Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

The Greatest Games Ever: Road Rash

Posted by nfinit on November 8, 2009

It occurs to me that readers of this blog may be under the impression that I hate games.  After all, I hardly show passion for the games themselves– Anyone who didn’t know any better may assume the only interest I have in the gaming industry is whining at Billy Kotek and being unreasonably upset at the industry’s utter failure to understand simple ergonomic design.

But the fact is, I love games, I care deeply about them, and through the power of bitching and moaning, I want other people to care about them too.  But sitting around throwing monkey poo at the industry is easy; it’s safe.  I want to also make people understand what it is I love about the industry I love.  So I want to use this blog to talk about the games I love, and maybe, if I’m lucky– or good– make you, the reader, care about them as well.

So how do I get you to care about something like Road Rash, a racing game for the Genesis made well before the age when racing games finally became playable?  Simple.

It’s Final Fight at 180mph.

Still there?  How could you not be?

The central conceit of Road Rash revolves being a member of a hard-charging outlaw motorcycle racing club tearing through the wilderness of Central California, beating the shit out of each other with bare fists and police batons and into oncoming traffic in the process– and if you can ignore the bit where this outlaw motorcycle racing club races exclusively on Japanese crotch rockets, the concept works amazingly well.  The locales will feel familiar to anyone who’s spent a lot of time watching Sons of Anarchy.  However, it’s a very early 90’s sort of game, and asks that the player believe that yuppies called “Biff” would be allowed to hang out with skinhead biker types without the poor bastard waking up a Tijuana motel room in a bathtub full of ice missing several lucrative internal organs.

The racing action is as compelling as any console racer of it’s time (as befitting the guys responsible for Grand Prix Legends) and the gameplay requires you be as adept at beating people senseless as you are at racing.  In a lot of ways, it may be the best arcade racer of it’s day– and sense sim console racers really didn’t exist in any credible form prior to the 3d0, you could make an argument that Road Rash represented the premiere racing title for consoles– But that’d require someone capable of making a value judgement of F-Zero on the SNES, and I dont’ know that I’m prepared to do that.

What I do know though, is that while Road Rash’s gameplay was outstanding, what is oft overlooked is that Road Rash also represented the some of the most advanced console racing game tech of its time.    When you press left or right, your bike–not the screen–actually travels left and right.  Prior to this almost all non-SNES racing games featured a car stuck squarely to the center of the screen and when the player turned, the screen itself was merely extended left tor right.  Here’s an example, here’s the Sega Genesis version of Outrun, produced by no less than Sega themselves:

Sega’s effort looks amateurish in comparison to in Road Rash, and for years it was considered the best home port of any arcade racer.

Even Sega’s own Super Hang-On looks bad– sure, it has gorgeous, huge,  chunky motorcycle sprites, but your bike is stuck to the center of the frame at all times and the miniscule draw distance is cleverly hidden by constant and jarring elevation changes.  Admittedly, Road Rash had the benefit of appearing several years later than Hang-On or Outrun, but even contemporaries such as Super Monaco GP II didn’t begin to touch what Papyrus was doing with the Genesis’ primitive pseudo-scaling abilities.

But beneath the graphics, Road Rash had a number great touches that many modern racers still fail to get right.  There was a working rival racer system, for instance– try to cave in an opposing racer’s skull once too often and they’ll  remember, and make a point of looking for blood the next race.   The CPU AI in general was pretty interesting to work with;  as befitting a game where your main form of CPU interaction was via the business end of a police baton, the CPU was an outright bastard most of the time, taking sadistic glee in forcing your player into oncoming traffic.  The physics are simple, but  feel right– If you strike an enemy racer using the momentum of your bike to back up your fist, you stand a pretty good chance of knocking your opponent into a cactus.  Also few games give that same “oh holy shit no no no no yes yes yes YES!” rush the way Road Rash does when you crest a hill at full speed, propelled a hundred feet through air, over oncoming traffic, above enemy bikers, clear a billboard and somehow manage to land on both wheels.

In fact, the most perplexing thing about Road Rash is how Electronic Arts failed to make a franchise off it– keep in mind, this game was released during the heady days of Madden and NHL and Desert Strike; the era where EA began building the foundation for the soul-crushing corporate behemoth we see today.  It’s blend of arcade-friendly fighting and racing was a perfect fit for the 32 bit era, so what happened?  By rights Road Rash should be a sixteen bit legend alongside Megaman X and Contra IV, not a footnote in Genesis lore.

I'll be honest-- This paragraph is here entirely so I could post this sweet box art

Road Rash II tried to mix things up a bit, allowing the player to assault the rule of law in such far-flung locales as Hawaii, Tennessee and Vermont– the logistics of a motorcycle rally race starting in Hawaii and ending on the East Coast of the US is an exercise best left to the alert reader.  But of course, no one really cared about being a Kawasaki-riding badass tearing through Vermont, so no one really cared about Road Rash II, either.

After an ill-advised dalliance with digital sprites in Road Rash III, the series made a valiant attempt at a return to relevance with Road Rash 3D for the usual 32-bit suspects, bringing back the sprites and Cali-only outlaw motorcycle flavor, but by then the magic was gone.

The problem was Road Rash never really grew outside of its core concept, and while that concept was indeed intriguing, people generally agreed that it had been done the best time the first time.  The nearest thing we have to a modern Road Rash exists within the Lost and the Damned expansion to Grand Theft Auto 4– which makes a sort of sense, as if anyone was going to be able to do this concept right it’s Rockstar, and well, Lost and the Damned borrows more than bit from Sons of Anarchy.

It’s just a shame that the closest new gamers have to Road Rash lay within an Xbox Live Achievement for an expansion to a Grand Theft Auto game.

EA.  has pretty much forgotten the Road Rash brand exists, outside of the EA Replay compilation disc for the PSP. (which is itself an excellent find for 16 bit aficionados– All three 16 bit Road Rash games, Ultima 7, Desert Strike and Mutant League Football!)  Confoundingly, it’s not made a reappearance on Virtual Console or Xbox Live Arcade– Which is too bad, as the Wiimote’s B-trigger is in the perfect mashing spot for bashing people on the head while sliding by at 180mph.

So there you have it.  For it’s time, the best game of it’s type, and no one ever talks about it, a relic from a time when EA pushed boundaries instead of media franchises.  It’s probably just as well that Electronic Arts has forgotten the game ever existed, if they were to do something with the franchise now it’d probably be something regrettable bit of fluff involving the iPhone.


2 Responses to “The Greatest Games Ever: Road Rash”

  1. You forgot the N64 Road Rash! I wish it was never made, it ruined the Road Rash name :(

  2. nfinit said

    I never played the N64 version! But I was under the impression is was well-regarded.

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