Monday, January 8, 2007

Birth of a Franchise 2: Road Rash

I initially thought I was going to make this a Tuesday thing, but Mondays work just fine. Today's franchise is "Road Rash." Although the Road Rash series has taken a bit of a break lately (the last release was for the GBA in 2004), the influence that it has had on gaming cannot be ignored. So, without further ado, I give you the three most influential games for the Road Rash franchise.

Road Rash (Sega Genesis, 1991)
This is the game that started it all. Let me hop into the wayback machine and tell you all about it. Road Rash does a lot of things well: it is one of the first games to incorporate fighting into a functional racing engine (props to that), and is also one of the first racing games to feature traffic. Also, Road Rash is one of the few 16-bit games that manages to convey true speed. Try racing with some of the later bikes in this game, and you'll see what I mean: especially if you manage to survive getting wiped out long enough to really max out your speed. As for the fighting, you were limited to your fists (and kicking, but that really just pushes people away), or if you were good, you could steal a club away from one of the lead bikers (which let you do one-hit-knockdowns).
Also, this is the first game to feature music from Rob Hubbard that sounded like Japanese people struggling to play metal on a bass guitar with floppy strings (that was hooked up to a synth). You'll have to take my word for it, and know that it was awesome.
The main shortcoming of this game was the way that the difficulty played out -- in order to make you race well (and spend money on better bikes), the game upped the bikes of the competition at every level, and extended the length of the race. This works well for a few stages, but after the third level, when you're still poor because you could barely finish in 4th place to qualify, racing for 15 minutes without dying is a lot of work. And getting wrecked costs a LOT at that point. Needless to say, once you get mid-way through Road Rash, the novelty wears off, and the speed of the bikes (not to mention their flimsiness) make it impossible to finish races.

Road Rash II (Sega Genesis, 1992)
This, in my personal opinion, is the Road Rash game that showed the most promise. Building on the first game, almost every aspect of the formula was maintained or improved. The courses, complete with traffic and obstacles, were mostly the same (albeit with different textures and backgrounds), but without the music telling you what course you were on, the race probably would have felt the same. Speaking of the music, for some reason, the music sucks in this one. I just don't know what happened!
However, the biggest change to this game was the introduction of two players. TWO PLAYERS! IN A ROAD RASH GAME!!! That's a big deal, ladies and gentlemen. The problem is not in the mechanics, but rather, in the execution of the idea. See, in order to put all those gauges and numbers on the screen for both players, the screen needs to be pretty damned big to be able to see what both players are doing. Since I'm not Scrooge McDuck, I'll have to be happy with a normal TV...which means that two players is impossible. Other notable changes are the introduction of the chain (as a weapon to make the club less powerful, but conversely, makes you reliant on having a weapon at all times), and the introduction of the Turbo system, which allowed certain bikes (the Wild Thing especially) to max out at absurd speeds....which usually caused you to wipe out and lose the race.
Other issues, such as increased racing length and monotony, were not resolved in this game. Road Rash III, unfortunately, would not address any of these issues, and tried to change the formula for the worse...

Road Rash (3DO, 1994)
Who else remembers the 3DO? Thankfully, I can say I never spent money on one (or the Atari Jaguar), but this game almost made me do it. This version of Road Rash did a lot of things right, so many that I really thought that they were going to go even further with the franchise (this game predates the fecal failure that was Road Rash III...boy was I wrong). First of all, Road Rash incorporates a real soundtrack (Tony Hawk, you need to pay homage). We're talking Soundgarden, people! Also, the graphics finally allowed you to see what was ahead of you (no need to take blind hills anymore), and made the driving much easier. Finally, with prettier graphics (yay for 3D buildings), videos, and an all around grittier feel, this Road Rash is actually rebuilt five more times (PS1, PC, Sega CD...etc).

Sadly, Road Rash took a bad turn after the 3DO version. The next Genesis iteration, Road Rash III, was the beginning of EA's mentality of "let's add X Y and Z, fix nothing, and call it a new game!" In this instance, EA added 5 (!) new weapons, including a cattle prod (because that's how I race), and changed little else. Granted, the 2 player split screen was improved slightly, but the new camera angle of the bike made those "jump out at you" cars even more frustrating. Finally, the N64 version of Road Rash incorporated 4-player madness, but very little else.

It would seem that after Road Rash: Jailbreak, things were finished. Slow sales, and the fact that the game looked like a ripoff of Full Throttle didn't help matters either. Supposedly, EA has decided to revive the franchise for the next gen systems. Here's hoping that they do it justice this time.

Side Note: The spiritual successor to Road Rash is "Skitchin," a title from EA that came out in 1994. If you haven't played it yet, I would definitely recommend it. It's probably the last original thing that EA has done in a long while.

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