Speed Racer has a long history, first making an appearance as an anime comic and then eventually making the leap across the ditch to America as a TV cartoon. More recently it has been made into a movie by the Wachowski Brothers of Matrix fame.
The movie was aimed at the pre-teen market and unfortunately this has been lost on many reviewers and has undeservedly been dealt quite harshly. The underlying theme in the movie is the car combat (called Car Fu) with the racing acting as the backdrop. The Brothers wanted insane speed, outlandish landscapes, manic stunt car combat and explosions. There is no doubt that when the movie hits the DVD stand it will be a cult classic for the multitude of Speed Racer fans.
Bringing this movie concept to the console was an obvious move. Speed Racer on the DS attempts to capture the Wachowski Brothers movie experience by taking the story forward a year. Unlike most other movie spin off games this one does not feel like the usual over hyped rip-offs we are used to.
On game start-up you are treated to a really good clip from the movie with some gameplay sequences that hint at what is to come. The tutorial on the other hand is totally the opposite. It consists of splash screens which pretty much mirror what is in the manual. There is no opportunity to interact and it feels as if it was an after thought. The same goes for the menu layout. They are functional but lack the pizazz you would expect from viewing the opening sequence and the actual game play.
Once you have chosen your preferred driver, you have various game type choices to make including arcade and world racing league. These in turn have sub game types like quick race, quick battle etc. The game controls are straight froward with “A” being full on acceleration and various other buttons set up for boost, roll-over and front jacking (some of the essential moves of Car Fu). They are quite intuitive and felt comfortable to use.
What struck us first about this game was its difficulty level. Where other console releases of the franchise have remained true to the original game concept and target audience, this game had a higher degree of difficulty than a pre-teen audience would normally expect. Certainly some of the testers we canvassed in this age group found it quite difficult and lost interest quite quickly. It's hard to pin this down to one thing but we suspect that greater emphasis on driving and the less-than-spectacular crashes may have contributed to this.
In another departure from the movie, the tracks were less garish and '60s-psychedelic than the movie. The Wachowski Brothers wanted to deliver an entirely fantastical world of outlandish colour, but some of the tracks in the game have a positively real world feel about them.
Despite these niggles, the game is a good racing game that has been designed to give players a real sense of speed. It feels fast and the game charges along at a smooth pace with no hint of a jitter or hesitation. 400+ kilometres an hour over hideously contorted tracks is a real challenge. Luckily the game is very forgiving when it comes to keeping you on the track. Despite some impossible ramp leaps and mid air spins you will always manage to land back on the track right side up (not necessarily the right way around but at least on four wheels).
As you hurtle along the track the more stunts and opponent smacking you do the more boost you accumulate. Achieve the max plus boost level and you enter the boost zone where terrain and track are replaced with a tunnelled zone of speed where opponents are mere road cones on the way to the finish line.
It is easy to get behind in the race and some early mistakes can result in few opportunities to make contact with other cars. This requirement to run a race will appeal to the car racing fans but may be less appealing to the more casual players who want to practice Car Fu - the way of using a car as a combat weapon.
Car Fu is about using a stunt or move to interrupt, flip, spin out and generally smash up the other cars on the track. Unlike other releases of the franchise on other consoles, this aspect of the game - although as challenging - lacks the explosive visual treat we had hoped for. The crashes are fast and furious but they don't have the explosive visual impact to create a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Nevertheless, it's still a heap of fun to see your opponent flip every which way from a well placed side swipe.
As you progress in the game you have the opportunity to unlock more drivers, cars and tracks. This is achieved by accumulating a personal fan base. The more races you win the more fans you accumulate, and the more game options that become available. Later unlocks can be quite a challenge to get the required number of fans, and this certainly helps the replay value of the game.
The graphics are done very well and Sidhe has managed to deliver a real sense of the speed contained in the original movie. The real world landscapes although not entirely true to the movie are done well and there is some great effects like sparks and smoke as you scrape the track walls. The sound is adequate but in places we would have liked to have seen bigger explosions and heard them reverberate through the ear phones above the constant roar of the engines.
Overall this is a good game that combines car racing and car combat well. However it is a bit of a departure from the movie, and we would have liked to have seen more work put into the car combat aspects of the game, and buyers should be aware that the difficulty level puts it more in the older player bracket. But there's plenty of entertainment value here.