What would you get if you tried to combine Disney’s Hercules films and Mario Kart? Other than a copyright-infringement lawsuit, the likely result would be Heracles Chariot Racing, a WiiWare and PS2 game from Neko Entertainment.
As may be inferred from the title, the game involves Heracles engaging in a brutal contest of will, strength and skill, driving horseless chariots around whimsically designed courses and lobbing deadly weapons at each other in pursuit of victory. But how does it stack up against its competitors and the rest of the WiiWare crowd?
But let’s not kid around: Heracles Chariot Racing is an unabashed clone of Mario Kart, except spun off of Neko’s earlier action-platformer title Heracles: Battle with the Gods. Which, sadly, where the game’s greatest weakness lies.
Cartoon kart-racing games in this vein are usually spun off of existing, popular properties, and draw their appeal from such. Mario Kart would likely be quite unpopular without Mario, and it can be argued that Crash Team Racing only exists because Crash Bandicoot was marketed as a mascot for the Playstation brand.
Given that Heracles: Battle with the Gods never quite made it as a DS, PS2 and PC title, most players will only be evaluating Heracles Chariot Racing as a stand-alone, unassociated WiiWare game, making its derivative nature all the more obvious. The situation is exacerbated when only a few of the game’s nine playable characters are familiar to those who actually played the original. Outside of Heraclese and Poseidon, only Medusa and the Minotaur are recognizable appearances. The rest of the cast’s connection to the Heracles fiction (and Greek myth overall) is tenuous at best. That the game has no real story or campaign mode does not help either.
Of course, being artistically forgettable doesn’t necessarily impact gameplay, which is where the game manages (just barely) to distinguish itself. Controlling differently from Mario Kart, Heracles uses the Wii Remote and Nunchuck together, with the Wii Remote buttons controlling acceleration and the Nunchuck controlling steering. The key point of the control scheme is drifting, where tilting the Nunchuck allows the chariots to make sharper turns at speed. Though initially confusing, one quickly gets used to the scheme and can drift about with ease, something critical to maintaining speed while still avoiding each course’s many environmental hazards.
Speaking of environments, the game comes with five tracks, each with a “remix” edition and making for ten in total. While colorful and designed for speed, the tracks themselves are graphically simplistic, and at times it is difficult to distinguish a hazard from a flat texture, which can cause a crash and slow players down.
Scattered around the tracks are item blocks that can be collected to equip various weapons and tools ranging from a set of shields that grant temporary defense to summon attacks that call in the god Zeus to strike the leader with lightning. Again, Heracles’ lack of novelty comes again to haunt it, for players will never find a homing beetle as recognizable as, say, a red or blue shell.
All these comparisons to Mario Kart might seem unfair. In a sense, that is true. Heracles Chariot Racing is a WiiWare game, while Mario Kart Wii is a full-priced retail release that comes with its own piece of plastic peripheral junk. Grading on that curve, then, raises the game’s rank considerably, as compared to other WiiWare titles it provides a lot of content for a piddling 800 Wii Points (about $10 USD), in addition to solid, well-founded racing gameplay. The game can be played locally by up to four players (though a remote and nunchuck are required for each) via split-screen.
Heracles Chariot Racing generally delivers on what it promises, but the problem is that it doesn’t promise very much at all.
The cartoon stylings of the game characters holds well to the simple shapes and textures, and some of the tracks have impressive set pieces, like Cerberus lobbing fireballs onto the track in Hades.
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The drifting mechanic is interesting, but it's also confusing that there are no other control setups than Remote + Nunchuck, especially given that the PS2 version is played with a standard controller.
The game's sound work is muddied and muted, for some reason. Background music only plays once, then fades into silence, and everything sounds as if being played underwater.
The game lasts about as long as you have friends to play locally with. Three grades of championship are available, but the third is merely a combination of the first and second.
Heracles Chariot Racing provides a cheap, easily accessible kart-racing experience, but does nothing else to distinguish itself. As a WiiWare game however, it stands above the crowd in terms of value and content.