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Hydro Thunder (Dreamcast) artwork

Hydro Thunder (Dreamcast) review

"Yes, Hydro Thunder employs what some have described as the rubber-band sort of mentality. Here, though, itís worse than ever. It doesnít matter if you have the best time anyone has ever managed when playing the game. Thereís about a 70% chance youíll rank fourth or worse. Thatís just how the game works. Completion times are irrelevant."

It would be easy to talk about the amazing highlights that fill Hydro Thunder, one of the Dreamcastís launch titles. Iíll do that in a moment. But first, I think we should get something out of the way: the game kind of sucks. I know itís not cool to play my hand so early in the review. I should work up to it gradually. But the game makes its flaws obvious pretty quickly, so I figured Iíd be generous to you and do the same.

Imagine the most beautiful racer the Dreamcast ever saw. In a nutshell, thatís Hydro Thunder. The environments here, particularly the first six, are nothing short of breathtaking. Consider Lake Placid. The water reflects an auburn sunset as hot air balloons float overhead and hang gliders soar on the evening breeze. As you follow the race course, these distractions vanish from sight and suddenly youíre riding through caverns while the water laps against the limestone to your side. As you emerge from the cave, you find that darkness has finally descended. Racing quickly, you fly over the edge of a dam and soar through the air toward a bridge far in the distance. Itís almost possible to feel the wind whipping through your hair. The exhilaration is that tangible.

Then your boat crashes against the water and you slide over the finish line in fifth place.

Just like that, weíre into those flaws I mentioned. They really reach out and slap you in the face. Then they laugh at you as you give the race another attempt. But who could blame you? After all, you finished with a time of 2 minutes and 13 seconds. So you give the race another shot, keeping an eye on the timer for its duration. Youíre about to give up. Youíre coming in at 2 minutes and 20 seconds and your performance this time around has quite frankly stunk. Then you realize something odd: youíre in first place! You finish the race, not caring that your time was pathetic or that you didnít even rank among the best times for the lap because, for the first time ever, you managed to win.

Yes, Hydro Thunder employs what some have described as the rubber-band sort of mentality. Here, though, itís worse than ever. It doesnít matter if you have the best time anyone has ever managed when playing the game. Thereís about a 70% chance youíll rank fourth or worse. Thatís just how the game works. Completion times are irrelevant. Some might wish to use them as a progression meter, but thereís really no point.

Itís difficult to put into words how frustrating this fact really is. Suddenly, you wonít care that youíre skidding down ancient Greek architecture as a beautiful village passes beneath you. It wonít matter that you briefly had a good time racing along a massive ocean liner and past a string of killer whales and penguins. The flaw is that debilitating.

But if that werenít enough, thereíre also your boatís controls to consider. Most of the time, you control like a stick of margarine sliding around in a hot frying pan. Maybe youíre coming up to a shortcut. You scrimped and saved so that you have some turbo boost remaining. Carefully, you aim yourself squarely at a ledge that rises toward a hidden cavern. Itís a shortcut, and if you play your cards right you might be able to shave a few seconds off your time. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a boat rams into you from the side and youíre sent flying. Quickly, you steer hard to the right, back toward the cave, but your boat doesnít even seem to be aware that youíre directing it anywhere. It just sort of drifts around on the water and doesnít go anywhere.

This happens all over the place, and your opponents donít even have to be directly involved. If youíre even close to their wake, you canít do anything but accelerate and hope you move in a direction vaguely related to the finish line.

When you consider the rubber-band AI and the lack of control you often have over your vessel, Hydro Thunder suddenly becomes a much less tempting proposition than it should be. But wait, Iím not finished! If you are Ďluckyí enough to be playing one of the original discs (as I was), youíll definitely want to make sure that youíre using one of the older VMUs. Otherwise, the game may lock up while youíre loading it. This can be particularly frustrating if youíve worked like crazy to unlock courses and suddenly you canít play them because of a game glitch.

In the end, Hydro Thunder is something of a relic. The amazing visuals just donít make up for the frustrating gameplay. This is something you might want to rent for a weekend, but never purchase. Better yet, go to the arcade and drop a few quarters. At least there you can hold a steering wheel and when you leave, the disc isnít spinning in your Dreamcast, taunting you. In the game, thereís a boat called Ďdamn the torpedoes,í to which I say ďWhat did the torpedoes ever do?Ē Forget about them. Instead, how about we damn this game? Sounds much better to me!

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Staff review by Jason Venter (July 14, 2005)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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