Hydro Thunder is one of those games that prove that timing is everything. The game was rushed to the Dreamcast so that it could have the advantage of being one of the few reasonably good games available at launch, and it ended up being a beautiful, if not painfully exact, arcade port. Now, more than half a year later, the game has landed on the PlayStation. While it's obvious the developers spent more time making this version of Hydro Thunder more complete, without the graphical muscle of the arcade hardware or the Dreamcast, the PlayStation version simply isn't as impressive.
The addition of circuit and time trial haven't changed the game a whole lot. You're still racing one of nine different boats across 12 different courses in an attempt to place first. Along the way you'll run into various obstacles, collect boosters, make insanely huge jumps, and do your best to keep your boat afloat. This basic concept remains the same throughout, as it's only trivial details that change between modes. The circuit mode is a somewhat awkward attempt to make the different tracks fit together, as you pick a boat and make money depending on what rank you place in each race. Unfortunately, there's nothing to spend your accumulated wealth on, making the mode almost worthless, as you can neither save your progress nor switch boats between races. The time-trial mode lets you race a track without opponents or a time limit, but it isn't that useful because you aren't allowed to explore the track and look for secret paths. Still, the user interface has been much improved, and it now sports a "restart race" command from the pause menu and offers a more comprehensive option menu. Unfortunately, the PlayStation version doesn't let you completely customize your controls and instead makes you pick one of three different preset control schemes, none of which emulates the controls of the Dreamcast version. This makes it all the more difficult to pull off boost jumps, as the boost button is now nowhere near the brakes.
Hydro Thunder's greatest asset was its incredible graphics, which just don't translate well onto the PlayStation. While the graphics found on the PlayStation version aren't terrible, they definitely hurt the game. All the little graphical touches littering the Dreamcast game aren't in the PlayStation version, and some of the effects are so poorly translated that they're almost laughable. The frame rate suffers at times, turning into a choppy mess. Gone are the amazing water effects, and the normal water looks so bad it's questionable what you're actually racing on. Still, there is almost no pop-up, and the graphics are good enough for you to understand what's going on.
Another department that faced heavy losses was the audio department. While the in-game music is pretty much the same, the audio cues from your navigator and the engine noises are very low quality. Now all the boats pretty much sound the same, and the sound effects have gotten pretty generic. The most apparent change in the sound effects is the noise your booster makes, which is obviously a loop because it gets louder in midrepetition.
While some areas of the game have been improved, the incredibly frustrating AI hasn't been. It's still the case that the computer-controlled opponents are faster or slower depending on which boat you select. If you choose a faster, more difficult boat to control, you'll be up against faster opponents. This makes it a bit lopsided, as you get none of the pros but all the cons inherent in choosing a more difficult boat. So, in short, the best boats to select are the slowest ones, unless you're less concerned with winning the race than you are with placing the fastest time. Perhaps the most frustrating element of Hydro Thunder is the outright difficulty. You always start in 15th place, and the only way you can win a race is by hitting every boost, taking every shortcut, and hitting no walls. As if that weren't enough, Hydro Thunder retains the time gates - an arcade element. This makes finding shortcuts more accidental than intentional, as you've no time to stop and explore the track.
Most of the details present in the Dreamcast version were sacrificed, replaced with only a few minor improvements. This is the game, with its improved interface and new game modes, that should have appeared on the Dreamcast instead of the one we're familiar with. That game could have greatly benefited from the revisions found in the PlayStation version, while this version, without all the advantages Sega's machine has to offer, isn't as compelling a game as it once was.