Another summer, another wave of critically acclaimed downloadable games. Limbo, Monday Night Combat, and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light have all garnered their share of praise. But as the season's lighter fare makes way for the big-budget releases of the fall, the summer game I find myself returning to is one that hasn't gotten so much attention: Hydro Thunder: Hurricane.
Half remake and half sequel, Hurricane seems like nothing more than a continuation of the original Hydro Thunder, which was a popular game upon its release in 1999 but is not usually spoken of in hushed tones. Maybe it should be. The larger-than-life racing games that were in vogue at the time, like San Francisco Rush and Crazy Taxi, were all about big air, improbable shortcuts, and blinding speed. Hydro Thunder added hydrodynamics, its undulating aquatic racetracks providing a measure of unpredictability that landlocked racers couldn't match.
It's been a while, so I can't be certain that Hydro Thunder: Hurricane plays exactly like its predecessor. But it sure feels that way. You control your boat with a throttle and with "boost," a short-term accelerant that you replenish by picking up tokens scattered around the tracks. Boosting isn't just about raw speed — it's also a critical aspect of steering. Precision handling requires hitting boost on turns to compensate for your inertia. It can be the difference between a tight line and a wipe-out.
Even then, things aren't so simple. Catching air, whether off a wave or a massive jump, results in a loss of control, unless you've got boost. There's also the critical "boost jump," a maneuver in which your boat hops out of the water to avoid obstacles, reach power-ups, and access shortcuts.
Ah, the shortcuts. They're everywhere: underneath waterfalls, in mountain tunnels, behind low walls. They may shave a second off your time, but only if you navigate them perfectly. Otherwise, your boat might end up a fiery wreck. Just when you think you've found them all, you head online and see somebody using one you never suspected.
And though eight tracks might not seem a lot, the many branching routes mean there's plenty of variety — not to mention imagination. One Norse-themed course has a giant figure of Odin, who brings his hammer down to create massive waves. Another teems with serpents and pterodactyls. It's a little disappointing to find one of the final tracks taking place in a nondescript city setting, but that's remedied by a sojourn in Area 51.
Besides the main race mode, single-player includes tests of skill. "Rings" forces you to navigate the tracks through small gates; "Gauntlet" litters each course with exploding barrels. Neither is as much fun as a race, but they're great ways to learn the ins and outs of each track, and that's crucial to playing Hurricane as it's meant to be played: online. As many as eight players can compete in no-frills racing, which always seems to come down to a frantic sprint to the finish line.
Maybe Hydro Thunder: Hurricane has gone unremarked because of what it isn't. It isn't self-consciously arty. It doesn't fumble for deep meaning or truth. It's not even retro in a hip, 8-bit way. No, it's nothing more than a terrific arcade racing game. That's enough to win my gold medal for the summer.