Eleven years ago, Hydro Thunder received rave reviews in arcades and on the Dreamcast for providing incredibly fun, fast-paced racing thrills that rewarded players who replayed the tracks over and over with new paths and shortcuts to dominate the in-game competition and leader boards. A few years ago, some of the key development people created a spiritual successor in H2Overdrive, and now, after the death of Midway and the acquisition of the Hydro Thunder license, the series has been resurrected on the Xbox Live Arcade with what is by far the best racer on the service and the best arcade-style racer on the system.
The core gameplay is the same as the original, only more intense. You’ll run through relatively complex tracks that are full of shortcuts you have to take advantage of, along with proper boosting, to not only beat your opponents, but top the leaderboards as well. New takes on original stages, like Lake Powell, are offered up and are completely insane. Now, instead of the relatively tame version of that track in the first, you now get a version with sirens, hanging wires, lowering ceilings, and other craziness going on. After that, you get a track with thunder, lightning, axes falling on you, and THOR ATTACKING YOU WITH A GIANT AXE. You’ve always got to be on your toes in Hydro Thunder Hurricane - far more here than in any other water-based racing game I can remember. And the nuttiest thing is that those are only the first tracks - later on, you’ll deal with screen-filling wheels that you have to dodge and weave and false turns that can throw you off. This might sound bad, but it isn’t - it really encourages you to not only learn on the fly, but also learn track layouts quickly.
Little things have been enhanced that make a surprisingly big difference. The menus are cleaner and easier to read, and you can now check the stats on the speedboats to see which one suits your style. Boost containers are also good for more than one use, which is one thing that makes this more intense than the original. The controls are tighter than before, and drafting has been added so you can increase your speed without running low on boost, the Hydro Jump is also now mapped to just one button instead of requiring two to activate and makes a huge difference in the heat of battle now because it’s so much easier to time. The shift from Hydro Thunder on a console being an arcade port to being a console entry first and foremost means that timed checkpoints are gone and the method of unlocking boats and tracks is now based on points instead of being completely reliant on track positioning.
Some extra single player modes have also been added that greatly increase the replay value compare do the original game. The most notable is Ring Master, where you race through rings on a set path on a variety of difficulty levels and gauntlet, where you have to beat a set time while avoid the track being loaded with dynamite. Higher difficulty levels for the Ring Master combine the two modes and put dynamite on the track and also require you to make use of the jump and learn shortcuts to progress.
The biggest addition to the franchise has been online multiplayer, which is simply fantastic. While there aren’t a ton of modes offered up, but the fast-paced gameplay is even more addictive with the neverending competition that online play provides and the desire that leaderboards create to improve and get to the top of the rankings just like in arcades. Online play is razor-sharp and in my hours of online races, I never experienced any notable lag. A player would chug for a second, but never any longer. One nice bonus with the online play is that you can unlock things in the main game just by doing well online because the points earned online carry over offline - so if you want to unlock boats, tracks, and modes, you can do that just with online play as opposed to chugging through the linear events offered up.
Visually, Hydro Thunder Hurricane looks exactly like one would expect an HD-era upgrade of the original game to look. The speedboats are still slick-looking, but are now far more detailed. Environmental effects like lightning now run amok and add an added sense of danger to the game. The waves that looked perfectly acceptable in the original but still paled in comparison to Wave Race 64 are now realistic-looking and when combined with the new weather affects, they look absolutely stunning.
Unfortunately, Hurricane’s audio is a bit lacking. While the sound effects of the boats crashing together and hitting the obstacles are fine, the music isn’t nearly as memorable as it was in the original, and the new over-the-top announcer just comes off as a pale imitation of the original.
Hydro Thunder Hurricane destroys its predecessor by providing more of what made it such a classic to begin with, and improving upon it. Hurricane’s controls are tighter, its courses crazier, and the action is more intense. The only downgrades have been to the audio, which suffers from poor announcing and forgettable music compared to the original game. Despite those issues, it succeeds at delivering a thrilling experience and truly shines through online play. Anyone who loved the original to any degree should download it as soon as possible, and anyone who hasn’t should check out the trial game to see it in action.