Hydro Thunder: Hurricane Review
Developer: Vector Unit / Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / ESRB: Everyone (Alcohol Reference, Mild Fantasy Violence)/ Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $15.00
Hydro Thunder: Hurricane is, shockingly, a fantastic spiritual successor that nobody knew they wanted. Crazy courses, simple controls, and freaking jet-boats on water mean there are two distinct yet equally valid reasons to play Hydro Thunder: Hurricane. Either you want a few hours of stupid fun, or you want to believe, for a fleeting few seconds, that your Xbox 360 is actually a Dreamcast.
Hydro Thunder: Hurricane is the sort of game where, within seconds of playing, you will be completely convinced that there’s a way to get a starting-line boost by hitting the gas at the right moment. The game’s a time capsule of arcade racing: boost meters, crazy levels, and an ostentatious announcer who will make you double-check your nearest calendar. Different game modes employ the game’s eight tracks in various ways. Race is self-explanatory, ring master sends you through a series of gates that incur time penalties when missed, gauntlet sprinkles explosive delay-causing barrels throughout the course, and tournament combines those three event types into a series.
The broad strokes are all in place, but Hurricane’s success lies in its details. Each track is a rollercoaster affair similar to SSX Tricky. Multiple paths–some accessed by a well-placed jump or hitting an activated ramp–make subsequent runs on a course less an exercise in asset reuse and more an opportunity to get that collectible-unlocking pickup (described by the announcer as “It’s shiny and spinning… must be important.”). You accrue credits depending on your place in an event, which unlock further events and boats. Progressing in single-player isn’t difficult until the “Expert” stages, where you’ll need both intimate familiarity with a track’s shortcuts and the quirks of your chosen boat to finish on the podium.
The game’s race mechanics aren’t pivotal in single-player, but make online races frantic. Riding in another boat’s wake allows you to draft, helping you catch racers ahead of you. Additionally, the nitro canisters sprinkled around the track in single-player become conditional, granting more boost the further from the lead you are. These two mechanics allow you to always catch back up to the pack, probably slamming into every boat on the way while you careen around the track.
Frame rate is wisely the key consideration in Hurricane. The game’s tracks and boats are just detailed enough to convey goofy charm, like the giant animated statues that chop the water with axes in the Norse stage or a flopping, wave-creating alligator in the tropical stage. The game’s water effects toe a similar line, looking decent but never really wowing with graphical excess. As a package, Hurricane’s greatest success is stylistic; it updates the cheesy mid-90s arcade presentation without seeming dated.
For all the goofy thrills Hurricane presents, its controls will be the greatest point of contention. As the game is on water, controlling the game’s craft is justifiably slidey and imprecise. As such, you’ll often knick walls you didn’t mean to, or come off a ramp at a funky angle, causing you to miss a hidden path. This is compounded when crazy events send massive waves through the course. The track’s mutability can send you unwillingly into the air, flying helplessly past a pickup and into a wall. Some will enjoy the unpredictability; others will hate that any element of the game is left to chance. If you’re the sort that turns off items in Smash Bros, this will probably rub you the wrong way. The game is balanced such that one missed turn doesn’t ruin a race, so the sentiment is more in the moment than on lasting consequences.
Most of the game’s sound is adequate but unremarkable, though special exceptions go to the game’s announcer and in-game voice work. The announcer is that graceful combination of annoying and attention-grabbing, the kind that died when the point was no longer to make someone pay attention to you in a crowded arcade. The announcer even proclaims the name of your chosen boat when you pick it, which is an adorable (if anachronistic) nod to the arcade aesthetic. The in-game voice comments on your performance in the way a race team member might, snidely suggesting you go back for the few walls you didn’t hit on a particular run. While hints of an arcade scene love letter can be found throughout Hurricane, its audio is the most sincere.
Hydro Thunder: Hurricane is the sort of game that justifies Xbox Live Arcade. It’s quick to pick up, easy to put down, and always worth a few ridiculous thrills. The amount of gameplay derived from earning its Achievements and competing in multiplayer justifies the $15 price as well (particularly when the best lap and split times of other players on your Friends List pop up to add that competitive edge, even when you’re playing solo). With any luck, Hurricane will not only legitimize the practice of remaking Midway arcade titles, but put San Francisco Rush next on the docket.