On lap one I put Christina Ricci into the wall. On lap two I put Christina Ricci into the wall. On lap three…
I'm going to come right out and say that I expected this game to suck. I thought "oh good, a licensed game based on a semi-serious movie based on a cheesy cartoon." Speed Racer on the Nintendo DS smashed my expectations.
Speed Racer the Videogame's appearances are deceiving; despite the rather serious design of the cars, it’s a kart-racer at heart. There is no customization to speak of, physics are mostly negligible, and the gameplay is fast and loose. The most technical aspect of the game is the selection of your racing avatar. Each car has a different combination of speed, acceleration, grip, power-sliding ability, and charisma (more on that later).
Even to those unfamiliar with the franchise, it should be unsurprising that the Speed Racer game is a racing game. Equally unsurprising should be that the game is fast. Dare I say, the game is speedy? (Note: I promise no more Speed Racer puns for the rest of this review). Clocking in at over 400 MPH, the races cover insane tracks full of twists, turns, jumps, and branching paths.
While negotiating the tracks in a quest for World Racing League glory, you've also got to complete stunts in order to generate boost power. While soaring through the air, either after a jump or by riding up the side walls, the D-Pad can be used to spin the car end over end or roll the car over. If you feel especially adventurous, doing both at once can be especially rewarding. The double 1080 almost assuredly fills that boost meter.
The neat thing about the game's boost system is the "In the Zone" mode. If there is even a sliver of charge in the boost meter, you can choose to discharge some or all of it by pressing the R shoulder button. However, if you choose to charge your boost meter to capacity, a second smaller sub-meter will appear for you to charge. Once you've activated the second meter the boosting functionality changes dramatically. Instead of simply making you faster and even more out of control, your racer enters "The Zone." While in "The Zone" the winding tracks become straight lines, your car reaches insane speeds, and you can obliterate any opponent who dares to get in your way. It's a unique spin on the standard boosting system, challenging you to save your boost for parts of the track that are hard to navigate.
Computer players are good, but they're not inhuman. They make moves for position just like you do. Sitting back in the pack, you’ll often see one A.I. controlled car make a run on the leader, watch the leader react, and then see the whole fight for position play out. That's right; you won't be winning every race from green to checkered flag. Conversely, they aren't the "gods of racing" you often see in games like F-Zero GX either. They will scrape the walls, bump each other, and screw up turns in ways that match the dynamics of the car they're driving.
Their fights for position play out a lot like yours. There are a few ways to challenge the car in front of you; you can try to pass them, especially on turns, but that's not nearly as fun as your other options. If you can get close enough you can execute a spin (X) and batter your opponent into the side wall; you can also try to ram into the wall. If you just can't seem to overtake them but can still get pretty close, you can execute the "Car-Fu" mini-game.
Yes, "Car-Fu" is the worst phrase ever muttered by mankind, but it is a pretty amusing in-game representation of car combat. The aggressor's car will catapult itself high into the air and both aggressor and target will play a simple timing mini-game. A circle appears at each end of a bar, and your circle will have either X or Y in it to indicate which button you should press. The party that presses the correct button nearest the center of the bar will win the engagement. If the aggressor wins they land on the defender's car, causing the defender to spin out and eat a lot of dust. If the defender wins they get a nice boost away from danger (and usually pick up a place or two in the process). It feels sufficiently visceral for combat taking place at 400 MPH. It's also fun to watch two other cars engage in the dance from a distance, but you must watch you don’t get hit by the losing car as it spins out of control.
The controls are simple and functional. The A-Button accelerates, while the X-Button executes a spin and will also right the car if you get turned (yes, if your car gets turned sideways or even backwards the wheels will turn and you can drive that way). The R-button boosts, the L-Button brakes and is also used for drifting. The touch screen sees very little use, being primarily employed for selecting menu options. It's probably for the best that it remains unused, since the racing is too fast for touch screen controls.
The game consists of a fairly extensive single-player mode, but no real story drives it. You pick your racer, and compete in a tournament. Most tournaments have three races, but some stretch to five. Unfortunately, you can't save between races, so you’re forced to play the tournament to completion. Many races can take up to six or seven minutes; a long tournament does not lend itself to play on the go, which is an odd design decision for a DS game.
Speed Racer’s three difficulty settings (Amateur, Pro-Am, and Professional) are arranged as circuits of the tournaments. New drivers, paint schemes, and modes are unlocked by earning "fans". You are awarded fans for stunts, Car-Fu, and winning races. The number of fans you get is influenced by the aforementioned charisma of your driver (characters with boobs = instant charisma). They’ve essentially just rebranded the points system, but it’s still a nice touch.
Multiplayer is available for two to six players via multi-card play. This is a real shame because I felt like this game needed something beyond the single player to keep it going (after all, if you know six people with copies of this game you probably work for the developer). Speed Racer would have benefited greatly from online play or a true story mode. It lacks that extra something needed to keep it going beyond the various circuits.
The Speed Racer movie is an orgy of visual effects, so it seems that the modestly-powered DS is an odd match for such a license. Instead, this portable incarnation pushes the DS to a whole new graphical level. It is easily the prettiest DS game I have ever played; the twisting tracks are colorful and varied, and the settings range from dense cities to jungles. There’s a litany of visual effects that I would have thought were cool by themselves, but the sheer quantity of graphical touches absolutely blew me away. Name the most graphically sophisticated track from Mario Kart DS, and any track in Speed Racer is better than that, and faster.
The overall speed of the game is amazing. The first time I played it I was immediately transported back to the first time I saw F-Zero GX in action. Whipping through detailed vistas actually felt like the 400 MPH my speedometer was registering. Witnessing its silky smooth frame rate, it’s hard to believe how far this game pushes the DS hardware. I simply cannot rave enough about how stunned I was to see Speed Racer in action. There’s the odd graphical glitch here and there, but they are lost amidst the abundance of stunning eye candy.
The sound isn't as good. The roar of the engines and sounds of metal against metal often drown out the techno-beat music. The mix of effects and music can be adjusted, but that leads to a startling realization: you won't want to. The music is generic and not worth hearing.
Speed Racer The Videogame is surprisingly good. Very good. It blends fun gameplay with superb graphics. Its biggest problem is that there isn't more to play; the single player can be conquered in a fairly short period of time, and the lack of a story means there isn't a whole lot of pay-off for doing so. If it had Wi-Fi or single-card multiplayer (which might be beyond the DS’ capacity in this case), it would be a recommended buy. Kart-racing fans will certainly appreciate Speed Racer, while the rest of you would be wise to at least give it a rental – you won’t regret it.