Road Rash Series

Grades:

Road Rash  (1992) – A-

Road Rash 2 (1993) – A-

Road Rash 3 (1995) – D

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 17th

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Years: 1992-1995 (see grades for specific year of each game)

Genre: Commuting

Note: Road Rash 2 was the editors’ unanimous favorite game in this series

We don’t write this blog with a conscious effort to be anti-establishment or populist, but it’s not hard to imagine “hardcore” gamers and other Genesis enthusiasts getting a little bent out of shape upon seeing the Road Rash series finish so high our list. Certainly, this is not a series of games we would expect to see do well if a similar list had been published by, for example, Gamefan magazine back in the old days. The Road Rash games are the kind of thing likely to be looked down upon as mindless, or “just another racing game”, completely lacking the interesting characters or narrative depth of, say, an RPG. To this I would argue that if you can’t properly enjoy a well-made game about racing motorcycles while punching people in the face, then perhaps you’re all taking yourselves just a bit too seriously.

I mean, video games are supposed to be fun, right? It seems like sometimes we get so caught up arguing about their artistic merits that we kind of forget that. And despite what the pundits of “hardcore” gaming will tell you, not every title needs to be an RPG with a complicated story, a 2D fighter with 400 characters that are all slightly different variations of Ryu, or the world’s hardest vertical shooter. It doesn’t make you any less of a gamer if you enjoy, say, a sports game, as long as the game is well designed and satisfying to play. Road Rash isn’t a sport (tragically), but the same principle applies.

Oh hey, there’s a bike based on one of my ex-girlfriends.

Road Rash wasn’t the first game to combine racing in combat, but it does so in a way that’s much more believable and almost perfectly balanced. Think about how weird it would be if you saw a bunch of heavily modified cars racing down the street while firing machine guns and other weapons at each other. Aside being expensive, that’s the sort of thing that would probably attract a lot of attention and probably a military intervention. That probably explains why most “car combat” games take place in some dystopian future. But Road Rash is a motorcycle race, where the competitor’s just happen to punch each other when nobody else is looking because… well, why wouldn’t they? I mean, besides the fact that it’s incredibly dangerous? That’s believable. In fact, for all you know, that sort of thing could be happening right now. You should probably look out a window to check – you wouldn’t want to miss something that awesome.

Of course, the “why wouldn’t they?” aspect of Road Rash’s combat will ruin all normal motorcycle racing games for you going forward. You’ll never be able to battle it out in a tight race without thinking “why can’t I just punch him on the face and take the lead?” ever again. On the plus side, it’s not like there are a lot of great motorcycle racing games out there anyway, so no big loss.

 

They’re neck and punch-able neck going into the final turn.

 The other nice benefit about only allowing hand to hand combat is that it forces the focus of the game to be on racing first, and combat second. After all, you’re going to have to catch up to your opponent before you can kick him into the path of an oncoming car. It feels less cheap than a racing game with ranged weapons, where you can drive poorly but bring down a distant opponent with a missile. Compare this to any of the Mario Kart games, where you can get a red turtle shell that will home in on an opponent so long as you’re close enough to see him in the distance. That doesn’t feel fair at all. In a more Road-Rashian world, instead of firing shells at each other, Mario would pull up alongside Toad, reach over, and slam that little bastard’s face into his own steering wheel, preferably while doing his “Yahoooo!” laugh as Toad skids into the nearest wall.

There are times when Road Rash’s combat feels a bit unnecessary, particularly when you have a significantly faster bike than your opponents and can blow past them before they even have a chance to make a fist. But in a close race, it’s an important aspect of the game, as it allows you to (quite literally) beat back an opponent to take or hold onto a lead.  Besides providing an alternative way to win instead of boring old stuff like, you know, racing well, it’s also incredibly rewarding to pound a tough opponent into falling off his ride. This creates a nice balance between the racing and the fighting – you still have to race well enough to catch up, but it’s your ability to really whale on your opponents that will put you over the top. It’s perfect.

The first Road Rash comes from a time when EA was a fast-growing but still only medium-size publisher from San Mateo, and still developed many of the games they published in-house. It’s sort of interesting to see how the company’s California roots sometimes show through in subtle ways in their earlier products. It’s probably why the cover of the first NHL Hockey has a picture from a LA Kings home game (as well as a secret message about the brand new San Jose Sharks). It’s also a likely explanation of why all of Road Rash’s tracks take place within California. It’s their home territory after all – places the designers probably already knew, or could hop in the car and check out on a slow afternoon. And that’s kind of cool in itself – it lends the game sort of a personal touch, by creating a connection between the player and the people who worked on the game as you get a glimpse of the places where they live. Admittedly, these tracks aren’t anything remotely close to accurate maps of the area, so much as just a collection of California-themed backgrounds. Still, it’s kind of fun to imagine the people who made them driving in to work one morning and thinking “This commute would be awesome if I was on a motorcycle and fistfighting cops.”

Wave to the designers as you go past their house.

Road Rash 2 was sort of the ideal sequel, making minor refinements to the gameplay, improving the graphics a bit, adding some new bikes and weapons, and expanding the courses to locations all across the nation. One nice little touch here is that each course has its own unique background music, and each track’s music seems really appropriate for that location. The Hawaii course emphasizes island-sounding drums, the Tennessee music has a definite bluegrass feel to it, and to the extent that Vermont has a signature musical style, let’s just assume that the game nails it as well. The differences between Road Rash and it’s sequel are almost negligible, so the best way to describe RR2 is that it’s basically the same as the first one, but a little bit better. That might seem a bit unambitious, but as the flaming trainwreck of ineptitude that is Road Rash 3 demonstrates, it is all too easy to mess up a good thing.

Ah yes, Road Rash 3. Well, our goal in doing this Top 50 list was that after years of being negative and hateful towards games, we were going to write positive, loving articles about the 50 games we did like. Let’s just say that Road Rash 3 isn’t amongst those 50 games. Oh, it might have rode in here on the coattails of the more successful Road Rash games, but when we say “Road Rash series”, we really mean Road Rashes 1 & 2. It’s like the Godfather movies – the first two are excellent, and the third is something that people generally don’t acknowledge and eventually everyone sort of forgets it exists.

Still, it’s probably worth discussing Road Rash 3 a little bit, because its badness is pretty symbolic of its time. It’s a bad game from a bad year, put out by a publisher that was in the midst of going from our most to least favorite game company, on a system that was over the hill and practically crumbling before our eyes. For those of you who don’t remember 1995, it was mostly awesome – the economy was going well, there was good music on MTV, good TV shows and movies to watch, it rained gumdrops, and just about everything was great. Except for gaming, where 1995 was this awful year where games had already gone about as far as the technology could take them, but the next generation of consoles weren’t out yet. This hit the Genesis especially hard, because it was weaker technology than the SNES, and also because the games for the system had been so innovative right from the beginning that there wasn’t much left to do design-wise. As a result, you got a lot of newer games that were just way beyond what the system could handle technologically – attempts at 3D graphics, first person shooters, and new animation techniques that looked awful AND made the games less responsive. That’s what happened to Road Rash 3 – the big innovations came right at the beginning of the series (“Hey, let’s have these motorcycle dudes punch each other!”), and by 1995, all that was left to do was add a new graphics engine that ended up looking worse and being harder to control. You ever have a pet that you really loved, but it got old and sick and you had to put it to sleep? The Genesis was kind of like that beloved pet, and Road Rash 3 is a symptom of the disease that forced you to put it down.

Road Rash 3, a broken leg on the horse that is the Sega Genesis.

 Availability: For reasons I’ll never understand, EA has been pretty reluctant to re-release their classic games on a collection for modern consoles. This truly baffles me – I know I can’t be the only one who would rush out to buy a collection with Rings of Power, Road Rash 2, and NHL ’94 all on one disc. My best guess is that EA makes so much money off of Madden that they simply don’t have any room for the additional piles of cash such a collection would generate. Whatever the reason, the Road Rash games aren’t part of any collection (other than the PSP one, which doesn’t count due to the fact that the PSP sucks), and aren’t available for download either. If you want to play these games, you’re going to have to get them for the Genesis.

That shouldn’t be too hard, though. Copies of Road Rash 2 are plentiful and dirt cheap, and you ought to be able to find one at either a used game store, flea market or just order it online. One small caveat is that many of the copies in existence today seem to be cartridge-only, as people who buy games about brawling on motorcycles apparently aren’t real big on keeping their stuff all nice and pristine. Copies of the original are a little harder to come by, but by no means impossible, and only slightly more expensive. Road Rash 3 is the rarest and most expensive of the bunch, but not by much, so if you really wanted a copy… well, then you’re obviously not reading these articles very closely. I did compare playing RR3 to putting your favorite pet to sleep only a few paragraphs ago.

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Beyond Oasis

Grade: B+

Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 18th

Publisher: Sega

Year: 1994

Genre: Zelda-Envy

Beyond Oasis is the story of Prince Ali (and if you can read that name without automatically saying “mighty is he” to yourself, than I think it’s safe to assume we’re from different generations), who is apparently the sole heir to the Kingdom of Totally Not Giving a Fuck. This is a guy who thinks nothing about going off to explore abandoned caves on long-forgotten islands without telling anyone, and when he finds himself alone and in pursuit of some enemies fleeing by ship, he does what any rational person would do in that situation – he hops on board and starts murdering everyone. Does he know how to sail the ship or even where it was headed? No. But why worry about such trivial things? When the time comes, he’ll just crash the ship into the nearest land mass, assume any nearby structure is an enemy fortress and proceed to kick some more ass. That’s the kind of guy Prince Ali is. Traits like “a reasonable amount of caution” or “forethought” are not among the his best qualities. You can’t help but like the guy. Especially when his game looks like this:

Look at that. Believe it or not, that screenshot is from a Genesis game. The whole game looks this good, if not better. If Beyond Oasis isn’t the best-looking game on the system, it has to be pretty close. It’s as though somebody over at Sega flipped over the Genesis, and found that the “nice graphics” switch  had been set to the off position for the last 5 years. Which, given the way they run things over there, doesn’t seem all that unlikely, actually.

Then again, graphics aren’t supposed to matter, right? Gameplay is supposed to be the only thing that counts. Well, except for those times when we arbitrarily decide that its actually the story that’s important, and gameplay doesn’t matter at all (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy). And in rare occasions, it’s even ok to like a game purely for the soundtrack. But never graphics. Real gamers are above such trivial things. Good graphics are for slack-jawed casual gamers to drool over while playing their games based on the latest Michael Bay movie.

But  that’s complete nonsense. The quality of a game isn’t determined by any single aspect on an all or nothing basis. Gameplay might be the most important part of a game (and by the way, “gameplay” itself is sort of a catch-all of numerous important things, such as control, difficulty, and level design), but the other stuff goes a long way to supplement it, too. A good story can make you more emotionally involved in a game, and provide extra incentive to see what happens next. A game’s music engages a player’s mind, can provide a pleasant distraction through a slow part, and is a surprisingly strong motivation to play through a game again (at this point in my life, I’m pretty sure I keep replaying Megaman 2 purely for the music). And graphics set the mood of a game, as well as help players visualize the things going on in the game, which often can be abstract concepts. Don’t think so? Try to imagine Super Mario Bros. as a text adventure:

 

World 1-1

You are standing on a grassy plain. Off in the distance, large green pipes emerge from the ground, and remnants of a brick wall are floating in the air above you. One of the bricks has a “?” carved into it. A path leads right.

A large turtle is approaching you.

>Jump on turtle

You jump on the turtle, causing it to retreat inside its shell and flip over. You bounce off the turtle shell into the floating “?” brick. Doing so releases a gold coin from the brick, which flies into the air and disappears.

You now have one gold coin.

>Wait, what?

Between the hair, the headband, and the people constantly trying to shoot him with a crossbow, the Prince is actually a lot like me.

Better yet, Beyond Oasis plays nearly as well as it looks. The game is an action RPG cast in the Zelda mold – open world, with lots of sword fighting, exploring dungeons, and solving puzzles. Is it better than the SNES masterpiece The Legend of Zelda 3: A Link to the Past? No, but to be fair, that’s an almost impossible standard. A Link to the Past is probably one of the top ten games of all time. Obviously a game that finished #18 on our list of top Genesis games isn’t going to beat one of the ten best games ever made – for it to do so would defy the principles of mathematics. And we hate it when people go around defying the principles of mathematics – it makes our checkbook so much harder to balance. So no, Beyond Oasis isn’t better than Zelda 3.

Thanks to the advanced graphics of Beyond Oasis, this is the most realistic… whatever the hell it is, that we’ve ever seen in a game.

Even so, it does manage to do a pretty respectable job in a lot of ways, and some aspects of the game, such as the combat, are actually better. Was it enough to satisfy the typical Genesis owner’s raging Zelda-envy? I doubt it, but I think that envy was probably a little misguided anyway. Zelda 3 was arguably the SNES’ best game and, as I said a paragraph ago, one of the best ever made. In fact, at the time it was released, a lot of people probably would have said that it WAS the best game ever made. So while a lot of Genesis owners may have thought what they wanted on their system was a really good action RPG like Zelda, what they really wanted deep down was for the Genesis to have one of the all-time great games… like Zelda.

Those are some pretty unfair expectations for any game to live up to. Instead, appreciate Beyond Oasis for what it is – a great looking, fun action RPG with a main character who kicks ass first and asks questions, well, never.

Availability: Beyond Oasis came out a little late in the Genesis’ life, and was released during the dreaded “red box” era, when Sega switched over to flimsy cardboard boxes instead of the superior plastic ones they had been using. As a result, most of the boxes and instructions for the game were lost or destroyed, making complete copies hard to come by (and expensive) for hardcore collectors. If this is what you’re looking for, expect to pay upwards of $20.

Those of you who just want to play it should be in luck, though. Unlike a lot of later games, this one isn’t too difficult to track down. Cartridge only copies can be found online for around $10, and we’ve seen it in a few used game stores for slightly more than that. Additionally, the game is available for the Wii’s virtual console, and was included in the excellent Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the PS3 and Xbox 360.