I don’t know much about horses. I know that they have four legs and taste amazing. That’s about it. I never had a horse-obsessed phase when I was growing up. That’s probably because I played video games, where they’re mainly depicted as cars that run on oats.
I also never had an interest in Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, probably also because of video games. They’re also only a year older than me, and anyone who is in the same age group that I am is a threat and not a hero. So, going back and replaying these games is an attempt at living a lost part of someone else’s young adolescence.
I last played Mary-Kate and Ashley: Crush Course back in 2021, and it has taken me this long to recover from it. So now that the wound has finally closed up, it’s time to take our scalpel and rip that baby right back open with Mary-Kate and Ashley: Winner’s Circle on PS1.
I couldn’t convince my husband to play Mary-Kate and Ashley: Winner’s Circle with me. That’s a shame, but his unique self-preservation instinct is what got me to marry him. I like a challenge.
So, I played alone. You start by customizing your horse and rider. You can play as Mary-Kate or Ashley, but there’s also a character creator that allows you to make an avatar that resembles you. Unless you’re a man. Or Black. Or have red hair. One of the first things we learn about Winner’s Circle is that it’s full of hate.
If you don’t believe me, one of the spectators has a shirt that just says “GW SUX.” I’m going to guess this is referring to Graeme Webb, one of the programmers for the game. Graeme’s an industry veteran who is still a lead programmer for some notable projects today. Maybe this shirt isn’t referring to GW’s programming skills, though. Maybe they SUX as a person. I’m not sure. This shirt is all I have to judge their character by. I tend to believe everything I read on a shirt.
Anyway, the horse customization is… fine. A horse is a horse, of course, of course, so I wasn’t particularly picky. I kind of made mine look a bit like Agro from Shadow of the Colossus, but I also gave them white socks. I then named them “Deathblow” to strike fear in the hearts of the other tweens I’d be competing with.
Your choices of gameplay are a series of competitions and misery. You can also groom and maintain your horse, which is actually important for the competitions, but Winner’s Circle doesn’t tell you that. Grooming is the most anti-interactive approach to responsibility I can imagine. It’s going down a checklist of menus, then your character says stuff like, “You a stinky girl,” and you watch as they brush the horse. I’m paraphrasing, of course.
The rise of indie games with a focus on tactile interaction has me thinking about how these sorts of games are played, and this is just the worst. Girls like brushing horses (probably), and this is like taunting them.
The worst part about it is that the menus are so damned slow. There are loading times everywhere. I think I actually spent more time watching various loading screens than I did playing Winner’s Circle. It’s excruciating.
Ya gotta find first gear in your giant meaty horse
The adventure modes are also excruciating. You’re set loose in an open world, and you have the choice of Freeplay, Horse Trials, and Horse Shoes. Horse Trials has you running through gates in the open worlds. Horse Shoes has you exploring to find shoes in the game’s oppressive draw fog. Finally, Freeplay lets you look at a horse’s butt and pretend you’re playing Ocarina of Time. This is still better than the loading screens.
The competitions are where the real horse meat is. Each one consists of three events. The first one is dressage, where you change gears on your horse to match what the orbs tell you. Deathblow and I absolutely wrecked the other kids at it, probably because it’s as easy as falling off a ladder. The only hard part was when the orbs change into arrows, but the controls for it are oddly intuitive. If it points left, you press square. If it points right, you press circle.
The next part has you running across carefully manicured terrain, through gates, and sometimes jumping stuff. You have to time your jumps, but the horse will only jump when it’s close enough, so you can just mash the X button whenever you’re coming up on a gate.
The worst is when you miss a jump and go careening into the crowd. Not because any of the cardboard standees in the audience get hurt – that would make things much better – but because you then have to carefully navigate your pony back to a good vector. This can take a while, but this at least gives you a chance to read all about who SUX.
The horse also doesn’t control the way it did with dressage. Rather than being a series of gears you shift into, you hold the direction you want to go until you reach your desired speed. I don’t know enough about horses to know whether they’re manual or automatic transmission, but my husband does. Whenever he’d walk by, he’d make gagging noises, so I’m not sure Winner’s Circle is accurate about either.
The last event is just gate-jumping in an arena. I might have been really great at this event too, but it might just be tolerant of screw-ups. Every time I thought I had the worst run and racked up a bunch of penalties, I’d still come in first place. The other kids must really SUX.
Meanwhile, the music is some very strange stuff. It’s the sort of thing you hear when a housewife doesn’t have enough money to pay the plumber. If you know what I mean.
If you just focus on winning all the competitions, Winner’s Circle isn’t a very long game. It took me less than two hours to complete all of them. I checked out some of the adventure modes, but I think those are more for really bored children who like ponies and hate challenge.
Weirdly, this is the least Mary-Kate and Ashley game I’ve played with them. One or both of them maybe does the voice-over – it certainly seems disinterested enough – but that’s about it. Unless you select them as a character, they just don’t exist. I’m not sure if them being more prevalent would make Winner’s Circle better or worse.
Mary-Kate and Ashley: Winner’s Circle is definitely not a game I’d recommend, but it’s honestly not terrible. The most annoying parts of it can largely be attributed to technical limitations. I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect to see amazing feats of programming in my shovelware.
The gameplay, however, is fine. Certainly not the deepest pony simulator, but if you were transported back in time to 2001 and needed to keep some tweens occupied for long enough to take a nap, then this is probably better than what was on TV at the time. If you want something with more oat to chew, you’ll need something like Equestrian Showcase, which was released the same year. I’m not sure if it’s built on the same engine, but Graeme Webb also worked on that. I don’t know how a person who can program horses so well could possibly SUX.
All right, that’s two Mary-Kate and Ashley games done. How many more do I have to go? Ew.