Platforms: Nintendo Wii & DS - Wii version reviewed.
Speed Racer is so close to being a great blockbuster adaptation that it actually makes me angry that it isn't. Warner Bros. had the perfect movie for a racing game, then had the sense to hand it to Sidhe Interacive, the New Zealand-based developer of the underappreciated GripShift titles. Sidhe then had the smarts to model its family friendly racer on Nintendo's much loved F-Zero series. How could the game go wrong?
Well, before I go into that we really ought to talk about all the stuff that has gone right. Some might call it lazy and derivative thinking, but I think taking inspiration from F-Zero was a stroke of brilliance. F-Zero and Speed Racer already have a lot in common - a stylised futuristic setting, high-speed racing and a colourful cast of heroes and villains, In fact, the game runs with the common themes to the extent of aping F-Zero's comic-book presentation, complete with overlaid panels that have characters spouting dialogue. And if the influence of the N64's F-Zero X and the GameCube's F-Zero GX was already evident in GripShift's twirling, looping, rollercoaster tracks, then the courses in Speed Racer are paying a full-blown homage.
This is good news for any F-Zero fans who can't wait for a new version on the Wii, and there are times when the rush of speed, the pack of racers at your heels and the vertiginous slopes and loops of the course almost convince you that this is exactly what you've got. However, there are some obvious differences. First, we have the Wii controls. Speed Racer gives you a choice between using the Wii Wheel or holding the Wii remote horizontally and tilting it Excite Truck-style. Whichever you choose, the controls hit a good balance between sensitivity and stability, and the game doesn't go too hard on 90 degree turns or hairpin bends in any case. For me, the wheel wins just because it adds a little something to the fun factor.
Better still, Speed Racer isn't just a straight rip-off in the gameplay stakes; it also adds a new twist - Car-Fu. Inspired by the ace racing stunts from the movie, Car-Fu is a way of earning boost and taking down your rivals, using a selection of spins, flips and barrel rolls to whack other cars on the track. Jerk the remote or wheel left or right in tandem with a quick press of a D-pad button and you can get your car whirling on the track, knocking seven bells out of the competition. Jerk the wheel up and you jump, and by combining this with a press of the D-pad you can dish out the damage with cool barrel rolls and flips, throwing rival racers into the air or crushing them under your tyres. Car-Fu moves can be combined, with different effects according to your current position and alignment, and the more you do the more boost you'll earn. Charge up enough boost and you can ‘go into the zone', triggering a massive, screen-blurring boost that sends you flying through the pack like a speeding bullet.