Boat Racing That's Actually Fun! - Review By Fragmaster
Boat rides are generally pretty boring. Hoist the sails, man the starboard bow, swab the poopdeck, and whatnot. And there's always the outside chance of hitting a bad storm, getting shipwrecked, and spending the rest of your life hanging out with Bob Denver. Not good.
So, obviously, a game based on the player taking long, relaxing raft rides down the Erie Canal probably wouldn't sell too well. But a game that involved high-speed boat races through all kinds of cool locales with power-ups and cool secrets probably would. There just so happens to be such a game, and it's called Hydro Thunder.
If you played Hydro Thunder in the arcades, you'll be pleased to see that the Dreamcast port is pretty much perfect. If not, you'll probably be able to tell Hydro Thunder was an arcade game based on its gameplay, which is often described as San Francisco Rush on water.
One of the first things you'll notice about Hydro Thunder is that the graphics are pretty damn cool. There's not really an abundance of gee-whiz special effects or lens flares, but the environments are all incredibly detailed and textured. The water looks terrific, which is pretty important considering this is a boat racing game. The boats themselves look great, and the way the thrusters engage when you use boost power-ups is a nice touch.
Controlling the boats is easier than I had originally expected. Control is really tight and responsive, yet varied enough that you'll need to adjust a little bit when playing different types of watercraft. You use the left trigger for breaking and reversing, the right trigger for acceleration, the Y-Button for switching camera views (there are three: two chasecams of varying distance and a first-person camera), and the A-Button for activating boost. Boost is the only power-up in the game and comes in two varieties: four second (blue) and nine second (red). You can use boost to make your boat go faster and barrel through obstacles anytime you want, but it takes most boats a second or two to engage their thrusters. You can also pull off a neat little hydro jump, a maneuver that actually takes some practice and skill to master, which comes in handy when jumping into secret areas or grabbing out-of-the-reach power-ups.
The tracks in Hydro Thunder are brilliantly designed. Not only do they all look totally different from one another and feature all sorts of cool little graphical extras like people and bothersome police boats, but they also feature many secrets and shortcuts. Utilizing these secrets is often essential in completing a level in record time, and discovering a new secret on your own is pretty rewarding.
The game touts "real Newtonian Physics," and while I'm not sure if Newton would approve of his theories being applied to hydro boat racing, the physics are pretty cool. Flipping ten times after hitting the edge of a volcano and splashing down into a deep pool of water is just plain nifty. The complex algorithms at work don't really matter, the bottom line is that the entire package just feels right.
Hydro Thunder has a wide-variety of boats (13), tracks (14), secrets, and bonuses, so there's a lot to do. Replay value is further extended by the competent two-player split-screen mode.
The sounds are great, perfect for this type of game. From the barking of the boat policeman to the screams of innocent bystanders to the engine sounds, it's all good. The music is a bit dull, but not repetitive or distracting. You probably won't even know it's there.
Unfortunately, Hydro Thunder has a few flaws. First of all, this game is HARD. Most players will have difficulty finishing Arctic Circle in the required time, and that's just the third "Easy" level map. When you start the game, you have three tracks and three boats. To get to "Medium" difficulty, you must finish third or above in each of the three tracks. Once you do that, you move up to Medium difficulty, get three more tracks and three more boats, and must finish second or above in each of the three tracks to advance to "Hard" and so on (after you finish "Hard," you'll unlock the bonus levels and boats). The problem with this system is that you start out each race in fifteenth (out of sixteen racers total) place and must race your way to the front of the pack. Did I mention that all the computer-controlled racers move faster than you do?
The end result of this is that you pretty much have to run a nearly perfect race, grabbing every boost, taking "secret" shortcuts, and avoiding all obstacles. This is pretty hard to do, especially considering the annoyance of the time gates that litter the track and prevent you from doing much exploring. While the difficulty adds to the replay value, the game can be very frustrating at times.
Hydro Thunder's interface, while nice looking, is pretty clunky. You have to manually save your progress to the VMU, it's impossible to restart a race (if you exit a race, it just dumps you back to the title screen), and even selecting certain options can be an annoyance. A few little changes to the various menus would have helped the game immensely.
And finally, the fact that Hydro Thunder is pretty much a direct port of the arcade game hurts it in the sense that there aren't many "extras" added. Some different racing modes or options would have been really nice and further extended its value.
The Final Word
Hydro Thunder is a very fun, but fairly difficult game. If you don't take your racing games seriously, you'll probably love Hydro Thunder's style of racing and over-the-top track designs. It's certainly nice to look at, the control is solid, there's a lot to do, and it's one of the better games available for the Dreamcast right now, so you may want to give it a good look. Best of all, you won't get seasick.
Highs: Great graphics, solid control, keen track design, lots of stuff to do, awesome sound effects.
Lows: Very difficult, clunky interface, only two types of racing modes.
Other: 1-2 Players, VMU Compatible (for manually saving games), Jump Pack Compatible.
(out of a possible 10)
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