|Straight from the arcade into the living room, Hydro
Thunder hasnt changed a bit. The only thing different on the Dreamcasts
version is the lack of a quarter slot. While this means that home gamers dont get a
lot of extras, it does mean that fans of the stand-up (or ride-in) wont be
disappointed. Whats more fun anyway, shelling out scads of quarters to stand around
in the local arcade, or sitting with your pals on the comfy couch playing game after game
of intense hydro action? Even without the extras Hydro Thunder delivers weeks to months of
obsessive game play, especially if youve got a few friends that like to engage in
furious head to head combat racing. Hydro Thunder offers the perfect mix of super high
speed racing and combative "mighty hull" opponent ramming, and all this are
illustrated by some of the most beautiful graphics on the Dreamcast so far.
The game is pretty simple. You are a boat racer that got so good that the underground boat racing organization (HTRA) wants you, so now you have to prove your mettle and race your pants off. The HTRA works a little different than your run of the mill boat races. The main difference is that there are no rules. Jumping, turbo boosting, shortcuts, and "mighty hull" are essential techniques in the game. Most of the race is spent trying to pick up booster fuel and the rest is spent using it. Booster fuel not only gives you a speed boost, but it also allows you to jump higher, even without a ramp. Almost more importantly, boosting activates your "mighty hull" which you can use to ram obstacles and other boats, sending them flying into the air. The play is simple, but very effective: after a few games I was hooked.
At first glance, Hydro Thunder may seem like a "thin" game, but its 9 tracks (plus four bonus tracks) and 9 boats (again plus four bonus boats) are all you really need. Even the easy tracks are fun, and I found myself replaying them even as I unlocked the higher level tracks. Tom and I had to race the Arctic Circle track over twenty times to find all the shortcuts and beat the race to unlock the next set of tracks. Normally, this would kill a course, making it no fun to race for the next week at least. But, in fact, it did the opposite; I love the Arctic Circle because I know it like the back of my hand and beating Tom is now twice the fun. It is much more a contest of skill: knowing what boat is right for which race, the precise way to take each corner, and when and how to use the "mighty hull" to take your opponent's rig out of the water. The track design is some of the best I've ever seen, a great blend of short cuts, beautiful scenery, straight speed ways, technical cures, giant jumps, huge drops, smooth and choppy water, and the little extras like penguins, monkeys, and alligators.
The graphics and frame rate on Hydro Thunder are almost identical to the arcade version. It is almost more fun watching someone else play so you can have the time to take in the sights. I couldn't seem to find any short cuts while I was playing, but when I watched a friend play they just jumped out at me, as did the polar bears, the Statue of Liberty, the sharks, and lots of other neat stuff. I do have a few bones to pick about the lighting. Many of the tracks were simply too dark to enjoy. Again this makes for tougher races, but at the expense of the graphics. I do have to compliment the control. It feels almost as if the Dreamcast controller was made specifically for Hydro Thunder. Every one of the 13 boats has unique control, but the ultra simple button configuration makes them all a joy to drive. It's really all about the timing, not the speed of button pushing or having the correct combo. It's the sort of game that's very easy to pick up and really hard to master.
I could gush and gush about how much fun I've had playing Hydro Thunder, but in truth it could have been better. While it would have been nice to have a few extra modes: perhaps a mission, adventure, time trial, or even practice, Hydro Thunder remains fun and addictive without them. It also lacks a few other niceties that should be included in a console game. First, there are no restart track options. Mess up once and you have to restart the entire game. Second, THERE IS NO AUTOSAVE. I twice lost my hard earned victories by forgetting to slog through the menus and save my game before heading off to bed, and it's doubly frustrating because of the ultra-convenient saving/loading methods becoming standard in Dreamcast titles. Third, almost every time you race someone gets to input their high score with their initials. It takes a ridiculous amount of load and wait time when it's not even saving it to the memory card. While none of these foibles ruin the game, they make it a slower game to navigate.
As an arcade game, Hydro Thunder is straight up one of the best, but on the console it left me wanting more. Maybe Sonic Adventure has me spoiled with it's extensive use of the VMU, internet, and mode upon mode of play. I just wanted to see more frills in Hydro Thunder than I got. Nonetheless, I love it with all of my video game playing heart. Hydro Thunder is the best racing game on the Dreamcast so far and shows off some of the best graphics on any Dreamcast title. If you have a Dreamcast and need a racing game, Hydro Thunder is the one. If you don't need a racing game, rent Hydro Thunder and see if you can live without it when it comes time to return it. I'm betting it will be hard.