I love racing games with a passion. I’ve been reviewing and obsessing over them for decades. While it’s fun to glorify all the greats – your Gran Turismos and your Forzas and your Project Gothams – to really appreciate how far we’ve come, I think it’s important to sometimes look at the stars that shine a little less bright. Or, in this case, to occasionally gaze into the heart of a black hole so dark you may be driven to hang up your controllers forever.
Prepare yourself, because today we’re looking at a game that made few waves when released for the original PlayStation in 2002 and should have been long-since forgotten. But I remember, dear readers, and I think it’s time that you join me in experiencing what is one of the worst racing games of all time: Hooters Road Trip.
It starts, of course, with America’s most shameful chain restaurant. (I promise I won’t dwell on the inexplicable success of a franchise that runs on a perplexing ability to convince men that A: the wings are worth the embarrassment, and B: the servers are interested in you, and not your tip money. They aren’t, and they aren’t.)
Now, think of Hooters Road Trip as something like the ultra-tacky cousin of Cruis’n USA. You’re competing in a country-spanning race, driving one of 16 generic, unlicensed cars and trucks, racing against a fleet of similarly anonymous entrants in one point-to-point event after another. Place well on an individual stage and you’ll continue on to the next, with your cumulative ranking determining whether you’ve won.
Really, though, there are no winners here.
Finish one set of stages and you’ll unlock another, including compelling routes like Ft. Lauderdale to Jacksonville to Raleigh and then... back to Jacksonville. There’s a lot of back-tracking here, running courses in reverse because doing that was surely a lot easier for the game developers than actually designing new courses.
If you finish near the top on enough segments, you’ll earn the potential to unlock yet another anonymous car. I say the potential because you actually unlock a license test that, in turn, unlocks the car. Yes, for some reason there are license tests here. I can only imagine some project manager dashing into a conference room at the last minute screaming “Guys, I just played Gran Turismo. We need license tests!”
Cue game developers groaning and rolling their eyes, and some poor soul slapping together the most rudimentary of challenges. Each test is simply a re-used race stage with the first mile filled with traffic cones outlining a sort of autocross obstacle course. The rest of the stage? Absolutely wide open. It’s the same test for every car, and they’re anything but challenging. I once got stuck against the wall for a good 30 seconds, hit about a dozen cones, and still finished with a minute to spare.
Hitting the wall is something you’ll do a lot of in Hooters Road Trip. After spending more hours than I care to admit playing this game, I got to the point where I could win races despite what is easily the most curious physics I’ve ever experienced in a driving game. Every car feels like it’s propped up on a 14-inch eBay lift kit with the anti-roll bars disconnected. Small steering inputs do nothing, until suddenly the car veers across the road and into the wall. I can only assume this is what driving drunk feels like.
The cars do differ slightly from one another in handling and acceleration characteristics — all bad. You have your choice of automatic or manual transmission, and this is the rare racing game where I’ll say automatic is the way to go. Why? For some reason, despite most of these cars having well in excess of 300 horsepower, none of them can hold 70 mph in fourth gear. Dyno sheets are not available for any of the cars, but I imagine their torque curves would look a little like a dagger turned upright: narrow and pointy.
As you swerve your way from one anonymous level to the next, automatic transmission spastically trying to find the power band, you’re serenaded by what can only be described as the kind of anonymous, vaguely southern rock that plays in the background in a buddy cop movie when the two hero protagonists suddenly find themselves in the middle of a bar fight. It’s the kind of music where the only thing that interrupts the guitar solos are the occasional harmonica solos.
The levels are all similarly forgettable. Some have cows and trees, while others have fields and trees, but there’s little personality to any of them. It’s very similar to the sort of pseudo globe-trotting experience in the Genesis classic Road Rash II. In fact, the graphics here are roughly on par with that, which may sound like a compliment, but it shouldn’t be: Road Rash II launched a decade earlier on a console with a tiny fraction of the processing power.
The real draw of Road Trip, then, must be the five-second video clips of Hooters servers welcoming you to whichever city you just wall-crashed into. Ten years before Vine, Hooters Road Trip showcased the power of short clips of awkward people. In this case, the subjects of the videos are doing their best/worst impression of whatever southern accent would be appropriate for your destination, attempting to give some semblance of location.
I presume all these clips were gathered in one drunken afternoon at the same Hooters restaurant. It’s hard to know, because as far as I can tell, every Hooters looks exactly the same.
Needless to say, you’ll be seeing a lot of images from various Hooters photoshoots — suggestive smiles and skimpy uniforms on display in every menu and loading screen. It’s all very titillating stuff for what I assume was this game’s target audience: young boys with inattentive parents.
I will give Hooters Road Trip credit for never crashing on me, even as I myself crashed again and again. Each level loaded in reasonable time and, though the videos sometimes skipped and stuttered a little, that likely has more to do with the age of the hardware I was using, not the game itself.
2002 was an era before over-the-air console updates, when developers had to finish a game before shipping it (instead of shipping it and then deciding whether or not to bother making it work). Hooters Road Trip is terrible to play, and I honestly feel gross even having its remnants on my PlayStation’s memory card, but I don’t fault the developers for any of that. The various bad decisions that resulted in this game surely happened further up the franchised food chain.
Blameless though this tragedy may be, it is nevertheless awful. I have plenty of bad games in my collection, many that I still view fondly. This one, though, I look forward to never playing ever again.