Written by: Rik

Date posted: February 18, 2018

Speed boosts and jumps are effected by on-track symbols rather than pick-ups.

The shareware scene of the early to mid 90s was fertile territory for arcade titles inspired by better and more popular console games. In the pre-internet age, ads in computer magazines would list the shareware versions of games for sale – even though you could legitimately copy and share them yourself, you could also pay for disks to be sent to your house for a relatively low price – and you’d make a choice based on an optimistic two-line description that might lead you to believe you were unearthing an undiscovered gem.

For example, I recall a game called Sango Fighter being described as “just like” Street Fighter 2, in the same way that supermarket own-brand cola is “just like” the real thing. I’m sorry to say I’ve used that joke before, in my review of another shareware beat ’em up of the era, One Must Fall 2097, for which I always had a soft spot. OMF 2097 was one of my own early shareware purchases, along with Jazz Jackrabbit (“just like” Sonic The Hedgehog) and the game in question here, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Super Mario Kart.

If Mario Kart wasn’t the earliest example, its success certainly inspired a trend for cartoon characters and/or animals participating in go-kart races against each other for no particular reason. Here, there is some kind of orchestrated zoo escape alluded to by the intro sequence, but no further explanation is given. Whatever: animals are driving karts round in circles to win a race, and the hierarchy of animal racing dictates that hedgehogs cannot be included except to be flung at opponents as a weapon. A variety of species are available to choose from, although they seem to act largely as avatars, with no variation in performance either suggested by the manual or discernible in-game. (Although why anyone would choose a character other than Razer the shark, if only for the gleeful bite-based victory animations and the sheer comedy value of a big fish driving a kart on land, is beyond me).

Going into deep water doesn’t end your race, but it does slow you down.

Race championships come in various flavours: there are bronze, silver and gold track divisions, two engine sizes, and three opponent difficulty levels available. That’s a few more than Mario Kart, and perhaps a few more than is ideal, making an initial assessment of difficulty, er, difficult. Out on the track, you have to finish in the top 3 from a grid of 8 to progress. Fail to do so, and you lose a life, and have to have another crack at the race (until you succeed, or run out of lives).

The main weapon of choice is the aforementioned hedgehog, supplies of which you can pick up as you go around. The unfortunate critters appear to be undertaking a variety of activities on-track, but the mildly amusing animations are just for show: all hedgehogs are the same – a straight line weapon, kind of like Mario Kart‘s green shell, except they don’t ricochet, and you can carry more than one at a time (indeed you can amass vast stocks of them and fire at will).

There are other special weapons: an angry ball (er, ‘Devil Pups’ according to the manual), a bomb, an oil slick and a fireball, although the first three seem more likely to cause harm to you than anyone else. Other features of note include the handbrake turn, a move I never quite mastered, but one presumably designed to help negotiate the large number of sharp right-angled turns on some tracks. That seems to be the main innovation when it comes to track design, and getting stuck on corners or hitting one of a handful of race-ending objects are two of the main sources of peril.

Razer celebrates victory with a grin and a big tyre.

The engine is a bit chuggy and extended sessions can be mildly headache-inducing. There’s a feeling of the engine moving around the kart, as if you’re turning the landscape rather than your vehicle. If you’ve been conservative in your assessment of your skills and are reasonably experienced in such things, there’ll be little challenge at the lower end of the difficulty scale. Crank it up, and it can be moderately satisfying, particularly if you line up a hedgehog to take out the leader on the final straight, but on the highest settings, the AI just sort of warps past you en masse without giving you much sense that you could have stopped them. All you can do is try to catch up.

There’s a separate mode devoted to shooting hedgehogs at things, which is good fun for a little while. Your opponents this time are duck-based drones on wheels, which is a bit odd considering the animal theme: presumably ducks, like hedgehogs, are also lower in the pecking order as a non zoo-based animal and are are not permitted to race karts. Instead, they are fused with automotive machinery in order to serve as cannon fodder for the others. Or perhaps they’re not real ducks, I don’t know. Some of the ducks/drones wear helmets and goggles, which means they take two hits to kill instead of one.

Wacky Wheels is a jolly little game with bright visuals and catchy music that probably wasn’t designed to be played in single-player mode by a 36 year-old man hunched over a laptop. I do have some fond memories of split-screen multiplayer with sometime FFG contributor Jo and finding comedy value in the mocking messages you could send to your opponent in the form of a devil holding up a sign or making a face, and dabbling in the two-player hedgehog shoot-out.

Launching a hedgehog at a duck, like you do.

In single-player, it’s likeable enough and fun for a while, but there’s not a lot of variety in the tracks, and the multi-tiered difficulty settings seem like an attempt to spread the game’s content a little too thinly. Even if you come first in your chosen championship, the only way you’ll top the high-score chart that follows is to win every race: another reason to try again, if you really want to extract maximum value from the game.

We’ve mentioned Mario Kart already, but a more suitable reference point for PC karting fun would be SuperKarts, which is similarly frothy and colourful, but has a little more to it, particularly when it comes to the racing itself. For someone with some fond memories of Wacky Wheels first time around, it was certainly fun to revisit – and play the full ‘registered’ version so coveted but rarely experienced by skint teenagers – for a few hours at least, but it’s not, despite what those old adverts might have claimed, the PC’s answer to the SNES classic.