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Hydro Thunder (Dreamcast) Review

Background Info

Sega's newest console, the Dreamcast, has arrived, and with it comes a slew of quality titles. Midway jumped right in, releasing a handful of games at the Dreamcast's launch. Among those is Hydro Thunder, a highly successful arcade game that features powerboat racing. Is the Dreamcast port arcade-perfect? And does Hydro Thunder warrant a purchase for the Dreamcast owner? Let's find out.

Presentation/Graphics : 96
The Dreamcast is an amazing new console, and its graphical prowess is undeniable. So how does Hydro Thunder look? Simply incredible. The boats look very nice, with a variety of vivid colors and details. The tracks are simply amazing. They are set in vastly different locales and each has its own unique look and personality. You will find yourself speeding through the Arctic Circle, the canals of Venice, the Nile river and a nightmare vision of a flooded New York City. The lighting effects are fantastic, and little details such as killer whales swimming around in the Arctic Circle, or tour boats keeping pace with you in the Lost Island course, add even more to the visual splendor.

There are few problems, such as some noticeable pop-up and some polygonal glitches here and there, but over all, this is simply a drop-dead gorgeous game.

Presentation/Audio : 90
The Dreamcast also has the potential for some seriously impressive audio. While I would hesitate to call Hydro Thunder's audio special, it gets the job done nicely. The standard sound effects are there, such as the boat engines, and they sound decent enough. The music is pretty effective, drawing you into the racing groove with a nice variety of styles and sounds. Some of the cuts in the music, when it switches from one music track to another (as in the Arctic Circle) are done awkwardly, with a slight hiccup. But on the whole the music is very effective, and fits with the game play quite nicely.

There is an announcer present, and to be honest he annoys the hell out of me. He is your typical arcade game announcer, always trying to sound very excited, but he comes across as just plain goofy. He isn't heard too often though, so it's not something that actually detracts from the game, just a minor annoyance.

Interface/Options : 75
The menu interface for Hydro Thunder is a bit clunky. It works fine, but it could be set up in a bit more user-friendly manner, in my opinion. The big problem I have with it is the load times between menus. I was very surprised at the lag when going from one menu to another. Also, when starting a race, the load times are once again beyond the norm for a Dreamcast game, and when you are itching to race, the wait can get quite annoying. Additionally, the load time after races is also quite long.

As far as options go, there are quite few. Hydro Thunder offers only 2 modes of play, one-player mode or two-player mode. There are no time trials, no practice mode, nothing except racing against either computer opponents in one-player mode, or a human opponent in two-player mode. This is pretty disappointing to me, as I am a sucker for time trials where you get to race against a ghost image of your previous best time. Hydro Thunder chose to include only the play modes from the arcade version, and in my opinion that just doesn't cut it for a home gaming experience; the more options and modes the better, as far as I am concerned.

Gameplay : 93
So how does Hydro Thunder actually play? Pretty damn wonderfully. The boats handle very well, with responsive steering and a braking system that is a must if you want to compete with the big boys. Each boat handles a bit differently, so there is a bit of variety in the game play as well.

Sprinkled throughout the tracks are turbo boost icons. Hitting these adds a bit to your turbo reservoir. There are two different icons. The red icon gives you nine seconds of turbo, while the blue gives you 4 seconds. Getting these boosts is absolutely essential to winning each race, and some are harder to get to than others. While some of the icons are on the water and just need to be run over to obtain them, others can only be gotten to by jumping ramps, and others require a little maneuver called the Hydro Jump, which requires a bit of practice to learn.

Activating the turbo has more of a benefit than meets the eyes. Of course, your boat picks up speed when the turbo is activated, but it also enables the "Mighty Hull" technology. When this is activated, anything you collide with is knocked out of your way, including other boats. This is a very effective way to move your way up through the pack.

Hydro Thunder is quite a challenging game. The CPU opponents are plenty savvy and will do their best to maintain their position. As with most arcade racing games, you start each race in the back of the pack and must move your way up. This has always been a nit-pick of mine with arcade racers (why not allow for qualifying runs to determine what place you start in?) but Hydro Thunder is a pure arcade experience, so that setup is to be expected.

In order to open up more tracks and boats, you must finish within a certain parameter. To open up the medium tracks and boats, you must place in the top three in the easy courses. To move onto the hard setting, you must place in the top two, and so on. This can be quite difficult and will require lots of patience and practice.

While the frame rate is nearly perfect in the one-player game, it suffers badly in two-player mode. Your ability to accept choppiness will determine whether or not the two-player game is worth your while.

Replay Value : 90
Despite very limited play modes, there is a fair bit of replay value in Hydro Thunder. A lot of this is due to the difficulty of the game. Be warned; if you are easily frustrated, this game may have you pulling your hair out. There are thirteen different boats and fourteen different courses to be obtained by successfully completing the races in the required position. Given the sheer brilliance of the track design, this is more than ample incentive to keep playing. And the game does keep track of the best finishing times for each course, so you can always try to better your own best times after you have opened up all the tracks and boats. While more modes would have been very welcome, what Hydro Thunder does offer is very rewarding.

Overall : 91
Hydro Thunder is very successful at what it attempts to do; offer you power boat-racing thrills in a pure arcade setting. As a port of the arcade classic, it is almost perfect. Had Midway added more features to the Dreamcast version, it would have made a home console classic out of an arcade classic. As it is, Hydro Thunder may disappoint in a few areas, but on the whole, this is a great arcade racing game.

By: Jim S. 11/15/99

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