The year was 1999, and in the North American arcade scene was beginning to dry up. Fighting games and Dance Dance Revolution were still bringing people in to the facilities, but arcade machines were losing their hold on the masses. Desperate to bring in more business to keep arcades thriving, developers tried everything to counteract the rising tide of home consoles. Midway Games had seen some success in this type of development with the San Francisco Rush series, which put gamers behind the wheel of a high-speed race car on the streets of San Francisco. By retrofitting the cabinet and changing from cars to boats, they created Hydro Thunder, a racing game that saw success in both the arcade and home markets, thanks to the inventive track design and fast speeds. Despite the success, a sequel was never made.
Fast-forward 11 years, and things have changed quite a bit. Midway Games is no more, the arcades still have not gotten over the slump, and the team that was responsible for the original game has almost finished up crafting the spiritual sequel to the original called H2Overdrive. After picking up the rights to the name during Midway's bankruptcy sale, Microsoft contracted Vector Team to use the license for their next racing title. The result is Hydro Thunder Hurricane, and while it might not have been created with any of the original development team, it sure feels like something they would've conjured up.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane features four different modes for solo players. In Arcade Race mode, you grab a boat and try to take trophies in all eight of the game's tracks. Trophies are only awarded to those who finish in the top three at the end of each race. Like the original, a boat's initial stats will be a factor in its chances of taking one of the prized spots at the end of the race, but the nitro canisters littered throughout the course are also tremendously helpful.
Ring Master transforms the race into a time trial, but with a few stipulations. Nitro can only be obtained by passing through the rings in a given course. Missing any of the rings will deplete your stock of nitro and add time to your final tally, and since trophies are only handed out to those meeting certain time milestones, a good run would mean missing fewer than 10 rings by the end of the course. Unlike the Arcade Race mode, Ring Master contains variable difficulty levels for each course, so not only do the time requirements shrink, but the rings themselves also do, as they are laid out in completely different patterns. Even the easiest courses tend to become exercises in trying to get a perfect run at the maximum difficulty.
Gauntlet takes all of the rules that were established in Ring Master and replaces the rings with exploding barrels. Hitting a barrel becomes much worse than missing a ring, since it takes more time to recover from an explosion. Unlike Ring Master, there are only eight levels with no variation in difficulty.
Finally, there's Championship mode, which takes tracks from any of the previous three modes and shuffles them together in each championship run. Like other racing games, placement in each course is translated into points for that championship, and the final standings are determined by the overall point score.
Upon booting up the game, players will notice that there's only one boat and one track in Arcade Race mode. Unlike the console versions of the original, which required you to place in the top three spots for each track before the next batch of tracks and boats are unlocked, this iteration goes with a point system. Placing in the top three of any event gives you a number of points, and once certain point thresholds are reached, new content unlocks, including new boats and tracks in any of the four events.
Unlike other games, events that are replayed will still award you with points, assuming you reach the required time or track placement. This is a polarizing decision, since players can essentially race their favorite track over and over again to unlock everything in the game. While it robs them of the experience of racing every single event, those who are frustrated by the more difficult Gauntlet and Ring Master courses will find this to be a blessing. The only thing not governed by points are the alternate boat colors, all of which are unlocked by either finding a given number of hidden game icons in each course or finishing a certain race with a certain boat.
Despite being a sequel to a title that was released at the turn of the century, Hydro Thunder Hurricane retains almost everything that made the original so well-loved. The boats are fast, and they're even faster when nitro is applied. There are crazy jumps to contend with, and every race is closely contested to the end. The maddening track design borrows liberally from the book of tricks that made the original courses so memorable. Each track has at least one set piece designed to mesmerize like a good thrill ride, and there's rarely a time when something isn't mobile on-screen. Secret shortcuts are everywhere, and the more valuable red boost pick-ups require some work to obtain. A few of the courses even have a few switches to open up other areas of the course or activate ramps for access to some much-needed nitro boosts.
There are a few changes that the developers made to complement the design. The wave physics really help players feel like they're racing on water instead of just being on a fluid road. The other change is the ability to draft behind players for a slight speed increase. The latter seems like a given nowadays, but since the original title didn't have this feature, it feels rather invaluable in this game. The final improvement is a persistent leaderboard for each and every event. Like Trials HD and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, this persistent leaderboard drives you to stay on top for as long as possible. It's never a bad thing when you try to emulate the addictive nature of an arcade game.
There are a few negatives against the game, though the severity of these items is dependent on how well you remember the original title. The rubber band AI is still here, but it's been toned down a bit. Its presence makes for some exciting races, but it is frustrating when you were ahead for most of the race and a slight miscalculation places you away from the first place spot. Second, the mighty hull feature, a move where you can use your nitro boost to crash into opponents and cause them to flip, seems to have also been toned down. During the review period, there were many crashes when boats hit solid objects, but crashes that were caused by other boats boosting into them or landing on top of them area a rare sight.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane has two multiplayer modes, and they're slightly different from one another. The standard race mode pits up to eight human players against up to eight CPU players in a race that mimics the standard single-player Arcade mode. Despite the description, it really is a free-for-all race. The other mode, Rubber Ducky, splits eight players into two teams of four for team-based racing on any of the available tracks. The catch is that the team can only win if the player designated as the Rubber Duck boat crosses the line first. As the duck, your job is to naturally get to the finish line before the other duck. As the teammates, though, your job is to do everything in your power to stop the opposing rubber duck from crossing the line. The team-based racing mechanic isn't used often in many racing games, but it this title into a miniature demolition derby on water. You'll mostly be bashing the opposing boats or the opposing duck, forcing it to crash into the environment or slowing it down so your duck can take the lead. The semi-chaotic nature makes it very enjoyable and a perfect companion to the standard racing mode.
From a technical standpoint, the multiplayer is quite smooth and lag-free, and games are plentiful at the moment. The multiplayer games also give you points just like the single-player game modes, so any wins accumulated in multiplayer will ensure that you're still on your way to unlocking new boats and events. The game allows any combination of players from a single console to go online. You can play four-player split-screen offline, but you can also take those same players with you for online competition. It's a welcome feature, and it would be nice to see it in other games.
Until you discovered some of the nuances with the control scheme, the original game was quite simple. The sequel makes the control scheme even simpler while still retaining something for the veteran players to discover. The left thumbstick controls boat movement, the left trigger controls the brakes, the right trigger controls acceleration, and the A button initiates nitro boosts. The act of jumping, originally performed by hitting both brake and acceleration together, has been simplified to the press of the X button, though it requires a bit of boost to be performed. Like the original, the controls are very responsive, but each boat controls differently, depending on its statistics. Those familiar with the original game will be immediately comfortable with the controls, and for those who are wondering, the boost trick at the beginning of races is still present.
Graphically, Hydro Thunder Hurricane is quite good with some nice touches here and there. All of the boats look great with their various paint jobs, and the animations look smooth with some nice little details, such as piston movement for the engines. As good as the boats look, though, the environments really show off what the graphics engine can do. The textures on the tracks look good, with no sign of stretching or blurred spots. The sky textures accentuate the mood of the track rather well, and the lighting produces some nice shadowing when needed. The animations for the larger set pieces, like the sea serpent in the center of the whirlpool, are fluid and give the tracks more character.
However, there are disappointing aspects to the graphical presentation. The fireworks at the end of the track look fine, but the various explosions don't seem to pack as much of a visual punch. This is especially true when your boat explodes; the explosion and resulting fire look faint, exposing the quick texture swap from an intact boat to a damaged one. As for the colors, the game is still very colorful, but in comparison to the original, the colors aren't as vibrant as fans are accustomed to seeing. Finally, while the water behavior is rather good, the water's appearance isn't. In particular, the waves look like they came from the previous generation of consoles, with uniform movements instead of unique ones.
The sound does a good job of feeling new while retaining some of the traits from the original title. The score is a good example, as all of the musical pieces for each track are brand-new but contain small traces of the old music for good measure. It still remains exciting to listen to and is perfect for the game's high-octane races. The effects do a good job as well. The explosions from barrels sound better than they look, and the engines sound powerful, especially when nitro boosts are applied.
As far as audio is concerned, the biggest attraction of arcade games was always the voices, and it's no different here. The pit captain still has plenty of witty things to say and uses just the right amount of timing to deliver the right lines for the right situation. The voices of the other characters, like the boat cops for each level, sound a little cartoonish but are perfect for the game mood. It is a disappointment, though, that the original voice for the announcer wasn't used here. The new announcer does a very good job of emulating the inflections of the original actor, but having the original instead of a stand-in would have gone much further in solidifying the nostalgia trip.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a great representation of what a good arcade racer should be. The challenging level of difficulty, focus on speed, and excellent track layout are some of the things that it managed to do just as well as its predecessor. The addition of new game modes, better wave physics, and drafting make it something that can compete with some of the current racing titles on the market. With a solid technical background and good multiplayer, Hydro Thunder Hurricane shows the capabilities of the Xbox Live Arcade. Fans of the original have no doubt already downloaded this title, but for those that haven't, it comes highly recommended. Racing fans, especially those of arcade-style racing games, should also pick up this version, as it embodies everything good about the genre at a fairly low price. If there will be a sequel to this game, here's hoping that we don't have to wait as long as we did for this one.
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