HYDRO THUNDER / Midway / Dreamcast
Here's the thing about games that are graphical tour-de-forces: they come out to rave reviews in their time, but they generally hold up very poorly. The gameplay consideration in the design takes a backseat to the visuals, and is usually just good enough to be passable. Once the visuals look dated and unimpressive, the game is washed up. And so we have Hydro Thunder.
One thing you do have to give the game credit for, however, is being an arcade-perfect port at Dreamcast launch. Hydro Thunder also was the landmark for the death of arcades as we knew them, however, because it was the first evidence that consoles were now roughly equal in power to the hardware in the top arcade cabinets. Arcades still survive for fighting game tournament play and complex Dance Dance Drum Smashathon machines that can't be easily replicated at home, but the days of going to arcades because the games had the most impressive graphics and audio were done once the Dreamcast and Hydro Thunder hit shelves. RIP Old School Arcades, 1979 - 1999.
Anyway. Aside from the "meh" gameplay not holding up once the visuals look oldballs by comparison, the home port of Hydro has kind of an annoying structure to boot. You're stuck only being allowed to play the first three tracks until you place 3rd in each one. This isn't as easy as it sounds, thanks to the game's lame cheap rubberbanding AI and boats crashing into you unpredictably from behind all the time. You run into the same thing with the next tier of tracks, however, which require you to place 2nd in each of them to unlock the final set. I never got past this tier as the console port is at least as hard as the quarter-sucking arcade version, if not harder. Someone at Midway didn't get the memo that you're supposed to tone it down a notch when you port an arcade game to a console, you've already got all the money out of the buyer that you're going to get. Using turbo boost to knock other boats around is a fun touch that I'd like to see in more games, but here it's frustratingly finicky, and often counterproductive as it kicks the other boat way ahead of you!
Even if the graphics haven't really held up, Hydro Thunder still does have interesting and imaginative levels with lots of stuff going on in the background, like the post-apocalypse flooded New York level. The gameplay is still basically OK, but feels primitive, slidey and kind of cheap when set up next to contemporaries like Wave Race 64. The whole vibe of it is also that glorious plasticy 90s over-amped digitized cheese that has also not aged well at all. Hydro Thunder wowed people and made its pile of money in the late 90s, and I thank it for at least selling a bunch of Dreamcasts, but it's time to give this one a burial at sea and move on.