When it comes to the NEOGEO, a few genres come to mind. Fighting games. Side-scrolling action games. Maybe shooters and beat-em-ups. The usual array of sports. You probably don’t think of horse racing games, but this was an arcade platform that was sold in Japan in the 1990s. With that in mind, it’s probably not a huge shocker to find out that it played host to a couple of games based on the sport. The only real surprise is that SNK bothered to bring them out in the West. The latest release in the ACA NEOGEO line, Stakes Winner ($3.99), has one more surprise up its sleeve: it kind of rules.
Developer Saurus was founded in 1994 and was largely made up of former SNK employees who didn’t feel like moving to Osaka after SNK closed its Tokyo offices. It worked on several NEOGEO games along with a variety of console ports and is probably best known in the West as the team behind the shock troopers top-down run-and-guns. Like a lot of the developers working on NEOGEO games in the later years of the console’s life, Saurus was really good at flexing the aging system’s strong points to make attractive, detailed visuals for its games. Anyway, off to the horse races.
Horse racing is still somewhat popular in Japan to this day, but in the 1990s it was going through an especially big boom. In typical fashion, everyone and their uncle was soon making a horse racing game for the various consoles of the era. The junk bins at second hand game shops in Japan are positively drowning in horse racing games for the Super Famicom, PlayStation, and SEGA Saturn. Some of those games took a heavy sim approach to raising and racing your steeds, while others were little more than gambling games. Stakes Winner does what many other NEOGEO sports games did so well: it takes a sport with a lot of nuances and complicated aspects and compacts it into a fun, approachable arcade game.
The first thing you’ll do when you start the game is name your jockey. Four letters ought to be enough for anyone, right? You then get to choose your horse from a group of several colorful characters. They all have their own stats, racing style, and appearance, along with a fancy name. With that done, you’re ready to race. There are twelve races in total in the game, and you need to rank in the top three if you want to win any money. As an added incentive, failing to rank in the top three means you’ll have to drop another coin in. That doesn’t matter much for us here in the current year with our fancy unlimited credits, though. Neighbor, it’s all about that cash prize total, which works as an ersatz score. You’ll want to do your best to earn the top prize in every race.
The racing itself is fairly simple. You can move your horse around with the stick, with a double-tap forward making it jostle any horses in front of it and a double-tap back slowing you right down. You have one button that flicks the reins a little and speeds up your horse at the cost of a little stamina, and another button that whips the horse for a big speed burst at the cost of a lot of stamina. That’s all there is to it. The first couple of races are so short that you can pretty much fly through them at top speed without fear of running out of stamina, but after that you’re going to have to be very careful about when and where you apply that whip.
Throwing a wrench into the racing is the presence of pick-ups along the track. Some of these are good, offering you a speed burst or extra stamina, while others are bad, slowing you down for varying lengths of time. In case you were wondering why you would ever use the move to slow down, avoiding those bad items is one great reason. The only other wrinkle to the game comes from the training segments, where you can earn permanent upgrades for your horse. You’ll need to get good at these as the later races are almost impossible if your stats aren’t up to where they should be.
While it’s far from conventional, especially if you’re unfamiliar with horse racing, Stakes Winner offers all the fun of a good racing game. The core stamina management aspect forces you to consider the track you’re on, and the pick-ups and other horses add in that vital element of chaos that keeps things spicy. You can even play this with another player, and it’s an amazingly good time. Of course, that’s pretty hard to do with this mobile version. You have to play locally and you’ll need some external controllers. I’m just going to assume you’ll mainly be playing alone. Still, even taken in that context, Stakes Winner is really enjoyable.
Hamster has done its usual work with this, and I could almost copy and paste this paragraph in these reviews at this point. You get a wide range of options to tweak, and you can choose between the Japanese and overseas version of the game. The usual extra modes are here, though they’re not quite as fun as they are in something like a shooting game. You can use an external controller to play, though the touch controls are mainly adequate. The double-taps are a little annoying to do on a virtual stick, but you can get the hang of it with a bit of practice.
Stakes Winner gets some extra credit just for being something a little off the beaten track, but it is a genuinely excellent arcade game all on its own. SNK had a knock for this sort of thing, and the end result is a horse racing game that I think anyone can enjoy even if they have zero prior interest in the sport. I hope we eventually see the sequel, Stakes Winner 2but until then there’s plenty of fun to be had with this fine version of the original.