Reviewed: September 20, 2004
Released: August 30, 2004
When you look at the list of games on the market today that come from the venerable designer, Tecm, Inc., you think of great graphics (Ninja Gaiden, the Dead or Alive series) and thrilling gameplay. On the other hand, there’s also a penchant for niche games such as the Monster Rancher and Gallop Racer series.
The Gallop Racer series is essentially a horse racing simulation presumably for armchair jockeys, wannabe horse whisperers or recovering gamblers that want a safe outlet for their riding jones. And Tecmo is in the fortunate position of being one of the only developers making a horse racing simulator for the PS2. The only other developer I could find is KOEI (purveyors of their own niche products) with the oddly titled G1 Jockey 3. Let’s be honest, there isn’t much mystery in the basic setup for such a game, but I’ll get into more detail.
While I’ve never played a game like Gallop Racer 2004 before, I’ve been aware of their existence for years and have always been curious if they manage to deliver on that mystique of the sport of kings. You start out as a fledgling jockey, moving up the ranks to realize your moment in the sun in that one perfect race. But you’re a long way from there buddy. Whether through repeated trial and error or with the help of advice and the included tutorials, you hopefully learn to manage horses like Robert Redford with a bag full of sugar cubes. The key is learning what horses work best with what tracks and weather conditions. If you’ve watched Seabiscuit more than a couple of times, you’re probably familiar with some of what I’m talking about if only on an abstract level.
The interface in Gallop Racer 2004 is at times disjointed in that the training and the racing are presented in two different styles even if the same underlying rules apply. The training portion of the game consists of the all-too-familiar, Japanese, “chibi” style (giant heads on little bodies), while the actual races are in a more traditional-looking, realistic style that makes more sense. Being that Tecmo is a Japanese company, it’s hard to fault them for this sort of dichotomy even if it’s a bit strange to us gaijin. I do however have to mention that it wasn’t easy to navigate the various areas outside of the races. The help screens were not as "helpful" as I think they should have been to merit their existence.
Where frustration rears its ugly head is during the races themselves. There are so many factors – which would doubtlessly be missed if they weren’t included – involved in a given race that affect its outcome that you often end up near last place even with a solid lead. It’s all about your start and when to make that last move in the home stretch, but each window is aggravatingly small. To their credit, Tecmo has tried to distill the arcane art of the horse jockey for a western, casual game audience using colorful graphics, symbols and metaphors. In particular the use of a small slot machine to describe your success at reading and coaching your horse - through the use of a clever cartoony horse icon that lets you know how the horse is feeling at any given point of the race – is well thought-out.
Not only can your jockey gain experience several categories, allowing him/her to ride better and better horses, but a few other skills also help to realize your potential for special moves to be used in races against opponents. But it doesn’t stop there. Eventually you can own and even breed your own horses – yes, breed. Get a stud and a broodmare together, throw on a little Barry White and voila, you’ve got a foal with wildly varying abilities, necessitating careful forethought in your pairings. Once you learn the intricacies of the game, you can turn out some very profitable horses to bet on in various races. Nice.
While the game runs pretty smoothly, it seems to have more menus and transition screens (make a choice, wait a second, the game asks “Is this what you want?”, click yes, wait for another loading period...) that tend to slow down the momentum of the game, but if you’re playing a horse racing simulation you’re probably not expecting F-Zero like action, am I right?
The graphics are what you’d expect out of a game originating in Japan: Chibi characters, Nintendo palettes, a certain amount of stereotypical characterization, and overall a very childlike approach to character models – at least on the training side. It’s rather familiar and even a little trite, but to be fair, it’s better than seeing the usual stable of lame characters in just about every “extreme” sports game. I swear if one more shirtless tweaker says the word “awesome”...
But the textures (or rather, the lack thereof) used for the racing environments are pretty bland considering the amount of detail poured into the game’s setup. Considering that there’s precious little polygons needed for the ground, the horses and their riders, the inside rail, and the odd piece of track foliage, I was somewhat disappointed at the lack of detail beyond the opening track and rider info.
The music in this game sounds like it could’ve been written in the early 90s for the SNES, but it’s serviceable. In my opinion, any game of this sort just screams for some form of symphonic backup a la Seabiscuit. Nothing would beat that final stretch as you manage to come from behind to nab a victory with a swelling orchestral accompaniment.
The sound effects are quite adequate in their respects. The crowd and the thundering hoof beats alone are enough to give a convincing facsimile of the horse racing experience. But considering the silly and uninspiring dialogue that plays between trainers, rivals, and your jockey, it’s better that there’s no voice acting - though I would’ve liked having surround sound during the races for a fuller soundscape.
Considering that you can create your own horses and establish an unstoppable equine dynasty, you have a potentially limitless replay value that includes the usual "beat everyone of your rivals" mechanic built in to facilitate the unlocking of secret tracks and items.
To satisfy the multiplayer crowd that might want to engage in competition somewhat less involved, there’s a “party mode” wherein up to 4 players can compete in a series of races and let their final scores decide the ultimate winner of the evening. Bragging rights for horse sim lovers? Hey, there’s something for everyone in video games.
Overall, if you really have a hankering for some simulated jockeying in the comfort of your living room and your favorite recliner, Gallop Racer 2004 provides a great deal of depth that should more than satisfy you. But keep in mind that this is not an arcade experience by any means. Future iterations of this series would do well to include a fun, very simplified version of the racing game for multiplayer.
In the final analysis, if you’re not sure whether you’ll like it, then please just rent it and remember, this is not an arcade experience. This game is more for serious sim lovers of an equine bent. If you’ve ever played (and liked) any games of this series, you’ll probably like this latest version and its requisite additional bells and whistles. In that case, “let ‘er buck”.