Forget Pachinko and Pocky! There's nothing so charmingly Japanese as video game horse-racing simulations. The age-old sport of equitation, relegated to ESPN2 on US shores, seems to be pretty popular in the East. Gallop Racer 2004, the seventh entry in the Gallop Racer series, makes some marked improvements on its predecessors' presentation and control while staying close to the formula that has earned the franchise a cult following. Unfortunately, Gallop Racer's core gameplay comes down to a few, strategic button presses, and therefore it remains too finicky to have wide appeal. This is a title that caters to a very specific audience. If you've bought many of the last six games, this iteration's subtle improvements may likewise merit an upgrade. On the other hand, if you're not already a fan of the series, Gallop Racer 2004 doesn't provide a new, compelling reason to grab the reins.
As in any stat-driven game, you begin Gallop Racer as an unknown, unproven talent with very little to recommend yourself. You have no horses in your stable--just a riding crop and a dream. If you've never played a Gallop Racer game before, you also have no idea what's going on. While 2003's entry forced you to participate in a lengthy tutorial before allowing you to begin play, Gallop Racer 2004 assumes that you know the ropes by now. Training is entirely optional. Furthermore, all but the most basic lessons are gradually unlocked in season mode, thus leaving novice players to figure out--through trial and error--what they could have learned less painfully.
After you've created a jockey, a jersey type, and a name, your next step is to negotiate with trainers for the use of their horses. The trainers (like you) are superdeformed caricatures that are meant to represent their differing personalities. The graphical style used to portray them is highly reminiscent of Hot Shots Golf. One looks like a stern school marm, while another appears as a Teutonic fitness guru who is constantly accusing you of having poor physical training habits. Whether transactions with this exacting bunch succeed or fail depends on how your statistics measure up to those of their horses.
If you're a level-one rider looking to saddle up on a grade-A animal, you'll likely be turned down. If you're properly matched, however, you'll be awarded the opportunity to jockey in that specific contest. The trainers will set a goal for you in each race. Sometimes that goal might just be to beat the odds by placing higher than you were slated to. In other instances, you'll have to meet or beat a certain report card rating for an element of your riding, such as "Feel," which describes how competently you played to your horse's strengths during the race. If you succeed in meeting these challenges, the trainer's estimation of you will improve.
Eventually, the trainer will ask you to become his main jockey, at which point he or she will give you total control over a horse. Once you've filled your stable in this way, you'll essentially become your own boss, although you can still entertain the requests you'll undoubtedly receive to ride horses for others. Under specific conditions, you can even breed horses, but most players won't develop the knowledge or wherewithal to do so until fairly far into the game.
In practice, the horse trainer system results in even more needlessly complex menu navigation than in last year's game. Far from providing a stepping stone for new players before they must strike out on their own, horse trainers serve as useless intermediaries between riders and their quadrupedal partners. Having to navigate manifold menus to maintain a rapport with a number of forgettable characters adds yet more complexity to an already dense title.
Horse names are exemplary of the odd text that pervades the game, adding equal doses of charm and confusion. Get used to losing races to horses called "High Time" or "Sexy Present." Trainers and opposing riders also speak in a bizarre brand of poorly translated text. When a horse has a high heart statistic, one of your spikey-haired friends will appear and will exclaim, "Your horse has hidden power, doesn't he!?" Players who enjoy these games for their inimitable Japanese flavor will probably be delighted by Gallop Racer 2004's off-kilter translation.
During actual competition, your horse will require only sporadic input. Although races come in a variety of lengths, measured in furlongs, they can be broken into several, basic components. For example, there's the opening sprint, which is particularly important for preceders or front-runners (horses that perform best at the front of the pack). How you fare during the start of a race depends on a single meter, which you must click at a strategic time--like kicking a field goal in a football game. Your next goal is to get the horse into the proper position to sort of ride out the middle of the race. While in previous editions of Gallop Racer your stamina depleted at a more or less constant rate, it can now actually be increased through proper positioning. Also new is a slot machine indicator that will randomly spin as you ride. If you happen to get three sevens, you'll win a big speed boost. At the four furlong mark--without fail--the announcer will yell, "This is where the race is won!" At this point, you should start jockeying for position. Between the three and two furlong markers, when you're ready to tap your horse's built-up energy, you have only to press up on your control pad a few times to start whipping the animal, though you shouldn't whip him enough to make him ornery.
Additionally, if you know your horse well, you'll understand under what conditions his "latent abilities" will be triggered. These are special bonuses that are unique to each horse. For example, some horses are adept at going from last place to first place, and a latent ability will be automatically unleashed to allow them to do so.
The difference between unbelievable, glorious success and hopeless, crushing defeat is very subtle, and it can literally be the result of one or two button presses. Gallop Racer's biggest weakness is that its emphasis on strategy seems to preclude the sort of fast-paced gameplay that would make its racing sequences interesting. Once your horse gets going, you'll only occasionally be called upon to input a command. Naturally, every one of these moves is given elevated importance. This results in a very steep learning curve. Most new players will probably give up before learning how to deal with the game's stringent requirements.
The game's biggest gameplay improvement over last year's offering is its improved speed control. 2003's simple speedometer has been revamped to include not just one but two arrows, with the second one representing your horse's desired pace. When you pull back on the reins, it'll take a second before your horse wants to follow suit. While it's always been necessary to work with your horse rather than just commanding it, this interface tweak makes this need more readily apparent.
In addition to the CPU opponents found in season mode, you can also compete against a buddy or three in either series or party battle modes. In both cases, you compete in an elimination tournament. While some multiplayer action can serve as a welcome break from the monotony of the single-player campaign, Gallop Racer is clearly designed to primarily be enjoyed alone. As your success is normally more based on stat-building than skill-based gameplay, horse racing--like certain RPGs--is not a particularly compelling group activity.
Audio-visually, Gallop Racer 2004 is not a particularly noticeable upgrade over its predecessors. Grainy textures and bland track designs are coupled with some decent, realistic horse models. The Gallop Racer series has never been graphically noteworthy, and 2004's passable visuals are no exception. The game's sound remains an appropriate mix of ambient, easy-listening tunes and galloping noises. Occasionally, Gallop Racer's inane announcer will feel the need to lend his jarring, cheesy vocal talent to this otherwise serviceable mix. Fortunately, he's much less prolific than in previous years and generally restrains himself to a few token words of encouragement, such as "That was a great start!" (which he says even if your start wasn't, in fact, so great).
Six fairly successful games have earned Gallop Racer a strong, core audience. This group of stat-managing enthusiasts will get its money's worth out of Gallop Racer 2004, because these folks are probably willing to endure a certain amount of tedium in exchange for the hokey, marginally rewarding experience Gallop Racer provides. Most players, however, will find this game to be a quaint cultural artifact--and not one that warrants a great deal of sustained interest. If you've avoided the Gallop Racer series thus far, it's best to stay the course.