A few months back, Hamster and SNK released Stakes Winner in the ACA NEOGEO mobile line. As I am wont to, I reviewed it and found it to be a really enjoyable and unique game that fit the needs of mobile gaming quite well. Well, now we have Stakes Winner 2 ($3.99). What are the differences? Is it better? Worse? Will it pull ahead by a nose, or is it just another old nag? I’m trying to write like an old GamePro writer. Do you like it? Probably not. Look, I’ve done so many of these games, it’s getting hard to write an introduction paragraph. The main thing is that we’ve got the follow-up to a game that surprised me in a pleasant way, and it’s time to see if this one can do the same.
Stakes Winner 2 was a relatively swift sequel, as these things go. The first game was an immediate hit in Japan when it hit in late 1995, and SNK wasn’t going to rest on its laurels. Developer Saurus was tapped to make another game in the series, and it wouldn’t be the last time it would have to take on this task. It would, however, be the last time Saurus would do so on the NEOGEO hardware. Given the quick development cycle of just one year, you can probably imagine that the game doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. In a lot of ways, it feels very similar to the first game. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to keep in mind.
That means the racing action is going to be familiar if you followed my advice and played the first game. You’ll have to manage your stamina as you make your way around each track. grab useful items, and try not to run into any of the other horses while doing so. There’s a new Burst move you can use once per race in the final sprint and it can be the difference between victory and defeat. Each horse now has a stat for this ability, so you’ll want to consider that when picking between the now dozen-strong roster. Jockeys now have some special moves of their own, busted out with fighting game-style commands, and this adds yet another layer of strategy to each race. The races are faster and even more fun than before, and while I will once again bang my drum that this game is super-fun with another player, it’s good enough to enjoy even if you’re riding solo.
Those new jockey moves come courtesy of the Jockey Training selection between races, a new feature added to the game. Pay a big chunk of money, get a slick move. You can also pick these moves up if you manage to beat a Rival when they challenge you. As before, you can also train your horse in a minigame between races to get some permanent upgrades to their stats, an essential part of keeping pace with the pack as you go deeper and deeper into the career mode. You’ll also find yet another new addition between races in the form of a special shop. You can spend your hard-earned money here to buy items you can use in the next race. So here again we see the basic foundation of the first game left intact but with new things built on to add some complexity and strategy to the proceedings.
One more cool thing is that you can now choose between two… what are they called? Derbies? Well, you can pick between Europe or America this time, which means you’ve got two completely different modes to clear in story mode, each with their own tracks. Given that you will likely be playing this mobile version of the game in single-player, that kind of extra content is extremely meaningful. All the new ways to spend money add another consideration to your gameplay choices, because your final winnings is your score. If you spent more along the way, your score will be lower. To push your score higher, you have to rely less on the various helpers the game offers. In this ACA NEOGEO version, it’s even more important since you’ll be posting that score to the leaderboards to compete with other players.
Look, I’ll wear it proudly: I love Stakes Winner and I love its sequel even more. I didn’t think I would, but after giving them a fair shake I think these are some of my favorite non-fighters on the NEOGEO. The second game is one of the deeper single-player experiences available on the platform, as far as I’m concerned. I know this kind of game is odd for Western tastes, but if you’re patient with it and take it on its own terms, I think you’ll love it too. As a game, Stakes Winner 2 is excellent.
How is it as a mobile experience, though? Well, as mentioned you aren’t going to get to play the fun multiplayer mode unless you have external controllers and a desire to huddle around your mobile device. I think it’s wonderful even as a single-player experience, so it can survive that loss. As for the controls, I do have to admit that pulling off the special moves is a bit trickier than I’d like on the virtual stick. It’s a bit better to play on an external controller if you have one, but I’d say it’s still mostly fine on touch controls. Just be aware this is a more complex game than the first one and that means the controls have more to deal with.
The extra ACA NEOGEO modes are here, and the Score Attack mode is a great challenge. The Caravan mode doesn’t do much for me on this game, but you can’t win them all. The usual options are available, so you can tweak game settings, controls, and so on as you like. Hamster’s emulation is as on-point as ever, so the game looks, sounds, and plays just the way it should. I’d like to do my usual whinge about not having internet or wireless multiplayer, but I acknowledge that some of these games are so niche that I should be happy we’re getting them at all.
If you liked Stakes Winner, you’ll love Stakes Winner 2. While the core of the game remains the same and the overall presentation hasn’t changed a great deal, the additions to the single-player mode significantly enhance the overall experience. It’s a zippier game, a more strategic game, and just a better experience on the whole. There aren’t many games like this out there, especially in English, and I think those who are willing to take the gamble on something unusual will find themselves rewarded for their courage.