Heracles: Chariot Racing Review
Posted by Spencer McIlvaine
Will Heracles slay the Titan of Nintendo racing games?
Due to the space constraints that Nintendo places on WiiWare games, most games on the service are short, simple, and lacking in the graphics department. One certainly would not expect a complete port of a PlayStation 2 game on the service. But that is exactly what developer Neko Entertainment has given us here, and at a price point equivalent to a SNES download on the virtual console. Beware… Heracles: Chariot Racing is like an ancient Greek bearing us gifts.
In this racing game, everyone’s second favorite half-man/half-god competes in a mythological chariot race. Although based on the figure from Greek mythology, don’t expect much of a history lesson here. There are only 9 characters in all and most of them are at best only loosely based on the source material. For instance, there is only one god to play as (Poseidon). Completely absent is Heracles’ nemesis, Hera the wife of Zeus. After doing a bit of research, it appears that Poseidon was the villain in an earlier, platforming game Heracles: Battle with the Gods, released by the same company.
So instead of historically accurate choices, the game instead includes such characters as the half-man/half-bull Minotaur who is not directly connected to Heracles in the mythology and “Beezy”, the Minotaur’s sexy half-woman/half-bee ‘soldier’. That’s right… Beezy the Bee woman who fights in Minotaur’s army. At this point let’s just all agree to set aside the dubious Greek mythology connection for now and get on with the game play.
Each of the 9 characters has their own unique Chariot with its own unique characteristics measured in speed, acceleration, turning, and physical strength. Players can choose any character they want from the beginning, and other than the second round of race tracks there is nothing to unlock. The chariots provide a reasonable mix of driving styles, although in practice they don’t drive all that differently the way karts in Mario Kart are so distinguishable from one another.
As a general rule, every chariot has a high top speed but is slow to turn. This seems realistic enough with two caveats. First, the courses are generally very winding and feature sharp turns that will require you to frequently slow down to turn. And second, the designers accounted for this by providing a sharp turn feature that allows your chariot to handle more like a motorcycle than a four wheeled horse drawn carriage. Add this to the list of completely unrealistic features to this game, but sometimes realism must bend to game necessity and this feature allows experienced players to maneuver the courses at breakneck speed and keeps the pace exciting.
The way you perform this sharp turn is by using the motion sensors in the nunchuk and tilting it left or right for the desired direction to add extra sharpness to the turn. Once you learn this technique you’ll be using it all the time, as it is pretty much necessary in order to round a corner without slowing down. It’s a very different system than the way the nunchuk is used in Mario Kart and takes some getting used to, but it works. Another motion control feature is that you simply flick the Wii remote up in order to make your chariot hop, just like all chariots were historically able to do. Those are the only two motion controls in the game, but they are welcome, as the developers could have simply ported the original PS2 control scheme and left it as is.
A big downside to the controls is that there are no other choices. You must play with the Wii remote and nunchuk. There is no steering wheel, Classic Controller, or Gamecube option. Considering the game began its life on the PS2 this is somewhat surprising as it should have been easier to include more traditional controls than it was to program new motion controls for the Wii release. The absence of other options means less choice for players and also a greater barrier to playing the multiplayer mode. In Mario Kart, with so many controller options most Wii owners can throw together what they need for up to four players to play locally. Here, you must have four Wii Remotes and four Nunchuks in order to play a four-player game. Only the most dedicated Wii owners has that many accessories already lying around.
Once you get your friends together and sufficient Nunchuks for everyone to use, the multiplayer mode is actually the biggest selling point in Heracles: Chariot Racing. Because the game plays a lot like Mario Kart, you’ll still have all of the fun of hitting your friends with an odd assortment of items as you race through the courses, or engage one another in battle mode. Although the graphics are not up to par with more recent Mario Kart games, and the item selection is not as interesting, it does provide a decent alternative to the real thing for those looking for a change of pace. And with five dedicated battle mode maps, the game seems to have been designed to cater to Mario Kart Battle Mode fans looking for a change of scenery.
The racecourses, by contrast, are not very well thought out. They range from boring green fields to the bizarre Mount Olympus track, which has more in common with Rainbow Road than it does with the actual mountain. But all of them feature sharp turns that sometimes result in your chariot getting stuck facing a wall, and other times slamming into a fence that was the same color as the skyline. If you’re really lucky you’ll find the hole between a rock and a fence in Mount Olympus that we managed to fall through repeatedly. Mount Olympus alone is one of the best examples of bad racetrack designs to be found in gaming and is worth the price of admission just to see how unnecessarily frustrating it is.
And keep in mind that each track represents 20% of the racetracks in the game. There are 10 total tracks, as advertised. But they are actually five physical maps with two alternate courses apiece. In the Bronze cup you will race through each of the maps using the first route. In the Silver cup you will race through the same maps but via a different route. Some portions of the map are reused in both routes. The game teases you with a Gold cup to unlock, but this mode simply has you racing the Bronze and Silver Cups back to back. It’s all a clever gimmick that enables the programmers to get more racetracks out of relatively little space. But it means that there is relatively little variety and you will likely tire of the races quickly. Even so, it’s a formula similar to High Voltage Hot Rod show and will likely be common on WiiWare given the space constraints.
The game offers 3 skill levels for the racing mode. Higher skill levels include more on course obstacles and enemy racers who are ridiculously hard to beat. The hard level is so difficult that even experienced Mario Kart players will feel helpless against it. Unfortunately, despite the considerable skill necessary to beat the game on hard difficulty, the game offers you no reward for doing so. Even your best course times are all lumped together, regardless of whether they were earned on easy or hard.
Although Mario Kart set a standard this game cannot hope to match, as a WiiWare based racing and battle mode game Neko Entertainment has finally delivered a very attractive package here. The 3D graphics are something that a normal WiiWare budget could just never afford to develop. But because this is a port we benefit from something that looks unusually advanced for the service and at a bargain price.
Of course, the art direction could have used a little work as many of the colors used are just ugly and don’t adequately distinguish features of the racetracks in time for you to recognize the difference between an obstacle and the sky, or what is on the road and what is off the road. And those snakes that cause you to spin out on the Hades racetrack were deliberately made the same color as the road. Why? To force you to squint? And even then, they are situated on the down slope of a series of hills, meaning that you have no time to see where they are anyway. This just goes to show once again that bad game design can happen even to good game engines. But even though inadequately used, the technology behind the visuals is still pretty impressive for a WiiWare game.
Like the Shirt of Nessus, many a WiiWare game has delivered an experience not quite the same as advertised. Lacking any realistic sense of the story of Heracles, or the experience of chariot racing, this game would at first glance seem to be a disappointment. However, what we have instead is a passable Mario Kart clone that offers some new twists to its racing, some new battle mode levels to play with your friends, and ultimately a full PS2 game in one budget priced download. It will not win any awards, and it’s easy to see why it did not attract any attention in the PS2 market upon its first release. But on WiiWare Heracles: Chariot Racing is a big fish in a little pond. And it provides perhaps the best racing game on the service yet.