The annual Hollywood silly season has started, which means that the videogame release schedule will be crammed with official tie-ins of extremely dubious quality for the next two or three months. Typically, this yearly gamut of videogame-based movie extensions amounts to wasted effort (or lack thereof) on the part of the developers, wasted money for the unsuspecting consumer looking to take just a little more from their favourite summer blockbuster, and the wasted investment of critical playtime for us poor reviewers.
But, personally jaded cynicism aside, can Speed Racer: The Videogame, the colourful Wii-based accompaniment to the Wachowski brothers' latest cinematic special effects romp, set a more welcome tone to the summer's usually dour proceedings? Strap yourselves in, start your engines, check your expectations at the door, etc., etc., as play.tm takes Sidhe Interactive's high-octane racing game for a psychedelic spin and is somewhat startled by what it finds.
Indeed, while it's not likely to win any end-of-year awards, Speed Racer: The Videogame is actually a fun-filled jaunt that succeeds in standing on its own as a thoroughly solid release thanks, in the main, to its clever utilisation of the Nintendo Wii's innovative control system. Equally as responsive with or without the addition of the compatible Wii Wheel, players need only use the Wii Remote (Nunchuk is not required) to guide their hurtling racer along buffered tracks that promote and reward mind-boggling speeds while generally not allowing bullet-fast vehicles to plough off the sides towards certain doom.
While automatically-governed car retention is somewhat of a gameplay cheat that makes racing a tad easier than it should be, the core focus of Speed Racer is centred more on the stylish application of Car-Fu, a car-against-car battle system that involves using the game's T-180 vehicles to perform high-speed shunts, full car smackdowns, devastating front and back body flips, and even deadly torpedo moves. Of course, beyond mere button presses, players must motion with the Wii Remote (or attached wheel) in conjunction with D-pad directions to implement these moves.
For example, sudden lateral shifts with the Wii Remote prompt left and right shunts, while snapping the Wii Remote upwards causes the T-180 to avoid attacks by jumping vertically. Similarly, selecting a direction on the D-pad during a jump will lead to an attacking move linked to the corresponding direction. While there's certainly enough action to provide plenty of immersive racing fun without further expansion, Car-Fu attacks are pushed forward when performance boosts are factored into their delivery. Specifically, by pressing the Wii Remote's 'B' button during a standard attack, the T-180's speed boost tank will be channeled into a more aggressive move, turning the car into a whirling missile of destruction or a furiously spinning wheeled dervish capable of inflicting damage on multiple opponents. The player can also use the 'A' button to channel speed boosts into health replenishment for their stricken vehicle, not least because fellow racers are all able to dole out and receive the same levels of crunching punishment.
Boosts themselves are gathered by clean driving (read: no slamming into the sides of the track), improving velocity by passing over speed-up markers on the track, and carrying out massive amounts of sexy Car-Fu. The T-180 carries four boost tanks which, if fully filled, can be depleted individually or in one fail swoop to smash past other racers and attempt to build a (slender) lead. If a player holds off on using boosts until all four tanks are brimming over, they can then blow the entire load to achieve a driving state called 'In The Zone,' which turns the track and surrounding environment into a drug-induced blur of stomach clenching speed. While using this optimum boost, all other competitors are helpless in attack or defense; being passed, shunted and buffeted out of the way until the tanks are completely empty.
The strategic use of 'In The Zone' boosting often provides the make-or-break moments of many races, which is largely down to decent rival A.I. and the delivery of some pretty merciless attacks that can leave the player blasted from first to last in the blink of an eye. Thankfully the frantic action is given another interesting edge via the game's 'Ally and Rival' aspect, which enables the player to forge fragile alliances with willing opponents ahead of each race. While it's rare that racers in direct competition with the player for overall tournament placement are willing to step away from being a Rival, there are usually plenty of other opponents prepared to avoid one-on-one Car-Fu with the player for the sake of overall progression. The Ally and Rival elements sees on-track T-180s with the words Ally or Rival positioned above them during the race. Naturally, centering Car-Fu attention on Rival vehicles is more likely to see the player score big come the chequered flag, while Ally vehicles will avoid direct Car-Fu unless the player targets them (accidentally or purposely), at which point the player's car suffers a health penalty and the alliance is swiftly cancelled.
From an aesthetics point of view, the game's most obvious visual attribute are its crisp and wildly bright graphics, which mirror the movie's cartoon delivery with thundering aplomb as impossible tracks bend, twist and wind their way through varied psychedelic environments while outrageously nimble T-180 vehicles battle it out to achieve so much more than just plain old velocity. The movie nods continue through decent voiceover work provided by notable cast members such as Emile Hirsch (Speed), Christina Ricci (Trixie) and Matthew Fox (Racer X). The lack of a true narrative arc - the game functions strictly on a 'race to progress' foundation - means that some might see the inclusion of star vocal performances as somewhat wasted, with cast members only offering up throwaway contextual one-liners before and during races. Only Ricci's sultry Trixie is afforded any tangible part in proceedings, thanks to a handy and in-depth tutorial that explains basic and advanced racing/battle moves.
Offering up a videogame with the words Speed Racer boldly emblazoned across its packaging could be seen as a critical backlash just waiting to happen for Sidhe Interactive should its creation fail to deliver in terms of faultless frame rates and eye-poppingly slick motion. Thankfully, despite the typically poor performance attributed to most movie tie-ins, no such backlash will be emanating from this review. While Speed Racer: The Videogame isn't packed to the rafters with layered content (Single Race, Time Trial and a fairly brief Championship), the always pleasing motion-assisted racing should succeed in raising both the player's heart rate and the corners of their mouth. Granted, the lack of an online multiplayer mode (two-player split screen with additional A.I. opponents), is somewhat of a letdown, but the ability to unlock tracks, new cars and playable characters manages to keep things on the right side of repetitive or boring.
Unlike the vast majority of videogame adaptations designed to further boost Hollywood's already bulging coffers, Speed Racer doesn't overreach by trying to justify its existence with masses of unnecessary gameplay fluff, convoluted storylines and flashy worthless extras. Instead it keeps its focus solely on fun-filled Car-Fu racing, not needing to swamp the gameplay with star likenesses and vocal performances in an effort to paper over any developmental shortcomings. Moreover, Sidhe's decision to keep Speed Racer resolutely simple and not overload it with padding means that, as an overall gaming experience, it remains faithful to the younger audience the film is clearly targeting and yet still provides something for the slightly older player thanks to well-implemented controls and breathtaking speed. Don't say it too loud, but Speed Racer: The Videogame... is actually pretty good.