The basics of racing a car are simple enough: hit the gas and go. But racing horses? Far more complex than any machine. Handling a horse demands skill, finesse and even intimate knowledge of its personality quirks. This and many other previously unconsidered realties become apparent upon sampling Gallop Racer 2006, the latest in Tecmo's long-running series of horse-racing simulations. Gallop Racer's attention to detail is meticulous, so much so that it becomes difficult for an outsider to crack its shell and find the enjoyment that (you'd hope) lies inside.
The confusion begins when trying to figure out the basics of its main "career" mode, Theme Park. Choosing a horse and a series of races to run involves wading through multiple confusing screens filled with mysterious, unexplained statistical readouts that are only partially deciphered in the game's 50-page instruction manual. It's an overwhelming start, and you'll probably want to stop there. (Breeding new horses, at least, is fairly straightforward, and eliminates the enforced waiting periods from previous installments.)
Once you actually stumble into a race, the second big learning curve begins. As a jockey, you don't so much control your horse as keep it comfortable, in good spirits and in the general position you want it to maintain. Do this consistently and you might just win. Different horses have vastly different preferences; some may like to hang in the back of the pack until a final sprint, while others need to be up front the entire race. The only way to influence your ride is by pulling the reins to suggest a speed burst or by smacking it with your whip to supply a little extra motivation. Unfortunately, there's no tutorial to help get you up to speed on these unusual gameplay mechanics. Be prepared to spend a lot of your time early on staring at competing equine's asses, wondering why your mount can't or won't move his own more quickly.
There isn't much to discover beyond the Theme Park mode; a "free" mode lets you run single, random races while "simulation" mode lets you create custom horses, cups and so on. Clearly, these are secondary attractions, much like the rough, 2001-era graphics. On the other hand, the eclectic, easy-going soundtrack is actually pretty enjoyable, unless you only like death metal.
Gallop Racer 2006 would be more fun if its presentation weren't so overwhelmingly confusing and its races so surprisingly difficult: it's a nasty combo. Behind-the-scenes number-crunching accounts for a large part of each race's outcome, making it essential to truly master the arcane array of statistics that the game plasters onscreen. Those elite horse-racing diehards who know the terminology and can deal with the unintuitive presentation might just find themselves seriously addicted. Unfortunately, those of us doomed to check the manual every two minutes to see if it explains the latest mystery concept would probably be better off scouting out a more beginner-friendly game... maybe even one with pedals instead of reins. Once bitten, twice shy.