Ai Fukami is the "race girl" and mascot for Ridge Racer V
Ai Fukami is the "race girl" and mascot for Ridge Racer V — Image: Namco

Soapbox articles give our writers the chance to voice their own personal perspectives on various topics and don't necessarily reflect the opinion of the site as a whole. Today, racing game fanatic Martin Hinson explains why he believes that Ridge Racer V is the absolute peak of human endeavour...

In 2006 Kazuo Hirai stated, "The next generation doesn't start until we say it does", in reference to the upcoming launch of the PlayStation 3. A statement that highlighted the success Sony had with its first two console outings had gone to the company’s proverbial heads.

However, this sentiment seemed to ring true with the PlayStation 2 launch back in 2000, as millions waited with bated breath for Sony’s upcoming console around the turn of the millennium.

It was around two years earlier, in late 1998, that the sixth generation started in earnest with Sega's launch of the Dreamcast in its native Japan. Coincidentally, this is where I started my own sixth-generation journey, handing over more than £400 for a Japanese launch console and Virtua Fighter 3tb. Sadly, with a limited quantity of games available and no RGB cables for a few months, the system underwhelmed and left a poor first impression on me. Virtua Fighter 3tb looked fairly impressive but was also rather muddy compared to the pin-sharp Tekken 3 on PlayStation. The ‘"next-generation"’ felt more compromised than it should have.

Ridge Racer V

1999 happened, and along with some shiny new RGB cables, we saw an improvement in the console's library, which was followed by a fairly hot launch in the west. It was backed by Soul Calibur, a game adored by many a Dreamcast fan, but for me, outside of the stunning graphics, seemed a step back from Soul Blade due to a weaker soundtrack and the removal of the superb Edge Master Mode. Not to mention the game felt rather button-bashy (technical term!) compared to the superbly focused sword fighting present in the PS1 original. Along with games like Soul Calibur, Sega Rally 2 also left me feeling disappointed again, and the Dreamcast was playing a supporting role to the fantastic PlayStation hits of 1999, including ISS Pro Evolution, Wipeout 3, V-Rally 2, and Silent Hill, to name a few.

Sadly for Sega, like a traditional British summer, that heat didn't last, and the Dreamcast faded not long after. That is not to suggest the console did not boast some absolutely stellar titles, but the Dreamcast never felt like the beginning of a new generation, at least not for me, that only came in March of 2000 and with one particular game, Ridge Racer V.

A Reluctant First Impression

Upon entering the Video Game Centre, our local Bournemouth-based import deity, on a blustery March morning in 2000, the Japanese PlayStation 2 consoles were up and running on their beautiful Sony Trinitron RGB-enabled CRT televisions. Of course, despite being a huge fan of the original PlayStation from around the UK launch, I was absolutely, definitely and positively not interested. "It's just a lazy update of Ridge Racer", was the comment heard from the staff in the shop, as glances were made towards the Sony TV. Having spent a large chunk of cash on that Japanese Dreamcast and reasonably enjoying 1999 with the system, my colours were truly nailed to that purchase.

Ridge Racer V

But, first impressions last, and those shy glances at the Sony TV stuck with me, Ridge Racer V was beautiful! Combining buttery smooth performance and stunning visual effects, including my first notable experience with depth of field – something we see a lot again in contemporary gaming – Ridge Racer V made its impression, an impression that would last over twenty years.

Conversations were had regularly with friends about the PlayStation 2 and how it wasn’t very good, but the truth is these friends did not like PlayStation generally, so effectively peer pressured me to deny myself what I really wanted. A few months later, though, with more visits to the Video Game Centre, I caved and stumped up over £500 for a used console with Ridge Racer V, Street Fighter EX 3, Fantavison and Driving Emotion Type S, the next generation had truly begun!

Keeping The Dream Alive

Taking the console home was a monumental moment for me. The machine was highly sought after, and not just because of the DVD player, although that was undoubtedly a masterstroke by Sony to include it.

Powering up to a smooth, crisp and professional menu system, with widescreen options and optical audio support, the PlayStation 2 felt impressive. In reality, it was the possibilities offered by this shiny new console across the multitude of beloved franchises such as Metal Gear, Gran Turismo, International Superstar Soccer, Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider and, of course, Ridge Racer.

This was perhaps the last time you could say to your friends, ‘'Hey, I’ve got this new console that isn’t out yet (in the UK)'’, and get a genuine buzz as people wanted to see it. You could say it was the end of an era for grey imports.

Ridge Racer V, for me, righted all the wrongs of the disappointing fourth Ridge Racer game. Yes, Ridge Racer Type 4 (R4) is gorgeous to look at, plays really well and sounds incredible, but the game design was really quite poor, in my opinion. R4 had just one Grand Prix, one set of courses, always run in the same order with the same time of day and the same class of car. It had, despite all that content, no variety.

Ridge Racer V had a higher number of Grand Prix, increased variations in its track configurations, more varied car handling and utterly banging music to boot. Although yes, I admit, the R4 soundtrack is quite possibly the series peak in terms of music.

First impressions are important and right from the stunning introductory sequence which is a screaming blend of fast camera cuts, redlining engines and banging music, I was hooked. Not to mention Namco's new girl, Ai Fukami. Ai was modelled to a level not seen before on a console with strong facial features and high polygon counts, right down to her collarbones. Ridge Racer V’s introduction posed a striking level of detail, all rendered in real-time at a wonderfully fluid 60 frames per second.

Moving from that stunning intro to some of the most beautifully designed menus seen in the medium at this point. Namco, already known for that quality of presentation, hit the very top here with beautifully animated logos to show each menu choice and provided wonderfully smooth transitions between them. The art design here is clean, feels professional and has stood the test of time perfectly.

The visual design has a more muted but realistic style when compared to the more artistic flair of R4, yet it still remained striking. The lighting, from the bright morning skies to the calm afternoon sun or the glitzy neon-like night-time glow, makes Ridge City a joy to race through. You can almost feel the cool air temperature as your car echoes through the night, charging through the pack to take the victory whilst the Kohta tune ‘Euphoria’ blasts from the speakers. This latter example is still perhaps my favourite racing experience, and I highly recommend it.

The most important thing in any racing game is the cars themselves which all look fantastic; they are shiny and reflect the world around them whilst boasting fully modelled wheels rather than the flat 2D textures of many other racing games at the time.

Everything comes together, like the intro, running at a glorious 60 frames per second. Ridge Racer V is just like a great car; it's made from a collection of parts that make it something so much greater.

Time Does Not Always Cause Decay

Twenty-two years later and that first impression from the Video Game Centre really stuck with me; I can still remember those first glances that I had. Ridge Racer V remains the most interesting but perhaps most rejected entry in the series by gamers and journalists. Nowadays, it is barely talked about and felt somewhat maligned on release (Edge magazine gave it 5 out of 10). Yet for me, it has superb focus, draws on most of the best aspects of prior games and does not waste an inch of content.

It was also the last game in the series with a truly varied handling mechanic, with the few cars it does have feeling incredibly different to drive and can be difficult to master.

The games that followed Ridge Racer V feel very similar to each other, which dented my love for the series. Namco proved it does not matter how much content you have; it is what you do with it that matters and it must have done something right to keep me playing for so long, 22 years and counting.

Naturally, it has flaws too; opponents get the favour of the racing line, and the two-player mode is not very good. But nothing is perfect – well, except perhaps Super Mario World...

Sentimentally Speaking

Ridge Racer V is a game I have loved from day one; for me, it is the last truly great Ridge Racer. However, there is a further sentimental reason for how much I love this game. In 2003, my great friend Keith bought me an NTSC U/C copy of the game for Christmas. It was a total surprise, and I was extremely happy. Sadly, we lost Keith just over 10 years ago, and that copy is my most prized gaming possession. I truly treasure it.

Whilst it was Sony that once stated the next generation starts when they say, you could really say it was Namco that made the biggest statement with the PlayStation 2 launch. There was certainly nothing else during that Japanese launch period that felt as beautiful as Ridge Racer V and had the Video Game Centre had the forgettable Street Fighter EX3 on display that day, we might not be having this discussion. Of course, Ridge Racer V is really not the greatest game ever made (clickbait works, right?), but it is my favourite, and nothing is likely to change that.

(Just don’t mention the jaggies…)

Do you agree with Martin, is Ridge Racer V the greatest game ever made? What are your memories of this PS2 classic? Let us know in the comments below: