Its time to put on your 90s nostalgia goggles and travel back to a time when the kart racing genre was fresh and new. Wacky Wheels is a kart racer with eight anthropomorphic characters, and its one expansion pack which makes for six championship cups, thirty circuits across twenty-five tracks and a dozen more miscellaneous tracks.
To this version’s credit, its a 90s DOS game that’s playable on Steam out-of-the box when other games fail to run even when they include DOSBox. The game scores big points for having native 360 controller support as well. Beyond working as it should, that’s where the compliments end and the reality of a twenty year-old game sets in.
I assume this is a kids game with how generic it is and the eight animal drivers. You have a pelican, tiger, raccoon, elephant, moose, camel, panda and the coolest of them all, a shark. The game never does much with its animal theme. The drivers make appropriate sounds several times and have honking horns each time they’re near. Without stats to tell me there’s a difference in driver abilities, they all feel the same. The elephant feels just as speedy as the raccoon. Perhaps the differences are too subtle to notice.
There’s a lot of mediocre content in the Wacky Wheels, you have single and two player split screen championships with five races each, a two player shoot out, a single player wacky duck shoot out and comm-bat play over a modem or serial cable. The menu seems to trigger when there’s a button held rather than a button pressed. So I can hold the button and watch as it skips through the menu. At the bottom of the main menu is ordering information to purchase the game that you already own. Its typical for games of the era, because piracy was so widespread. Why buy a game when someone has a copy? Why would I give someone a copy of something I paid money for?
The single player championships offer time trials and a special kids mode where the game accelerates for you and you just steer. Its like watching tar dry from how dull it is. The other modes drive 50+ mph while the kids mode drives as a safe 30 mph. That’s when I noticed that when you finish a race, you’re forced to wait for the top four drivers to come in. On kids mode, this is a long wait, from half a minute to a full minute depending on how far ahead you were.
In a championship, you will only proceed if you’ve finished in the top three. If you fail, then you’ll have to use a continue. There is a save feature if you need to bail from the game and that’s a nice feature to have. To add replay value you can enter your name in for time trials and championship results.
There are three levels of difficulty: amateur, pro and championship class. Then you select between 6 and 12 horsepower to determine the speed. Its like selecting one level of difficulty before selecting another. On 6 horsepower its easy enough to get in the lead on the second lap and maintain it for two agonizing, dull minutes until the race ends. You also have a choice of how many laps. Even the minimum six laps feels long by the end even if races last two to four minutes long.
Oh but then if you try out championship class, it turns into a real struggle, because on the third lap of each race, everyone else can just appear beside you. Its amazing to see being in first place and then four racers in a single perfect line will speed past you. To make things even more incredible, I can see that let’s say the shark driver is in fourth place and then he will poof and be in first place without driving to first place. I can gain the lead, over-and-over again, but by the final lap its a single line of six cars that passes by. Its a questionable level of false difficulty.
Even when you’re racing through speedways, lakes, deserts, boardwalks and along side lava, nothing seems to mix the game up. It feels the same from track to track and a painful monotony sets in quick. Each track feels either heavily inspired by or flat out copied from another certain kart racer including the themes, layouts and shortcuts.
The tracks are all in the same contained area so the only way to make a race longer is to add more hairpin turns on and that’s what they do on more than half the tracks. These hairpin turns are never an issue with the slower 6 horsepower, but on the 12, that’s when the game has real challenge. There are a pair of sharp turn buttons, but pressing them is too sharp and jarring of a turn to ever use effective. Plus they would be easier to use if they were mapped to the shoulders, but alas there’s no way to change it.
In terms of weapons, there are only five that you collect by running into them on the track. There are bombs to drop, oil cans to spill and make someone spin out, a pair of red bouncing balls that bounce off the edges, but when you launch them, they go sideways rather than forward. You also have a token triple fireball. All generic, vanilla weapons that would have been acceptable back then. Any weapon that is collected on the track is gone forever. If you have a weapon, then the pickups become obstacles that you will bounce off of.
Then there’s the primary weapon which is hedgehogs. These hedgehogs are living out their normal life on the track and you see them on toilets, doing sniper practice and dancing. Then you run down the hedgehogs and they become your ammunition. One hedgehog gives you four ammunition so you’ve collected its entire family out of whatever hole it was in. When you attack, they launch forward, its just as simple as that. A hedgehog would make the perfect weapon since its covered with spikes, but then who is willing to touch one to throw it. Maybe the go-karts have launchers.
What makes the eight drivers so special that they’re in a race and these hedgehogs are lesser creatures? That’s like having a brawler where you pick up spider monkeys and attack people with them.
It also seems like the player is the only driver that can get and use weapons and that always ensures that you have the advantage. The only time that I thought another driver was able to use a weapon was during the hardest difficulty, the championship class, I’d spin out for no reason. I assume that’s someone behind me shooting me with a hedgehog (read that line again), but I never see the hedgehog or what hit me. So maybe I was just spinning out because I took a turn too sharp?
I was unable to play the two player modes, but there is a duck shoot for single players where you can test your aim on the battlefield by shooting helpless ducks. Two shots will make a duck explode and you get a point.
Playing in single player, there’s a large vacant area of the screen dedicated to the sky. There’s nothing in the sky and that’s perhaps why other games of the era used half the screen as a giant map. Wacky Wheels does have a mini map, but its ineffective since the drivers on the map are one pixel big so I can never see at a glance where I am versus where everyone else is. Plus the drivers on the mini map have a color that blends in with the green map.
Like all racing games, the main road lets you go at top speed while dirt, grass and side paths will make you go considerably slower. Lava and deep blue water will plunge you in where your racer becomes a periscope. When you’ve taken the plunge, its up to you to get back onto land. There is no floating lion with a fishing pole that will save you. Tracks like the boardwalk and lava castle are covered with borders which make cutting corners tough because you’ll hit a wall and stop. The rough terrain and water traps are far more forgiving.
With the game out of the way, now its time for the music. Wacky Wheels has a great 90s PC soundtrack. Its amazing how good it is compared to the rest of the game.
Nostalgia aside, this is a game that has a lot more flaws than I remember. With so many choices for modern gamers, its tough to recommend this unless you have a 486 computer that limits your choices of racing games. Then its top notch!