When I was a kid, years before Electronic Arts became the obscenely greedy, morally bankrupt parody of cartoonish supervillainy that they are today (“Bah! He was a rank amateur compared to… Dr. Colossus!”), to me they were a company synonymous with interesting and fantastic games due to the titles developed and / or published by EA that I owned for my Sega Mega Drive: The Immortal, Populous, John Madden American Football, Desert Strike, etc. (Also, it was easy to recognise EA Mega Drive games by the oversized boxes and oversized, yellow-chipped cartridges).
One such EA title I owned and became a huge fan of was motorcycle racing / combat game Road Rash, which debuted on the Mega Drive in 1991. The game would later receive ports to numerous other systems and would also turn out to be just the first title in a series that continued throughout the 1990s.
Road Rash casts you as a rider participating in illegal motorcycle racing competitions across the highways of California. These races see you and your fourteen fellow “rashers” competing on the various stretches of highway that make up the game’s levels, the goal being, unsurprisingly, to cross the finish line ahead of your rivals.
But while players had previously experienced motorcycle racing in games such as Hang-On, and learned to swerve amongst traffic in driving games such as Out Run, Road Rash brought its own unique feature to the table, one that was a huge contributing factor in its success in carving out its own identity: combining racing with combat.
The introduction of hand-to-hand combat was a groundbreaking revelation that makes the game’s street-racing even more thrilling and dangerous as you and your fellow racers fight with fist and foot – as well as a truncheon, if you’re able to steal one from another rider – at high speed. Each rider has a health bar that decreases upon receiving damage and if you lose all of your health then you fall off your bike, which costs you time as you pick yourself up and get back into the race. Along with the outright punching and bludgeoning of opponents, further satisfaction can be gained from dirty tactics such as kicking a rival into the path of an oncoming car and watching them sail through the air in your rear-view mirror. In your face, road safety!
Civilian traffic and your opponents aren’t the only mobile threats you have to contend with either, as for some reason, local law enforcement takes a dim view of these competitions and so police officers on motorbikes occasionally appear and attempt to bring your race to an abrupt end. If they manage to do so then you’re “busted” and your race is over.
Alongside those who want to see your face smeared across half a mile of tarmac are various stationary threats, as due to the street-racing nature of the game, the courses are filled with roadside obstacles such as trees, signposts and (apparently invincible) cows; as well as on-track obstacles such as gravel patches that cause you to skid. These can all lead to some spectacular crashes – hitting an obstacle at speed on the apex of a hill can separate you from your bike and send you hurtling through the air for some distance, leading to a long run back to your fallen vehicle.
The inclusion of undulating roads that rise and fall as well as twist and turn was something that the developers were determined to include, as this would make the courses and the racing in general more fun and challenging than the traditional flat-surface racing games whose tracks only moved left and right, never rising or falling. As Dan Geisler, one of the lead programmers of Road Rash, stated in 2013: “I really wanted to have a driving game with hills and jumps. So one of my goals was to make Hang-On obsolete and I think we did that.” The feature was apparently a challenging one to incorporate, however: “Technically, I don’t think it had been done before, that type of road effect… essentially, it gave me a way to do a 3D road… It was really technically challenging.”
Road Rash also pushed the technical envelope in other ways as well, as despite the ports that later appeared on numerous other systems, the Mega Drive was the game’s lead platform, and Road Rash pushed the limits of the console at the time while taking advantage of some of the unique capabilities that it offered.
Road Rash’s graphics are bold and colourful without ever straying into overly cartoonish or gaudy territory, and are especially impressive considering the breakneck pace at which you experience the majority of the game. Although all of the tracks are located in California – and are inspired by real-life locations – there is enough variety between them that the scenery doesn’t become stale.
The sound and music for Road Rash were created by Michael Bartlow and Rob Hubbard, the latter already a renowned composer within the video game industry at the time of Road Rash’s release due to his work on dozens of home computer games of the 1980s, such as Sanxion and International Karate +, followed by his work on Electronic Arts titles previous to Road Rash, such as Budokan: The Martial Spirit.
The game’s sound effects are functional for the most part – the screeching of skidding tyres, the pained grunt of an attacked rider, the horrible crunch of a high-speed collision with a car – but serve their purpose well. Of more note is the soundtrack, as the upbeat and catchy synthesised rock music that plays over Road Rash’s menu screens and gameplay fits the game brilliantly, the music contributing to its overall sense of excitement and energy.
Beyond its impressive graphics, fantastic soundtrack and combination of racing and combat, Road Rash also contains further depth, such as the money system – the higher the position in which you finish, the more money you earn, and this is important for several reasons. Not only will you need money to bail yourself out of jail if caught by the cops, you will also need it for repairs if you wreck your bike during a race, as your bike has a health bar that is depleted by severe collisions, and thus can take only so much damage before it dies completely and ends your race.
Earning money also allows you to purchase new bikes, from the decent-all-around Panda 600 through to the two-wheeled speed-beast that is the (much cooler-named) Diablo 1000, and the more powerful bikes are vital to achieving victory in the game’s later, more difficult races. Although the eight bikes on offer are all fictional, the game lacking any licensing from real-world motorcycle manufacturers due to its violent, street-racing nature, they offer enough variety in terms of speed and handling to make them feel different and thus challenge the player in terms of learning how to ride them skilfully. The successful implementation of this was no doubt helped by the fact that several of the game’s key developers were real-life motorcycle riders and enthusiasts.
Although Road Rash’s five levels may not sound like much, they are visually distinctive to a degree and each of these five areas actually contains several individual races of varying length and difficulty. Finishing within the top four positions in a round of races sends you through to the next round, where the five races have now become more financially rewarding but also longer and more obstacle-filled. Your opponents also become faster and more dangerous as you progress. You can retry any races in which you failed to qualify, which can help you earn more money, and replaying races is never a chore due to the game simply being so much fun to play.
Another example of the game’s depth comes in the real and immersive sense of personality it exhibits. For example, the other racers aren’t just faceless opponents – each one has a name that appears below their health bar at the bottom of the screen when you’re close to them in a race, so you’ll know exactly who you just booted into that cow standing at the side of the road. And the sense that you’re racing against individuals rather than identikit automatons is emphasised by the fact that your opponents are fallible – occasionally, without any involvement from you, you’ll see a fellow rider make a mistake and slam into a car or some other obstacle that sends them flying. It’s a great touch.
Also, a few of your competitors actually make an appearance between races in the form of an image of their face and an accompanying comment, whether it’s the helpful Natasha warning you to “watch yourself out there” or the smug Biff stating, “Great, I thought I left you behind with the other lowlife.” (A little tip, Biff: if your name’s “Biff”, you’re in no position to insult others). Even the cops who pursue you are named and occasionally appear between races with a warning or threat.
And finally, even though these illegal street-races may involve bone-crunching violence and intense competition, when you finish a race you’re shown an image of the surprisingly relaxed aftermath: two riders enjoying a sunset together on a beach, a bunch of riders drinking at a bar, riders swimming together in a lake, etc. These scenes are a small addition but, like the points I listed beforehand, they contribute to that overall feeling of personality and community that the game delivers so well, and which is one of the things that sets Road Rash apart from the racing games that came before it.
Despite all of the high-quality work that was being done on Road Rash during its development, some of the less creative types at Electronic Arts obviously had doubts, as explained by Dan Geisler: “Marketing at EA didn’t know what to do with it, they tried to kill the project a couple of times… they would say, ‘Well, is it a fighting game or is it a racing game?’ They didn’t have a pigeonhole for it.”
All we can do at this point in time is hope that these marketing people would later take Bill Hicks’ advice on what to do if you work in advertising or marketing.
Whatever doubts anyone may have had, all of the effort that had gone into the creation of Road Rash paid off in the end, as upon release it was both a critical and commercial success, captivating players with its revolutionary, energetic and violent spin on the racing genre. Numerous gaming magazines praised the game, such as the United Kingdom’s massively popular Mean Machines, which awarded Road Rash a score of 91%, stating that, “As road racers go, Road Rash is definitely the most action-packed and exciting offering to date,” and calling it “a truly thrilling racing game which really sets your pulse racing!”
Even the creators who had worked so hard on the game were still enjoying it after its release: Carl Mey, the technical director of Road Rash, has since said, “Everyone was focused on making Road Rash the best game possible, and it was the first game I worked on that I had fun playing after it shipped.”
The success of Road Rash on the Mega Drive led to the game being ported not only to other Sega systems such as the Master System and Game Gear but also to a diverse range of non-Sega platforms, from the Commodore Amiga to the Nintendo Game Boy. Alongside ports, Electronic Arts decided to build upon the success of the original game with Mega Drive sequels as well.
Road Rash II was released in 1992 and improved upon the original in several ways, the most prominent of which was with the inclusion of a split-screen two-player mode, a feature that Electronic Arts hadn’t been able to incorporate into the original game. As Carl Mey explains, “At the time, it wasn’t possible given the road effect and CPU power. We could’ve done it eventually…” And so they did.
The sequel made further additions to the proven formula of the original Road Rash without making any unnecessary fundamental changes: a new weapon was added in the form of a chain, races now took place all across the USA rather than only California, and a number of new bikes were added. Many players regard Road Rash II as their favourite in the series, including Dan Geisler: “I spent more time dealing with gameplay, improving the AI, the multiplayer; where Road Rash 1 was just like, we had to build it from the ground up, 2 was where we actually could do something with it.”
More Road Rash titles followed throughout the 1990s, including Road Rash 3: Tour De Force on the Mega Drive, a game that wasn’t as well received as its predecessors; a 3DO remake of Road Rash with digitised graphics, full motion video sequences, and a licensed alternative rock / grunge soundtrack; Road Rash 3D on the PlayStation; Road Rash 64 on the Nintendo 64; and more.
These later titles vary in quality, with some being decent racers and others being downright abysmal, and in the years that have passed since the release of the original Road Rash, one thing has become clear: for many people, the first two Road Rash games are by far the best in the entire series.
Another widely held opinion is that the original Road Rash has aged extremely well for a game that’s over twenty years old. Some older games that were impressive and highly regarded at their original time of release don’t age well for one reason or another, whereas some other titles remain as playable and absorbing today as they ever were, and Road Rash certainly belongs in the latter camp.
Dan Geisler has said of Road Rash: “It was a new idea and we stuck with that concept and fought for it and it turned out great.”
It certainly did. And although some of the technical aspects of the game may seem understandably dated today, it has lost none of its energy, excitement and personality. Road Rash remains a hell of a lot of fun to play and is a timeless classic for which a lot of people, myself included, still have great affection.
After all, who doesn’t enjoy kicking a rival into an invincible cow at 120 miles per hour? No one, that’s who.
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and video games. His 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is currently being published on Comixology, while later this year will see the release of his graphic novel Dead Men from Markosia Enterprises. His upcoming video game projects include action / strategy title Crystal Arena and sci-fi roguelike The Traveler. Marvel at his occasional nonsense on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy