Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Virtuos Ltd. & Game Source Studio
Release Date: May 6, 2008
I wasn't sure what to think of Speed Racer for the DS at first when it arrived for review. It was a movie tie-in, which immediately sent up the red flags, but deep down inside, the racer in me hoped that there was some substance behind the glitzy manual and high-profile name, and that something would make this one stand out from the rest of its ill-fated peers. Fortunately, after rolling, jumping and car-fuing my way to the championship cup, I'm happy to say that Speed Racer is a rare example of a licensed game that won't leave the player wishing for something else.
Players need not have seen the "Speed Racer" movie to know what's going on with the game, aside from the fact that it takes place about a year after the events of the silver screen adventure. This game pays lip service to the film on which it's based, so movie fans looking for a portable retelling of the Wachowski-ized version of the anime classic won't get it here. There's no intrigue to unravel, no backstabbing plots to defend against or sudden revelations to be discovered, aside from the blinding speed with which players will be forced to keep up.
Virtuos has put together a fast-paced, simplified racing game that doesn't ask for much except that you whip past every opponent to take first place. A set of non-interactive tutorials from the menu screen will basically repeat what the printed instructions show, and the Arcade mode allows players to practice racing on the same tracks on which they'll be competing before jumping into the World Racing League (WRL). Although the Quick Race option is available, several modes — Time Attack, Quick Stunts, and Quick Battle — are locked in the Arcade mode until players manage to earn enough fans from the main game.
The top screen is used for racing via chase cam, while the bottom screen lets the player know at a glance just how far he is from his opponents. Players are pretty much fixed in one camera view for racing, which mostly works, although rival racers have a tendency to sneak up from behind because of the limited view due to the lack of mirrors. The 3-D graphics deliver detailed backdrops for each event with a variety of colors, death-defying twists, and darkened tunnels as players go from track to track, making much of Speed Racer feel like it was twisting through a city-sized theme park.
Everything about the presentation is about speed, from the paint schemes splashed along the tracks to the graphic backdrops of the locales that players might be flying over when they're launched from a ramp and into the sky. The sound effects reverberate with revving engines whining through the DS' speakers, cheers that erupt with every successful stunt, and music that matches the action. Since this title doesn't follow the film as much as the other versions do, there really isn't any voice acting to speak of here, but the presentation does a decent job of providing just enough to keep things interesting.
Players don't have to be Speed Racer to compete; they can select one of the other playable characters based on the desired attributes. Like the options in Arcade mode, only a few racers are available at the outset, and more are unlocked as you earn more fans. Each racer has his or her overall performance divided into several areas of varying skill. Some are good at handling the car, which makes it more difficult to lose control, although they might not be as fast on the track as everyone else. Others, like Speed himself, have a good balance of everything without any glaring weaknesses.
Control-wise, Speed Racer won't ask players to shift gears or take physics into consideration as soon as they hit the accelerator or collide with another car. Veteran of other racing titles such as Daytona, Gran Turismo, Midnight Club and even Burnout can forget what they expected from this handheld adrenaline rush. Speed Racer is a pure arcade racer without any of the frills that reality would dare to inject into the gameplay. This is all about going in one direction as fast as possible and taking out other drivers by pulling off crazy stunts. This isn't Carmageddon, but it is a game where crashing and spinning into other cars can almost be just as satisfying.
The mode that will likely get the most play will be the World Racing League and its three difficulty levels: Amateur (easy), Pro-Am (medium) and Pro (hard). Each difficulty level is set up like a racing competition for various cups, and each competition consists of a variety of tracks on which players are scored to determine the overall winner. Additional cup events are unlocked as each one is knocked down on the way to the final event. Completing that wins the championship for the difficulty level, but not much else. There's not a lot of fanfare that accompanies the win, aside from a congratulatory message to match the intensity of the opening scene that starts off the game when it's powered on. Speed Racer is a title for which the trip is supposed to be a lot more satisfying than the reward.
Players can race along traditional lines by jockeying for position and whipping past opponents, but Speed Racer focuses primarily on its own style of high-adrenaline stunt work and fantasy in maintaining pole position. For one thing, it's difficult to crash, since hitting one button will spin the car back into the race. Players also don't have to worry about damage, pit stops or fuel, regardless of how much slam dancing they do on the racetrack. Hitting ramps that send cars flying into the air is also typical stuff in Speed Racer's world, so players only have to worry about how many spins, flips and rolls that they can do in the air before automatically landing on the other side. There are also peculiar moments, though, such as when racers can get tangled with one another in midair or when the game suddenly jumps everyone back onto the track as if nothing had happened.
The controls keep everything within reach, which makes an easy game almost too easy, as the AI is not overly aggressive and plays a pretty straight game without rubberbanding. The X button allows players to spin and regain control of their car or knock opponents around like ping-pong balls. The L button controls drifting to help sweep around tight turns with ease, and the R button activates a boost of speed, if you have enough saved away. Hitting B and using the d-pad will roll or flip the car in different directions for another kind of attack.
Then there's the car-fu.
As players approach their rivals, a "B" icon appears overhead to indicate that they're ready to be stomped. Hitting the B button initiates a minigame where you must use the X and Y buttons to get your icon closer to the center of the screen than your opponent's. Success means that the player's car will fly through the air and land on his opponent, kicking him to the side and taking over the spot. It's possible to miss entirely, too, and at higher difficulty levels, such as the Pro-Am and Pro circuits, the AI will try and do the same thing. When it does, the minigame determines how well the player's car will dodge at the last moment … or if he'll get kicked to the curb.
Boost is also earned along with fans for doing tricks on the road such as drifting, flipping through the air from a jump, and taking out rivals. When the boost meter fills up and even more is earned, it turns into a special kind of boost that can put the player into the "Zone." Holding down the R button when boost is in this state puts the car in hyperdrive, which makes it indestructible and lets it smash anyone out of the way while the effect lasts. Going into the Zone at strategic gameplay moments can easily put players in the lead and adds an interesting twist to gameplay for when it might be needed most.
Stunts also earn fans, which can be regarded as experience points for racers. The more fans that are earned by performing tricks on the racetrack, winning races, or generally showing off by knocking rivals into the wall, the more options that are unlocked as rewards, such as additional racers, new events, and new color schemes for each car. This adds a lot of replay value to the game, especially when previous cup challenges can be repeated, but it also feels like RPG-style grinding, given some of the extremely high requirements. This can throw some cold water on the fast-paced gameplay. Some paint schemes aren't unlocked until you've acquired a million or more fans, and given that a player might earn only a few thousand fans per race, that can take some time to add up.
As a result, Speed Racer can get repetitive in the long term, especially if players start grinding events for fans, going through and repeating race after race in trying to build up fans to earn rewards that aren't all that compelling to begin with. The locked modes are pretty much an advertisement to hop on the racing treadmill, and the new paint schemes look cool but do little else. Multiplayer is also packed in, but only as long as someone else is playing the game over the DS's Wi-Fi connection. Otherwise, it's all about the single-player mode.
Speed Racer's entertainingly off-the-wall fun already puts it ahead of other titles that bank on a movie license to draw in fans. Even though the DS version of Speed Racer's exploits has little in common with its silver screen namesake, that's not so much of a bad thing, thanks to the fast arcade action. Players who are itching for a less-than-serious racing sim might enjoy this title in small chunks, as long as they ignore the grind. It's not a bad way to spend a few minutes while waiting on an oil change, or for when DS owners feel the need for speed away from a console.
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