Tecmo certainly has come a long way since the NES, where it initially made a name for itself with widely accessible products such as Tecmo Bowl and Ninja Gaiden. In recent years, this Japanese developer has proven it is not afraid to take risks, releasing less-than-conventional games to the US market, like the bizarre but inventive Monster Rancher series. In another impressive show of moxie, Tecmo brings horse racing to the PlayStation 2 with Gallop Racer 2001. Though it does not have the mass appeal of Tecmo's immensely popular Dead or Alive series, Gallop Racer knows its niche and caters to it unflinchingly.
Gallop Racer breaks horse racing down into three distinct modes. The most robust of the three is the career mode, in which you play owner, breeder, and jockey to a stable of horses. Starting off with an empty stable and a fistful of cash, you can purchase up to six horses from the local shop, or if you don't like what you see there, you can also special-order horses. The horses themselves are chock-full of stats to a level that normally only die-hard horse racing fans would care about, but to race successfully, it's important to understand your horses' strengths and weaknesses. Before you even consider taking your pony to the track, you'll want to consider the length of the race, the track surface, and the current condition of your horse.
Once you're on the track, knowing your horses' abilities plays a larger role in winning than having lightning-fast reflexes. The majority of the race is spent monitoring your horse's position relative to the other horses on the track (each horse will perform better in different positions) and also watching your horse's stamina meter. You can gain a brief boost by whipping the horse, but a poorly timed whipping can exhaust your horse before the finish line, leaving you to suck up the other jockeys' dust. Due to the technical nature of the whole affair, the learning curve is fairly steep, and it can take a lot of losses before you'll fully understand how to maximize your pony's potential. Winning a race will not only net you a tidy cash prize, but will increase your horse's stats as well. Taking a cue from Tecmo's Monster Rancher series, the game also lets you breed your horses to produce better, faster, stronger horses, which will inherit not only the innate abilities of their parents, but also the stats they had earned through their careers.
There is a multiplayer mode as well, which essentially takes the racing part of the career mode and makes it two-player. You can race an existing horse or load one of your own horses from a memory card. The third and most unique mode in Gallop Racer is the watch mode, in which you can play the role of the spectator and bet on the horse races. With no direct control over the horses, this mode is even more dependent on the stats of the horses than the career mode. While it will make statistics freaks and gambling junkies alike jump for joy, it will likely serve as a short-lived novelty to most.
You can tell that the developers took care in modeling the horses in Gallop Racer 2001, because they look great. Tecmo has spared no polygons on the models, and the high-resolution textures are natural and varied. The walk, trot, and gallop animations are all incredibly natural, though the transitions between animations are abrupt and jerky. The rest of the game doesn't have quite the same level of polish as that of the horses, though there are some nice, small touches here and there, such as the dirt clods and clouds of dust that get kicked up during the race, as well as the changing weather conditions.
The game's aural presentation is also slightly unbalanced, though unfortunately more so than the graphics. The soundtrack appears to have been composed by an especially self-indulgent John Tesh wannabe, and it is even further marred by a really enthusiastic, if not grating, commentator. The track sounds themselves are pretty good, though, and effects like the clomping of the horses' hooves and the roar from the grandstand as you come down the backstretch go a long way toward re-creating the atmosphere of the track.
Gallop Racer 2001 is a game that is designed for a fairly specific audience--that is, horse racing enthusiasts. Those who do not have an interest in the minutiae of the sport of kings will likely find the gameplay to be dry and overly statistics-focused. Still, if you're looking for a change of pace in your racing game, there is certainly nothing else on the market quite like it.