Mad Motor - that's the name of today's game, and it's a name that my inner voice refuses to read in anything but a Cockney accent. I take one look at the title screen and there's an East End car salesman in my head, promising me a mad deal on a new motor, cor blimey guv, apples and pears. I have no idea why this is, although I have been taking a lot of cough medicine recently. Anyway, Mad Motor is a 1989 arcade game from Mitchell. By the time we're finished, I think you'll agree that the name is fairly accurate.
The title screen "stars" a horrible little gremlin-man insulting the player with a rude hand gesture. That's a remarkably confrontational attitude for the title screen to take, considering it's trying to get people to put money into the machine. Maybe Mitchell were counting on the arcades of the late Eighties being full of easily-antagonised people who could be infuriated into trying to teach arcade machine a lesson. "Stick the finger up at me, you cheeky little shit? Well, we'll see who's the big man just as soon as I get this fiver changed into twenty-pence coins!"
A few other images flash up on the film-strip at the bottom of title screen, although none are as interesting as this guy, with the possible exception of the punk who has drawn a crude peace symbol in the middle of his forehead. Or carved it in there with a jagged piece of glass. Mad Motor's low-res graphics make detailed analysis impossible, although the title logo itself does look good. There was some effort put into it - perhaps too much effort, causing the logo design stage of the game's development to overrun massively and eat into time allocated for other aspects of the game, like a storyline. There's no plot or explanation here, you just insert your credits and bang, you're in the game.
That's the player character on the left, the motorcycle-riding, pipe-wielding chap with the Billy Idol hair and the tenuous grasp of correct road safety practises. Like a true nature's child, he was born to smash people's heads in, specifically the heads of any road users who aren't him, like this phalanx of sensibly-helmeted riders. Why is he doing this? Where are these people going? Were red jackets the only thing to survive whatever catastrophe formed this presumably post-apocalyptic world? I have no answers to these questions, and Mad Motor certainly doesn't provide any. All I do know is that the game takes place in New York. This is Central Park, according to the pre-stage text, and it's looking more verdant and lovely than ever.
So, as you can probably tell, Mad Motor is a drive-along-and-hit-people-em-up that prompts comparisons to Road Rash, (which wasn't released until 1991,) although my mind immediately went to the motorcycle chase scene from Final Fantasy VII instead, to the extent that I started whistling this while I was playing. You drive from one end of the stage to the other, taking out as many bad guys (or maybe they're just indifferent guys) as you can before battling with the boss and moving on to the next part of New York. The gameplay is cumbersome and imprecise, with vehicles bouncing off one another as you try to line up with the frustratingly small area in which a pipe attack will register as a hit. Only clean hits will do, too - unless your attacks are landing right in the sweet spot, usually the very middle of the opposing vehicle, then you might as well be trying to batter them with a feather duster for all the impact you'll have.
Then this happened. This, I was not expecting. When your health bar runs low, rather than simply losing a life the screen is filled with flashing images of out hero mutating into a hideous veiny beast. "I'm alive!" he bellows via the power of digitised speech, "WOLF POWER!" At least I think he's saying "wolf power," the sample is grainy enough for it to be open to interpretation. He could be saying "Full Power!" I would also understand if you heard it as "Bull Power!" although Wolf Power seems to fit his new appearance the best. I would be more inclined towards Bull Power if he grew horns or gored a matador or something rather than getting hairier.
It's not just our hero that gets an upgrade, either: even his bike is transformed into a caterpillar-treaded, double-front-wheeled monster of a machine. These modifications are surely designed to take the extra weight provided by our hero's new bulk, although it would have been amusing to see this giant beastman on a normal-sized bike.
The upgrade to Wolf Power isn't just cosmetic, either, because now you can attack with huge energy slashes thanks to the elbow blades that all wolves possess. You can also attack much faster and with less need for accuracy, allowing you to overwhelm your foes in a blizzard of wolf-powered elbow slashes that will quickly destroy anything in their path. There are only two downsides to this: because the transformation triggers when you run out of health in an Incredible Hulk-meets-Easy Rider fashion, you're only one hit away from losing a life in Wolf mode, and when you die you revert back to your normal - if a man who chases people down and murders them with a metal pipe can be considered normal - form. The other thing is that every time you attack in Wolf mode it plays the same "RAAR!" sound effect that quickly becomes more grating than sandpaper underwear.
The first boss fight is against a pair of skinhead bikers with yin-yang symbols painted on their jackets. Maybe one of them represents the gentle, soft, feminine nature of Yin, but I doubt it. What I think happened is that they both refused to be Yin until their arguing got so bad that their evil overlord threw his hands up and said "fine, you can both be Yang, just get out there and kill the motorcycle werewolf."
They're not great bosses. I think I caught them unprepared as they don't even have weapons, instead relying on their fists to try to punch a man who can turn into a monster when he receives a sufficient volume of punches. It doesn't work out great for them, and soon enough stage one is over.
"Try jumpping?" Like, what, off a cliff? Your motorbike does jump into the air sometimes, but it seemed to be more because I'd hit an obstacle or explosion in the road that propelled me into the air. I tried pressing various combinations of buttons but I couldn't figure out if any of them were making me jump or if I was coincidentally being flung around by the constant impacts. Anyway, the two bosses are trying jumping back there and it doesn't seem to be working out so well for them. I think I'll stick to riding my bike and occasionally transforming into a monster. It worked pretty well for Nicolas Cage in the Ghost Rider movies.
Okay then, that's Central Park cleared. What famous part of New York will we be heading to next, I wonder? Brooklyn? Wall Street? Times Square?
Oh, A Ravine, of course. Well, you don't just want to be going to the same old touristy places as everyone else.
Stage two is more of the same, and honestly so is the rest of the game. Different enemy types appear but they're all in need of the same judicious pipe interventions / claw slashing. While some of them are in cars, hang-gliders or, in one case that makes me question how physics works in the Mad Motor universe, keeping pace with the action despite being on rollerskates, they're more often than not riding motorcycles of some description. This solidifies my theory that this is taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, because if Fist of the North Star and other post-apocalyptic media have taught me anything it that's motorcycles are one of the few things that will survive the purging nuclear fire in large numbers. If cockroaches ever learn how to ride motorcycles, the human survivors will be doomed the moment they step out of their fallout shelters. Millions of cockroach biker, the Hells Roaches, wearing tiny patch-covered vests and roaring through the ruins of human civilisation in search of discarded kitchen waste. Aww, that's kinda adorable.
One new set of bad guys are these bearded men on tricycles. They're so uninterested in the carnage around them that they drive about with their arms folded. It doesn't help them in the violent battle along the New York highways, but at least they'll look cool when they die in a huge fireball.
Speaking of looking cool, here's the boss of the second stage. It's a giant gorilla wearing spiked armour and gold jewellery who uses his simian grace to attack our hero while hanging from a helicopter. Well, that's the 2015 VGJunk Review's "Best Character" category done and dusted already. He's wearing a little crown, look! Oh my stars, how delightful. "I have to wear the crown," he says - because in my imagination this gorilla can talk, naturally - "how else would people know that I am King Ape, king of the apes?"
I'd like to say that King Ape is a wise and benevolent leader, but sadly that's not true, and once your Wolf Power kicks in you'll have no trouble beating him. No trouble apart from the heart-rending necessity of beating King Ape to death, that is. Hopefully his son and heir, Prince Ape, will be able to reclaim the royal crown from his fallen father and grow to become the monkey monarch that this world deserves.
You get a different picture at the end of each stage depending on whether you were in Wolf Power mode or not when you cleared it. That's a nice touch. I'd enjoy it more if I couldn't see King Ape back there, about to become a red smear on the tarmac. King Ape should have attacked by throwing solid gold bananas at me: less dangerous to him than coming near our hero, plus they's encapsulate his dual nature, both his ape-ness and his fabulous wealth.
Here we are in stage three: City Island. The traffic is murder today, he wrote without an ounce of regret for his movie-tagline level punning. If any native New Yorkers are reading this and they want to say "so the apocalypse didn't change much, huh" or something vis-a-vis the traffic congestion, then go right ahead. Congestion is less of a problem when you can smash the other vehicles out of the way with your unholy power, but we should give credit to the two guys in the top-left who have opted for the much more restrained tactic of carpooling.
I don't have an interesting segue into this one, but here are some knights in full plate armour who are riding motorcycles and trying to kill our hero by skewering him on their lances, which they have two of because apparently passing Ye Olde Mettal Horse-Rydyng Proficiencie Test of Camelot means you don't need any hands to steer with. The knights are really tough to take down because they can protect both of their sides at once, but I don't mind because "motorcycle knights" is such a fun concept. The big problem I have with them is that they, as with almost any videogame knight, are making me want to write this bit in faux Old English dialect. If you've ever read any other VGJunk article involving knights you'll know that a) I really enjoy doing this and B) I probably shouldn't.
This thing isn't the boss. The last thing you fight, and the thing that shows up in the post-level victory screen, is another one of the skinhead bosses from the first stage. That said, this Volkswagen Camper shows up at the end of this stage and nowhere else so I think it deserves honorary boss status. It says "Peace Love" on the side but also sports a picture of hand with the middle finger raised. These conflicting messages sent our hero into a rage, but upon striking the van it began to disgorge a stream of smaller vans filled with bombs. I don't know why you'd spent the time and effort putting the bombs inside tiny vans instead of just throwing them at your enemies, but this is a hippy van so I think we can safely put it down to it seeming like a good idea from within a cloud of good vibes, patchouli and weed smoke.
Stage four takes place in one of New York's many deserts, and it's not very exciting - a long, flat stretch of road without even any new enemies to spice things up. The pattern of play has become fixed by this point; each stage sees you being buffeted about by the enemies without you having much control over where your bike is going until you lose enough health for your Wolf Power to activate. Then you can easily destroy all the enemies until you reach the boss, where you'll probably die while trying to figure out how the boss is trying to kill you. Repeat this for the rest of the stages and that's it, that's Mad Motor.
The only thing of note in this stage is this roadside billboard. It flies past at fair old clip while you're playing, but I glimpsed enough of it to think to myself "hang on, was that RoboCop?" Turns out that yes, it was RoboCop, and my ability to recognise the giants of Eighties action cinema after even the most fleeting of glances remains as powerful as ever.
The poster specifically references RoboCop 2, and the question is why? That's not mean as a burn on RoboCop 2 the movie, I just wonder why it's specifically the second RoboCop movie that's being referenced and not just a general appreciation of the future of law enforcement. If Mad Motor really was developed in 1989 - it's difficult to get confirmation on that - then it was made before the film was released, so maybe someone on Mad Motor's development staff was just really looking forward to it? Of course, there was a RoboCop 2 arcade game made by Data East, and Mitchell Corporation did have some business ties (and possibly shared staff members) with Data East... but that game came out in 1991, so if this RoboCop 2 billboard was meant as a reference to that game then it must have been planned surprisingly far in advance.
Then the stage abruptly came to an end. I know that this screen suggests that I was involved in a boss battle against a large truck, but that didn't happen. There was no truck. There was no boss of any kind, just the same old hang-gliders that have been harassing me since stage one. I have to assume that the "large truck" boss was excised from the game as Mitchell knew it was embarrassingly far from the high standards set by King Ape.
Rather more engaging than the desert is the riverside, where the action is mostly the same but you have to steer every now and then to avoid falling into the river when the road ahead changes size. It was also around this point that I realised there's another button besides "attack" - it ever-so-slightly increases your speed while it's held down. I think the fact that I didn't realise it even did anything until the penultimate stage is a good indicator of just how little it increases you speed.
Any goodwill built up by the game making me pay attention to where I was driving and thus increasing the amount of gameplay in Mad Motor by 100% was immediately swept away by this boss battle. It's against two of the knights that I fought as regular enemies earlier. Was the head of this evil organisation so impressed with their previous performances that they were promoted? They're cool enemies and all, but their impact as an end-of-stage challenge is rather diminished by my having bested them in a chivalrous on yon tournament fielde of the Hygh-Waye already. Sorry, I'm doing it again, aren't I?
Just to confirm that the knights are indeed the boss and this isn't a repeat of the boss-less end of the previous stage, here's the victory screen showing the knight about to find out whether the friction of plate armour scraping along a road at eighty miles an hour will generate enough heat to cook a man alive. Our hero seems to think it's going to be an unpleasant experience, and the synthesised speech returns as he croaks "feel the pain, baby!" in an accent that you might describe as Schwarzenegger-esque, if Arnie wasn't a hulking giant of a man and he had a nasty sore throat during the recording.
The final stage is Coney Island, the developers having remembered that Mad Motor is supposed to take place in New York just in time for the thrilling dénouement. I like that water effect, with the sky reflected in the puddles. A few more touches like that would not have gone amiss, because as it stand the game has some fun character designs but it's also coloured in a palette consisting almost entirely of grey and orange, which gets a bit tiresome after a while.
There are cones in the Coney Island stage. I want to believe that this is either a deliberate pun or, even better, a sincere misunderstanding of why it's called Coney Island. In my heart I know it's just a coincidence. Aren't you glad I resisted the temptation to say "cone-incidence"? That would be a pretty terrible pun, no-one should have to read that.
The insanity of Mad Motor reaches a climax with this, the final battle of, I dunno, good against evil? Two blokes who just don't like each other very much, plus a dragon? Some explanation about why I'm fighting this enormous samurai might be nice. His name is The Slasher. I know this because when you start the fight he says "I'm The Slasher!" and, as if to prove his name is no idle boast, he tried to slash you with his spear. He's Slasher by name, Slasher by nature, and I'm convinced that he comes from the same ninja clan as The Shredder, along with their less successful ninja comrades The Lawnmower and The Melon Baller. As with the rest of the game, mysteries abound during this fight. It's never explained why The Slasher's vehicle of choice is a golden station wagon with some aluminium siding welded to the top, nor is any information given about his dragon accomplice. I think the dragon just happened to be there, he's not with The Slasher or anything, and he doesn't seem particularly interested in the fight. With that in mind, you can concentrate your assault on The Slasher. Just get right up to him, nice and cozy-like. This will make it easier for him to hit you, in turn granting you Wolf Power sooner, which you will need because The Slasher has an extremely long reach that make Wolf Power almost mandatory for victory. Other than that, it's all very straightforward: slash The Slasher until he dies (ironically) and then slash the disinterested dragon until that dies (disinterestedly) and you've completed Mad Motor. All that remains is to sit back and enjoy the ending sequence, and it's a doozy.
A grey alien steps from the burning wreckage of a car. Years of watching the X-Files leads me to conclude that this is all part of a vast government conspiracy, a tangled web of plot and counter-plot. Alternate theory: the alien is just be a really bad driver.
A man dressed like a 1940's private eye looks at... something. The alien? Perhaps. He could be reading the specials board outside a restaurant for all the information we're given. All this takes place in complete silence, by the way.
Two men quarrel. The man in the chair turns his back on the other, in a childish display of contempt. "La la la I can't hear you la la," we can imagine him taunting. His chair is topped with a rather fetching antimacassar.
Smash cut to the Chrysler Building. A confused hobo watches the silhouette of The Slasher dragging someone through the sky on his magical flying station wagon. Who are these people? What the hell is going on?
Oh, I see. The egg flying out of an explosion in Manhattan represents the developer's nascent hopes and dreams, created in the chaos of the urban sprawl, which they are sending out into the world via the medium of an arcade game called Mad Motor. Cherish this egg, player, for it contains the oft-trampled spirit of pure creativity.
Okay, so I did a bit of research and from what I can tell Mad Motor never actually made it into the arcades. What I've played here is a prototype, possibly one sent out for location testing, which explains why chunks of the game seem to be missing and things don't always work as you would expect them too. I'm going to guess that if Mad Motor was tested on location then the negative feedback was what stopped them from polishing the game up and releasing it properly, and it's easy to understand where that negative feedback came from. It's just not a very good game. It has some nice ideas - it's hard to argue with Wolf Power - and some enjoyable character designs. There's a certain crude charm to the whole thing, a similar charm to reading an amusing bit of graffiti on a toilet stall, but the actual gameplay is very rough. Crucially, you never feel like you're really in control of what's happening: your bike pings around the stage almost at random, until you power up and you can just keep tapping attack to clear a path. Motorcycle combat has been done much better since, so play Road Rash instead... but if you want to print out a picture of King Ape to keep nearby while you do so, I wouldn't blame you.