Tecmo's Gallop Racer series has been released in the U.S. almost annually since 1999. In the seventh installment, it's clear that the series has been polished and refined over those years, not only to make it an accurate representation of the sport it emulates, but also deeply satisfying to play, even for someone who didn't know a Preceder from a Closer before he picked up the controller.
The story mode lets you choose a jockey, complete with customized uniform, and trainer, each rendered in the Japanese super-deformed style. Right away the visuals and music are pleasing to the eyes and ears, and the menus are quick and easy to navigate. Both jockey and the horses he or she will ride have a wide selection of stats and skills that will make or break their racing ability. While your stats only go up as you race, horses will eventually decline until they're finally put out to pasture. The trainer not only provides said steeds, but will also dictates your racing goals, which can be everything from grabbing first place to settling on just barely beating the odds.
Now onto the race! After a glance at the betting odds and one last look at your mount, you're dropped into the gate with the horse sometimes visibly raring to go. Now the once super deformed appearance of the jockey has been altered to match the more realistic proportions of his mount, and the whole race plays out with some of the better visuals the PS2 has to offer, while the music remains a pleasant backdrop to the voice of the announcer and the thunderous clatter of hooves.
A perfect start is a matter of lining up two arrows that sweep back and forth. Easy to screw up even after countless races, this is the most frustrating part of the game, and might leave you jabbing the PS2's reset button. Once free of the gate, success becomes all about positioning. Horses are not machines, and so racing them is a little more complicated than stomping on the accelerator. They might take their time responding to the request to speed up, chose to slow down to drop back with the other horses, or even occasionally go a little wild and bolt on ahead. It's up to you as the jockey to cater to their individual wants while nudging them away from bad behaviors. So it's less a matter of rushing to the finish line, and more of keeping the horse happy so he'll want to do it for you.
The final leg is where your efforts pay off. A strong start and a happy horse will have plenty of stamina to reach the finish ahead of the competition, with proper goading from the rider's crop, but a mount that's been worn out from being pushed too hard isn't going to cross that line at anything but dead last. This can sometimes be a frustrating experience when you don't quite have a handle on the horse's behavior, but when rider and mount are in perfect synchronicity, sailing across the finish just barely ahead of the pack can be a pure adrenaline rush, with some wonderfully agonizing moments if the race is decided by a photo finish.
There's a slot machine-like display that gauges your overall riding ability during the three legs of the race, with a perfect performance rewarded with the coveted lucky sevens. This provides an unlimited whip gauge and will drive the horse to run beyond his normal limits during the final leg. Even the weakest of steeds can score a top spot while in the zone, but they can still tire out if pushed too hard. Lucky sevens might give you the edge, but they don't add up to certain victory.
After the race, you'll be evaluated and ranked on your performance. Do well and your stats will improve, opening up bigger and better opportunities. Finishing in one of the top spots will also improve your relations with your trainer, and grant access to new trainers. It will even attract rival jockeys, who you can compete against not only in races, but for the privilege to ride some of the better mounts. Do well over time and you'll be made the main jockey of a horse, which will allow you to decide which races it will run and even when it will retire to help breed the next generation of champions. You can even place bets on the ponies when you don't feel like riding one yourself.
The ultimate goal of story mode is to become top jockey, running in the best races on the greatest of horses, which might be the product of your own breeding experiments. Outside of story mode, there's also free play where you can ride the horse of your choice, compete against a friend, or just watch the show. Series Mode pits you against one of the other top jockeys in preset races, while Party Mode allows up to four people to get in on the action.
One particularly critical downside to this year's installment is the learning curve is steep, daunting and even a little discouraging for those unfamiliar with the series. While the elements of the game are explained in the manual and the in-game academy, it never shows you those elements coming together to provide a clear understanding of how to win a race. It took me many attempts, always finishing dead last, before the game clicked with me and I was able to earn my first victory. Even after that, a slight miscalculation can sometimes mean the difference between first and last place, making it more frustrating than it should be, especially when there seems to be no way to restart a race short of resetting your console.
The core of Gallop Racer 2004 is the result of years of selective breeding, offering a thrilling experience even for the racing neophyte, though with a high learning curve, unhelpful help options, and a sometimes far too narrow margin of success, it stumbles just short of the finish line.