Motorbike racing is a pretty dangerous sport at the best of times.
There’s not much protection for riders who choose to spend their Sundays racing souped-up sports bikes around tracks at 100 mph. If you come off and hit the tarmac, it’ll hurt. A lot. But for the makers of Road Rash, bike racing wasn’t nearly dangerous enough and it needed some added risk. It needed fists and weapons.
Back in the eighties, motorbike racing in video games was far more traditional, albeit with some ridiculous high jumps. Excitebike on the NES was the first great bike game, showing gamers back in the day the immense arcade fun that can be had on two wheels. And while Nintendo were exciting players with Excitebike, Sega were urging players to hang on with, erm, Hang-On.
Hang-On was a stunning bike racer for the time, creating the perfect template for arcade racing games of the future. Hang-On’s influence after its release in 1985 could be felt for years afterwards, especially at the offices of Electronic Arts.
The big gaming publisher would start developing a new racing game in the nineties, and the success of Hang-On was something they wanted to emulate. But they wanted it with a difference. They wanted Hang-On with punch-ups.
EA would come up with a concept that could only have been created in the earlier days of gaming: racing with hardcore violence attached. Road Rash would take the arcade racing elements of Hang-On, but incorporate the ability to smack seven shades out of your fellow racers.
Not only that, you also had weapons too. So, if a closed fist across an opponent’s chops wasn’t enough, you could pull out a club and live out all your violent authoritarian dreams at once. And they marketed this game to kids – what a crazy age we lived in back then.
Road Rash wasn’t a complex game and it wasn’t an accurate simulation of motorbike racing either. It was a brutal, high-speed arcade racer that took everyone by surprise. Released on home consoles in 1991 during the height of the 16-bit era, it proved a huge hit on the Sega Mega Drive.
Road Rash never made it to the SNES though, presumably as family-friendly Nintendo didn’t want to be associated with such violent racing games. Whereas launching turtle shells at the back of people’s heads whilst they were driving was deemed perfectly fine by Ninty.
Why was the original Road Rash so successful? Well, for starters it was stupid amounts of fun. We’re not sure exactly what it says about you as a human being if you enjoyed a game where you continuously knocked people off their bikes at high-speed.
It probably says that you’re someone with deep-seated violent tendencies. But despite these psychological implications, Road Rash was an easy game to play and even easier to full in love with. It was addictive as hell, prompting you to get back on your bike time and time again whenever you were unceremoniously knocked off.
Road Rash was also a game that looked and sounded fantastic. The game’s soundtrack was a classic work of chiptune audio goodness – abrasive at times, but hey, so was the game itself. And although the visuals might look basic today, they were something special in the early nineties.
The environmental sights of the different tracks really heightened the atmosphere of the game; especially when you found yourself colliding head-on with a cow minding its own business at the side of the road.
And then there were the neat little graphical touches too. Nothing was more satisfying than looking in your rear-view mirrors and seeing one of the riders you just felled disappear in your digital dust. See you in hell, Biff!
Road Rash Sequels
The huge sales of Road Rash inevitably would lead to sequels. The follow-up, imaginatively titled Road Rash 2, was a Mega Drive exclusive title back in 1993. It took the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule to heart by simply adding extra features to the game and wisely not touching the gameplay itself. The sequel added new tracks, two-lane traffic, more multiplayer options, and a new weapon (a chain!). It was the perfect follow-up to the original, but this was as good as it got for the Road Rash series.
Road Rash 3 would arrive in 1995 towards the end of the life of the Mega Drive, not really offering much more than the previous games. With subsequent releases on the next-generation of consoles, things would get progressively worse. Road Rash 3D on the PlayStation would completely eradicate the cartoonish charm of the original game, providing somewhat of a soulless experience.
This PlayStation entry was a severe disappointment, and it was compounded by an even worse sequel in 2000, namely Road Rash: Jailbreak. Both of these games were relative failures, critically and commercially, and they brought the franchise crashing to a sudden halt. Much like coming face-to-face with a surprised cow at high speed.
Will Road Rash be getting back on its bike anytime soon? It seems unlikely. Despite the nostalgic joy of it all, the game now feels largely of its time – a bygone, golden age when fighting on motorbikes with weapons was a simple pursuit enjoyed by all the family. Great times, forever committed to memory.