Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Virtuos Ltd. & Game Source Studio
Release Date: May 6, 2008
Surprises can be the norm in licensed games. Generally, they're considered to be sub-par works that rely on pretty graphics and the characters on the box as their primary selling point. Along the way, however, there have been surprisingly enjoyable works that form some of the great positive memories of child gamers. With Speed Racer, Sidhe Interactive has made one of the most unexpectedly competent games on the Wii, taking everything that was great about the recent "Speed Racer" movie, bringing in some of the camp of the original '60s TV show, and fitting it all into a package that, while not an absolute masterpiece, is a fine joy for any gamer.
It is also notable to point out that this game is in the rare breed of licensed exclusives; there is no Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 version of this game, with it only showing up on the Nintendo DS and Wii, with a PlayStation 2 port coming sometime in the future (possibly to match with the DVD release). This quickly ends up showing in the details of the racing mechanics; more on this in a minute.
The basic premise of Speed Racer is, well, racing. Quickly. Picture the kinds of tracks that you run Hot Wheels toys through, only blown up to proportions suited to standard cars that move at anywhere from 250 to 400 miles an hour. Stick a car on that track, at that speed, with full hydraulics to launch it into the air to do backflips and barrel rolls, and wheels that can rotate a full 360 degrees, thanks to some miracles in vehicular design. Now, add as many as 15 other cars onto the track, and they all want to come in first. Oh, and your car is controlled in a manner similar to Mario Kart Wii. Can you picture it? In your mind's eye, you may be seeing something similar to newer iterations of Nintendo's F-Zero series, and the similarities don't end there, as the primary unique mechanic of Speed Racer takes a major mechanic of that series and throws it on its ear in the form of Car-Fu.
Car-Fu is essentially the method of finding highly creative and awesome ways to knock your enemies off the track. Shoving your Wiimote to one side will shunt your car into their sides, while kicking it up sends you into the air to land on them. Or you can get your bumper under theirs and launch them into the air instead (just be careful not to let them land on you when you do that). Even in the middle of the game's drifting-esque sliding, you can pull off attacks, and are rewarded for doing so if you hit them with the back of your car. With 10 attacks and multiple ways to execute each, Speed Racer is less about pure racing and more like a hybrid of a fighting game and a racer, with the timing of your attacks proving to be fairly critical.
Landing attacks, combined with simply moving fast and avoiding hitting the sides, will quickly reward you with boosts, which will raise your speed by about 30 miles an hour (one-tenth of your common speed once you get to around the game's halfway mark) for about five seconds. You can accumulate and stack these boosts, or you can stack them with other speed boosters that can be found on the track. Crazier still, four boosts at once (the maximum that you can carry) will warp your screen into the psychedelic "Zone" status. This means that you move at a full 400 mph, become essentially invincible, get automated assistance in maintaining a solid line through the course, and get a strangely awesome music and graphical shift. And you'll come out with at least one more boost to fire immediately on top!
Doesn't sound very balanced, does it? Fortunately, Speed Racer is designed to keep things manic, with fairly generous catch-up logic ensuring that you'll be fighting for the lead time and time again. The title also uses the now-common slipstream mechanic quite effectively, encouraging players to keep an eye out to prevent opposing vehicles from following you, lest you lose your lead by getting flipped in the air. Things ultimately end up fairly simple in the single-player mode because the AI, while competent, tends to lose traction against players who find a good balance of caution and aggression. Multiplayer is split-screen for two players at most, but it keeps up well to provide more challenge.
Unfortunately, Speed Racer's greatest potential limiter is the fact that it is fairly short. There are only a few tracks (there are numerous modifications within each track, providing many different races in the same area), 16 characters, and one car for each character, providing precious little variation over time. The title also suffers from a lack of depth; while there are many attacks and significant differences between them, certain basic techniques simply prove to be superior very quickly, and judicious usage gives you a significant advantage.
Speed Racer uses good techniques for its presentation, emphasizing style over substance in graphics. There is not a lot of polygon power applied here, but the game makes up for it in sheer style that matches the gameplay really well. Only the cars are drawn with major detail, and the rest of the graphics are perfectly nice-looking but representational in nature — in particular, explosions have a comical number of cubes in them. Cut-ins of the characters show up regularly, keeping a highly comic-like, manic style to things.
The audio is similarly manic. Engine and sliding noises are distinct but relatively quiet when compared to the campy yet well-acted vocals ("Nitro is in your slipstream!") and pulse-pounding original techno soundtrack, although I must admit I was reminded of Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity and Jet Grind Radio more than once. The soundtrack even shifts to match certain changes (i.e., when players enter Zone status), which is a nice and unexpected touch.
Quite simply, Speed Racer works while it lasts. It is not an exceptionally long or difficult game, but while it lasts, it is unusually awesome, managing to distill many of the greatest elements of the original "Speed Racer" series and movie into one manic whole. It is one of the most fun racing games on the Wii, and while it is not as good as the recent Mario Kart Wii, I would judge it as worth at least a rental for anyone who's interested in high-style, manic racing action.
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