Hydro Thunder – Dreamcast
Platform: Sega Dreamcast
Developer: Midway Games
Publisher: Midway Games
Release Date (NA): September 9, 1999
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Reviewed by Nerdberry
You don’t have to spend much time going through my myriad game reviews to see that I’m a bit of a Sega nerd. That’s not to say that Sega is better than Nintendo. Over the span of gaming history, Nintendo easily bests Sega. But I still have quite a bit of affection for Sega’s console swan song: the loud-n-proud Dreamcast. Today’s white-encased console journey actually starts at the arcades and finishes in my living room. Vague, yes, but you didn’t come to this review without reading the header, did you?
Enter Hydro Thunder.
A true behemoth in the arcade scene, Hydro Thunder would take the classic racing genre and amp it up with speed boats, impressive water physics, and intense multiplayer action! Some of Hydro Thunder‘s major draws in the arcades were the bright visuals and crisp graphics, exciting music radiating from the cabinets, and the long lines of eager gamers waiting to dump quarters into this beloved cabinet. But what really kept people coming back for more was the intense and fast-paced gameplay paired with precisely rock solid controls. I’m telling you… I haven’t played this game in any fashion in over a decade, but way back when, this was a mainstay on my coin-op cabinet rotation whenever my parents dropped me off at the arcades.
On September 9th, 1999, the Sega Dreamcast home gaming system hit shelves, and my mom reserved copies of launch titles Sonic Adventure and Hydro Thunder from the local Funcoland. Talk about an awesome birthday present! None of my friends would end up getting a Dreamcast until years after the system’s demise, easily making my domicile the hottest spot for teenagers to crush cases of Yoohoo and generic brand soda like Limon Up, Dr. Topper, Mountain Lion, and more!
With home consoles finally getting close to matching the power of arcade boards, Sega obviously had a marketing strategy to port the heavy hitters onto their powerful little machine. This is evidenced by their arcade port showcases of games like Crazy Taxi, 18 Wheeler: American Pro Trucker, Dead or Alive 2, Sega Rally 2, and Soul Calibur to name a few. And while Hydro Thunder may have been one of the first Arcade-port-to-Dreamcast titles, any amount of guessing could tell you that it wouldn’t be the last.
In a nutshell, Hydro Thunder is a racing game where gamers control speed boats and race across waterway tracks in various locales. Plain and simple, Hydro Thunder is a racing game. There is no complication in deciphering the game’s intentions or depth, so it should be taken at face value. And that is how I will treat this review.
Stuff n’ Such: The Meat of the Game
Featured in Hydro Thunder are 13 boats and 14 locations (or tracks, if you will). There are a few unlockable boats and tracks, although I admittedly could not bear the game long enough to unlock everything (more on those deets later). I found the number of boats and tracks to be pretty inspiring for an arcade-port, but the true highlight of the developer’s focus and care is the locations. From the Arctic Circle to the Greek Isles to the Catacombs and the Nile river, Midway pulled out all of the stops here. Aside from the profound location choices, the locations themselves are loaded with awe-inspiring backdrops, pleasing visuals, and killer graphics. It’s easily one of the game’s greatest strengths, along with the controls and physics.
On the back of the game’s case, Midway makes note of the game’s water mechanics. It reads, “Real Newtonian Physics model emulates the unique feel of driving race boats on a variety of water conditions.” I can’t attest to the validity of this statement at all, and I also can’t relate because (1.) I don’t know much about Real Newtonian physics on a quantitative level, and (2.) I have never raced a speed boat. But I have been on boats (I owned an inboard/outboard motorboat once – never again, by the way), and I feel that I have a decent grasp on the physics behind how a boat should LOOK while moving on the water. With that said, I feel like it’s pretty legit! The boats do seem to have this free-flowing drifting motion as if they were actually floating on water. The seemingly lifelike physics make the controls all the more impressive! Overall, the controls are as solid as they come, and the controm scheme is as simple as it gets with boat maneuvering and boosting being the only things you need to worry about.
Despite strong graphics and tight controls, nothing can save Hydro Thunder from inevitable monotony. I’m sure I’m going to get some flack for saying this, but, I mean, the track locations are exciting and all, but they’re mostly just “background noise for your eyes,” as you’re mostly fixated on the path directly in front of your boat and not the deep horizon. And water is always going to look like water… on every track. So every race feels like the same race. The only thing that can stave off the monotony – which, I reiterate, is inevitable – is multiplayer.
On the Dreamcast version, Hydro Thunder is a one or two player only game. The racing genre as a whole is perfect for multiple players because it is so tangible. You can literally SEE your friend’s vehicle swerving all over the track in front of you, and you can get side by side with them and pass them to take the lead. Despite the multiplayer aspect making Hydro Thunder a better game, there is something lacking… It took me a few races to really figure it out, but when I did, I just couldn’t believe it! Most multiplayer racing games feature a cursor or some other visual marker directly over your opponent’s vehicle on your screen. So it makes for an exciting visual experience when you see your opponent doing crazy things (like hitting a huge ramp and doing flips or something). Hydro Thunder, for whatever reason, does not feature any visual markers to show your opponent’s boat on your screen, and in split screen, it is especially hard to see details across a few hundred feet of choppy water. I know it’s a small detail, but it was a surprisingly massive disappointment.
A lot of what made Hydro Thunder successful in the arcades feels completely lost when played in the confines of my living room. And this is a shame because a big part of their marketing campaign is grounded on reminding the gamer that Hydro Thunder is “Based on the #1 Arcade Smash!” as declared on the back of the case. It’s not like Hydro Thunder is an outlier here, as many home ports suffer the same issues. Hydro Thunder‘s remarkable success in arcades relied on the bassy subwoofer in the seats, sitting only a few feet away from the screens, and the throttle lever used for acceleration instead of gas pedals or buttons! It’s impossible to replicate this experience at home, but I still tried to enjoy the game for what it was regardless.
I never expected a ton of depth with Hydro Thunder. It is a racing game at heart, so my expectations were for tight controls and exciting gameplay! I can honestly say that Hydro Thunder exceeded my expectations, and the excitement came in waves, but all of it was wildly shortlived. I’m all for a quick race now and again, but Hydro Thunder’s lack of depth – even though I knew it would be shallow before I powered on the system – is much worse than I imagined. After about three or four races, I just couldn’t see the point in playing anymore. The reward for being successful are: more of the same kind of boats with more of the same kind of tracks (which we already established are all too similar since it’s just water and ramps with a different background).
All-in-all, Hydro Thunder is a serviceable racing game with exciting gameplay, realistic boat-on-water physics, and brilliant graphics but severely lacks in the replayability department due to monotonous gameplay and a dearth of variety from track to track. Despite the shortcomings, Hydro Thunder stands as one of the most unique, exciting, and marketable arcade racers of all time. Those intangibles don’t exactly translate to the Dreamcast version, even if the port is faithful. However, the myriad shortcuts, boosts, and hard-hitting Jump Pak (Dreamcast rumble pack feature) add a little heat to the pot, but not enough to make the water boil. When stacked up against other water-racing games (see Wave Race series and Jet Moto series), it flat out cannot stay afloat. For everything Hydro Thunder achieved in the arcades, it’s just another drop in an ocean full of at-home racing games.
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Reviewed by Nerdberry
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