Getting in touch with my country roots
Everyone has their favorite game from growing up. For some, it was Super Mario Sunshine, or Ocarina of Time, or maybe GoldenEye. What was my favorite game growing up, you ask? Well, Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue, of course.
It was only a matter of time before I outed myself as a reformed horse girl on the internet. I started horseback riding as an extracurricular when I was in third grade and continued through the end of middle school. I always forget it was such a big part of my life. I think because I repressed all the embarrassing stuff, like pretending to be a horse on the playground. At least if I have to admit to this, it’s under the pretext of having a sweet job where I get to write about video games.
Anyway, it was only natural that that love of horses crossed over into my gaming. My siblings and I had a few different consoles growing up, from a Gameboy Advance to a Wii to an Xbox 360. Of all of the various consoles we had, though, I’d say the PS2 was the most formative for me. This is in part because I spent the most time playing on that console, shoring up my allegiance to the PlayStation brand.
While my brother and our neighbor friends were playing Fallout, Halo, and Star Wars Battlefront, I would often sit and watch. I can’t quite remember why I never played for myself, but I think it was a combination of unfamiliarity with dual-stick controls and the underlying belief that those games weren’t for girls.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in the heart of the South, and although I don’t recall anyone explicitly telling me I couldn’t play those games, I never really did. I certainly felt drawn to things that were “made for boys,” but there was also an intense pressure to present as femininely as possible. I found a sort of workaround, though, because I would watch Power Rangers and say my brother “made me” or watch him play Bioshock under the guise of spending quality time with him.
Naturally, the games I played all fell into one of two categories: being under the umbrella of traditionally “girly” intellectual properties like High School Musical, Hannah Montana, or of course Barbie, or being about a traditionally feminine occupation or role, like Cooking Mama or Disney’s Princess Magical Dress Up.
Of course, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the content of these games, but it did put me in a box, so to speak. Everything from the look to the sound effects to the gameplay design of these types of games is eerily similar, with all of the pink and the cheery feminine voices and sparkly sound effects (if you know, you know). Although I did play quite a lot of games when I was younger, I missed out on a ton of different genres or properties I really would have liked if someone had encouraged me to try them.
Now that I’m an adult with my own adult life, I thought it would be really fun to go back and play my old favorite game, Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue. I wanted to analyze it with fresh eyes and see how the gameplay held up. Plus, this game was just a big part of my childhood, and I thought it would be interesting to revisit it for the sake of nostalgia.
Wild Horse Rescue was released in 2003 for the PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox, and was the third game in the Barbie Horse Adventures series. “Ah, these games much have a rich history,” I can hear you telling yourself. Nope, not even close. In what I think is a truly hilarious series of events, the first three games in this series were released within less than a month of each other, on September 17, September 23, and November 4 of 2003, respectively.
It makes a bit more sense when you consider that they were all released on different platforms, but it still cracks me up that when Barbie decided to venture into the equestrian-themed video game market, she decided to corner it basically overnight. Iconic.
The first step in my new playthrough was ordering a copy online, so naturally, eBay was the way to go. I found cheap copies right away, so that wasn’t an issue. Next, I had to figure out how I was going to play it because I don’t have a PlayStation 2. Thankfully, my friend Dan collects all kinds of old consoles and games, and he was kind enough to lend me his PS2. A short drive to K-town and I was set.
Next, I had to set it up and get it working, which proved to be a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. For one thing, I forgot composite cables were a thing, but luckily my TV still had the plugs for it so I dodged a bullet there. The next problem I encountered was that the power cable for the PS2 was on the fritz, and it would only stay powered on if I held it a certain way. Of course, that wasn’t going to fly if I needed to keep my mitts on the controller, so I had to find a hands-free solution.
After some pitiful trial and error with various kinds of tape, I ended up propping the console up on the game box, which kept me going on my whole playthrough. Sometimes the most effective solutions are the simplest ones.
Finally, it was time to load up the game, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had flashes of memories of it in my mind, but I hadn’t looked at any footage of the game in preparation for this — I wanted to go in completely blind.
As soon as the title screen appeared and the music washed over me, suddenly I was nine years old again, back in the unfinished basement of my family home in North Carolina. I remember exactly what that old ratty couch looked like, the heavy, damp air that required us to use a dehumidifier, and how I would sprint up the stairs when it got too dark down there.
Having that all wash over me, while I was sitting in the living room of my own adult apartment, was a bit overwhelming. I had to sit there in silence, taking it all in for a few seconds. For me, this wasn’t just one of those games that I remembered, but one that really took me back, you know?
I’ve been through a lot recently, and taking a few moments to go back to my headspace from when I was a kid was powerful and comforting in a way. I wasn’t just remembering the game itself, but what life used to be like when I played it, and just how simple everything used to be. I’m still a youngin’ at 24, so this was one of the first times I understood just how strong the drug of nostalgia can be.
So during this playthrough, I thought it was hilarious that the game gave me zero story or cutscenes or anything — it just got straight to the action. I thought maybe this was a deliberate design choice to get kids with short attention spans straight to the game, but apparently, there’s a whole opening cutscene that establishes the context and story that I never saw once, either in my dozens of playthroughs as a kid, or this time around, either. I genuinely have no idea how this could have happened, but I certainly learned something new today.
Instead, I was immediately thrown into the dressing room to pick out an outfit for Barbie. I’m still a huge fan of dress-up games, so I was pumped for this one, but the developers made a major error — none of the clothes match each other. I seriously don’t understand how this oversight could have slipped through the cracks. The most egregious part of it all is that none of the leather hats match the boots. Isn’t that, like, kind of the whole point? Huge issue considering how important this kind of thing is to the core demographic of these games, but I digress.
Next, the game takes you into the stables to pick out your horse, of which you only have one at the start. This is all fine and good when you consider the whole game is about rescuing more horses, sure. The part about it that confused me, though, is that you can change pretty much everything about the horse’s appearance, from the color of their coat to their markings to the length of their mane.
The horses’ appearances are the only thing that distinguishes them from each other as far as I can tell because there aren’t any stats or any discernible personalities for any of them. So at this point, I have to beg the question…What’s the point? Why do I even bother getting more horses if they’re all the same? Honestly, just throwing some fluff stats at me would have been enough. I guess this unfounded rage is the downside of playing children’s games as an adult. Let’s move on.
This whole time Barbie has been looping through, like, the same two voice lines about whatever task I’m doing at the moment, which is a bit annoying. This will continue through the rest of my playthrough, and as far as gripes go, it could be worse than Barbie repeatedly telling me how to change the horse’s saddle, right?
Next, we move to the open hub world in the stables, where you return after every level. There’s a smaller courtyard area where I started with the dressing room, stables, and a mini-game to clean off your horse. I didn’t remember this mini-game being so satisfying, but I’ll leave that to my obsession with watching power washing videos on Reddit. It even gave me a percentage of how clean my horse was at the end, which was a nice touch.
In the larger courtyard area, there are paths to the nine main levels in the game: three in the forest, three in the snowy mountains, and three on the coast, and one bonus trail once you’ve gotten through all those. The trails only unlock sequentially, so you have to complete them in order. Simple enough.
I was shocked at how well I remembered the first few levels of this game. They were ingrained in my subconscious, just waiting to be awakened like some sort of ancient prophecy. When I was playing later in the afternoon, and it started getting darker out, I almost forgot where I was for a second. It was all enough to make me feel like I was back in that dark, unfinished basement, which was such a bizarre but also really cool experience.
The main gameplay loop has you ride through these different trails, obviously, and there are different obstacles to avoid, items to collect, the kind of stuff you would expect. At the end of each level, there’s, I guess, what other games would call a final boss. But this is a Barbie game, so it’s all a bit friendlier than that.
Basically, you have to either chase down a wild horse and lasso it, something that used to take me forever when I was a kid. When I approached this section of the level this time through, I was super nervous, mostly because I knew the controls were janky as hell. To my surprise, I got it in about fifteen seconds. Huh, I guess my gaming skills have improved somewhat.
The most hilarious part of the main gameplay loop to me is these foals (that’s a baby horse) that you have to rescue on the trails. At first, they’re just as simple as walking up to one and walking it back to the “safe point,” but it only escalates from there. You’ll see foals in mazes, on top of buildings, out on an island in the middle of a body of water, and it’s like how in the hell did you even do that in the first place?
What was this storm, a hurricane that launched these foals at 200 miles per hour? Look, I know it’s just a cute excuse to let me rescue little horses on the trails, but I seriously can’t get past how ridiculous it is. It made me laugh every time, and it was the best.
There are also some mini-games on the trails, like a timed race where you have to hit a bunch of checkpoints to win a prize. Spoiler alert, the prize is a ribbon, and it’s completely worthless. Unless you really like the pride in a job well done, it’s seriously not worth it because the game controls like a newborn deer on ice skates, so trying to do anything with precision is nearly impossible. Trust me, save yourself the frustration and just get on with it.
This is also more of a detail from my friend Dan’s PS2 controller than the game, but the one he gave me is actually a little bit broken. Any time I jumped over anything in the game or ran into an enemy, the mechanism that was supposed to create a vibration inside the controller just kind of clunked around. Ironically, this kind of added to my nostalgia, because our controller was broken like that too, after my dad football spiked it into the ground out of frustration during an unforgiving level of Jak & Daxter.
Like I said, the first few levels in the forest area were super familiar to me. One of the levels has a race against Barbie’s friend Teresa at the end instead of a horse lassoing ordeal, another moment I remembered well and was anticipating throughout this playthrough.
I was all hyped up, ready to go, and even said a few words of smack talk to Teresa (in real life, although I wish that was an in-game feature). Then I beat it first try with minimal effort. I really thought this game would be as hard as I remembered, at least because of the controls being wonky, but I guess playing a game made for children as an adult is usually going to be easier than you think.
The first few levels were actually a lot of fun for me just for the sake of taking a trip down memory lane, but after that, it started to feel a bit monotonous. Don’t get me wrong, anyone under the age of, like, twelve who loves horses will be enamored by this game, but now I see it as a perfectly functional game that’s just… not for me anymore.
All of that to say, once I got past the point that I remembered, I was really struggling. There are a few additions to make the game more challenging, like different puzzles, mazes, and set pieces, but after the gimmick wore off it just made it more time-consuming for me, not more fun. I have to give it to the game designers, though — when I was playing, I never felt like they phoned it in. I get the sense that they were really trying to make something that kids would enjoy, and they passed that test with flying colors.
I even tried to reach out to the director of this game, Phil Drinkwater, just to get a sense of how he feels about it after all of these years. He didn’t respond, but you know what, I’m glad he didn’t. I hope he’s out there living his best life because it’s what he deserves after gracing us with this masterpiece. Even though he doesn’t work in games anymore, I hope he’s proud knowing that there are people who really love the work he made back in the day, enough that they’ll replay it over a decade later just for fun.
So I finally got to the special bonus trial, which I never got as a kid because I couldn’t make it past the fourth or fifth level. This was the part I was most excited about because I used to always ride past that gate and wonder what beautiful secrets lay beyond it.
Well, I hate to have to tell you this, but it was kind of a disappointment. It was just a linear trail with a few open sections, the main appeal being all of the loot you get to pick up along the way. I’ve never been much of a loot person when I play games, so that was a bust. There was also a pretty extensive hedge maze in there, but we already know how I feel about those.
Replaying this game was certainly a trip, but more than anything, it got me thinking about my own identity as a “gamer” and how I interact with that label. I know it’s all a bit of a meme at this point, but I’ve honestly always had some imposter syndrome when it comes to all the games I missed out on.
Insecurity aside, I think this is really important for me to talk about. It’s no secret that the games industry can be really gatekeep-y, and although it’s thankfully gotten better over the past few years, it’s something people still have to deal with, especially people of marginalized communities.
I’ve worked as a games writer for over three years, and I’ve even worked at a AAA studio — that’s about as qualified as it gets, but somehow I still found myself questioning if I was a real gamer. What does that mean, exactly, when I drill down into how I qualify who makes that cut? I don’t play League of Legends? Breath of the Wild was my first Zelda game? I didn’t get seriously into games until I was in college? Okay, so what if all of those are true? Those goalposts move based on who you’re talking to, anyway.
The more I got into the industry, the more I realized that the people who try to make you feel about not playing every game on the planet are few and far between, and overall the community is really welcoming. So why did I feel so insecure about it, regardless of all that?
I really think it’s because all those games that I played when I was younger, all the horse games or dress-up games or pop star games or whatever, were considered less “substantial” than mainstream games, or in other words, more male-oriented games. It makes no sense when I think about it now because I realize that the whole purpose of playing games is to have fun, and as long as I was doing that, I was playing games “the right way,” but I still can’t shake the insecurity of my early days in the industry.
I still catch myself thinking, “oh, I’ll be a serious gamer once I play this,” or “when I beat it on this difficulty,” and it’s, like, really, who cares? The gaming police aren’t peering over my shoulder, making sure I only play serious games before I can get inducted into the club.
The problem, for me, comes back to this idea of group identity and wanting so badly to fit in. In games, I’ve found tons of other people who are creative and like to think critically about art in ways that I’ve always valued, and I guess I just wanted to be considered a part of it because I want to feel worthy of being around those people.
It’s ironic that in the “nerd” sphere, one of the spaces in adult life where people are allowed to really, unabashedly love things, we try to put ourselves or others into little boxes like that.
Basically, if you want to be a gamer, do it, the rules are all made up and the points don’t matter. Just play what you want how you want — it really is that simple. If you don’t want to be a gamer, good for you, that’s probably best in the long run.
So the question is, would I do this all again? Look, I had fun, but probably not. The nostalgia thing was quite a trip, but overall this isn’t the most fun game to play as an adult. I mean, not when Hades is like, right there. Apparently, this game has ended up on a lot of “worst games of all time” lists over the years, and I mean, c’mon, it’s not a masterpiece, but it at least made scores of horse-loving children happy for a few hours.
Either way, it’s always fun to look back at the media that shaped us into who we are today, and while my early game library may have been lacking, Wild Horse Rescue really laid the foundation for a lifetime of loving games. Thanks, Phil Drinkwater, wherever you are.