1991, Electronic Arts
Sometimes you walk into a rental store (...OK, once upon a time you would), you go through the games and see a game so tempting, so visceral, so brutal, so fun-looking, you can't help but pick it up. You see a videogame that seems to be the digital evolution of a game you'd played with your toys a hundred times before. You just have to see if the game itself lives up to your imagination, and maybe even stretches it a bit.
This is what the Road Rash series was to 7-year old me. I hate to play the cliched “90s kid” slant, but I grew up in a time where there was mild concern over violence and fighting in the cartoons we watched, but there were cases of it everywhere. A ton of those shows would have cars or bikes laced with weapons. Sure, they might have been laser beams or grappling hooks, but no cartoon worth watching didn't have a vehicle loaded for war. Hell, that's pretty much all the "Transformers" franchise is about! So of course that spread to the toy cars and bikes I had too, constantly wrecking them and pretending they were firing weapons and smashing into one another.
And sure, Road Rash isn't about machine guns and laserbeams. But the idea of a racing game, mixed with a fighting game aspect of punching other racers off their bikes or kicking them into obstacles, was a pretty novel concept at the time. It wasn't the first game to ever introduce this concept, but it was the first to get any real attention for it. The Road Rash series would go on to rest in that “cult-hit” status on the Sega Genesis, while moving on to next-gen systems with...mixed results (we'll hit those another time). There were also well-heralded entries on the PC, and a version on the 3DO that's considered by many to be the best game on that entire console. But even then, the Genesis trilogy is the most well known of the franchise.
It also led to this. Ummmm...yeah, we'll get to this another time...maybe...if you're really nice.
Today is part 1 of a 3 part series over the next 3 weeks where I will be reviewing the entire Genesis Road Rash trilogy. I'll be showing how each game thrived, where each sequel evolved, where they took a step back, and what flaws they could never ever shake.
Road Rash pits either 1 or 2 players (though the 2 player mode consists of just taking turns) against multiple other riders across 5 California locales in a race to the finish by any means necessary. And by “any means necessary”, I mean throwing fists and feet to put opposing riders out of commission (at least temporarily). Along with these opponents, players must also watch out for traffic in both lanes, police bikes that can end your race if you crash within their vicinity, and obstacles both on and off the road.
You have two health bars you'll need to watch as you race; a rider health bar and a bike health bar. The bike health will go down as you crash into things, but regenerates to full at the end of the race. The rider's health bar goes down as he takes hits from other racers. If your rider's health bar hits zero, he will be thrown from his bike. This bar does regenerate after being knocked off, but if you're knocked off your bike in this manner enough times, your maximum health will begin to fall. You can also regenerate health simply by not being attacked, and you'll get a good amount of pockets where that will be possible. In fact, even though the fighting AI is at its toughest in this game compared to the sequels, you likely won't be sweating fights unless you come across someone wielding “the club”.
Some riders will be in possession of a billy club that does incredible damage to other riders, as well as to you. However, if you can punch a club-wielder while they are winding up their swing (and fortunately, their wind-up is slower than your own), you can steal the club right out of their hands. Policemen also possess a club that you can steal. And believe me, this thing can be a game-changer. Being able to take out riders in a couple of hits (sometimes one hit if you use the “up+C” power shot) can make you feel like an unstoppable force of nature. It's just a damn shame you lose the club at the end of every race. Future Road Rash games would add extra weapons on, both to the benefit and determent of each game. But for this initial entry, there's not a whole lot to complain about having just one “power-up” that vanishes at the end of the race. But the itch to want to be able to have the item “for keeps” is certainly there, and it would take EA some time before they'd scratch it for us.
Yeah, the only results screen cap I got was of one of my...less fruitful attempts.
Finishing 4th place or better will officially “qualify” you on a course, though obviously placing higher will net you more cash. Cash is used to upgrade to a new bike, to pay the police off if you're “busted”, or for repairing your bike if your bike's health bar hits zero in a race. If you're busted or wreck your bike and don't have the money to pay up, the game is over. It feels kindof strange that not finishing in the conventional “top 3” is required, and this is the only version of the Genesis Road Rash games that give the benefit of 4th place being good enough to qualify. Qualifying on all 5 courses will boost you to the next “level”, which will make the courses longer and the opponents faster. It's a good idea to make sure you've upgraded your bike at least once per level before you hit the next difficulty. Constant 3rd and 4th place wins might make an upgrade difficult to obtain, which could become a problem for players in the higher levels. In theory, you could work around this via retrying a race, but Road Rash locks out courses if you have already qualified on them. You can only retry races if you finished out of the qualifying range.
As for the gameplay itself, it's pretty impressive that Electronic Arts got so much right on the first go. The bikes handle with a sleight delay as the driver has to swing their weight around to get the momentum to turn. These aren't “lean-back” cruiser bikes that allow for simply turning the steering wheel a great amount, and at high speeds it is possible to wipe out from hitting a turn too tight. Some bikes are looser on turns, while others are a little tighter and need some “wind-up” before hitting the corner. Be sure to read the bike descriptions carefully so you know what to expect.
The difficulty of the races themselves can be harsh right from the start if you're new to the game. On the first level, the length of the races is usually so short that you won't have much room for error. Falling off your bike a couple of times is about all you can afford if you're aiming for a first place finish, and if you're knocked off a third time, you'll have to scrap to stay on the qualifying podium. This becomes more lenient if you knock off a bunch of riders (Pro Tip: club), and longer races later on will afford you more wiggle room (but again, keep an eye on your bike's status). One disadvantage to later levels is that once you get into first, there's still often a lot of course left (this assumes of course, you have upgraded your bike properly). At this point it becomes a test of patience to simply stay on the bike. It gets kind of boring at this point, as Road Rash doesn't have the control or constant obstacles a pure racing game like Outrun has once you've left all other bikers in the dust, and unfortunately, this is a slip-up in every Road Rash game in the set. It might not sound too bad on paper, but once you've gone from throwing punches and kicks at every rider within your general vicinity to just trying to “ride the storm out” once you're in first, the gameplay change is pretty jarring. That's not to say there isn't anything to do; cops, traffic, and the course itself should be accounted for at all times, regardless of how far ahead or behind you are, but it certainly feels like a lull in a game that gives the impression of not having any.
You could bounce a quarter off that chin...
The graphical style is rather inoffensive for an early Genesis game, but never really pushes the boundaries. Some of the rider portraits before races are pretty jarring to look at though, and there is an occasional pop-in from scenery. While playing for this review, I found a car crossing at an intersection, but the car spawned before the intersection, making it appear like it was driving out of the grass. Your rider is always a different color than the other racers, making him easier to spot when there are several bikers on screen. It also helps all of the other bikers are the same color, and that color only fluctuates from level to level.
One other graphical hiccup is with EA's attempt at a streamlined “menu” system. When selecting a race or on the results screen, every button has a function on the screen instead of having a simple “main menu” setup. For example, when selecting a race, the “A” button will switch the game between 1 and 2 player modes (even allowing the single-player game to be played by Player 2, in a strange design choice). The B button will shut the music on or off. We will get to the music very soon, but believe me when I say, EA's sound chip trying to process the roar of a bike engine is a sound you don't deserve to subject yourself to. And the C button takes you to the “name/password” screen. Thankfully, Road Rash contains a password system that lets you continue progress, but the passwords seem hilariously complex for a game that really doesn't have a lot to keep track of. These are functions that only appear on the Course Select screen, which is the very first screen you see upon proceeding past the title. You'll need to keep these functions in mind or wait several seconds for the screen to remind you of the functions.
As well, the results screen is needlessly complex. Hitting the A button will take you to a high-score screen while hitting C takes you to the bike shop. Why these cannot be accessed from the basic course select screen is beyond me. You better not skip past the results once you obtain enough money to upgrade a bike, or else you're sunk. And the high-score board is simply a list of names with a money amount next to them. The issue here is that your entry on this board is based on the money you have at a given time, NOT the amount you've accumulated throughout the entirety of the game. You likely won't be on this board for long (or at all) if you're upgrading your bike like you should be. All of this effort to “streamline” instead makes things overly complicated, and requires you to either wait out until you see what button you have to hit to perform the function you want, or have them ingrained in your head (and it's pretty easy to forget once you've stopped playing for a long period of time).
The last thing worth mentioning is the sound design of this game. The fact that this is an early EA Genesis game might be enough to prepare those “in the know” for what's coming. Early games by Electronic Arts on the Genesis were known for having especially “twangy” music that sounded borderline sci-fi, and Road Rash is a prime offender in that regard. That's not to say the music is awful, but it almost sounds like the music is performed on extra-terrestrial interpretations of bluegrass instruments. A friend of mine, CJ, described the music in the game as “a synthesizer trying very hard to be a guitar”.
Take a listen for yourself:
Fortunately, EA would improve greatly in regards to the soundtrack across the 3 games. Road Rash 2 contains music better fit for the limitations of the hardware, and 3 sounds like something completely different altogether, but we'll discuss those in greater detail as we get to them.
One other hiccup is that every rider sounds like a male, giving very deep, loud grunts when hit or crashing. This would be OK if there weren't clearly female riders in the game. It's jarring to see Natasha (who is shown in the pre-race opponent commentary to clearly be female) wreck, and then give out a manly “OOOUUUUUH”.
Road Rash 1 on the Sega Genesis runs around $10. And typically, I would recommend picking this up. It's not a very deep game by any means, and there are a small number of flaws. But there's certainly fun to be had, and a respectable first try at something different. However, the next game in the series costs only a small pinch more, and improves upon the original game. How much improved is it? Come back next week.
Rating – 3 out of 5