It’s racing on bikes and fighting, and I love it.
Far from this being a ‘job done’ scenario in terms of this review, I will elaborate on why I love it. Back in the ’90s when Road Rash first arrived on the scene, videogame racing was a very rigid affair – moving a vehicle sprite left and right on a colour-shifting grey stripe of perspective-faking dwindling thickness had a certain charm to it, but it didn’t feel like any kind of Earth driving. Indeed, a game like Super Hang On (as a motorcycle game it’s a great frame of reference) was an abstract affair which situated the player in a bizarre desert universe consisting only of a singular winding road framed by copied-and-pasted scenery items and other motorcyclists. There was fun to be had, and the internal physics were consistent; but it was all so basic. If the road goes left, turn left. If you skid, brake until you don’t. If you crash, swear loudly at the screen and carry on whilst the magic genie inside the Megadrive bewitched into existence a clone copy of yourself on the middle of the road. Repeat ad venatus exigo.
The upgrade to Road Rash would be akin to a dog throwing out his or her chew toy to focus on building space stations out of Lego. The grey stripe illusion is now a part of the landscape, turns less exaggerated but hills and valleys more realistically so; and bike physics behaving much more like a real-life two-wheeler. Collisions too; any rider (player or otherwise) knocked off a bike has to get back on it like a grown up, and stop messing around with all that ‘appearing back on track’ nonsense.
Graphically, a stuttering faux-scaling replacement sprite technique seen in Super Hang On would be usurped by slightly-flawed software scaling; making room on the EPROM for more trackside scenery. Of course, the upgrade wouldn’t be complete without real speech for the pained cries of riders forcibly dismounted from their bicycular metal steeds and a bolstering in the gameplay department. Both are present and correct.
Of the latter improvement on the Hang On formula, riders can kick and punch each other in a simplified beat ’em up style. This adds an exciting risk/reward dynamic to the show, as one floored rival can temporarily equal one less competitor on the road; though a smack in your own face could potentially be the difference between a placing of first and fourteenth. In itself it’s not deep. It’s not even Yie Ar Kung Fu, let alone Street Fighter II. However, it adds a welcome edge to the left-right-don’t-crash gameplay exhibited within the genre, and provides enough options to prevent the game from getting too stale after repeating the tracks a dozen or so time.
Which happens. Game progression sees each level offer the same five tracks; but longer each time. Although this could be a clever move, giving players a chance to learn the courses bit-by-bit, it makes the game start to chafe the reward centers of the brain after three of the five levels. The bikes get faster, the opposition gets nastier. The tracks, however, sit there in their own universe watching re-runs of the Road Rash show and giggling every single time a rider is dismounted by a cow in the road, like it was the first.
It’s not totally unbearable of course, because the Rob Hubbard music is characteristically excellent.
In closing, Road Rash is a great game. It’s not the best ever, and the repeated beatings to your virtual head may induce some gamer numbness, but that’s alright – you didn’t sign up to the Bikes ‘n’ Fights club to ponder on the strategic merit of the bishops in chess to some Vivaldi. You came to smack some poor sod in the face at high speed. Road Rash delivers.