If only the Nemean Lion had prevailed...
I'm not an expert in Greek Mythology, but I know this: if the Greeks had known of Heracles Chariot Racing they would have called it the Thirteen Labors of Heracles. If the title doesn't tell you everything you need to know allow me to fill you in. Heracles Chariot Racing (to henceforth be known as HCR, to make it sound cool) is a kart racer starring none other than Heracles (better known by his Roman name, Hercules) and several other mythological characters. Beginning life on the PS2, Neko Entertainment ported HCR to WiiWare.
Porting a PS2 title to a downloadable form isn't a task new for Neko. Perhaps better known for their series of Cocoto games (Fishing Master, Platform Jumper, Kart Racer, etc.), this is their fourth previous-generation WiiWare port. The result is a game that is more sophisticated than many WiiWare titles, but not necessarily better.
Graphically, HCR has a lot going for it. A fully 3D engine presents a solid cartoon-ish visual experience. Unfortunately it is marred by several flaws that are more art direction-related than technical in nature. Here are some of the graphical irritants that HCR offers: obstacles (snakes in particular) that are the same color as the ground they're on; walls that blend in to not only the course, but also the sky; track and background colors that make it unclear as to where the track ends and the jarring collision with a wall begins; and a giant character model in the middle of the screen that obscures almost all obstacles (you can mitigate this by change to a first-person mode, but then it feels like you have no peripheral vision). An overall solid graphical presentation is victimized by art design that actually makes the game less fun.
Its high level of difficulty is HCR's biggest flaw. Normal difficulty is the hardest kart racer I've played in years, and hard mode could best be described using guttural noises and a chain of expletives that would make the Argonauts blush. As a rule, your kart is heavy and turns VERY slowly. To put this in perspective, there is a turn that I was never successfully able to make, even after seven attempts. Each time I fell into the abyss. Even at an almost dead stop, the Minotaur's chariot slid right up the outside wall and into free-fall. This issue is compounded by fact that the entire race is a constant series of curves and bends. The preponderance of obstacles, most of which you cannot see or simply cannot move around, makes a “clean” run as mythological as the half-woman half-bee that you race against. The only way to beat the turns is to master tilt-control. By tilting the Nunchuk left and right you can make sharper turns. This takes some time to master, and even then it seems to be far less effective than whatever the AI is doing, as they careen through each turn with reckless abandon. Tilt control did let me clear the aforementioned turn, which in retrospect felt like a much bigger accomplishment than it really was.
The four-player split-screen multiplayer fairs better. Much like Mario Kart, a game from which HCR is clearly derived, there is a certain joy to be felt by ruining your friend's fortunes by pelting them with a collection of strange items. There's something rewarding about seeing your buddy, playing as the nearly invincible hero Heracles, crushed by an explosive heat-seeking insect. In this mode the difficulty doesn't annoy as much, because you get to watch up to three of your friends suffer alongside you.
The aforementioned controls are ONLY Wii Remote and Nunchuk. You cannot play with the Classic Controller, the GameCube controller, or the Remote on its side. This is a bit odd for a former PS2 game, especially since this port is not notably bettered by the switch to motion controls. Acceleration is done with the A-Button, and braking is done with the Z-Button. Steering is done with the analog stick, and you can grind into the corners by tilting the Nunchuk while tilting the analog stick. Items are used by pressing the B-Trigger. Lastly, you can jump over obstacles by flicking the Wii Remote. With so little motion usage, an option to play with a more traditional controller.would have been appreciated.
The sound design is baffling as well. There are few sound effects to note; you have some non-verbal character taunts (“hauh-hauh”), some standard thuds and bangs from the impact of your incendiary insects, and the ever-present clatter of your horseless chariot. The music is forgettable, and only bears mention because the game stops playing any music at all on the final lap. Whereas most kart racers ramp up the dramatic music, HCR simply punts. All you get for the final lap is the clatter of wooden wheels against the ground, which is puzzling indeed.
There are ten tracks listed in HCR, but there are really only five different environments. In the game's three circuits (Bronze, Silver, Gold) there are five races each. The silver races reuse the environments of the bronze races but employ a new path. The gold circuit reuses tracks from the bronze and silver. That's not a lot of tracks, so the single-player portion of the game doesn’t last long (aside from its sheer difficulty). To the game’s credit there is a level set in the Augean Stables that makes a hazard of an unnamed pile of matter that gums up your wheels; not since Conker's Bad Fur Day has such a daring use of dung been so masterfully executed.
Heracles Chariot Racing is an interesting case. Because of its PS2 origins, the game looks better than the majority of titles available on WiiWare. Its gameplay is fairly sophisticated, and there is some depth to its gameplay. The problem is that it is less than the sum of its parts. Its difficulty ranges from challenging to brutal, and its track designs do not coincide with the behavior of the chariots meant to traverse them. While there are few kart racers on WiiWare - and this game stacks up well to them - there are two very good ones available on Virtual Console in Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64. Despite its low price point either one of those titles presents better kart racing than Heracles Chariot Racing.