Saturday, 12 July 2008

My Favourite Games: Road Rash

On a Friday evening, when I was younger, Mum used to collect me and my brother from school, and then we'd go over to visit my Paternal Grandparents. They live in a flat above my Dad's shop and, so, while we were waiting for Dad and Grandad to finish work, we'd chat, watch TV, all the usual stuff.

Quite often, I'd take my MegaDrive with me and plug it into their TV and play and, more often than not, it was Road Rash. Every time I played it, my Grandad was mortified: 'You're supposed to be overtaking them!', he'd implore, 'not hitting them!'

But, thinking about it, hitting them was kind of the point.

Road Rash was the first game that I owned, beating the original Sonic the Hedgehog by about 37 second. When I was 5 or 6, I got a MegaDrive for Christmas (or my birthday, I can't quite remember which) and, by all accounts, I loved it. I remember desperately wanting Sonic, but knew nothing about Road Rash when I tore open the paper and saw the plastic box in that classic Sega shape.

Still, it looked cool: two blokes on bikes, one reaching out to give the other a damn good smack. I'd never heard of Electronic Arts - wow, times really have changed - but the back of the box looked just as intriguing, promising 'the most illegal and dangerous race around' where you could 'club your opponents off the road at 150mph'. You even had to 'avoid cows'. It's a game that, truly, had it all.

After clamping the cartridge into the machine - I still have it, and it still works, and I sometimes do play it - the iconic theme music started, with it's computerised, midi tones and faux-rock style. Superb.

The game had five levels and five tracks, with the routes getting progressively more difficult - and longer - as you ascend. They broadly reflected some famous American climes: Grass Valley, the Pacific Coast, Pine Forest, Redwood Forest and Sierra Nevada. They were all pretty simple, but still managed to exude plenty of atmosphere - even a change in the colour of the grass, the type of trees or - and I'm not joking - the shape of the cows often indicated that you were in a different area of the country.

The rashers themselves were also full of personality. There's three in the image above - Sergio, Slater and Helldog, from left to right - and I can still remember the little groups that they formed at the beginning of the very first race in the first level. Gunther and Grubb bringing up the rear, Axle further on, and then a group of four riders - including Chip and Dread - who you should pass around a particular corner. Most of the riders didn't even have pictures - they were simply names - but they still managed to feel like an integral part of the experience. So much so, in fact, that they're still all there in the 1996 PlayStation version of the game, albeit joined by a larger cast of characters.

As well as the atmosphere, there was the actual racing - and it was superb. Compared to modern titles it was, of course, horrendously simple, but it worked. Press A to accelerate and B to brake while navigating the tracks that, on the later levels, threw ludicrous corners and eye-bleeding speeds at you. If anyone got in your way, then you could, of course, hit them - one button threw a quick punch, and various other combinations would unleash a vicious backhand or a powerful kick. There was definite skill in employing violence; kicking a competitor into the path of an oncoming car - because you were racing in traffic - was always memorable.

You could buy different bikes, too, and they were divided into three different classes, depending on power. Some of the later models were absolutely fearsome, transforming races from violent slugs into scenery-blurring dashes that relied more and more on sheer racing instinct rather than conscious thought.

Countless other things made me love Road Rash: the manual was full of back-story: the tale of how the tournament came about, the rasher's histories, and even information about the cops. It didn't impact upon the actual gameplay at all, but it just made for a more enjoyable experience. It's certainly a far cry for the manuals that show up with many a game nowadays that are just a piece of paper with the controls on and a link to some help pages, and plenty of games suffer as a result of this laziness.

And then there's the sequels. I don't have as much affection for them as I do the original game, but the ones that I've played are great nonetheless. Road Rash 3 had a UK track, and introduced animated movies after the races. Road Rash on PlayStation actually had real live actors in movies before and after the races, and they were brilliant: tonnes of drunk, beardy biker blokes having fights and chasing beardy biker women. They often clashed over trophies, money and bragging rights, and they were genuinely entertaining.

But, for pure nostalgia value alone, the original Road Rash is pure perfection. It's a combination of things: the great, simple, addictive racing, the different bikes, the odd cast of rashers and the memories of unpacking the game in our old house. Grandad didn't approve then, and he doesn't know - but one thing is certain. No-one will overtake you if you've just clubbed them around the face.

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