One part F-Zero GX, one part Burnout, and a pinch of Mario Kart.
Speed Racer is not your typical movie game. Instead of looking to recreate the movie experience, it strives to create an extension of that experience. It strips away all of the elements of the movie and focuses solely on the core concept: racing. The full cast of racers from the movie are represented along with their custom rides and the voices of their real-life counterparts. Along with that, some of the film’s music is also featured in the background.
The core of Speed Racer is an interesting blend of fast-paced racing and car combat, a seemingly perfect blend of F-Zero GX and Burnout. Similar to Burnout, you are able to impede the progress of other racers by attacking them. But instead of performing takedowns, you perform “Car-Fu.” Car-Fu consists of a variety of moves including shunts, tail-flips, jack jumps, torpedoes and smackdowns, but its influence on each race is far deeper than any mechanic in Burnout. Not only does Car-Fu build your boost meter and put a temporary halt to your opponent’s progress, but it also builds up points which ultimately aid your placement in the overall competition. As mentioned earlier, Speed Racer takes cues from F-Zero GX in terms of both speed and track design. Featuring up to twenty competitors per race, Speed Racer brings the same crowded tracks found in F-Zero GX.
The aforementioned details add significant depth to a seemingly simple racing engine, and the Ally/Rival system only further accentuates this depth. Before each race, you can request and break alliances between the other racers participating in the tournament. On the surface this seems simple enough, but its complexity lies within finding the perfect balance of allies and rivals. Building as many alliances as possible decreases the frequency with which Car-Fu will be performed on you; however, you begin to realize that you can’t leverage these other racers during the race to perform Car-Fu. Conversely, this holds true with breaking alliances and creating rivals. Too many rivals and you will be incessantly bombarded with Car-Fu attacks; however, you will have the ability to perform massive amounts of Car-Fu, which when executed on rivals, nets additional points and boost.
The final layer of core gameplay depth is constituted of boosting and drafting. Drafting, known as slipstreaming in the Speed Racer universe, becomes yet another double-edged sword. It will decrease the drag on your vehicle and ultimately let you travel faster, but it tends to anger computer players. Striking a balance is absolutely critical, because slipstreaming too much results in being pelted with non-stop Car-Fu, and doing it too little prevents you from keeping up with the other racers.
Boosting is also critical as it will keep you in the race. Avoiding the edges of each stage and performing Car-Fu will build up your boost meter. Once full, the boost meter will refill again, storing a full boost in your inventory. Up to four boosts can be housed at one time, and unlike other boosting systems, all four of them can be dropped back-to-back to put you “In the Zone.” When In the Zone, you are immune to Car-Fu and you max out your engine speed. Boosts also double as a health supplements; when Car-Fu is performed on you, your health meter will decrease until it hits empty and you explode. Exploding isn’t race-ending, but it severely hampers your progress and makes success in the higher difficulty settings nearly impossible.
As you can see, the racing system is quite layered with a strong emphasis on using the full gamut of your arsenal to win. Thankfully, the control setup does an excellent job of making all of it accessible. Steering is performed by using the Wii Wheel, or Excite Truck-style holding the Wii Remote like an NES controller. Performing Car-Fu is done through quick jerks of the remote either upwards or sideways; holding different directions on the D-Pad allows you to perform different moves. Shunting someone with a quick jerk of the Wii Remote feels very natural, visceral, and satisfying. Accelerating, boosting, braking and health are mapped to the various buttons on the Wii Remote, and are well laid-out and quickly accessible in the heat of a race.
Unfortunately, Speed Racer lacks in a few other departments. The track design is very bland and uninspired; with only five different track environments, you grow tired of seeing the same settings in each and every circuit. It falls short graphically as well; the tracks themselves look good as do the racers, but the surroundings are low-poly, low-res and outright boring.
The game as a whole is also very short, and really only has three modes: championship circuit, time attack, and a paltry two-player split-screen multiplayer mode. Upon exhausting the championship circuit, there is literally nothing to come back to. Online mode is sorely missed as it would have given players a renewable experience. Having experienced Nintendo’s accomplishments with online racing in Mario Kart, it makes the exclusion of the mode hurt that much more.
Speed Racer at its core is an amazing game, with great depth, control, and nice difficulty progression. Perhaps Sidhe Interactive will use this great engine (and maybe even the Speed Racer license) for another title with more inspired track design, better graphics, and a more fully-featured package overall. As it stands, its slim feature-set and exclusion of both online racing and four-player split-screen multiplayer lowers it from a must-purchase to simply a rental.