshot right about now…
Above: Possibly the best-rendered lips the West had ever seen in 1999. Japan had them in '98, of course
But it wasn't only Reiko that made us watch the intro movie over and over. It was also about the pre-rendered, halcyon day that the CG intro movie conjures up. By this time, PlayStation 2 was on the gaming horizon and gamers couldn't help but think that some day soon we could be playing games that looked as good as this. In reality, we're only now at that stage with the current generation, but at least we got there in the end.
The first time I got to play the game was in a competition held at my local Virgin Megastore. It was one lap around the Edge of the Earth night-time race in probably the second tier of car power. I didn't win the competition, as I was completely unused to the drift mechanic, but the impression it left on my mind was indelible.
Above: Forget Gran Turismo's Special Stage Route 7 - this is the pinnacle of night racing on PSone
The feeling of hurtling through these wondrous environments was so far ahead of anything else I'd ever seen running on a home console made me glad that I'd switched my allegiance from Saturn to PlayStation. Momentarily, mind - I sold my PSone and bought a Dreamcast later that same year. Fickle, fickle me.
Ah, that drift mechanic. It was enough to make my gaming buddy at the time (my dad) almost give up on the game, until he realised there were non-drift variants of the cars available too. Arguably, the drifting here makes way more sense than the 'turn any way you like – you'll get around as long as you're drifting' mechanics from Ridges 6 and 7, but I can see what reviews meant when they said the steering feels like 'it's either on or it's not'.
The trick in Ridge Racer Type 4 is to get the back to step out, either by letting go of the accelerator and re-applying it as you turn, or simply turning and braking if you're at top speed. Then you just need to turn hard and line the car up to be facing forward when the corner ends. Keep it under control and suddenly your lap times will plummet.
It's not the most graceful or intuitive system in the world, but once you develop the acquired taste for its nuances, it suddenly makes more sense than driving normally. Chucking the car into a slide as you go over an eponymous ridge, landing sideways and just catching enough grip to powerslide around the next turn is videogame heaven.
Above: Bucking tradition, the pre-rendered intro shows you something you can actually do in the game
Playing Ridge 4 again today, it still impresses me how smooth the driving is. Like Sega Rally, it's enough for the game to simply let you drive, enjoying the sensation of travelling. No tricks, no gimmicks, just a rock solid sensation of movement. For racing devs, when you've got that nailed, the rest comes automatically.