Remember when arcade racers were simple? You only had a few tracks, but each track was imaginative and was a completely unique experience. Hydro Thunder does, but maybe that’s because the game first surfaced when games like the San Fransisco Rush 2049 were all the rage.
Hydro Thunder originally hit the Dreamcast, but received a Nintendo 64 port soon after. Up until now I honestly never gave the game much thought, and never gave it a spin. Firing up the XBLA version instantly showed me I missed out. Bigtime. For those that have played the previous releases, this latest Hydro Thunder game is a rebuild of the original title. All the themes are the same but the tracks have been redesigned in part and the graphics have been given a huge overhaul; Chip Foose style (very thorough).
Hydro Thunder is a tricky one to describe. I may have mentioned that it is ‘a mixture of WipEout, San Fransico Rush and Wave Race’ to one co-worker and ‘like SSX back when the series was cool, you know before free-roaming’ to another. To put it simply, Hydro Thunder is blisteringly quick. Winning is as much knowing where to find shortcuts and boost pick-ups as it is actual skill. You won’t get far in this game by winging it. Success counts on replaying tracks until you know them like the back of your hand. Luckily that’s how I like it.
For me, the main challenge of this game is beating people. Online racing is a blast, especially when everyone fights for the same narrow shortcut. Fighting your way up the leader board is where the action really is for me, though. Mastering a track, and climbing up the board a few tenths at a time is hugely satisfying. The track design flows well but gives plenty of scope to try new lines. To really bring out your competitiveness, the game will constantly gauge your time against the next person up in the leader board. This doesn’t mean much the first few races, but once you crack the top 100 for any track, it becomes the very thing you live for. Only thing is that there is no dedicated time trial mode, so occasionally the AI boats will ruin an otherwise perfect run which resulted in much swearing. There are other game types such as threading your way through rings, or running a gauntlet of explosive barrels. While I find these entertaining, I keep finding myself going back to racing.
It's the tracks themselves that are the star. Hydro Thunder blasts you through style tracks, ruins, sewers, and even what appears to be another planet. All of the tracks have a heap happening, lots of nooks and crannies, and most importantly play completely different to each other. If you get bored of your attempts at one track, switching to another for a break is as refreshing as chucking another disc into your drive.
Graphically the game is more than pleasing; they're bold and colourful, but have a next-gen smoothness and polish. There is always a lot going on in the backgrounds. Hydro Thunder looks almost like a full retail game, or maybe a launch title - either way the game is put together well. The only blemish on presentation perhaps being some cheesy voice acting, but I think this game even manages to pull that off.
At 1200 points, Hydro Thunder is on the pricier side of XBLA content, but honestly, I think it’s worth every cent. I haven’t had so much fun with an arcade racer since SSX Tricky (I do still love you Outrun...). The single player mode may be short, but you will want to keep playing to fully master the game. Add to this 4-player split screen that you can even take online and you have a title that is essential for racing fans.
Hydro Thunder, I’m sorry I missed you the first time, and I’m glad they brought you back.