Wednesday, 18 September 2013

REVIEW SPECIAL - Road Rash Series 1991 - 2003


I have always had a love-hate relationship with the Road Rash series. From the moment I was first wowed by the motorbike racing game on the Mega Drive way back in 1991, to right now, mere moments after an extended playing session incorporating multiple iterations on different platforms, I have found it a frustrating, yet addictive, experience. The series focuses on a motley bunch of oddballs, outlaws and degenerates as they participate in illegal motorbike races across California to earn cash and have the kind of fun that can only be achieved by breaking the law and the bones of your opponents. You qualify each race by placing 3rd or higher, and money earned can be used to upgrade your existing ride or purchase new bikes.

Watch out for traffic, they barely seem able to stay on the road

The Mega Drive years

The original Road Rash was mighty impressive in its heyday and immediately gained a large fanbase thanks to its impressive, gritty, visuals, catchy synth-rock soundtrack by acclaimed musician Rob Hubbard (known for his Commodore 64 and Amiga work) and, most importantly, the high level of violence involved. It was not just your standard racing title which asked little more of you then to reach the finish line before the other racers, oh no! Road Rash allowed you to deliver punishing blows to other riders using your fists, feet and assortment of weapons that included clubs and baseball bats. There was nothing quite as satisfying as administering a savage beating to a particularly loathsome opponent (anyone who played it will remember the smug-faced Biff) or kicking them into the path of an oncoming vehicle. 

Kicking the competition aside in the desert (RR2)

The original Mega Drive trilogy of Rash games cannot be denied their classic status and are still lots of fun to this day, but they have not aged as well as one might hope. The memories I have of them as fast paced racers are somewhat dampened due to sluggish scrolling and a low frame rate that removes much of the sense of speed. The roads seem to have a life of their own as they curve and swoop from side to side and your bike handles as though the back tyres are made of butter, sliding around the screen in an oddly animated way. That being said, after my brain adjusted to the dated visuals and slippery controls, I started to enjoy it and found myself hooked. The music that accompanies the racing is fun, energetic and synthesized - far better than the awful thrash metal gibberish that would appear in later games - and the lack of any engine noise, while initially disturbing, is a relief after the tinnitus inducing noises that came with the 32-bit era. Besides, the sound effects for the fisticuffs, screams, sirens and tire screeches make up for it. 

The original game has my favourite HUD of all three games

While exciting and satisfying when going well, big flaws in gameplay arise when you come a cropper. Hitting traffic, careless pedestrians or getting clobbered by an opponent often results in you leaving your bike at breakneck speed, flying through the air like superman (minus the steady landing) and skidding across the road like a hockey puck. This painful inconvenience costs you valuable time, and usually many places in the race as your rider picks himself up and begins the long and slow jog back to his bike - God forbid that any cops should be nearby either, as wiping out in the radius of one of the boys in blue ends in you being hauled off to jail - race over scumbag! This can be incredibly infuriating, especially when you have been having a perfect run up until that point. It is strange that this, the most annoying aspect of Road Rash, would never be fully rectified throughout the entire series. Another detraction is the problem of visibility due to the fact you spend a lot of time riding over the crests of hills, causing your bike to block your view of the road ahead leading to some annoying collisions that feel completely beyond your control. However, despite these flaws, Road Rash is still exhilarating and absorbing to play, thanks to the long, winding courses that keep you on your toes, the amount of obstacles you have to watch out for and, of course, the fact you can fight... on a bike going 100mph! Win!

The Sequel

Road Rash 2 came a year later, in 1992, and stuck closely to the formula set by the original but was a huge improvement thanks to new weapons, a more varied selection of environments to race in - including Hawaii and Alaska - and, most importantly of all, a split screen two player mode. In this two player competition you could either race through the tournaments with the computer controlled opponents taking part, or limit it to just you and your buddy, in a tense one-on-one race (called, mano-a-mano) featuring the weapons of your choosing, including a brand new bike chain with which to thrash your opponents silly. Racing against a friend would now be a hugely important aspect of every Road Rash game released from now onwards.

The split screen 2-player mode in all its tiny-windowed glory

Seeing if Lesley enjoys clubbing in Road Rash 2

Completing the trilogy

Road Rash 3, subtitled Tour De Force, was released late in the Mega Drive's life, coming out in 1995 - a year after the revamped 3DO version had been released. It differed from the first two games by taking you on a tour of the world, with  races in countries such as Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and Kenya. This third title also changed the look of the game quite drastically, with digitised sprites instead of the more cartoony hand-drawn sprites of the first two games - personally, I prefer the look of Road Rash II, but the locales you race across in Tour De Force are more varied and visually appealing. Additional touches include keeping your weapon after a race finishes (something missing from the previous installments), police cars as well as bikes, and ramps that send you flying into the air (this time attached to your ride). It is also worth noting that RR3 was the final game to feature rear view mirrors - from now on the series would use a 'look behind' button instead.

Whoa! Watch out for the wildlife in Kenya (RR3)

Running back to your bike in freezing Germany in RR3

All three Road Rash titles are must-plays for Mega Drive fans, and should certainly be in the library of any self-respecting collector. It is hard to pick a favourite of the three as they have their own plus and minus points (RR1 is the purest game but lacks variety and two player modes, RR3 has my favourite music and courses but I dislike the digitised visuals), but if someone held a gun to my head and asked me to pick just one, I would probably go for the second installment.

Road Rash 2 narrowly wins my vote for best of the Mega Drive titles


While Road Rash 2 and 3 were Mega Drive exclusives, the original Road Rash was ported to many different systems in the early 1990's. Commodore's Amiga hosted a lovely version that played well, had smooth scrolling and new music that, in some instances, beats the original Mega Drive soundtrack. Sega's 8-bit consoles were not left out of the loop, with versions for both the Master System and its handheld little brother, the Game Gear. Both are extremely impressive considering the limited power these two consoles are packing, and they retain the cartoony visuals of the Mega Drive original - albeit in 8-bit form - they even have a damn good stab at recreating the soundtrack - but they obviously pale in comparison to the 16-bit original. Nintendo's handhelds fared less well, with an extremely dire version available for the Gameboy which suffers from hideous flicker, no sense of speed, and snooze-worthy gameplay. The GBC version is improved greatly by the addition of colour graphics, and has some catchy chiptune tracks that sound like the C64's SID chip, but the complete lack of speed ruins it.


Master System


Gameboy Color

32-bit era - A new Road Rash is born

In 1994 Trip Hawkin's 3DO console received a brand new Road Rash game - one that would show off the capabilities of the doomed 32-bit machine. It had fancy new graphics that roared along at a hefty pace, full motion video cutscenes, a drastically altered presentation style that featured deformed cartoon biker stereotypes as the protagonists, and a full CD soundtrack by known grunge bands such as Soundgarden, PAW, and Swervedriver. This new version was simply called Road Rash, which was (is) a little confusing, so it is often referred to as Road Rash 3DO or Road Rash 32-bit. It went back to the pure California based setting of the very first game and featured five tracks set in different areas such as The City, Pacific Coast Highway and Napa Valley (better stop off for some wine while we are there!). The new visuals were impressive at the time, but not mindblowing, though it retains a certain charm today thanks to the quirky characters and cutscenes, speedy action and use of sprites rather than the obnoxious 3D models that came afterwards. The courses, though limited in number, are always a joy to play and have many exciting twists and turns and constantly changing backdrops - one minute you are screaming through a town, the next you are racing past lakes and fields.

Road Rash 3DO feels very much like a follow on to the Mega Drive originals - 
a good thing in my book

Road Rash 3DO was later ported to the Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn and PC in 1996 and all three versions are great fun to play - despite some shonky graphics and the usual Road Rash gameplay irritations, including a truly heinous engine sound that will drive you mental - with the PC version being my favourite due to the much cleaner textures. This is the version I continue to come back to year after year for my motorbike beat-em-up action and I highly recommend it. It can take a bit of effort to get it working on a modern Windows 7 (or 8) PC, but it is well worth doing so - you can find instructions on how to do this online. You can also use an Xbox 360 controller and play your own music, so it gets my vote for favourite Road Rash game overall.

The gorgeous tracks sometimes bring to mind Sega arcade racer 'Outrun' (RR)

Taking it to the third dimension

Road Rash 3DO was the final game to use 2D sprites (not counting Gameboy Advance spinoff title, Road Rash Jailbreak) after which the game employed the use of full 3D models. The imaginatively titled Road Rash 3D is a game I find hard to review adequately, as often I enjoy it so much that I begin to believe it may be my favourite Rash game, but then other times I find the mechanics so frustrating and broken that I believe it to be one of the worst. The presentation is similar to Road Rash 3DO, only here it's even more over the top and ridiculous, featuring heavily tattooed people in gimp masks and busty women in leather bondage gear. It's all a bit silly really and feels too forced to be funny or 'out there'. The music is also some of the worst in the series, bar some cool tracks from 'The Mermen' that wouldn't sound out of place in the recent Need For Speed : The Run. In-game, the visuals are a bit of a mixed bag - the 3D models are extremely boxy and animate with all the fluidity of a shop window mannequin being poorly manipulated by a drunken puppeteer. It also has that horribly dated look of many 3D Playstation titles, with jagged edges, grainy background objects and horrible shadows. That being said, everything has a far more 'solid' look to it than previous games, and the courses themselves are some of the best in the series, with winding roads through glorious countrysides, coastal highways and mountain passes. Welcome additions to the series include the ability to select from 4 different viewpoints (though no driver's eye view), which makes seeing ahead much less troublesome, and removing the 'jogging back to your bike' part of collisions (though crashes can still last an excruciating length of time).

Actually hitting someone is harder then you might think (RR3D)

However, where the game really trips up is in the handling and combat areas. Initially the game seems borderline unplayable thanks to the incredibly twitchy controls that require delicate touches of the D-pad to stay on the road - indeed, this is the only Road Rash game that I seem to consistently come off my bike due to simply turning a corner, hardly a fun element for an arcade racer - but you do get used to it with practice. Far less forgivable is the pathetic combat, which is by far the worst in any Road Rash game. Actually getting alongside an opponent long enough to begin thumping them is hard enough, but once you do your strikes hardly ever register, and even when you do strike them, it is hard to tell, resulting in zero satisfaction from these encounters. In a game that has built its reputation and popularity thanks to its beat-em-up leanings, this is hugely disappointing and really brings the game down in my opinion. Its solid driving and excellent courses save it somewhat, and make it definitely worth playing, just don't expect any decent fighting.

The courses you race on in RR3D are some of the best in the series

64-Bit Rashin'

Next up in the franchise would be Road Rash 64, the only main Road Rash game neither developed, nor published by EA (the only other example of this is the Gameboy port of Road Rash, which was developed by The Code Monkeys and published by Ocean). Here, the reigns were handed to Pacific Coast Power & Light, the in-house development team at THQ, who published it. Road Rash 64 is a pretty atrocious addition to the series to be honest, being that it neither looks, nor plays like a Road Rash game - which could be a good thing if the quality was high and it offered something new, but, unfortunately, neither of these statements can be levelled at this poor effort.

The childish visuals are the weakest part of the game

The visuals are truly pathetic, resembling a child-friendly, watered down version of Road Rash that looks incredibly basic - resembling a half-finished amateur mod for a 3D game. While the scrolling is smooth, and surprisingly nippy for an N64 game, the complete lack of any detail in the environments completely kills any immersion or interest in your surroundings. Fog is also employed in heavy doses to cover up the short draw distance, so it gives the impression of always racing on a dreary, grey afternoon. Character models appear to have been constructed out of shoe boxes and had faces painted on them by toddlers, with utterly laughable animations. There is no FMV cutscenes thanks to the cartridges limited space and much of the music is from Road Rash 3D (i.e. shit). Gameplay wise things are not as bad but still disappoint. RR64 focuses far more on the combat than any other game in the series, which sounds like a good idea on paper, but the execution is extremely poor. Races are extremely short (which is a good thing considering how boring the tracks are), with all computer controlled opponents staying grouped together in a clump for the entire race. You can ignore them all and go for an easy win by steaming ahead, or you can get stuck in, which equates to pulling up along side them and hitting buttons that make your shoe box protagonist flail around as he (or she) attempts to hit them. The whole experience is so bland and unappealing due to its primitive visuals, short and extremely dull courses, and naff combat, that it struggled to hold my interest for more than 30 minutes. To be honest, with the exception of Mario Kart, Wave Race and F-Zero X, the Nintendo 64 is one of the worst consoles for decent driving games, so this shoddy conversion didn't really come as a huge surprise - bar the early handheld ports of the original Road Rash, I consider this to be the worst game in the series.

The barren landscapes remove any sense of immersion

Breaking Out

Released mere months after the Nintendo 64 effort, Road Rash : Jailbreak was, thankfully, back in the hands of EA, who would both develop and publish this next 3D installment of the franchise. Jailbreak focuses on gangs, allowing you to choose from two warring factions, each of whom have their own bikes and clothing style. Quite similar to Road Rash 3D in some respects, Jailbreak has both improvements and regressions that make it another mixed bag. The visuals are of a slightly higher standard than RR3D, with a cleaner look and less boxy characters than before (but only slightly), though this comes at the cost of colour, as Jailbreak has a slightly washed out look about it. The cutscenes are the usual heavy metal, biker nonsense, this time featuring a dwarf and a character named Spaz - this is purile, Jackass level humour - which occasionally raises a smile but soon grates. The character drawings are also bizarre and resemble photoshop images created by a mental patient after too many fizzy drinks, but they don't detract from the game. Music is improved ten-fold here and, while still pretty dire in places, it is much less intrusive and irritating. Combat is a HUGE improvement over RR3D, with lengthy punch-ups and satisfying takedowns actually possibility here, as well as feeling rewarding when pulled off correctly. Using three buttons, in combination with D-pad directions, you can pull off a variety of punches and kicks that connect with a joyous crunch and send your victim plunging to their doom (albeit temporarily). There is also a new mode entitled 'Five-0', in which you play as the long arm of the law, your aim? To batter as many thugs into unconsciousness as possible using your trusty baton - while not as fun as regular Jailbreak mode (playing as the bad guys is always more fun) it is a welcome addition none-the-less.

Combat is great fun in Jailbreak, and the handling is much improved over RR3D

Less impressive are the rather bland courses to race on, which are not in the same league as the previous game's excellent locales. While there are some highlights here, many of the tracks look and feel very similar to one another which can lead to repetition setting in. Another irksome addition is the re-introduction of running back to your bike after a crash. I had hoped this mechanic had left the franchise for good but it would appear not - it's back and just as infuriating as ever. Often, during these tedious jogs you are hit by several more bikes, sending you on another airborne journey and wasting yet more time. I know that this happens in all Road Rash games, but it seems even more aggravating here. Overall, I find it hard to pick between RR3D and Jailbreak - a combination of the two that featured Jailbreak's improved handling and combat with RR3D's fantastic courses would be my ideal Road Rash game, but with that merely a figment of my imagination, I suggest you try out both and make up your own mind which you prefer.

Five-O mode allows you to play as 'The Law', as you attempt to take 
down biker scum - with a baton, naturally

Handheld Jail Breaking

Road Rash : Jailbreak was ported to the Gameboy Advance in 2003 and retained very little from the Playstation version, bar the concept itself. It plays far more like a 16-bit scaling racing title like Street Racer or Super Mario Kart, with colourful locations to race across and cartoony characters. It isn't a bad game per say, but it fails to stand out due to some fairly generic driving action, weedy and unsatisfying combat and a high frustration level due to the overly fast and aggressive police, who can overtake you even when boosting and stick to you like glue until your inevitable crash, leading to an automatic arrest and fail.

Road Rash : Jailbreak on GBA is a bit too 'Mario Kart' for my liking

So there you have it, an exciting franchise with many original features and games that stand the test of time. It may have had its up and downs over the years, and is in desperate need of an HD revamp on modern consoles*, but thanks to the timeless satisfaction of hitting people while moving very quickly, as well as making the excellent Sega Mega Drive look even cooler back in the early 1990's, Road Rash has secured its place in the history books and in the hearts of gamers. Now, EA, get off your ass and bring us a new Road Rash game already!

Series Scores :

Road Rash (Mega Drive) 1991

Road Rash 2 (Mega Drive) 1992

Road Rash 3 (Mega Drive) 1995

Road Rash 3DO (3DO / PC / Playstation / Saturn) 1994 / 1996

Road Rash 3D (Playstation) 1998

Road Rash 64 (N64) 1999

Road Rash : Jailbreak (Playstation) 1999


Road Rash (Amiga) 1992

Road Rash (Master System) 1994

Road Rash (Game Gear) 1994

Road Rash (Gameboy) 1996

Road Rash (Gameboy Color) 2000

Road Rash : Jailbreak (Gameboy Advance) 2003

Series : Road Rash
Developer : EA and Various
Publisher : EA
Systems : Mega Drive / Amiga / Gameboy / Gameboy Color / Master System / Game Gear / PC / Playstation / Saturn / 3DO / Nintendo 64
Year : 1992 - 2003

See newly backed Kickstarter project Road Redemption - a completely unofficial take on the motobikes feat fisticuffs formula that is looking rather good so far.