Calling the digital distribution system on the Xbox 360 an "arcade" is more or less a misnomer. The word arcade conjures up a certain image for many people; an image of shuffling quarters into machines made with the sole intent of eating said quarters. Sometimes it meant catching players with cheap, trial-and-error mechanics, and other times it was about fast, addictive gameplay. There are titles like this available but, comparatively, they're the minority to games like Braid, Shadow Complex, and Settlers of Catan. It's because of this that Vector Unit's Hydro Thunder Hurricane stands out, and feels like one of the most arcade-y games on the Xbox Live Arcade, for better or worse.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a sequel to the arcade game Hydro Thunder, a speedboat racing game that was ported over to the PSX, N64, and Dreamcast over ten years ago. Since then, very little happened in the world of Hydro Thunder until a sequel was announced, and released for the Xbox Live Arcade. Hurricane does little to stray away from the popular formula, feeling more like an updated version of the classic arcade game as opposed to a reboot or re-imagining.
In some ways, this approach works in the game's favor, creating a gameplay style that feels, for lack of a better word, "classic." Everything controls much like it did in the original, and the only major change to the actual mechanics comes in the form of new water physics. Now, boats leave fairly realistic waves in their wakes, and environmental hazards can send boats flying through the air if the drivers aren't careful. Considering the levels are fairly insane, and often have giant boulders falling into the water or huge alligators leaping out at boats, it can create some major waves that need to be dealt with.
In other ways, however, it makes things feel a bit dated. In order to unlock the game's eight tracks and nine boats, players need to compete in Race, Gauntlet, Ringmaster, and Championship modes alone. It's fun to start, but quickly becomes repetitive as the same maps are recycled time and time again. Ringmaster ends up being the most common mode, and requires the player to race through rings to gain boost in order to complete the level in a certain amount of time. While it's never necessarily difficult, it becomes a chore to muster up the drive to continually repeat the same areas, even if the actual path taken might change from time to time. Gauntlet, too, sees a good amount of repetition, and essentially swaps out the rings with explosive barrels to dodge. The developer didn't attempt to find a way to make the arcade gameplay feel more at home on consoles, meaning that it ends up feeling, well, at the sake of sounding repetitive, repetitive.
Racing, as expected, is where Hydro Thunder Hurricane thrives, allowing players to either compete against computers or other players online or off. It's simply a fun, balanced racer, with addictive gameplay and varied enough tracks to keep things fresh. It lacks the sense of speed that many would likely have expected, but that's not really a problem, since it's something everyone needs to deal with when playing against each other. There's also the option to take four players online with one system, something that should help populate the game's servers. The mode is absolutely the high point for the game, and an area that really stands out, and proves to provide some exhilarating, nail-biting moments.
While it might not break the mold or add anything unique to the genre, there's no denying that Vector Unit has created a true sequel to the classic racer, and one that fans of Hydro Thunder should enjoy for years to come. It's hardly one of the best games on the Xbox Live Arcade, but it might be one of the strongest in terms of providing an actual "arcade" experience without the need for quarters.