Review: Speed Racer (Nintendo DS)

Speed Racer
Genre: Arcade Action Racing
Developer: Virtuos Games
Publisher: Warner Bros Games
Release Date: 05/08/2008

Decades old video game wisdom has it that, 98 times out of 100, games based off of movies suck hard. It is not a new development. We, as a community, discovered this thing years ago with E.T., Back to the Future, The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, etc., etc.

Really, the center of the debate should now be which sucks more:

A. Video games based on films

or

B. Films based off of video games?

Speed Racer has the potential to be an exception to this maxim. After all, with its ridiculously color saturated and improbably designed set pieces, the movie looks more like a video game than most video games. It’s as though it were designed to look like something off of the Sega Genesis. The irony here is that many video games are now trying to appear as though they were films.

They try to make real hot dogs not taste like hot dogs. The only thing that tries to taste like a hot dog is a tofu hot dog.

Speed Racer, the movie, is a tofu hot dog.

Let’s review the game.

Story / Modes

The game starts with narration by Matthew Fox’s Racer X. He speaks over a montage of racing images, talking about racers returning for the this season of the World Racing League. This season is presumably 1 year after the film. He introduces Trixie as a driver, and says that some are racing again for evil things like money or revenge, while others are racing for the intrinsic value of speed and competition.

He makes it sound as though there is going to be a story.

There isn’t.

So let’s check out Modes. You start out with Arcade mode. This branches off into other options like Quick Race, Quick Stunts, Quick Battle, and Time Attack. Unfortunately all but Quick Race need to be unlocked.

You unlock everything via the WRL (World Racing League). In this mode, you compete in Cups which consist of 3 races. You win a cup, you unlock another one, and so on. You can also unlock Special Events, in which you have timed objectives to crash a certain amount of cars, or win over so many fans via stunts. WRL also earns you fans, which allow you unlock more things, but more on that later.

The game also provides a Tutorial section. It doesn’t afford you any practice or anything though; it’s read only. Basically, it is just the instruction manual translated onto the DS card.

The game offers Multiplayer mode. This mode might be a good amount of fun, provided you have friends with their own Nintendo Dual Screens and copies of Speed Racer.

I do not.

With the option mode, you can adjust the number of laps per race and the number of drivers per race. By default, both are set to their maximums of 3 and 5 respectively. You can also change the volume levels and choose two other control schemes.

Graphics
Speed Racer, the movie, is epileptic seizure inducing eye candy. Speed Racer, the DS game, is that film played on a PDA. The colors are garish, the designs evocative of Rad Racer. All in all, the graphics are mostly fine, but hardly memorable.

One complaint: many of the tracks have sections that are ludicrously dark. Since racecars have no headlights, it is nigh impossible to navigate through these parts without adequate practice. Even then, you might hit a car or three.

Sound
The opening monologue sounds nice, but I didn’t encounter any more instances of speech in the game. The menu music is horrendously repetitive, and made me long for the earsplitting music of Super Monaco GP. During actual races, at default settings, the uninspired background music is difficult to hear over sewing machine sounds of the engines.

My wife describes the noise of this game as “irritating” and demands the use of headphones.

Control / Gameplay

Traditionally, I’m mediocre at racing games. I’m one of those fellas whose main strategy is to hold down the accelerator the entire race and not fall off the track. I don’t like hitting the brakes.

This is a good thing, because Speed Racer doesn’t seem to come with a brake. The basic premise behind the game, as far as I can tell, is to try to kill your driver, and all the other drivers, in the most frightening and terrible crash imaginable.

You see, you get fans for spinning out while in the air, crashing into other cars, flipping over while flying off of a banked corner, and those sorts of things. None of these things hurt your car (car is indestructible), they just let you get more fans. The more fans you get, the more stuff you can unlock (i.e. new cars, new paint jobs, new modes, etc.) Plus, violent collisions and nausea inducing corkscrews fill up your speed boost meter, which is accessed via the R trigger. Fill up the boost all the way, and it becomes your “Zone Meter”. You use that just like the boost, but it also makes your car invincible. Basically, while you’re in the Zone, you can just hold down the R trigger while the car steers itself. You won’t slow down if you hit cars; you’ll just knock them around a bit. Hitting the other cars then earns you fans for what they call “Zone Hits”.

You can also win fans by drifting via the L button. Fans love drifting, but not as much as alarming wrecks.

Now, these futuristic stunt racers are designed to always go forward, with regards to the race track, no matter which direction the body of the car is facing. Pressing X will spin the car, but you won’t lose control of the vehicle or even start to veer in the wrong direction. The main reason to have you car facing the right direction at any given time is that the car has to be facing forward to boost. After a hit, your car might be going 350 MPH while facing sideways or backwards, without any complaints. You can therefore use X while another car is trying to pass you to screw them over.

This also boosts your boost meter.

All the tracks contain ramps that launch you into the air. If you hold a direction on the D-pad, you can get your car to flip or do barrel rolls.

This will win you fans and fill your boost.

You can also jump off the track to do tricks whenever there isn’t a wall present.

This will also win you fans and fill you boost.

Pressing the B button will cause your car to jump into the air. Normally, this is relatively useless. BUT if you are behind a car, you are often prompted to hit the B button. Pressing the B button here launches you into a “car fu” mini-game. (Yeah, CAR FU, I know.) A bar with an X or Y icon will appear on screen. When the X or Y reaches the middle of the bar, you are to press X or Y depending on which one was prompted. If the attacker gets closer to the middle the car fu attack is successful. Basically, your car jumps on top of his, which is somehow more damaging to his speed than to your own. If the defender pushes the proper button more accurately than the attacker, then the attack is dodged.

This also fills your boost meter and wins you fans.

Even if the car is pulling away from you, by pressing B at the right time, you will not only catch up to them, but also have the time to launch yourself into the air and smash them.

Man, I love technology.

The controls are responsive and ludicrously easy to use. Doing a stunt here makes doing a stunt in Jet Set Radio seem like doing a trick Tony Hawk with the realistic gravity turned on.

The track designs are indeed roller coaster-like. There are massive turns, upside down portions, loop de loops, and so on. Unfortunately, most of the tracks here are redundant, each one made of the same basic components with a slightly different background. Nothing feels unique. This problem is exacerbated by the negligible background music, which never affords one course enough personality to distinguish itself from its peers.

Replayability

Speed Racer stretches out its replayability by making a bunch of stuff locked at the start of the game, and telling you what you need to do to unlock each of those things. Most of the modes are locked, and half of the drivers. Drivers will require X amount of fans to unlock. You don’t buy them, rather the machine keeps track of total fans earned, and awards you once you pass certain thresholds. For instance, it takes 600,000 fans to unlock racer Taejo Togokahn. A race might earn you between 3,000 and 15,000 fans, depending on difficulty and skill level. So, if you are racing amateurs at 5,500 fans a race, it will take you over 100 races to unlock Taejo.

Only WRL mode seems to earn fans, so there is little incentive to play Arcade mode.

Virtous (sic.: you can trademark a misspelling) is extra cheap here with the unlockables, too. Each racer starts with one car. You have to earn fans to unlock their other 2 cars. These cars don’t differ in their stats or shapes, just paint jobs.

And it gets worse. If I earn 400,000 fans I unlock the extra colors for Prince Kabala’s Gigerbon CL3 . . . but only on AMATEUR. To unlock these colors for the Pro Am class (medium difficulty) I need to have 875,000 fans. To unlock these colors on the Pro class, I’d need about 1.3 million fans.

So even after beating the game on Amateur and Pro Am, and winning some Pro cups, and all the special events, I still don’t have all of the drivers or ANY of the extra color schemes for the Pro Am difficulty.

So, if you want to unlock everything, you will have to play it a lot.

Balance

Each racer has a bars representing 5 stats on their profile screen: Speed, Handling, Drifting, Acceleration, and Charisma. Each racer has about 60 percent of their bars filled. Speed Racer is an all-around driver, meaning that each of his bars is at 60 percent. Racer X, on the other hand, is a fast driver; His speed bar is full, but his Charisma bar is at 10 percent. Other drivers are good-control, and the last group are popular drivers.

So, it’s like just about every other racing game.

The main difference being the fan-winning ability, and this is where Charisma works in. The higher this stat is, the more fans you earn and the easier it is to fill up that boost meter.

Anyways, you know how some things are called “cakewalks”? This is an old term. In a cakewalk, a bunch of folks dance around in a circle in hopes of winning a free cake. Nowadays, it is used to refer to anything that is particularly easy or something that provides little challenge. Speed Racer is more like a “cake sit”. It’s like sitting around, waiting for somebody to give you cake.

This is the easiest racing game I have ever played. I’ve never finished worse than 3rd out of 6. I’ve never lost a cup on any difficulty. I’ve never failed to complete any of the stunt or battle challenges.

This is due to a couple of things. First let’s look at the Car Fu mini-game. In the amateur class, the computer will never try to Car Fu you. It is pathetic in it’s attempt to dodge your Car Fu. The only way you are going to fail at Car Fu is if you push X instead of Y or vice Versa. In Pro Am, the computer will occasionally try to Car Fu you, but will never get close to pushing X or Y in the center. The same is true for its ability to defend itself; it can’t. In Pro Class, the computer will try to Car Fu you, but it will still be completely incapable of hitting the middle of the bar accurately. It won’t be any better at defending itself either. The harder the difficulty the faster the X or Y moves on the bar, but if you’ve ever played any rhythm game on the retarded difficulty setting you shouldn’t have a problem.

That thing might be the only thing that changes in the different difficulty level other than speed. The cars go faster in Pro than in Amateur, but aren’t much better drivers. Usually, in Pro there is one competent driver, and 4 guys you’ll pass unceremoniously in the first lap.

What else makes this game easy? Well, you pretty much can’t fall off the track. If you fail to steer at a turn, you often just hit a banked section, get sent into the air, do some tricks and win fans and a boost bonus. Sometimes, you’ll scrape a wall. Scraping a wall will slow you down a little bit, but you can press X to spin and get away from the wall almost instantly. If you take a turn well by drifting, you also gets fans and a boost.

I’ve managed to actually factually fall off of the track 3 times during the course of playing this game. All three times, I attempted Car Fu right before a jump, and sent both my victim and myself into the abyss.

For about a tenth of a second.

Then I’d be on the track, perfectly fine, and usually in a better position than before my untimely demise. Honestly, I went from 3rd to 1st doing that thing, twice!

Another aspect that makes this game ridiculously easy is in the stunts. Performing stunts is as easy as holding any direction on the D pad while in the air. While you get more fans for landing well, the game doesn’t seem to mind too much if you land on your roof or quarter panel or on your spoiler. The tricks are nigh-impossible to fuck up. Plus, if you hit X before you leave a ramp, you can spin while performing a stunt. You do this on a big jump, and you can easily perform a 2160. If you do this while holding a direction, or even a corner, on the D-pad, you can easily perform a 2160 with a 360 twist. (I just assume that the Mach 6 is full of vomit after every 3 lap race.)

This means that if your driver has any charisma, you can spend a good chunk of the race in the Zone (Read as: Invincible).

Originality

It’s a racing game, and we’ve seen a lot of those before. We’ve even seen a lot of combat racing games before with the popularity of Mario Kart and its offspring. The game does differ from Kart racers in that there are no power-up, and the car itself is the weapon.

Addictiveness
It’s fun to drive fast, flip, and crash into cars. It’s an easy game to pick up and play for a couple of minutes.

But it doesn’t really demand that you come back to it. Unless, of course, you are addled by OCD, and need to unlock everything. Barring that, it is too easy and repetitive to keep you coming for more.

Appeal Factor
Speed Racer was merched like crazy, so a video game was a no-brainer. Hell, they made Speed Racer Mad Libs as a movie tie-in.

And then, the movie opened in third place, being out-grossed by an obnoxious rom-com starring two unlikeable actors.

Heh.

Miscellaneous
Despite being developed by a different company than the other Speed Racer games, the DS version doesn’t take advantage of being on the DS. The stylus can be used for the menu, but is otherwise useless here. The touch screen goes untouched. The microphone gets no love.

It doesn’t even make good use of the two screens. The top screen has the race, and is the only thing to which you need to pay attention. During the races the bottom screen shows the map. Not a useful map that shows the shape of the course when you are trying to navigate in a dark section of the track, mind you. Rather, it only shows you how far away the other competitors are. If you tap it with the stylus, you can zoom in. Such an act would be foolhardy as there is little reward for zooming in, and you’d have to take one of your hands off the controls.

Then again, by crashing you’ll probably just earn a speed boost. So maybe it is worthwhile.

There are 16 different drivers, only about 13 of which you’ll unlock before forgetting about the game for a month.

There is no celebration for winning the cup or all of the cups on one setting. The screen merely shows a picture of a trophy, and tells you what you unlocked. I wanted me some champagne, some dancing, some hookers and black jack.

The Scores
Modes: Mediocre
Graphics: Decent
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Pretty Poor
Originality: Decent
Appeal Factor: Decent
Addictiveness: Decent
Miscellaneous: Below Average
FINAL SCORE: Mediocre

Short Attention Span Summary
Speed Racer is an inoffensive, all ages game. There is some fun to be had flipping in the air, driving fast, and smashing into unsuspecting cars. Unfortunately, it affords little challenge regardless of difficulty setting, and is far from a memorable experience.

All in all, it’s a decent way to kill an hour while waiting for your daughter to finish her cheerleading class.

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