The Last Ridge Racer

Well, this is a bit of a roller coaster tale that I’ve been meaning to share for a while.

Before we start, let’s take a trip into the history books to set the scene.

In October 1993, Namco released its seminal arcade racer, Ridge Racer to wide acclaim. The graphics, gameplay and sound score, delivered an arcade racing gameplay experience never previously seen.

Ridge Racer Logo by RingoStarr39

The fast-paced game featured textured graphics alongside a pumping soundtrack and was a culmination of two previous Namco releases, that bordered on simulation:

1989’s Eunos Roadster Driving Simulator was a venture between Namco, the Mazda Motor Corporation and Mitsubishi Precision. Running on Namco’s System 21 hardware, it was a first-person racing game that simulated a Mazda Eunos Roadster (otherwise known as the Mazda MX5 in Europe) in a flat-shaded three-dimensional environment (think Virtua Racing style graphics).

Namco’s 1989 Eunos Driving Simulator
Also showcased here on Namco’s stand at a trade show in 1990

The technology used in this simulator was then further developed into an unreleased prototype known as SimDrive, in 1992, the first game to use Namco’s System 22 hardware. SimDrive was shown at the 1992 Amusement Machine Show in Japan. It was the first ever arcade game to feature texture-mapped 3D polygons and Gouraud shading, utilising a cutting edge TR3 graphics chipset developed by pioneering computer graphics company Evans & Sutherland.

In a demonstration of audaciousness, SimDrive used a real full sized Mazda MX-5 car shell as a cabinet along with a large projection screen.

SimDrive – Namco’s driving simulator prototype cabinet showcased in 1992
SimDrive in action. A still from a video taken in 1992. Interestingly, the cabinet is called ‘SimRoad’
SimDrive’s graphics, featuring textured polygons and Gouraud shading – a ground-breaking achievement at the time

Although providing players with a realistic driving simulation never seen previously, SimDrive never saw a full commercial launch outside of a very limited Japanese run in December 1992. Some brief footage of the machine out in the wild can be viewed here.

But its hardware and gameplay would be worked on further by Namco as the basis for what would ultimately become Ridge Racer, released to arcade floors in Japan in October 1993. A variety of cabinet styles were produced:

Ridge Racer Upright Cabinet
The Sit-Down Ridge Racer cabinet, designed to provide a more immersive experience
Further developments saw the release of this monster Ridge Racer cabinet, featuring a triple screen set up

Ridge Racer significantly improved upon SimDrive‘s gameplay and graphics, further pushing the custom System 22 hardware and saw a release in October 1993 in Japan. It was hugely popular, being unlike any previous racer seen in arcades up to that point. In an effort to directly compete head-to-head with Sega’s Daytona USA, a western arcade release followed in mid 1994.

But Namco wasn’t done. Taking what it had learned up to that point about player experiences, it took the market by surprise by launching Ridge Racer Full Scale.

This version was designed to give the player a more realistic driving experience. Players (a passenger could sit in the car next to the driver) sat inside an adapted red Eunos Roadster, the Japanese right-hand drive version of the Mazda MX-5 and controlled the same car on-screen. The game is played in front of a 10 feet wide, front-projected triple screen, with the wheel, gear stick and pedals functioning as the controls. The ignition key was used to start, the speed and RPM gauges were functional, and fans blew wind on the player from inside the air vents. Speakers concealed inside the car provided realistic engine and tyre sounds; overhead speakers provided surround music.

Coming in at a cost of around $250,000, the complete set up can only be described as a monstrous behemoth, suitable for a very limited number of locations. It would draw in players eager to experience this true arcade driving simulator:

The ridge Racer Full Scale arcade simulator. Image: Chaheel Riens
Namco’s 1993 commercial sales flyer featuring RR Full Scale. Click for a larger version of this image
A scan of a Japanese Namco flyer promoting the Ridge Racer cabinet variants. Click for a larger version of this image

We don’t have documented release numbers for this game, but suffice to say, given its size and cost, during the 90s, a very limited number of Ridge Racer Full Scale cabinets could be found in arcade across the world.

The whole set up is so large, that there were no standard plans regarding sizing and such. If an order was placed for the game, Namco would literally send a team out to the proposed arcade location and design and build the structure specifically to fit the space available – this is why no two images of Ridge Racer Full Scale are the same. Each was created on a bespoke basis and varied slightly from cabinet to cabinet. Options within the ROMs also allowed for an operator’s name and logo to appear on screen.

That said, here in the UK, there were several cabinets placed in selected arcades. I personally recall playing one in Ten Penny Falls Arcade in Weston-Super-Mare. Other collectors today recall several located on the South Coast (including Southsea Clarence Pier and the Rotunda arcade in Folkstone), Aberdeen in Scotland and one was in the huge Trocadero arcade attraction in central London. A few were dotted at select locations elsewhere outside of Japan, with reports of playable Full Scale set ups in Barcelona Spain, Capetown South Africa and Sydney Australia.

In fact, some footage of the Trocadero cabinet has recently surfaced on YouTube:

Check out the footage of Ridge Racer Full Scale from 0:45 onwards (no sound)

Even fewer Ridge Racer Full Scale set ups remain today – when these machines came to the end of their life, operators had little choice but to destroy them.

You may recall a couple years back I wrote a post featuring UK player Jason Newman, who travelled to Blackpool and was given exclusive full day access to the only remaining operational RR Full Scale in the UK (and probably the world) in order to set a series of new world records on the game. You can watch some sample footage from Jason’s performances here:

Jason Newman demonstrating his incredible skills on Ridge Racer Full Scale
A more detailed look at the RRFS set up
Housed at Blackpool in the UK, the set up was largely complete (pic: Jason Newman)
Jason sitting in the MX5, getting the full Ridge Racer experience (pic: Jason Newman)
This picture shows the driver’s eye view of the Full-Scale experience (pic: Jason Newman)

Back in 2017, Jason noted that the car and setup was well worn, and it was hard to imagine how much longer this important piece of arcade history was going to last and remain in place at the Blackpool arcade. He was fortunate enough to get a chat with the tech who has taken care of this thing for well over 15 years. The tech described the Full Scale as an absolute beast, utilising three full System 22 board sets each used to power one of the three projector screens. The cabinet had a few issues on the day, with the steering and the gear selector being completely worn out so it was only playable using auto gears (otherwise the impressive times that Jason set would have been much higher). Jason was told that the game got trashed fairly often by players, mostly the MX-5 itself. The original CRT projectors used by Namco had been swapped out for Epson digital projectors which has unfortunately resulted in some input lag. But they were now using LED bulbs which kept the machine going at a much-reduced cost. The traditional bulbs would burn out within a month with the old setup which made maintaining the cabinet an expensive exercise.

A few UK arcade enthusiasts have made enquiries over the years with the arcade about buying the cabinet, not only to save the original hardware, but more importantly to “dump” the original ROMs and preserve/archive the code. At that point only the program ROMs had been dumped, but not the graphics code – the latter being significantly different to the standard small-scale Ridge Racer as it features different on-screen menus and of course the MX5 itself. The response has been that the cabinet wasn’t for sale.

On the basis of no other photos on the web showing a fully operational cabinet anywhere else, it is (and was) safe to assume that this Ridge Racer Full Scale is the last completely operational one known to exist in the world.

The Ridge Racer Full Scale cabinet in Blackpool, photographed here in 2017 (pic: Jason Newman)

A couple of years after Jason’s visit, images surfaced on the web, which showed the cabinet shuttered up and unavailable to play, suggesting that the game was now regarded as being at the end of its useful life. With Namco no longer offering repair support to these ageing PCBs, once they are gone, they are gone – in a commercial environment at least.

At this point in 2019, the Ridge Racer Full Scale located in Blackpool was shuttered up and inoperable

Fast forward a couple of years, and rumours started circulating around the UKVAC forums, that someone had approached the Blackpool arcade location about preserving the cabinet. It appeared that an approach was initially made back in August of 2020:

To whom it may concern,

I am passionate about preserving items that are important or have interesting stories for future generations and ensuring that they are accessible to all. I have donated a wide range of items to museums across Britain. Arcade items are particularly interesting to me.

I was very excited to learn of an important piece of arcade history which you own and operate at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, The Ridge Racer Full Scale, important because of its uniqueness with the use of a full-size car and wrap around screen.

It is unfortunately the uniqueness of the item with the fact Namco is no longer offering support for the repair of the PCBs which had led to the half a dozen machines made being scrapped gradually over the last few years. It is believed your machine is the only surviving example.

I am looking to come to an agreement with you so that when the machine is no longer of any use to you, I can purchase it for the National Video Game Museum in Sheffield (NVM) which is a registered charity (registered charity number 1183530). The NVM has three main aims one of which is to educate and inspire the next generation of video game players and makers, the RRFS would be perfect to help achieve this aim because of the what can be learnt from the design of the machine.

The machine would be dismantled by a professional team, ensuring no damage or disruption to your property or that of the Pleasure Beach. The item would be donated to and housed at the NVM.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you

The original email sent to the owners of the cabinet.

There is some confusion about what happened next, but what is certain is that an agreement was made, and arrangements were put in place for the cabinet to be dismantled entirely and shipped away from Blackpool – presumably on the understanding that the Ridge Racer Full Scale was going to be shipped to, then preserved at a museum. No money changed hands as far as we understand.

On the one hand this was good news, on the other, there were concerns about where the set up was being stored in the interim. These pictures were shared online by the courier involved, of the cabinet being dismantled and loaded onto a removal truck:

The main frame structure being dismantled
These box structures originally housed the System 22 PCBs that ran the game
What was left of the MX5 itself. Although in poor condition (note the smashed windscreen) the car is complete, and probably worth a pretty penny in itself as a shell!
The frame of the cabinet loaded up ready to ship

A key collector in the UK was subsequently contacted by the new ‘owner’ confirming that he was now in possession of the Full Scale, but that the project was on hold. Meantime the dismantled cabinet appeared to have been stored partly in a garage, and partly outdoors.

This was very concerning news, and the pictures shared seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears:

The MX5 shell appeared to be housed safely in a garage
As for the rest of it…
Stored outdoors. Things were starting to rust already
Open to the elements, this is clearly not the way to store such an important piece of arcade history

So the very last Ridge Racer Full Scale cabinet appeared to be sitting out in the open, exposed to the British elements. Not ideal.

The alleged recipients of the cabinet, The National Videogame Museum in Sheffield were contacted by several members of the arcade community, and they expressed concern over the situation, and appeared to have little knowledge of the supposed arrangement in place. They were asked on Twitter about the status of the cabinet and replied:

We had been in conversation around collecting & preserving it. Unfortunately this might not work out. As far as we’ve been told, there has been some recent water damage to the unit, which might make it impossible. We’re still following up, but have no updates just yet.

NVM statement 23 August 2021

But what was clear, is that they were only contacted about the potential of preserving this cabinet after the machine was removed. With this timeline established, they released a statement to fully address the situation on 26 August 2021:

There has been recent speculation concerning the status of a Ridge Racer Full Scale arcade machine which previously operated at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. We have been made aware this week of a Facebook post which implied that the Ridge Racer Full Scale was moving to the “Sheffield Arcadia Museum” dated June 10th 2021.

The initial donation proposal for the Ridge Racer Full Scale was sent to us by the current holder in an email dated June 11th 2021. After some back and forth in emails to gather more information, we informed the current holder on 13th July that we would be discussing the acquisition in our Acquisitions Group Meeting on 26th July and inform him of the official outcome. The purpose of our Acquisitions Group is to discuss why an item should become part of our collection, taking into account our mission as a museum, our collecting strategy as well as any logistical concerns around the item’s safe storage, preservation and display.

Following the meeting, which decided on a positive outcome pending provision of proof of ownership and further information which followed due diligence, we asked the holder for this further information in an email dated 3rd August. In the response on 5th August we were informed that the garage the Ridge Racer Full Scale was housed in had a leak which damaged the PCBs and that the machine was subsequently scrapped. Our requests for more information have not been answered as of 26th August 2021.

The National Videogame Museum was not involved in any discussion around acquiring the Ridge Racer Full Scale prior to June 11th, 2021. At this time, we have not accepted the donation of the Ridge Racer Full Scale. We have been made aware of its current condition and storage location and are working with the appropriate concerned parties to address the situation.

Ridge Racer Full Scale Statement – published 26 August 2021, 15:00. Original post here.

Understanding the importance of this cabinet, and the potential ramifications of what appeared to be going on, the NVM quite rightly distanced themselves from the whole debacle. But this left questions as to where the Full Scale was at that point, and what was going to happen to it.

Ridge Racer Full Scale Logo

The good news was a collector did have sporadic contact with the ‘owner’, but after some back and forth and an agreement in principle to take the parts off of his hands, it then transpired that a proportion of the cabinet had been scrapped and so the deal was off.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to communicate with the owner in a rational way about the state the cabinet was in and exactly where and how the various parts were being stored. The motivation of the community was not to ‘own’ this cabinet, but to save it, along with preserving the source code.

Incredibly, the last remaining Ridge Racer Full Scale appeared to have been left to rot and even worse, some of the main framework, allegedly had gone to scrap, now ruined by the elements.

As one arcade collector in the UK, who was particularly unhappy about the situation, as he had the knowledge required to save the code, put it:

The game code is about 8 chips away from saveable though, which also makes it maddening.

UKVAC post, August 2021

Take a look at this video see the current emulation state. Some of the graphics are missing and these are the elements of the code that require dumping:

Ridge Racer Full Scale emulation

Notice the graphics ROMs haven’t been dumped at the time of this video – what you see is the ROMs from the normal version, which won’t display right with Full Scale. Also the multiple PCBs aren’t emulated so what you’re seeing is just the centre screen tricked into running across three screens (there’s 3x System 22 PCBs actually running in the cabinet, one for each projector)

As if all that wasn’t enough, in another twist, incredibly just days later, someone else, claiming to have moved into a house had found various parts in the property that appeared to be the remains of the cabinet.

Hi everyone, I’ve recently moved house and have been clearing out the garage (last owner had left it full of stuff) and I have found parts from a Ridge Racer including a car. I’ve read what had happened to the machine and didn’t know if any of it was salvageable and if anything could be done with the parts. I haven’t finished clearing the whole garage but it certainly looks like only parts remain – no structure.

Here comes a new challenger!

This poster claimed to have found three of the side panels with the RR logo on, Three PCBs, the top signage and map, harnesses, the car itself, part of the sound system, two transformers, a projector and various parts including bulbs and bolts. He stated that nothing remained in the garden of the property, only the contents of the garage. He shared a couple of pictures:

Some of the remaining signage
The important bit. The three System 22 PCBs

I should point out that that there is some speculation about who the mystery second poster actually was. There is a possibility that it was a fake account, set up by the actual original ‘owner’ of the cabinet, in an attempt to cover his tracks/save face. But who knows. We may never get to the bottom of that (or maybe we have and I’m not telling), but regardless, at this point it doesn’t really matter.

Because the arcade gods intervened.

After much confusion, discussion and back and forth with the ‘new’ owner, I’m pleased to report that earlier this year, the remains of the Ridge Racer Full Scale cabinet were collected, including the shell of the MX5. The hardware I’m told is largely complete, but the physical structure of the enclosure is not (presumably scrapped). The elusive missing graphics code has been dumped with a view to get Full Scale running fully in emulation.

What remains of the cabinet is safe and is now in the hands of someone here in the UK with the resources to rebuild this Full Scale and have it operational in the UK again. Watch this space….

So, quite the episode I think you’ll agree. I’m not really sure what we can learn from all this, other than arcade history is incredibly fragile. These old systems require specific detailed knowledge required to keep running in situ, emulate and preserve the programme code, and if you’re going to take on such a project, you really need to do your homework and understand the complexities and practicalities involved. Some thought to where you’re going to store it safely might help too.

Clearly, none of that was done in this case. Getting hold of this thing in the first place was a pretty audacious feat under the circumstances. Quite what the intentions of our original intrepid ‘collector’ were, I guess we’ll never know, and to be fair, it could be that his or her intentions were entirely honourable at the start. I do however want to be clear that the National Video Museum clearly had no part in this whole debacle, and they were right to make their position clear from the outset.

But luckily for whoever it was who managed to prize this away from the Blackpool operator under seemingly false pretences, the community stepped in to identify this person, locate the hardware, and do everything they could to rescue this piece of arcade history.

The last Ridge Racer Full Scale – coming soon to the UK! (pic: Jason Newman)

And as for the un-dumped code mentioned above, progress has already been made here. I’ve spoken to the guy working on this and the game is now fully dumped and running cleanly in emulation. Here’s some screenshots of Ridge Racer Full Scale in all its triple screen glory:

The starting sequence of Ridge Racer Full Scale (click for bigger version)
In game, powering out of the tunnel and up the hill (click for bigger version)
The camera panning around the MX5 at the end of the game (click for bigger version)

Even the interface I/O system between the game and the physical dashboard of the MX5 (the part that controls the tachometer in the car) is work in progress. There’s a way to go still with this; ultimately a version of the I/O PCB will be developed that’ll talk to a PC running the emulated code that will drive the tacho, speedometer and room lights. Check out this video. Not only can you see Ridge Racer Full Scale running on the screen, but the tacho is working also:

Action starts at 0:23

Don’t expect to see this in MAME imminently. Right now this is a work-in-progress modified driver that will eventually be made public when the time is right.

This is all fantastic news, as this was probably the last and only chance to preserve this unique code before it was lost forever.

So we do owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the people involved to get this potential disaster to the best conclusion possible under the circumstances. A lot of people did a huge amount of detective work to track down the parts and get them into safe hands. I’ve decided to keep everyone’s name away from this article and focus on the end result which is far more important.

Let’s celebrate the fact that the last Ridge Racer Full Scale in the world has somehow been saved from the clutches of disaster at the eleventh hour, thanks to several people’s efforts, and one day it will be rebuilt and playable again.

Fingers crossed we’ll be able to race the MX5 against the Solvalou Namco car one day soon!

I’m in touch with the new owner, and I’ll be sure to update everyone when there is further news about this project.

Thanks for reading this week.


Tony

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Sheldon says:

    Amazing story! Glad it’s being saved

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gerald (COY) says:

    Very good news ! And for sure, great job ! Take care and continue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John Scriv says:

    Great story TT!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. discogod says:

    Fantastic news!

    I played the Blackpool installation in September 2015 and it felt like it was on its last legs then.

    Playing it at the Troc as a teen was, along with Sega’s R-360 machine, one of the more exciting arcade experiences of my youth.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Eddhorse says:

    What a roller coaster , I’m going to need a lie down after that.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. TTFD says:

    Honestly, I was becoming more angry as I read…but then thankfully it all mostly worked out 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oczy says:

    Great story, good luck!
    I hope it`ll be playable again in the near future!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. tchitcheryne says:

    Thank you for taking me on an awesome adventure! I’m glad it had a happy ending.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ACStriker says:

    Being able to rescue at least the boards of this is a huge miracle!! Its sad to see how the whole thing ended up at the end, but at the same time, it is amazing to already see the tunnel at the end of the light with the ROMs being dumped and even getting the Tachometer working!
    Huge props to all of you that managed to salvage this rarity from being lost to time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. Alvaro says:

    In 2019 i remember my short trip to UK…
    Outbound flight, from Madrid (Spain) to Manchester.
    Once there, traveled to Leeds because i have reserved an MX5 NBFL to buy it(i want it RHD).
    With the money in seller’s hand and with all the paperwork done, the previous owner (because in that instant it was my second mx5 and first RHD) told me about a real Eunos Roadster in a cabinet in Blackwood.
    At that moment my eyes were open wide and a loud scream came out of my mounth “A real RR full scale???!!!, WHERE!!!”
    In that moment i discovered the place and put on route to destination, but unfortunately it was already disconected and told that is no longer available or usable… When i asked for details i ask another thing… If i could seat in the Eunos, without light, without Photos, only the posibility to sit down and feel that i’m playing it, i’m glad they accepted.
    After that with that half experience and my old/new mx5 nbfl i put track to Silverstone, ferry to france with another stop at Lemans and finally Home in Madrid.
    The travel was supposed to be only the buy of the car and travel back home but in the end it was a magical trip that i won’t hesitate in make it again…

    So here, from my house, thanks a lot for all this info and the incredible story with happy end.

    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

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