Note 1: Like Neo Geo games? Check out my other Neo Geo reviews!
Note 2: This game was played on a Neo Geo AES home console that has been modified to output in component video (red, green, blue). It was connected to a 32-inch HD tv.
Quick History: Stakes Winner was released for the Neo Geo AES home console in 1995 in the United States in very small quantities. In Japan, where horse-racing games are more popular, the game was released in somewhat larger quantities – there just wasn’t a huge demand in the U.S. though, so original U.S. copies are exceedingly rare. Stakes Winner was also released for the Neo Geo MVS (arcade cabinet) in much larger quantities, and many of the MVS arcade cartridges can easily be found today. Because AES home console cartridges and MVS arcade-cabinet cartridges like Stakes Winner are the exact same game, today, MVS cartridges can be converted to AES cartridges. The copy of Stakes Winner used for this review is a professional AES conversion cartridge (meaning the board from the MVS arcade cartridge of Stakes Winner was placed into an AES cartridge).
Players: 1 or 2 player
Gameplay: In Stakes Winner, you compete in twelve horse races in Japan. Each race includes 8 horses, and the goal is to finish in the top 3 (preferably 1st) in each race. If you finish in the top 3, you’ll get a pre-determined cash-payout based on your placement. Part of the fun of the game, in addition to the racing, is trying to accumulate as much money as possible (the highest race payout is $1,300,000), making getting a high score part of the game. If you don’t finish in the top 3, you’ll have to use one of your 4 Credits (continues) and try the race again. Use all 4 of your Credits, and it’s Game Over!
Naming your Jockey: At the beginning of the game, you name your jockey. You have up to 4 letters to use, and the name you enter will be used throughout the game.
Selecting your Horse: There are 8 selectable horses in the game, each with their own particular advantages: Asian Hope, Be Silent, Brave Lady, Euro Union, Hot Sand, Sky Dancer, U.S. Fighter, and White Heat. The horses have 3 attributes – Speed, Stamina, and Strength – with a set number of stars that indicate how strong they are in each area. Speed tells you how fast their top speed is; Stamina tells you how long they can hold out running without getting tired; Strength tells you how fast they can run uphill. Between certain races, you have opportunities to ‘train’ your horse in 1 of 3 selectable areas by having them run an obstacle course. If you do well on the obstacle course, you’ll gain extra stars, boosting your horse’s stats and overall performance. Each horse is surprisingly different, and finding one that suites your playing style is quite fun. For example, some horses are quick out of the gate, but taper off because of a low top speed; some are slow out of the gate, but speedy in the home stretch. If you lose a race, you can change horses if you choose to.
Control: While riding your horse, tapping A pulls the reigns, making your horse gallop at a steady rate – this uses only a little of your horse’s ‘power bar.’ Tapping B makes you whip your horse, causing him to gallop much faster – this uses a lot of your horse’s power bar. If you whip your horse for too long, he’ll start shaking his head (a small ‘horse-head’ icon is on-screen during races that shows how your horse is doing) – if you keep whipping him after he shakes his head, he’ll stop running and walk slowly, exhausted. Note: In the last few hundred meters of a race, you can whip your horse repeatedly without him shaking his head – the horse senses the end of the race, evidently. If you use all of your horse’s power bar before the finish line, your horse will stop altogether, and you’ll be disqualified. While running, if another horse is in front of you, you can double tap forward to butt the horse out of your way, which is quite useful. Also, if a rider is coming up hard on your heels, you can double tap backwards and you’ll brake, making the horse behind you stall.
Items: While racing, certain icons will appear on the track, and these can be the difference between finishing in the top 3 or the bottom 5. Simply riding your horse over these icons picks them up, and they take effect immediately. ‘Wing’ icons give your horse a tremendous 3-4 second speed boost. ‘Carrot’ icons replenish some of your horse’s power bar, extremely useful during long races when your horse is low on power. ‘Poison Bottle’ icons cause your horse to slow down considerably for 3-4 seconds. ‘Mole hole’ icons slow your horse down for approximately 2 seconds. ‘Question Mark’ icons give you one of the 4 aforementioned items. ‘Exclamation Point’ icons…I can’t tell what effect these have, but it doesn’t seem to be
anything negative, at least.
2 player mode: 2 player mode is exactly like 1 player mode – no split screen or anything like that, like in some racing games. A nice feature of 2 player mode is if one player gets left behind, the game will automatically push him or her forward, not far behind the other player. This is because the camera always follows whoever is in the lead. This method works well if you’re playing with one experienced player and one inexperienced player, particularly. If you’re both good, however, you’ll both probably stay within a few meters of each other anyway. Also, both players can choose the same horse.
Music & Sound: A digitized version of ‘Camptown Races’ plays during certain parts of the game, adding to the horse-racing atmosphere. During races, catchy tunes play that are appropriate for the sport and compliment the gameplay well. During the end of races, an upbeat and frantic tune plays, letting you know it’s time to start whipping your horse to push hard for the home stretch. The sound effects are well done as well, from the crack of the whip, to the yelling of the jockeys when you bump their horses (which is in Japanese!), to the neighing of the horses.
Races: Here is a list of the twelve tracks in Stakes Winner. Finish all twelve in the top 3 before losing all 4 of your Credits, and you’ll beat the game.
Race Name Distance in Meters Payout for 1st
1. Maidens 1,000 m $59,000
2. Sapporo Juvenile 1,200 m $320,000
3. Juvenile Stakes 1,600 m $540,000
4. 2000 Guineas 2,000 m $970,000
5. Derby Stakes 2,400 m $1,300,000
6. St. Leger 3,000 m $1,110,000
7. Japan Grandprix 2,500 m $1,300,000
8. Emperor Spring Cup 3,200 m $1,300,000
9. Champion Stakes 2,200 m $1,300,000
10. Emperor Autumn Cup 2,000 m $1,300,000
11. Japan Cup 2,400 m $1,300,000
12. Japan Grandprix 2,500 m $1,300,000
*Note: I’d read online that 2 additional ‘hidden’ races, the Breeder’s Cup Classic and Prix de le Arc Triumphe, became available if you finish in first place in the 5th (or 9th) race or 12th race, respectively. However, the Breeder’s Cup Classic seems only to be available when the game is on Normal, MVS, or Hard, and it seems to be a random selection of which race (5th OR 9th) you need to come in 1st in in order to unlock the Breeder’s Cup. In order to get the true ending of the game, you’ll have to unlock and come in 1st place on the Prix de le Arc Triumphe.
Difficulty: Before each match, you can set the difficulty from Easy, Normal, MVS (arcade difficulty), and Hard. You won’t have much trouble beating the game on Easy or even Normal.
Memory Card: If you have a Neo Geo memory card, you can save your game after you lose all 4 of your Credits. You can then re-start with 4 credits from the last race you were on. While this is helpful, the true challenge of the game is trying to beat it using only the 4 given Credits, or even only 1 Credit.
Language: Although this review is for the U.S. version of the game, you’ll notice Japanese writing in some parts of the game. This in no way affects gameplay. Everything major is in English.
So, where can I find this game? Good luck finding an original U.S. AES copy of Stakes Winner since they’re so rare. There are many MVS arcade copies available however, and some websites on the Internet specialize in professionally converting MVS arcade cartridges to AES home console cartridges. There is also a Neo Geo CD ‘special edition’ version which adds some features, but I believe it is a Japan-only release. You can download the rom for play on a computer, of course.
Note: Stakes Winner was also released for the Sega Saturn, but that seems to be some type of ‘special edition’ version, like the Neo Geo CD version. In that version, features are added like ‘breeding race horses,’ and training your horse before big races. Additionally, there is a ‘best of 3 races’ 2 player VS mode, but you cannot play through the game together like on the Neo Geo AES version. While the Saturn version seems to have some intriguing ideas, it takes away from the ‘pick-up-and-play, arcade’ feel of the Neo Geo AES version. Also, it was a Japan-exclusive game, and almost everything is in Japanese, including the game’s multiple menus and constant dialogue boxes from your ‘coach’. If you can read Japanese, it’s probably a good ‘special edition’ – if not, I wouldn’t recommend the Saturn version.
Conclusion: It’s a shame that horse-racing games never caught on in the United States, because Stakes Winner is awesome. After a few races, I was hooked. It’s unlike any other racing game I’ve ever played, and there’s far more strategy involved than other racing games (easy-to-learn strategy, mind you). So much of the game has to do with pacing your horse, then making your move at the right time. It’s extremely addictive. The game looks great – very colorful tracks, horses, and jockeys (except when it’s a rainy day on the track, but the dreariness is a nice change-of-pace), and the music and sound effects complete the package.
The Southern Gentleman’s Opinion and Letter Grade: I didn’t think this game would be anything special, but was thrilled to be proven wrong. Recommended if you’re looking for something new. A