It's often said that one of the best things about videogames is that they allow you to do things that are impossible in the real world, like having a fist-fight with a dragon or piloting a spaceship in a battle with a giant, tentacled brain. While that's true, let's not forget about those games that allow us to experience things that we technically can do in real-life, but without having to worry about expensive start-up costs or lack of ability or, you know, moral and legal consequences. Sure, I could go outside right now and play football, but the FIFA games let me do so without the embarrassment that my athletic endeavours would inevitably bring. I could rack up mountains of debt and spend years studying Urban Planning, or I could reinstall SimCity. If I ever wanted to ride a motorcycle across America at ludicrous speed whilst occasional hitting policemen with a stick, then hey, guess what? EA have me covered with their 1991 Genesis / Megadrive born-to-be-wild-em-up Road Rash.
Is that title screen depicting the black rider pushing his opponent to the tarmac, or reaching out a hand to catch him and prevent a dangerous accident? Actually, I think he might just be waving a friendly hello to the white rider as he glides past: these street racers are a close-knit group, after all.
See? A smile for everyone and nary a strong word spoken between competitors. Football could learn a lot from these thrill-addicted rejects of society.
I'm sure most of you have heard of Road Rash, because Road Rash is probably the Genesis' most famous racing game (aside from OutRun, maybe). I never realised quite how famous it was, because it came out when I was a kid and as the internet didn't exist back then you never really got a feel for a game's place in the pantheon of classic titles. For example, amongst my group of childhood friends Shining Force II was considered to be the best 16-bit RPG bar none - but that was because us poor schmoes in Europeland didn't get to play Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger or EarthBound until the advent of the internet and emulators. When I did get to see the opinions of the wider world, I was rather shocked to learn that Shining Force II was half-forgotten and certainly not talked about on the same level as Squaresoft's SNES masterpieces. Road Rash falls into the opposite category - I knew that it existed, I played the Sega-CD version at a cousin's house once and I remember not being particularly impressed (although that was probably because I was desperate to get back to the awful 32X version of DooM,) and then I get onto the 'net and discover that Road Rash is remembered very fondly as something of a minor classic. As I'm always looking to plug these gaps in my gaming resume, I figured I'd give Road Rash another go and put paid to the half-remembered notions of my pre-teen years.
See what I mean about the camaraderie? Twenty minutes ago these guys where trying to punch each other into oncoming traffic, but now it's all laughter around the campfire. The only reason they're not singing Kumbaya is because someone used the guitar to smash their competitor's heads in mid-race and now it's all sticky with clotted gore.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, Road Rash is a game of motorcycle street-racing and law evasion. The front end is basic, if a little frustrating to navigate - instead of having a nice, sensible list of options, each "page" is assigned to a different button - but once you've input your name all you need to do is select a track and get racin'!
That's me in the red-and-white. The "Rude Boy" you can see on the HUD is the name of the racer to my left. I don't know what's so rude about him. Maybe he never refills the coffee pot once he's emptied it, maybe he beats motorcycle cops to within an inch of their life if they try to arrest him, maybe it's an ironic nickname and he's actually scrupulously polite. Rude Boy is a mystery that shall never be unravelled.
What most certainly isn't a mystery is the way Road Rash works - it's a straight-up race to the finish line. Just keep your thumb pressed down on the "accelerate" button like it was an upturned glass with a thousand angry hornets underneath, and try your best to swerve around the traffic, oil spills, trees and other competitors that stand between you and the finishing line. The game owes a lot to Sega's Super-Scaler motorcycle games like Hang-On and Enduro Racer, so if you've played those games then you'll feel right at home with this. I've totally got the hang of it already!
Just look at me go! Okay, yeah, there are all those other racers in front of me, but I'll catch up with them soon enough. I'm doing the whole "graze your knee just above the tarmac" thing, so obviously I'm a natural at this kind of thing. I know the way I'm leaning makes it look like I'm about to veer sharply to the right, off the road and into the verdant fields, but that's because this is an advanced motorcycling technique that you simply wouldn't understand.
See, I'm in second place now! This is easy, I can confidently predict with 100% certainty that there is no way I could bollocks this up now.
All part of the plan, folks. By sending my motorbike off ahead on its own, it can perform valuable reconnaissance work and bring back intel on the racers at the front of the pack, all while I lie here on my back mimicking a cat playing with some dangled string. To distract my opponent, you see.
Here you can see me catching some precious moments of sleep, because as we all know driving when tired is extremely dangerous. My bike is also getting some shut-eye. Despite what the other racers may tell you, this situation definitely did not come about because I drove straight into a tree at 150 kilometers an hour - that's just slanderous rumour issued by those who are jealous of my obvious talent.
See, I still won! Would somebody who smashed into almost every tree in a five-mile radius have been able to come first? No, I thought not. That means the grand cash prize is all mine, too. How much was that again?
$750? That'll barely cover my medical bills. For all the injuries I sustained in accidents completely unrelated to this illicit motorcycle race, of course.
Your goal is to place third or better in each of the five races, which will allow you to move to the next level where the races are longer, the courses more dangerous and your opponents are less inclined to let you overtake them. There's a fair bit to go at, but that's a moot point if the game's no fun to play.
Happily, Road Rash falls into the "pretty good fun" category. The controls are sharp and there's a satisfying sense of speed as you whizz between obstacles. The other racers are aggressive without being infuriating, and it's nice to see that they're not totally infallible: one of Road Rash's great pleasures is being hot on your rival's tail, only to see them misjudge a turn and slam straight into the back of a car, your laughter ringing in their ears as you blast past their prone bodies. The scrolling effects are more of a mixed bag; on the whole I'd say EA did a good job with them, although obstacles moving towards you can be a bit jerky, and their high-point is the implementation of the tracks' vertical component. Hills and troughs glide smoothly beneath you, making the courses more fun to ride whilst also adding to the challenge by hiding traffic in dips in the road or letting you perform jumps which might launch you over your opponents but are equally likely to send you careening through someone's bathroom window if you're not careful.
There is one element of the gameplay that is Road Rash's defining feature, the aspect for which the game is most remembered, and that's the ability to fight with the other racers.
Don't get too excited, though - it's hardly Street Fighter II Motorcycle Edition. You've got a button to attack, which lets you punch or kick a rider alongside you. Punch them enough times and they'll fall off their bike, allowing to you drive off ahead of them and wonder, as you nurse your broken and throbbing hands, why you thought it'd be a good idea to punch someone in the motorcycle helmet. The kick is more of a space-maker, as it pushes your opponent away from you, and it's best used to give the competitors a friendly nudge towards a tree.
Some riders also have clubs, which you can steal from them by punching just as they're about to hit you. A solid contact with the club will send any racer to the tarmac, and it's a much better option than using your fists. I say that, but having the club can be something of a hindrance because you start neglecting the all-important job of winning the race in favour of cruising up alongside people and bashing them in the head. The club is power, and power corrupts.
Who's the Rude Boy now, huh?
The thing is, for all that Road Rash's more violent tendencies are remembered as the game's main gimmick, inter-cycle combat is an extremely minor part of the game. It's really not that useful to be engaging in fisticuffs while riding a bike at three times the speed limit, because if there's one consequence of smacking people / getting smacked it's that you rather lose focus on the task in hand, which in turn leads to sudden interactions between your vehicle and deer that have wandered onto the road.
This isn't going to end well for anyone involved.
The fighting is fun (especially if you have the club), and it definitely can be useful (again, especially with the club) but on the whole if you can avoid fighting you probably should.
Anything else of note? Well, after a while you'll notice that you simply can't catch up to the other racers. Time to put all your hard-earned cash to use and buy yourself a new ride!
Alright, let's burn some rubber! I'm sure that, as an inexperienced driver, switching to a bike with double the horsepower of my previous ride will have no negative repercussions.
Oh dear. Now I know why this game is called Road Rash - it's named for the inevitable chafing that will occur when you piss your leathers in terror.
Never mind, I'll just get back on my bike and be on my way.
Bugger. While I was recovering from my recent altercation with that building, Officer O'Rourke caught up with me and arrested me for a host of driving offences and vehicular houseslaughter. He also appears to be threatening me with the grim reality that I'll soon be sharing a prison cell with an... overly-affectionate inmate.
One thing I do really like about Road Rash is the way you get little messages from the various characters. They're one big family, like the Brady Bunch if they were a rebellious cadre of thrill-seeking sociopaths. It leaves you feeling a little more like you're racing against actual individuals instead of a troupe of identical faceless goons. These guys certainly aren't faceless, although with some of the mugs on display you might wish they were - O'Rourke here is sneering so hard that his head has taken on the dimensions of a foot wearing sunglasses, where as Slater...
...Slater has a Two-Face thing going on, one side of his face looking normal and the other curling up into a twisted grimace. I think it's supposed to be a smile, but it looks more like someone has directly injected the condensed essence of a million super-sour sweets into his right cheek.
My personal favourite of this little group is Ikira:
But that's probably because he looks like an Asian Elvis impersonator. Truly, The King's power is one that is felt by all races and creeds, and that's kind of heartwarming.
That's about all there is to Road Rash. It's not a complicated game, although the ability to buy new bikes gives you something to aim towards other than just winning races, and the gameplay never really changes beyond the races getting longer each time you move to the next level. The biggest flaw I found with the game was a lack of variety - there are only five tracks, and four of those are "America, it is green and there are trees." The fifth is "America, it is brown and there are palm trees," and they start to get tedious after a while.
Other than that, Road Rash is a fine game and I can see why a lot of people remember it so fondly. I'm certainly kinda confused as to why I disliked it as a kid: it was probably down to me being really bad at videogames, combined with the fact that Road Rash can get pretty difficult. It doesn't go easy on mistakes, that's for sure, and a successful race is usually one where you've been somewhat cautious.
I like the presentation of the game, too, and aside from the occasionally choppy forward scrolling the graphics are detailed enough and get the job done well. It's nice to play a game with this kind of... I dunno, feeling? I mean, it's obviously supposed to be a little "edgy" and "extreme", but it's still got a sense of humour - you know if this had been made just after the turn of the millennium then it would have been dark and gritty and utterly without anything even vaguely resembling lightheartedness, so it's a pleasure to play something where those extremes have been tempered.
I've got plenty of praise for the music, too, a collection of hard-rock tunes rendered in that inimitable Megadrive fashion. I'm especially fond of the intro theme:
It's a catchy little number, but there's something more to it that I really like, and that's the instrumentation, the way it sounds. This is just a personal preference but I love that big, mechanical, "crunchy" percussion, and it lifts the whole soundtrack up a notch- but like I say, that might just be me.
On the whole, then, Road Rash is exactly what people say it is: a well-above-average racing title with an unusual (for the time) combat system that's good, clean fun to play. It can get a bit tedious in larger helpings, and it's just that bit too basic to reach true classic status in my mind, but it's definitely well worth giving it a go. Of course, you probably already know this, because you've played Road Rash before, but for me it was a nice thing to find out.
Oh, the ending? Well, the game never really ends, as you can just keep racing on the final set of tracks, but once you clear stage five for the first time you do get a brief animation of your rider being abducted.
Or maybe you were playing as a woman all along and you're the one doing the kidnapping. I'm all for equality, so I'm open to either explanation. Ride, young lovers, ride into the sunset! Just don't let old man O'Rourke catch you, if he does any more sneering the top of his head is going to lift off.