Pop culture is going through a powerful Y2K phase. The fashion, movies, games, commercials, and technology of the ‘00s is now coming up from the “uncool” valley back into relevance. With that rise, some old memories from my 2000s upbringing are coming back, and I’ve explored some of them like Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed before. Now, we’re going to take a look at something even more obscure: Hot Wheels video games.
I’m not sure how many of us actively remember the very early 2000s era of gaming. I vividly recollect most of the Need for Speed games and some other nerd tidbits like Microsoft Train Simulator. Recently, I got cleaved over my head with a powerful nostalgia for old Hot Wheels video games. Stuff like Hot Wheels: Velocity X, Hot Wheels: Crash, and Stunt Track Driver. If that rings a loud bell, this is the article for you.
Sadly, I couldn’t figure out a way to play these very old games. It’s a miracle that I got to play Porsche Unleashed from 1999, but that’s only because of its cult status in the NFS universe. I forgot about these Hot Wheels games until I recently rewatched the Hot Wheels movies, and I don’t think I’m alone in totally forgetting about them too. I played them all in-period, but it was such a long time ago that I can hardly give an accurate review. Instead, we’re going to watch some old Youtube videos and let the memories flow, from least favorite to most.
First game up is Hot Wheels: Velocity X. This is the game I have the most fractured memories of, and certainly the least “aha” moments of explosive recollection of any of the other games. Still, when I watch the intro to the story mode, I clearly remember the nearly Metal Gear Solid style two talking heads dialogue and distinct cutscene art style. I especially remember the extremely cool cover car and protagonist car of the game: the MS-T Suzuka.
This game came out one year before the 35th anniversary Hot Wheels content explosion of 2003 that brought us the World Race movie, but well after the first Fast and Furious film. This game is clearly inspired by the newly mainstream tuner culture, and the Suzuka drips with import car vibes. In the opening cinematic, the main character even uses nitrous in the very Fast esque instant speed boost.
Gameplay is what I remember most, with distinctly funky animations and the extreme coolness of driving the Hot Wheels cars I had in real life, in the game. I didn’t spend a lot of time on the game as a kid, so I must have not enjoyed it much. Still, the cold color palette and muted urban tones of the whole game look boring to some, but are interesting to my eyes. I also think it’s funny how things just stick to the roofs of the cars for transport. An extra little detail that sparked neurons in my brain is how the powerup bars fold up at the start of a mission like grade crossing gates, something I loved even as a kid. For 2002, the graphics are up to snuff, and have aged semi-gracefully.
For our second guest we have to look at Stunt Track Driver. This is a game I remember playing very well, but haven’t seen in over a decade. In fact, this might be the game I logged the most hours on of the three, but the videos have shown me that my memory is rosier than the reality. I don’t remember the graphics and shading being so primitive, but I remember the premise of the game well, and I especially remember the amazing intro: racing miniature Hot Wheels cars on a Hot Wheels track set up in a random suburban home. This is the oldest game here, released in 1998. I was barely born when this came out.
This is also the most basic of all the games. The graphics and tracks are actually pre-rendered Commodore 64 style, while the playable Hot Wheels car seems to be some kind of 3D modeled car with weird 2D shading to make it blend into the track. Despite the primitive method of creating motion graphics, the game still manages to have a bright, diverse color palette and extremely memorable maps. The whole premise of the game is air-tight for Hot Wheels, especially for kids. Who doesn’t want to race on the ultimate at-home Hot Wheels track?
Back to that intro cinematic for a moment, how cool is that totally unrealistic and utterly fantastical scene of a Hot Wheels 18-wheeler pulling up to your house and delivering the ultimate set of die-cast cars and tracks for your every desire? It’s pretty freakin’ cool. Not long after a track-building marathon, you pick your favorite model car from a fun rotary selector, and boom you are straight into the action. I miss when gaming was this simple.
Speaking of simplicity, this game is so far in the past that I remember playing this on Windows 98 and Windows ME. There is zero way to get it running on Windows 7 or 10 unless there’s a secret miracle worker out there making it happen. I really wish I could experience this game again because I remember it being fairly difficult as a five-year-old. I want to re-experience the little mice hiding in the walls of the basement and the cat being scared off by my small toy car in-game again. Alas, this is out of reach. I suspect that it would play fairly slow and clunky by today’s standards, but a boy can dream.
Finally, we’re at my absolute favorite: Hot Wheels: Crash. This might actually be the worst game empirically of the three games, so I repeat: this is my personal favorite. The premise here is the most simple: crash… for a movie scene. Now, this may sound like the Stuntman series, but this game predates the first stuntman by three years, released in 1999. It is also decidedly primitive in concept. Watching clips of this game convinces me that it had none of the replay value that I thought it had as a single-digit child, but all kids love crashing stuff.
It’s the campiest and most charming of the games because of this simple attitude towards the game design. It reminds me of the old 1996 Construction Zone game from Matchbox and Caterpillar, but only graphically and in its destructive intent. That’s another nostalgia-laden game, but for another time.
What’s most amazing about the game is the sound design. It’s satisfying and reaction-inducing, even today. I’m not saying that it’s good sound design, because it’s cartoonishly infantile. The crashing sound clips almost sound like a kid playing war games with an imaginary bomber, and I fucking die laughing every time you launch the car towards its exploding goal. It sounds exactly like someone at the game studio went out to the parking lot with a microphone and did a clutch dump in their Dodge Neon. The most satisfying sound effect is the explosion; a classic and crisp sounding one that always makes me duck a little bit and laugh from the comical exaggeration of it.
There is absolutely zero depth to this game. It’s as simple as launching a car into things. I love it to bits.
Well folks, that’s the trio for today. I’m going to dive deeper into a more interesting concept that Hot Wheels played with for its 35th anniversary: online games. For now, debate with me on which of these three games are the best. Better yet, which ones did you play when you were young? Tell me in the comments. And oh yeah, if you know how to play any of these on a modern machine, pass that info along!