In: Reviews by Nick "Alsop Live" Dinicola29 Jul 2010
Hydro Thunder titles have been released on a couple of consoles before, but if I ever picked up the Nintendo 64 or Dreamcast versions those memories have long since been forgotten. What I do remember is playing it in arcades whenever I could find it. The memories are vague but fond: Big jumps, big waves, big smiles, but that’s all. Before I could even finish one race in Hydro Thunder Hurricane all the old details came rushing back faster than the boats themselves.
The voice that shouts “Hydro Thunder!” at the title screen and “You’re crazy!” when selecting an expert boat, taking a turn too wide and missing a boost power-up and cursing myself, the boost power-ups themselves, angling midair to prepare for a sharp turn, those damn police boats — it’s all instantly familiar. Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a blast of nostalgia, recapturing everything that made the arcade so awesome. This is the game you remember playing.
There’s a surprising amount of content to unlock. You’re forced to start at the lowest difficulty, novice, and must earn your way to pro and expert. The difficulty seems to ramp up a lot from novice to pro to expert, but the game does an excellent job preparing you for the transition with two new racing modes: Ring Master puts you through a slalom course of giant rings, and Gauntlet pits you against the clock on a track littered with explosive barrels. At first these modes feel more frustrating than fun since they focus on precision steering, an idea that runs counter to the out-of-control intensity of the races, but in fact they’re subtly teaching you the intricacies of each track. Lessons that will pay off with major dividends.
The barrels in Gauntlet are not scattered at random, they actually funnel you down the best path for the track. On higher difficulties your path is narrower, but also faster. The slalom rings in Ring Master will guide you through waterfalls and over hidden ramps, revealing shortcuts you probably never noticed. Higher difficulties then reveal more extreme shortcuts.
With these lessons learned you can easily leave the AI in your wake, but the real challenge and fun lies in multiplayer. Finding a game is incredibly easy, especially compared to other XBLA games. It’s nice that you don’t have to wait for all eight possible slots to be filled before you can race, all you really need are two people and you’re good to go. Anyone else can connect while you’re racing, and join in the next round. Everyone uses an expert boat, and they all know the shortcuts, so playing online can be very intimidating for beginners, but that’s what the single player modes are for — practice and teachings.
For something completely different there’s Rubber Ducky mode: Players are split into teams, with one person being the ducky. It’s then a race between ducks — everyone else must do everything possible to slow down or stop the opponent’s ducky. It’s a bizarre game mode, especially since there’s not much ship-to-ship combat in Hydro Thunder Hurricane. You end up just ramming the ducky over and over, but winning depends more on the skill of whoever is driving the ducky. The mode seems out of place here, but that actually makes it more fun.
Since races are over so quickly it’s easy to fall prey to the “Just one more” syndrome. However, that speed also means you can end up getting a lot done in just an hour. You can play through every track multiple times, hitting the same jumps and the same shortcuts with the same few boats. The racers may be different each time, but that’s not enough change to keep things consistently fresh. It’s easy to burn out on the game after just a couple hours playing online.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane is best taken in short doses; a quarter at a time, like any good arcade game. It’s just entertaining chaos in the beginning, but the brilliant new modes manage to break through that chaos to teach you strategy and track details, which is no small feat. This is a nostalgia-fueled, over-the-top, sensory assaulting recreation of a classic, and tons of fun as long as you remember to take a break every now and then.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane
Vector Unit/Microsoft Game Studios
Xbox Live Arcade Marketplace
1,200 Microsoft Points ($15)
July 28, 2010