Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Tales from the Backlog: Starsky & Hutch (Nintendo Gamecube)

The backlog.  The little stack of titles that builds up because you start playing a game, don't finish it, and then resume it months, maybe years later.  Every gamer has a backlog, it's a scientific fact.  You're making your way through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild until one day you come across Ninjabread Man and decide, "Forget this, I found Ninjabread Man!"  

My current backlog is not too big but not too small.  When I'm not playing games for review, I chip away at my backlog.  Thus, it inspired me to start a monthly column called "Tales from the Backlog," where I do a short review of a game from my backlog that I finally beat.

For this first entry, it's Starsky & Hutch.

Starsky & Hutch was once considered top tier entertainment.  With its vehicular action and 70's setting, one could see the potential for a fun video game.  Before you type, "They already made it, it's called Driver," in the early 2000's publisher Empire Interactive released Starsky & Hutch for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, and Gameboy Advance.  Back in December, I found the game for six bucks at a local game store.  Knowing the track record for licensed games, Starsky & Hutch could turn out to be good or so bad that these cops should have their badges revoked.

David Michael Starsky and Kenneth "Hutch" Hutchison are two cops in Bay City.  Busting perps by day and partying at night, the two might be loose cannons, but to the criminals, their slick driving and shooting give them a reason to be worried.

Be prepared to do this at least 15 more times.

As you can tell by the elaborate two-sentence summarization, the story is barely a factor.  The campaign is broken into three seasons, and each one plays out the same.  Starsky and Hutch bust a perp who has ties to a notorious criminal.  One hour of shooting and drifting later, and the bad guy is in custody.  The comic book-style cut-scenes do little to keep your interest, not helped that details are glossed over with narration from Huggy Bear, a man with his ear to the street.

It's a shame because the presentation is quite charming.  The story mode is split into seasons, with six episodes a piece.  The in-game menus are surrounded by a tube TV border, and when navigating menus, they flicker to emulate changing channels.  The banter between Starsky and Hutch is amusing if repetitive, but the lack of memorable villains or storylines undermines the presentation.

Starsky & Hutch is an open world/action driving game.  If you're playing by yourself, you control both Starsky and Hutch.  Starsky is the driver and Hutch is the gunner.  Driving is done with the triggers; to shoot, you press A when the reticle locks on to something.  If there's two players, one person drives while the other aims and shoots with the analog stick.  

Especially neat is that this game is compatible with the racing wheel and light gun peripherals made for the PS2 and Xbox.  It's a neat feature that enhances the game's arcade nature.  Unfortunately for Gamecube owners, all you get is steering wheel compatibility.

The bigger question remains: is the gameplay itself good?  Sort of.  When played in short bursts, Starsky & Hutch is a fun enough driving game, but the more time you spend with it the more you notice the flaws and missed opportunities.  First, the good.  The driving is solid.  The vehicle handling is loose, but the car has enough weight that turning corners and performing jumps isn't too much of a problem. The environments are surprisingly large.  Each location is littered with shortcuts and stunt jumps galore, and the game encourages you to use them to earn ratings boost.

In keeping with the television theme, there are ratings; basically, a timer.  If the ratings reach zero, it's a mission failure.  Having high ratings is important since you receive a medal based on your performance during a mission.  Earning higher ratings is done through slick driving, damaging your opponent, or collecting ratings power-ups.  Crashing into civilian vehicles or attempting to run over pedestrians decreases ratings.

Putting baked beans into the Gran Torino's gas tank turned out to be a big mistake.

There's a wide variety of power-ups to acquire.  Everything from speed boosts to increased damage to weapon pick-ups, as well as collectible car keys and cards.  Car keys unlock vehicles to use in free roam, while cards unlock Starsky & Hutch memorabilia.

When I first booted up the game, my initial impressions were quite positive.  Racing through the streets of Bay City and chasing down criminals was kind of exhilarating.  A few missions in, and I realized how the pieces don't quite fit together as well as they should.

Nearly every mission involves taking out an enemy vehicle by pumping their car with what seems like five million bullets.  It's insane how bullet-spongey these cars are.  You can't even shoot at tires or other parts of their vehicle to slow them down.  The default gun is a six-shooter that does measly damage, and the only way to get new guns is by finding power-ups.  It made me wish there was a currency system where you could buy and upgrade guns.  Having to drive around and hope you find a shotgun power-up isn't fun.

Occasionally, you get a new mission type like escorting a vehicle or taking out a target without harming the hostage.  The escort missions are awful due to the bad AI.  They take their sweet time reaching their destination, even when criminals are painting their vehicles with lead.  The lock-on system is pretty accurate, but there are times when it will accidentally lock on to the vehicle you're protecting, and you're penalized for shooting friendlies.  Expect to hit restart a few times during escort missions.

The lack of variety is Starsky & Hutch's greatest shortcoming.  The buddy-cop premise is ripe with potential; instead, we get repetitive shooting galleries and not much else.  The story mode is incredibly short, taking no more than three hours to beat.  Afterwards, there's free roam.  Free roam is underwhelming.  It is a giant checkpoint race where you pick a car and try to find all the checkpoints before time runs out.  This could have been a great option for learning the layout of the levels while stopping random crimes or whatnot; instead, it's a disposable mode.

Donut hole in one.

The best part of Starsky & Hutch is not the gameplay or story, but the music.  It's a fantastic funk soundtrack with catchy tunes that get you in the mood to hop into a Gran Torino and stop some crroks.  The music was done by Tim Follin, a veteran game composer whose credentials go all the way back to the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64.  What's most surprising is the music received a vinyl release.  I remember stumbling across the album at an antique store and being incredibly confused.  If you can find the album for cheap, buy it and get your funk on.

Starsky & Hutch is average.  The game has its moments, plus a killer soundtrack, but its insanely repetitive nature holds it back tremendously.  With more time spent on the gameplay and less time spent on getting Huggy Bear's original actor, this could have been a solid driving experience.  If you need something to scratch that undercover cop itch, stick with Driver, but if you find it on the cheap like I did, give it a shot.  There are worse ways to spend six bucks.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, this is that guy who asked about your channel at your work not too long ago. I've been looking at these reviews for a while and I'm kinda blown away by all of this. I wanted to get in touch because i think we can help each other out.
    I don't see much in the way of messaging options so this was my best option to reach you. It doesnt seem to be the best place to have a conversation though, so if you'd like to talk the best place to reach me is discord. Steel_Wing#3251
    Of course, if theres a better way for you, just let me know and we can get this sorted out. I admire your style, and think our skills would complement each other well, particularly for youtube.