Review: Hydro Thunder (Dreamcast)

With the Dreamcast's 10 year anniversary passing on September 9, I figured it was about time to  review a few games on Sega's little dream machine. So my next couple of reviews will be Dreamcast launch titles, in honor of 9/9/99.

Hydro Thunder, originally an arcade title, is a speed boat racing game from the now defunct Midway. The track design in Hydro Thunder is outstanding, even by today's standards. Each track is littered with jump ramps, incredible free falls, and shortcuts. You must memorize where everything is in order to win, especially on the more difficult tracks. I spent a lot of time exploring every nook and cranny of the tracks to make sure I wasn't missing any shortcuts or hidden power boosts. The tracks includes:

Easy Thunder Park: The opening track is a three lap race around a water themed park. Lost Island: This is a remote island style area, you also get to race through a volcano, complete with lava. Arctic Circle: An ice themed track, with orca whales, polar bears, and oil tankers. Sarah Palin is strangely absent.

Medium Greek Isles: As the name implies, this track takes you through some Greek canals. Lake Powell: This track takes you through Lake Powell in Utah, which is more or less racing through the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. The Far East: The far east refers to China, and you are taken through some classic Chinese locals and ancient architecture.

Hard Ship Graveyard: This is where ships go to die, and they are littered everywhere. Venice Canals: Ever want to live out the boat race in the beginning of the Italian Job (2003)? Now you can. New York Disaster: If Al Gore is right, New York City will be under approximately 26 feet of Ocean water soon. Now imagine it on fire.

Bonus Castle Von Dandy: This is a race through an old flooded castle. Nile Adventure: This loooooong track takes you through the Nile River as well as some ancient Egyptian tombs. Catacombs: Catacombs are man-made underground passages. Hydro Speedway: This is a remixed version of Thunder Park.

Finishing in the top 3 is the goal of game. After finishing third on the easy tracks, the medium tracks unlock. Finishing each of the medium tracks in second or better unlocks the hard tracks. Finishing first on the hard tracks unlocks the bonus tracks. After each milestone is met, additional boats are unlocked as well.

The 13 boats are all different takes on racing boats. Each offer a trade off between speed, acceleration and handling. Additionally, some are lighter and are able to jump better (more on that later) and some have better boost characteristics.

So you have some speed boats and some interesting locals, so? What makes Hydro Thunder so special is how you must achieve that victory. Scattered about the tracks are speed boosts. Blue boosts give you 4 seconds of boost and red boosts give you 9 seconds. To be successful, you must memorize where all of the boosts are. It's possible, and necessary, to be boosting for a majority of the race if you are successful in racing over the boosts.

The boats respond very well to both the d-pad as well as the analog stick. Anyone can pick up the controller and instantly be having fun. The water physics are spot on, and realistically convey the feeling of being on water. Your boat is capable of a Hydro Jump, which is necessary to enter some of the secret shortcuts, as well as boosts that are in the air out of reach. To perform the maneuver, you must quickly brake, and then boost. This adds to the deep game play as you must also manage when to use your boost.

Back in 1999, I thought this game looked incredible, and it still holds up well today. First and foremost is the water. The water varies in color, from clear to blue to green. The opacity changes from crystal clear, where you can see everything underneath you. to muddy, where you can't see a damn thing. Sometimes the water is calm, other times there are 20 foot waves, and it all looks convincing. The daylight tracks also do a good job with reflections, and you can see the sun, the clouds, and waterside attractions.

In addition to the slick water effects, everything else is incredibly detailed. The boats all look great, but the environments take the cake. Every inch of every course is littered with artifacts and vegetation. During one of the tracks, there are hot air balloons floating overhead, and they light up every few seconds as the operator turns on the flames. It's the little touches like this that really put Hydro Thunder over the top.

Midway made an interesting decision with the music in Hydro Thunder. Rather than some rock tunes blaring, it's a full orchestrated score! As you hit certain checkpoints in the level, the orchestra gets loud, signifying something important just happened. It's like watching a movie. The boats themselves sound alright, nothing Earth shattering, but they do the job. The Banshee craft does stand out, with the most obnoxious engine screaming noise I've ever heard, most are rather subdued. However, everything in his game makes a noise. Sirens from police boats blare, they ask you to pull over, people scream as you run over their jet skis and send them flying. It's still sounds remarkable today.

The only flaw in Hydro Thunder is the lack of an auto save features. So be sure to save every time you unlock new goodies, or you will have to do it all over again.

I just can't stress enough about how fun Hydro Thunder is. The insane sense of speed combined with responsive controls make for some excellent fast pace racing action. You'll spend a lot of time racing the same track over and over, trying to obtain third, second, or first. It's a challenging game, but rarely frustrating.

Overall, Hydro Thunder was an awesome launch title for Sega's Dreamcast. Even today it's a fantastic game with excellent graphics, an awesome sound track, and simple pick-up-and-play controls. The game is challenging, but rewards your patience with even faster boats and more interesting locals to race through. Hydro Thunder deserves a place on every gamers shelves..

Graphics 8/10: Detailed graphics with only some minor slowdown
Sound 10/10: Simply stunning
Game play 9/10: Responsive controls, excellent boost mechanic
Overall 9/10: One of the first Dreamcast games is also one of it's finest