"Speed Racer: The Videogame is fast. Really fast. Early circuits are mellow and you won't have the beefier vehicles available, but that changes quickly enough. Each completed championship yields you another driver with new stats, until you've unlocked all 20. These are the folk you'd see if you watched the movie, with voice work to match."
Reports are in and “Speed Racer” apparently isn't the incredible movie people thought it would be. Hype has a way of killing things like that. Now there's a video game, and at least with that expectations are more reasonable. It's license-based, after all. That has nearly everyone already thinking “Wow, it's gonna suck.” This time, though, there's a surprise: the game is good. It's not perfect, sure, but developer Sidhe Interactive took the film's concept and used it as the basis for something special. The result is one of the best futuristic racers you'll ever play and one of the best film-to-game adaptations to boot!
Immediately, you'll be able to tell that the developers were inspired by F-Zero. The concept here is nearly identical. You race a fleet of other futuristic vehicles around tracks hung in the air over dazzling city landscapes. Along the way, you spin and hop, twirl and flip. The goal is to reach the end of the race in one piece while doing as much damage to your hapless opponents as possible. The chaos you've caused is tallied in the end and can help you to win a championship even if you didn't always place highly over a series of events.
Controls are intuitive. You hold the Wii Remote sideways like an old NES controller and you press the '2' button to accelerate or '1' to brake. Steering is handled by tilting one end up or down, sort of as if the device were the center bar on an upright steering wheel. If you have it, the Wii Wheel adapter is also supported. Either way, there's not a lot to learn if all you want to do is move your vehicle down the road. Where things get more interesting is when you want to go on the offensive.
Jerking your controller toward opponents will allow you to shunt your adversaries. This usually serves as a mere annoyance to them and might set them up to return the favor when you least need the hostility. Therefore, you can hold 'up' or 'down' to turn those feeble attacks into more devastating (but also slightly disorienting) spin attacks. Jerking the Wii Remote forward also allows a slight hop forward, or you can flip end over end to try for some real destruction... though it's possible that only you will go up in flames.
The risk so frequently involved means that strategy plays a key role. Offensive racing can really pay off in the later courses, but what if you become over-zealous? The last thing you want is to shunt sideways at a pesky opponent, miss, then find yourself teetering on the edge of the course as everyone sweeps by you (or even worse, rams you with a fierce attack). That can wreak serious havoc on your need for speed.
Speed Racer: The Videogame is fast. Really fast. Early circuits are mellow and you won't have the beefier vehicles available, but that changes quickly enough. Each completed championship yields you another driver with new stats, until you've unlocked all 20. These are the folk you'd see if you watched the movie, with voice work to match. You'll spend time with several of them over the course of the 8 hours or so it takes to clear the single-player mode, since the early ones are generally too difficult to lead to victory on the final tracks. The whole time, everyone on a given track will be saying clever things upon passing you, or perhaps complaining when you fall into their slipstream or start ramming them with your vehicle.
Of course, the game includes more than just that offensive angle. As you navigate each track, a meter gradually fills. When it tops off, you get one boost to use as you see fit. This can also be used to refill your life meter if necessary, or you can stockpile the turbo and use four bursts all at once to enter a sort of hyperspace. In this mode, it's simpler to cruise past your nearest opponents and also to shunt them to the side if that's something you'd like to do (and it usually is). Track length varies, so you really need to think ahead. If you only wait until you have a full barrel, so to speak, you might also miss out on opportunities to damage your opponents and win a few all-important points at the end of a race. The whole system is deceptively deep, as the more clever gamers will soon realize.
They'll realize also that the artificial intelligence is quite poor. The folks at Sidhe Interactive actually seem to believe that rubber band AI is acceptable in 2008. This isn't the Mario Kart variety people complain about, either; it's worse. No matter how well you race, you will be passed just a short distance from the finish line (and all without blue shells!). Conversely, your opponents may wait for you to catch up if you fall far behind. Don't be surprised at all if you come around a corner and find whole rows of cars parked at the side of the track, as if everyone was attending a church social in the middle of the event. By the end of the game, this mostly works against you as you blaze around the track in perfect form and still rank poorly because of a last-minute disaster. In true form, the rubber band AI is almost always either frustrating or insulting.
Fortunately, Speed Racer: The Videogame has enough going for it that you might be willing to forgive the developers that one main indiscretion. A little patience gives you time to adapt to fall in love with the control scheme, which in my experience really made for a neat experience. It also helps you to appreciate the psychedelic track designs and some of the beautiful backdrops that you might not see initially while you're too busy just reaching the finish line. Then when you've mastered all of that, there are cheats to unlock, mirror courses to race and a multi-player mode. Long after the cinematic release fades from memory, you'll still be playing the game. Not because it's Speed Racer, but because it's a darn fine racing game. Give it a shot whether you like the movie or not.
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 16, 2008)
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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