A horse of a not-so-different color.
When Tecmo brought Gallop Racer to the PSX, it became an underground classic for virtual horse racing nuts, selling for big bucks on eBay even years after its release. Fast forward to the latter part of 2001, when the appropriately named Gallop Racer 2001 hit shelves. This edition updated the graphics, but really didn't do much to kick the horse racing niche up a notch. But like a champ, the Gallop Racer series took some time off for training and is now roaring down the home stretch with more depth than ever before.
Gallop Racer 2003: A New Breed follows in the hoofprints of its predecessors with a combination of horse racing, breeding and a touch of gambling. Though it seems like a simple path to follow, the game takes a step into the stables and offers up more gameplay than any of its forbears.
The game kicks things off with two modes - Free and Season. Free mode is the basic "quick race" that allows you run a single race for 1-2 players with track and weather options. Season mode, on the other hand, is the giant career mode that will allow you to build up a stable of racing champions and make a name for yourself in the virtual equestrian world.
You'll start the Season with a quick tutorial outlining the game's simple controls. As in all other Gallop Racers, it's a simple matter of pushing "up" to go faster, "down" to go slower and one of the buttons for the whip. And if that was the whole story, this game would be on the fast track to the nearest glue factory.
But what keeps the racing exciting is the fact that each horse has its own unique skills, abilities and traits. For example, Sea Biscuit might like to follow the pack and make a mad dash down the stretch, while Desert Rose would rather lead the whole way. You might have a horse like Lord Lexington that hates being bumped or a Sal Magicpants that races well when leading the pack by two lengths or more. With so many possibilities, you'll never run the same race twice.
But what's a horse without an owner? Naturally, you'll start out with the lowest class E horses and have to work your way up to the highest class SS rides. Your stable can hold up to six horses at once, so you'll most definitely find yourself managing more than one horse at a time.
After you've got your horses all sorted out, it's time to choose what races they will be participating in. You'll have to take into consideration the skill level of your horses as well as their specific traits, trying to ensure that you enter the right horses in the right races. When that day comes, it's off to the track to see what you and your horses are made of.
Here's where the game gets more interesting. In the past, gambling was handled in a stand-alone mode that was fully separated from the main game. In other words, it had absolutely no purpose. This time, the gambling has been incorporated within Season mode and winnings can be used to buy upgrades for your training facilities to keep your horses in top form.
Plus, upon completion of each race you'll be rated on your performance and given skill points. This rating goes towards your overall jockey rating and determines exactly which level horses you are allowed to ride. The skill points are put towards the actual purchase of horses and are separate from earned money.
And after you've retired some champions, you'll begin the breeding portion of the game. Unlike Gallop Racer 2001, there's no instant horse mix. This time you'll have to wait a full game year until the foal is born and another two years before it is ready to race. Some players might find this annoying, while others might laud it as being more realistic. I'm somewhere in between - while I have no problem with the waiting, I don't like how the expected foals took up one of the six active horse slots.
At least breeding your own horses has its own rewards. No matter how good the parents are, all foals go through a training mini-game in order to determine their traits. This game is reminiscent of Dance Dance Revolution using the analog sticks rather than a dance pad. Direction arrows fall from the top of the screen and players will have to perform the right actions at the right time. Just like races, you are given a rating based on your performance and this rating will determine exactly how well the foal develops.
When you take all these bits and pieces together, it's pretty clear that Gallop Racer 2003 not only addresses problem spots in earlier games, but it also offers a tremendous amount of stuff to do for the horse racing fan. But even with all of these great new additions, some things in the Gallop Racer world haven't changed for the better.
Take the graphics. Gallop Racer 2003 looks pretty much like 2001. I guess there's only so much you can do to a horse model, but you'd think that two years would lead to some fancy new effects. The interface has help screens this time around, but is still tough to follow for those not fluent in horse racing terminology. You get a lot of information about the horses and not all of it is easy to understand.
Gallop Racer still hasn't come up with a formula to appeal to non horse-racing fans. For the casual gamer, the game can easily get repetitive and races aren't much fun to watch if you're not playing since you can't see all of the action. A panoramic window at the bottom of the screen with a TV-style view of the race would have done wonders. The game just isn't very accessible.
But overall, Gallop Racer 2003 has proven to be a pretty solid game for the all the virtual jockey wannabes out there. A much better gambling system, improved breeding and hours and hours of racing keeps this one at the head of the pack. Just be warned - if you don't like the smell, stay out of the stables.