Version tested: Wii
The sticker on G1 Jockey's box explains: 'The Wii remote is your whip... the Nunchuck your reigns' and with that the horseracing videogame joke has its best punch line yet.
For most gamers Japan's ongoing servicing of this most niche of sporting genres is something to giggled at and then politely ignored. After all, who'd want to role-play being a little man riding about on a horse? Or, at least, who'd want to role-play being a little man riding about on a horse without a princess to rescue or a Master Sword to wield. Now, with the Wii's control system once again removing the layers of abstraction, the image of grown men bouncing up and down bow-legged in the front room, the Wii remote in one hand whipping away at their bums, Nunchuck clutched tightly in the other, indifference is turned to wonder and ridicule.
But if you're expecting Koei's latest horse racing game, a souped-up conversion of the PS2's G1 Jockey 4, to be all whips and giggles then you're in for a rude awakening. This is about as far from Wii Play's cow racing as you can get. Best described as the Gran Turismo of the jockey genre, the G1 Jockey games are punishing, vast and deep simulators, which, thanks to the Wii's control scheme, have just received their equivalent of a force feedback steering wheel.
Despite the game's best efforts to ease you in to the experience by casting you as a young jockey in training at a jockey academy (do these things actually exist?) the game will be, for the first hour of play, near un-winnable. That's because, if you never played a G1 Jockey title before, you will approach it like any other racing game: stamping pedal to the metal, screeching around corners, powering as fast as possible towards the finishing line. But to fail to take into consideration a horse's stamina and racing style or pay no heed to the timing of your sprints and you'll inevitably cross the finish line last. Horses are living, breathing vehicles with personalities and eccentricities and understanding and exploiting these is the key to success in G1 Jockey.
So, the myriad dials and icons at the bottom of the screen are, unlike in your average racing game, actually important. The dial on the left displays your horse's stamina, which depletes over the course of a course. The harder you drive your horse the faster the gauge empties and, when it's exhausted, your horse will slow to a lumbering, inescapable canter. The gauge in the centre is your speedometer which also displays a green pulsing blob which indicates your horse's 'Motivation'
Motivation relates to where your horse ideally likes to run in the pack. For a horse who likes to lead, staying out in front will ensure his motivation remains high. However, if your horse likes to hang back and you're out in front, its Motivation will be low. Your horse's Motivation fills or empties the final gauge, displayed to the right of the HUD, 'Potential'. This all-important indicator shows how much reserve energy is left in the tank for when your horse's stamina is depleted: your reserves for the final sprint. Most of the time you'll be looking to keep your horse's Motivation high in order to fill the Potential gauge as much as possible so that, on the final corner, when your Stamina is all gone, you've a good 200 metres worth of sprint left to draw upon. While this all takes a little getting used to it's logical and learning how best to ride different tempered horses soon becomes second, if repetitive, nature.
The controls are, happily, more simple. You hold the Nunchuck in your left hand and angling this forward makes your jockey drive the horse while angling it backwards makes the jockey pull back. Double clicking the C button changes your horse's lead leg (essential when entering and exiting turns) while holding the Z-button initiates a strong drive - perfect for pushing towards the finishing line. In your right hand you hold the Wii controller and flicking it from side to side whips your horse. There are three variations of whip types but, for the most part, the straightforward side-to-side version will do the trick of kicking your horse up a gear.
Outside of races the game is equally as onion-layered. Once graduating from jockey school you join a stable, which, earn a good reputation as a winning jockey, offers you different horses to race. It's possible to race horses for other stables by paying for the privilege out of a bank of tokens which you receive for wins. As you gain credibility and fame you earn the chance to ride in faster ranked races (all the way up to the eponymous G1 series). Winning races is tricky to begin with and your fist actual win will be an ecstatic moment. Indeed, it's refreshing to play a racing game where finishing third feels like something of an achievement (and is praised by the NPCs) rather than seeming an abject failure.
After your first couple of hours play your stable's trainer will call you in to the stables to offer you the chance to breed your own horse. Every January you're given the chance to select two horses from a huge list of different types and styles to breed. Their resulting offspring is given to you to train up in order to race for the stable when it matures. Once you've named your new horse you're allowed to train it once a week in order to improve each of its 20 different attributes. You pick which attribute you want to level up and undertake a challenge mini-game based around that skill (e.g. running three furlongs at 13 second per furlong to increase control). How well you do in the challenge dictates how much that statistic increases for the week and so, the better you are at completing minigames the faster your new horse will develop. You have up until the month before the horse's first race debut to improve its statistics so the emphasis is on performing well in mini-games to get the horse as good as possible before you start racing it professionally.
While this all sounds a little complex (and the above isn't even explained in the manual) in fact its extremely compelling as you struggle to match target times for furlongs, attempt to get the best possible starts out of the gate and generally work hard to improve your horse before the deadline. You then race this horse in the next season, as well as receiving a new foal to train up, so as the game progresses you find that, more and more, you're racing foals, which you trained from birth. In this way the game becomes increasingly personal as it progresses, thus sinking its claws into you as you seek to do the very best you can for your stable of equestrian Tamagotchi.
G1 Jockey Wii arrives with fortuitous timing. The Wii's release schedule is characteristically sparse and, as such, this niche game, which normally would be bypassed by most critics and consumers will draw more attention and sales than it would on another platform. For open-minded Wii gamers desperately seeking something, anything, this game unexpectedly fills the gap. Learning to play the game is in many ways like learning a new language: once its constructions are understood and the required muscle memory absorbed, the game establishes a satisfying rhythm. As with all games, the subject and theme eventually fades and the quality of the design that lies beneath reveals itself. Koei demonstrate here that they know how to make an accurate horse racing sim. But, far more importantly, they demonstrate excellence at structuring an enjoyable and compelling videogame, one that will entrance those with eyes to see, and curtains to conceal.
7 / 10