TV in the 1970s was rife with cop shows of varying quality. To really stand out, you needed some sort of hook. Starsky & Hutch had one of the best--a 1974 Ford Gran Torino with a memorable red-and-white paint job. Though the show didn't lean on its trademark car as heavily as, say, The Dukes of Hazzard, it was still as much a character as Starsky, Hutch, or Huggy Bear. Empire Interactive released a driving-and-shooting game based on this retro TV classic a full year ago on the PS2, Xbox, and PC, and now that same game has arrived, tires squealing, on the GameCube. Even if it had been released in tandem with the other three versions, Starsky & Hutch isn't quite as good on the GameCube as it is on other platforms. However, the tardiness and the rougher edges are alleviated somewhat by a phenomenally deep discount price, as well as by some nice stylistic touches in the game itself.
When it's at its best, Starsky & Hutch plays like a long-form version of the countless chase scenes that were the hallmark of the show--and, really, all '70s cop shows. You tear around Bay City, apprehending bad guys and occasionally escorting witnesses, usually while driving Starsky's signature 1974 Ford Gran Torino, the "Striped Tomato." The fundamental mechanics here are driving and shooting. As you give chase, a reticle automatically locks on to the closest targetable object within your line of sight, allowing you to focus most of your attention on the driving. The autotargeting is pretty intuitive and dynamic. There are times when the automation can prove frustrating--specifically during escort missions, where you're severely punished for shooting up the car you're supposed to be defending. The driving mechanics are pretty forgiving, and the car has the kind of weight you'd expect from a mid-'70s muscle car. It's generally pretty fun to drive too. There are some weird physics issues that pop up from time to time, though. Sometimes you can catch an edge that changes your direction dramatically, or you're just brought to a complete stop. Occasionally, destructible objects don't give way right when they should. The real problem with the core gameplay mechanics is that there's not enough variety. Chasing a car while constantly hammering on the fire button can become tiresome after a while.
Starsky & Hutch offsets the repetitive nature of the gameplay, slightly, by rewarding you for driving in a dangerous, entertaining fashion--though it will punish you for out-and-out recklessness. Every mission puts you on a kind of a clock, though it actually reflects your "viewer rating," which is one of the game's many self-aware nods to its television roots. Though it's constantly dropping, the VR can be replenished in a variety of ways. Shooting at the criminals you're chasing nets you a small amount of VR, as does having a near-miss with a civilian vehicle--though skidding around corners, getting up on two wheels, pulling off a jump, or blowing up some explosive red barrels gives it to you in bigger chunks. You also see big VR icons in the sky and on the road. These can be shot at or simply driven over. Your VR drops significantly if you run into buildings or civilian vehicles. Simply driving too close to a pedestrian also significantly lowers your VR. Curiously, your car can take an infinite amount of damage. There are only two ways to fail a mission--by letting your VR run out entirely or by failing a primary mission objective, like unsuccessfully protecting another vehicle, for instance.
Aside from the VR icons, there are a variety of other power-ups to drive over and shoot at in Bay City. Most of these affect your performance for a short time, giving you better tire grip, a faster top speed, or a bigger gun. There is also an icon that causes the criminals' guns to jam, and there are special event icons that usually trigger big explosions or spectacular crashes. You can also find special Huggy Bear and car key icons in hidden locations. These finds can unlock some novel, if superfluous, extras.
Keeping with the game's buddy-cop roots, two players can go through the game cooperatively, with one player driving and the other shooting. There's support for a steering wheel, though the light-gun support found in the PS2 and Xbox versions is absent on the GameCube, leaving the second player to control the targeting reticle with the analog stick. Either way, there just isn't enough for both players to do in the co-op mode to make it particularly engaging or challenging.
Starsky & Hutch is powered by Criterion's venerable Renderware engine, which has been used in such games as Burnout 3 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. However, it's not used to particularly flaterring effect here. Bay City is a good-sized, clockwork city with a level of detail that falls a bit short of what we've seen in the Grand Theft Auto games--and it's almost entirely devoid of interactivity. The inhabiting pedestrians and automobiles aren't nearly as dynamic either. The general look of the game is just shy of realistic, instead looking more like a series of Hollywood backlot sets that have been stitched together. Considering the game's TV roots, this seems fitting. The game further evokes the cop-show vibe with dramatic slow-motion cuts during big jumps and a camera that swings extra-wide around corners, which does a surprisingly good job of adding a sense of momentum to chases. The cutscenes between missions are rendered in a fashion that looks an awful bit like simple Flash animation. It has its own sense of style, though some might find the limited amount of actual animation to be cheap-looking. In all, Starsky & Hutch on the GameCube is the cheapest-looking version of the game, though the difference isn't severe. The frame rate is pretty solid, but the textures don't look as clean, the shadows aren't as well-defined, and the whole game just looks a little bit muddier.
There's some good style to Starsky & Hutch, but the sound design really brings it all together. Antonio Fargas reprises his role as Huggy Bear and acts as the game's narrator. Fargas is the only actor from the TV series to appear in the game, though the actors used for Starsky, Hutch, and the captain all turn in fair approximations of the original actors. The dialogue they're given is pretty standard cop-show material; it's sometimes a little clever, sometimes a little cheesy. The music, which consists of several themes borrowed from the Starsky & Hutch TV show, as well as some original compositions, is an amazing collection of 1970s-style funk. Full of wah-wah guitars, funky, walking basslines, and vintage synthesizer sounds, the music in Starsky & Hutch does a particularly good job of immersing you into the game. Some of the in-game sound effects are pretty good, like the tire screeches and the engine sounds. Unfortunately, the gun effects, which are probably the sounds you hear most in the game, sound tinny and hollow and don't carry much impact.
Empire Interactive's timing has been off with all versions of the Starsky & Hutch game. The PS2, Xbox, and PC versions all came out a good six months before the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson motion picture-tribute hit theaters, and now the GameCube version arrives several months after that movie made its way to DVD. The good news for the GameCube version is that Empire has released it for the rock-bottom price of $10, which can make its relatively brief story mode and repetitive gameplay a bit more forgivable.