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Ridge Racer has never been my favourite franchise. That statement is hardly surprising when you consider that I don't particularly enjoy any racing games, nor do I have much fondness for Japanese arcade games. In fact, the only reason I bought Ridge Racer 3D was because I ended up owning three 3DS consoles on launch day (a long story involving a faulty console, a replacement and a replacement replacement) and the second came with this bundle. So it was a treat to discover that Ridge Racer 3D was one of the best 3DS launch titles.
On paper Ridge Racer 3D seems to be aiming clearly for the mediocre cup, containing a selection of favourite cars and tracks from previous entries in the series and a basic Arcade/Career mode setup and a few basic customisation options. It takes a by the book approach to producing a console launch title, aiming not to excel but to cover a few good fundamentals, but in the end this is what pushes it over the top. Ridge Racer 3D is not gimmicky or over the top, the controls are responsive, comfortable and seem to fit the console naturally. The graphics are not mindblowing, but they are solid and evocative, featuring some decent lighting and shadow effects that give the whole product a nice coat of polish. Finally, the career mode is reasonably lengthy and you'll keep unlocking new tracks for some time.
If, like me, you're more of a fan of the Mario Kart school of racing games, you're going to have to put up with Ridge Racer's bouncy physics engine, and its drifting, slipstreaming, boosting traits, but it's a setup worth adjusting to. This is one of the most solid and lengthy racing games I've ever played on a handheld, but it still has that much needed pick up and play feel. Ridge Racer has never been as realistic as games like Gran Turismo or Forza, but its Arcade origins actually make it shine more on a handheld than Gran Turismo on the PSP which just comes off feeling too complicated.
Graphically, Ridge Racer 3D is an interesting case. It's something of a mixed bag, never really pushing the 3DS, but the final product looks pretty sharp anyway. You could argue that the 3D models in Gran Turismo PSP are better, but Ridge Racer 3D seems to do so much more with what it has. The cars and tracks seem to be pulled straight from Ridge Racer PSP, but the textures have been given a bit of a bump which smartens the whole show considerably. On top of that, the 3DS has far more advanced shaders which lets Ridge Racer 3D produce beautiful sunset tracks, helicopters that glint in the sunlight and windscreen reflections of every tunnel you drive through. There's always something going on in the background; one cliffside track features hangliders flying past as you skid around a bend, another has an aeroplane flyby as you cross the finish line. All of this is rendered without a hitch to the framerate, and the 3DS shows it all on its beautiful, bright coloured screen. Ridge Racer 3D always feels dynamic and alive in a way that few handhelds seem to accomplish.
I also found the 3D effect in Ridge Racer 3D to be one of the best. 3D has been a mixed experience on the 3DS. Really there's no getting away from the fact that the screen is too small. Yes, the 3D without glasses works and it's a neat effect with none of colour or brightness loss associated with other methods, but on a tiny screen it's nearly all for nothing. The 3DS can make one object pass in front of another, but it has real trouble creating "depth," no matter how much you adjust the slider. Ridge Racer is one of the better examples, if you're comfortable with the 3D slider up high, when cranked up to the top the game seems to have a very nice pop to it. You never get that feeling that the racetrack extends for miles or the aeroplane is popping right out of the screen, but your car seems to have real substance. It's a nice effect and I hope other developers copy it, however it's done.
As with most 3DS games, the touch screen is practically unused and there's nothing that couldn't have been done a single screen device. One of the sad things about the 3DS is that it breaks the original DS concept a bit. We're losing a lot of the variety that made the DS so successful.
The game also features no online multiplayer which is a real shame. Nintendo made a big push for online multiplayer this time around and this game would be perfect for it, but there is local wireless multiplayer which is a lot of fun. It also features sharing of ghost data over streetpass which you can race and share. It's nothing special, but it's always nice to have a bit more to swap on those rare streetpass encounters.
If you're a 3DS owner and you're looking for a solid portable racer, Ridge Racer surprised me. Perhaps it was a lack of options, but it has quickly become one of my favourites. It doesn't use all of the 3DS features, nor all of its processing power, but it's a solid and playable game that is a lot of fun.