Road Rash II
Creating a racing game before the advent of polygonal three-dimensional graphics led to many interesting solutions used to replicate the experience. Top down and fixed-view perspectives were common, but Namco’s Pole Position pioneered the use of a viewpoint behind the vehicle, scaling signs and other racers accordingly to imitate a faux-3D perspective. This became increasingly commonplace until the SNES introduced Mode 7 graphics, where a textured rotating plane could be used as a track, placing two-dimensional racers and furniture on the plane to give a rudimentary 3D experience. However the MegaDrive natively lacked this luxury, and in comparison many of its racers looked like the road moved more than the vehicle. Yet Road Rash was an exception that pushed the archaic techniques’ limits on the platform, an unlikely candidate as a novel underground racer.
Road Rash II’s quality stems largely from well laid-out tracks, inspired by the American countryside. The level of detail exceeds most racers, with foliage, telegraph poles and housing placed on the roadside. The gradient rarely remains constant with big jumps from hills commonplace, and twisty tracks make top-speed cruising a rare luxury. To top this off, obstacles litter the rural highways. Animals loiter on the road, slow moving traffic and roadwork signs can unexpectedly appear, whilst animal dung can send a player flying high. Crashing is a sure way to lose the race, and doing so enough forces the bike into retirement. Furthermore the authorities are well aware of these races, despite their somewhat inconspicuous locations. Being knocked off the saddle in the presence of a patrolling police is a surefire way to end the race early.
This game is far from easy. The first stages are tough, and it only gets worse with faster competition and longer races. More powerful motorcycles can be bought with prize money, but they also become a lot harder to handle; collisions are far more sensitive and even a tight turn can thrust a rider off their saddle. Certain bikes have nitro boosts that can give them a temporary burst of speed, but finding a suitably straight run to accelerate is very difficult. Races aren’t just won by being faster than the rest either. Punching and kicking other riders is permissible, and some rivals even carry a bat or a chain. Weapons are well worth having, but a player can just as easily be knocked off trying to steal one. The whole experience is high risk, high reward, but sometimes the safe option of overtaking is better than trying to clobber another racer off their bike.
The nature of Road Rash II is hardly serious, but it stands as one of the greatest racers on the MegaDrive. The physics are convincing, the controls and movement are fluid and responsive, and the vibrant courses offer plenty of surprises, all making for a true sense of speed. Hard guitar-driven tunes are accompanied with region inspired compositions for the relevant course, making for a solid background soundtrack. A good dose of humour has been implemented as well. Ending cut-scenes are amusing, such as an ambulance taking a wrecked bike but leaving the player, and the instruction manual having some imaginative profiles for both the racers and policemen. However the game does get repetitive as well as obscenely difficult in the later stages; the extended courses are still the same five states with the same scenery. There is a password tracking system that can even record the bike used and cash balance, but the need to complete each race near flawlessly makes getting to even the third stage more effort than it’s worth.
Racing games come at a disadvantage compared to other genres, as they’re trying to make emulate a real-life experience using what hardware was available. Their relevance greatly diminishes when new hardware emerges, but Road Rash II still stands a timeless classic that has evaded obsolescence. No game could’ve been ‘realistic’ on 16-bit hardware, but the game mechanics here are plausible and consistent, each collision and jump has an appropriate reaction even if they are accentuated. Hit a sign at high speed and the rider is going to fly off, and flying over an obstacle is going to lead to a high jump. The games length is limited though. More course locations would’ve helped extend the replay value, and an actual save system (instead of manually typing lengthy passwords) would’ve mitigated the notorious difficulty. For a MegaDrive racer though, this is as good as they get, and there’s even a two-player mode to enjoy. As a bonus, Road Rash II enjoys the distinction of sporting the ability to control the rider and even finish a race without being in control of the vehicle. Good luck finding another racer that offers that.