Racing Column

Racing Game of the Week #14: “Starsky & Hutch” (2003)

“‘Starsky and Hutchinson’?”
“They call him ‘Hutch’, actually.”

John O’Brien, Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong
Starsky & Hutch (2004)

 

FF3-NES-WhiteMage1.png “The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage“.

It is the 20th June 2003. “Bring me to Life” by Evanescence is the UK no. 1 single. Hulk, produced by Avi Arad, Larry J. Franco, Gale Anne Hurd and James Schamus, opens at the top of the Northern American box office. The Wikimedia Foundation is founded. Empire Interactive publishes Mind’s Eye Productions’ Starsky & Hutch for Playstation 2 and PC in Europe, while Supersonic Software ports it to Xbox.

Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of the original Starsky & Hutch series, you’re still familiar with its iconic theme tune and the two leads, plus their informant, Huggy Bear, portrayed by Antonio Fargas. When the Starsky & Hutch game boots up, that same music plays over a sequence introducing you to those characters all over again, before jumping into the story, narrated by Bear – who’s voiced by Fargas himself, reprising the role after 24 years. The remaining voice cast are uncredited. From the start, it lays down its intention to be aware of its origins, reassuring any sceptics who suspect otherwise.

The game tells the story of three new cases, structured as three seasons of six episodes, each episode being a different stage of the investigation that requires them to do their driving/shooting thing. This may be a column about racing games, but Starsky & Hutch is really only half a racing game – the other half is a shooter. You play as both characters at once, driving as Starsky while shooting at getaways as Hutch. Of course, the original Starsky & Hutch series is famous for its iconic hero car, the Striped Tomato, and that’s the car featured in most episodes.

For a game based on that show, those three features are all they needed to include, so the fact that they did makes me appreciate that it even exists. It was a perfect concept to be translated into a video game. If it didn’t exist and you were to imagine what a Starsky & Hutch video game could possibly be like, this is exactly what you’d probably envision. So, it being done in exactly that way proves that, sometimes, the obvious way actually can be the best one.

Most missions follow the same objective: keep a getaway car in sight and shoot at it until its health bar empties so it can go no further and the driver can be arrested. It’s pretty much that 18 times, but what makes the game interesting is how that format is manipulated. For example, sometimes numerous getaways will go off in different directions, forcing you to chase them all down one by one, and some missions are protection missions, in which you escort witnesses or important people to a destination, defending them from threats. If anything, the variety is in the different getaway vehicles you’ll be chasing down, from motortrikes to stretched limousines to fully articulated trucks with trailers. They each bring a different dynamic to a getaway – some will be zippier around corners, whereas others will be tougher to trade paint with. Some may even have gunmen inside, who’ll start shooting at you and must be taken down themselves before targeting the car as a whole.

Each mission also comes with a secondary objective, often based on the interactive environment. Shooting certain objects will make them do certain things – e.g., gas canisters will explode, raised car transporter ramps will lower, traffic lights will turn green to move the traffic and slow down the getaway and suspended containers will drop to the ground. Secondary objectives ask you to do such things a certain number of times, and completing both secondary and primary mission objectives will show just how good you are at the game. True pros, however, will also be able to zip off course to collect the advanced weapons and find the hidden car keys – doing so will give you the choice next time you play the mission of using the unlocked car, modelled on one of many driven by suspects of other missions.

Your total score in a mission is based on how high your ratings reached. The viewer ratings are a metatextual reference to the declining numbers achieved by the original series’ fourth season that was a contributing factor to its eventual end. In the game, it’s an ongoing countdown that must be kept above 0 by playing well, though it can be decreased by playing poorly. Landing a perfect shot will increase viewer ratings, whereas shooting blue targets means risking innocent lives, which will make people switch off. Similarly, ratings decline if you hit civilian traffic but can be increased by shooting any of the power-ups above you.

These power-ups range from a simple tightening of grip for a short period of time to doubling the damage you cause. Some power-ups are placed on the road and can be activated by driving through them, such as a special event power-up, which can cause a large set piece to occur around you, like a bus swerving out of control, or switches to a cinematic camera angle and slows down the footage as you go over a big jump. Generally, the better you are at playing and the more interesting it is to watch, the higher the ratings will be; conversely, being poor at the game and missing the cool opportunities will result in the ratings dropping to 0 and the mission failing – in other words, the game has made a personal judgement that you shouldn’t be allowed to finish an episode until your play style becomes more interesting for someone else to want to watch. Take note, Let’s Play-ers.

At the end of an episode, you’re awarded a medal that’s either gold, silver or bronze based on your peak viewer ratings for that episode. Which is great, except that certain episodes will inevitably receive low ratings because the premise negates certain power-ups – what use is a speed boost if I’m escorting a slow-moving vehicle?

But what really makes the game standout is the co-operative two-player mode, in which each player exclusively controls either Starsky or Hutch. That means it’s about cooperation and requires team building, as you develop the same kind of bond as Starsky & Hutch have themselves.

It might sound simple, but the targeting system is completely different. In single-player mode, the target auto-locks onto the nearest shootable thing – be it the getaway car, a power-up or even a roadside prostitute. It then closes like an aperture to become more precisely aimed. Thus, you can either fire lots of less damaging shots all at once or fewer shots that will have a bigger effect. This kind of auto-targeting system was necessary, of course – there’s only so much you can do while driving.

In two-player mode, however, the driver and shooter are separate, meaning the target has to be aimed manually with the joysticks. This brings an entirely new dimension to playing it, because each player is only as good as the other one – and a sudden lack of concentration on Starsky’s part is going to knock Hutch’s aim way off. Eventually, you’ll be familiar enough with each other’s play styles to combine them and play as one.

While single-player mode may require more skill, requiring the ability to drive well and shoot well at the same time, multiplayer mode may still be more fun and is essentially the truer version of the game because of the role-based cooperation required – and you can both add to their in-car conversations that keep missions from becoming boring.

What matters is, the Striped Tomato really drives like a Ford Gran Torino – it’s like driving a fast but heavy Zamboni. Every season also has one mission that involves driving another car for certain reasons, be it a police cruiser, an ice cream van (because they can) or Hutch’s jalopy. In the series, it was a Ford Galaxie, but it would seem they only got the rights to use the Gran Torino. It’s surprising that Starsky remains the driver when driving Hutch’s car – that would’ve been a fun way to switch it up, and would’ve been the point at which the two players switched around to see how their partner’s job compares.

And that is the episode I’ve chosen to use as this week’s ending gameplay video.


Last week’s piece on Toy Story Racer helped me reach 200 likes for all the posts I’ve written on the Well-Red Mage. I’d like to thank everyone who’s liked any of my posts – without you, there’d be no point in me continuing this.

The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog, covering the World Rally Championship and generally posting about what he’s been playing, at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com.

 

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