Games are often left unfinished. Sometimes they’re too difficult, too vast, or too repetitive to see all the way through to the closing credits. To The Bitter End is The Gameological Society’s look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.
The story goes like this: Back in the day, Pope Boniface VIII wanted the finest painter in all of Italy to make him some arts, so he sent out an aide to scour the land. When the aide arrived at the workshop of Florentine artist Giotto and asked for a work to prove Giotto’s greatness, the artist picked up a sheet and drew a perfect circle in red. The pope’s agent balked. “What the hell kind of art is this?” he said. (I’m paraphrasing a bit.) “Paint me some sweet angels exalting the blessed mother or something!” But Giotto said nah, the circle will be enough for his holiness.
It was. Giotto got the gig and, apocryphal or not, his feat still stands some 700 years later as the litmus test for artistic achievement. The final course of R4: Ridge Racer Type 4, a speedway called Shooting Hoops, isn’t precisely a perfect circle, but the circuit invites you to pull the racing game equivalent of a Giotto by making perfect laps. In essence, the game ends by asking you to discard all the skills you’ve honed throughout its grand prix to find revelation and release in the loop.
The circle is an unnatural shape in the Ridge Racer world. In the pantheon of driving games, Ridge Racer is the god of angles. Leading up to Shooting Hoops, the courses are defined by supremely tight corners, and the player’s most important skill is learning how to drift your car around them without losing too much speed.
The scenery varies. Sometimes you’re driving through farm country, tearing around the curves of a steep hill trying to pass the leader. Other times, you’re jockeying for second place in a neon-lit underpass that runs through the game’s fictional capital, Ridge City. No matter where you race, the grand prix races escalate the same way: Tighter corners, faster cars. More complexity, more strategy. The middle heats of R4 can be infuriating. Tiny mistakes don’t always damn your run on a given course, but learning how to come back from a slip-up is often as difficult as learning how to drive well in the first place.
And then it all culminates with an expression of simplicity. What the hell did I do all that hard work for? It took me 13 tries to nail that second corner on Heaven And Hell. Now you’re telling me that sliding through a perfect arc in a souped-up muscle car isn’t the point?
Shooting Hoops proves enlightening, though—not to mention a lot harder then you’d think. While a remixed version of the R4 theme song blasts in the background, the course pushes you through twice as many laps as normal, and each run around the track needs to be immaculate if you’re going to win. Elsewhere, you can recover after you bump a wall or juke another racer—you might even use it to your advantage. But here, any loss of speed torpedoes your race. Once you lock into first place, maintaining the course takes blissful focus. You have to deal with the tension without allowing it to bloom into anxiety. We often say we’ve “won” or “beaten” a game when we finish them, but it’s not often that victory comes with a pure sense of completion like it does on Shooting Hoops.
R4 brings its characters full circle, as well. Unlike the rest of the Ridge Racer series, or most driving games for that matter, R4 has melancholic tales to go with each of the four teams you can sign up with. For instance, the team manager of the Pac Racing Club blames himself for the death of his first driver. Sophie Chevalier, owner of Team Mappy, lives in the shadow of her father and is trying to prove that a woman can thrive in the racing world.
They’re simple characters with archetypal problems, but they’re affecting all the same. All of them find catharsis when you finish Shooting Hoops. Yazaki lets go of his friend; Sophie is released from her insecurities. There stories close in the best possible way, not with perfect happiness but a new beginning in life. They close a loop, exiting one chapter in life and entering into the next.
R4 echoes these character arcs in its racing. The path to the final race doesn’t have to be perfect—you can face setbacks, or take third place and still advance. Those setbacks are woven into the story too, with your team manager getting frustrated or doubtful about your ability. But once you get to Shooting Hoops, you have to get it just right. That you can stumble before you soar gives real power to Shooting Hoops and the absolution of the game’s characters. You’ve learned a craft and lived a life, R4 says, and now you have to prove it. Draw a circle.