Rebooting franchises gets confusing. Much like this: the third game in the Road Rash series, released before another game called Road Rash 3, and the second production to be called just Road Rash.
Road Rash (1994) then, could be considered a pioneer as far as reboots go, not just for the naming convention, but mainly for its next-gen presentation and licensed rock soundtrack. Music like this didn’t feature in video games often because CD-ROMs were still on the cutting edge. Indeed, Road Rash (1994) was reputedly a killer app for the Panasonic 3DO; a disc-based console that was testing the boundaries of what video games could be at the time.
Years later, the game was ported to PC, PlayStation and Sega Saturn — which is where I first played it. Looking back, I was surprised to hear how well it did on 3DO because the ports were more roundly criticised, even though they were solid conversions of the original.
These ports added nothing new though, so by the time I was reading about them in magazine reviews around 1996-97, Road Rash (1994) was looking and sounding every bit of the 1994 in its name, which is problematic when you consider the Sega Saturn, for instance, already had Sega Rally Championship and Daytona USA by then.
Road Rash (1994) hasn’t aged well. I wasn’t thrilled by the Sega Saturn version back in the day and neither was I thrilled when playing it recently on a 3DO emulator. Had I played it on original hardware in 1994, my story would be a little different because this certainly is an impressive-looking game for its time.
The licensed rock music alongside the high-octane full motion video and stylised menu screens make a bold first impression, and you can still appreciate the smooth drawing of the in-game backdrops and how they contribute to a more realistic feel in the racing action. Road Rash (1994) uses messy digitised sprites like Road Rash 3 does, although they do look better here. Alongside 3D buildings hugging the track is the occasional polygonal tunnel and fork where the road splits into divergent routes.
But while the graphics have been glitzed up with some 32-bit flair, the game retains a blurry look thanks to the console’s low internal resolution. The frame rate in the original 3DO version is also very low; smoother than the Mega Drive entries, but not by much. Steering is generally smooth, depending on the bike you’ve chosen, and small obstacles can be lightly bumped into now without the bikes tipping over.
This doesn’t mean the game has gotten any easier in its later stages. Several tracks have wider lanes to allow the bikes more room to turn, but later levels present an absurd number of cars and obstacles players need to avoid. The Pacific Coast track is also extremely narrow by comparison and has a truly awful mechanic whereby players are instantly eliminated if they crash too close to the cliff edge. Have fun overcoming that on Level 5!
The wider lanes and alternate routes are ingredients that also give combat a different feel. After all, when there’s more space to avoid your rivals, there’s less reason to fight in the first place. Even then, the impact of a good punch is muted by the digitised fists and crummy sound effects. Attack damage has been drastically reduced as well, so compared to the first Road Rash where you could knock out an opposing rider in a couple of satisfying swings, here you’ll need to laboriously slug them several times before they go down, even when you’re holding a chain!
Speaking of which, Road Rash (1994) doesn’t feature any new weapons and neither does it support simultaneous 2-player. This disappointing regression in design makes the game feel like a remake more than it does a proper sequel, and it’s a feeling only made stronger by the all-California track selection and almost total lack of new ideas beyond the facelift.
The Schmooze mechanic tries to add a pinch of strategy, but this is a non-starter. Instead of other rashers talking to you at the end of a race, you can talk to them yourself from the main menu. The game has several named characters who will offer snarky comments or the odd hint depending on how they feel. The idea is that characters who act aggressively during “schmoozing” will act the same way during the next race, thus telling players which bad apples they need to look out for.
But honestly, who cares? Players won’t have time to worry about this during a race. Even then, fighting other rashers should be fun enough and doesn’t need to be complicated by a mechanic that wants players to memorize a load of stuff beforehand.
The grungy art style and exaggerated facial designs proved to be divisive as well. I certainly think this art style clashes with what you see in-game and it’s a similar situation with the soundtrack. Now to be clear, the licensed music featuring Soundgarden and Hammerbox and other alternative rock bands from the era, did prove to be a pioneering concept. The rocking tunes are a great fit for the rebellious theme Road Rash exudes and it must have felt wild to see actual music videos featured on the disc. There’s only one problem: none of the licensed music plays during the races, meaning you’ll only hear the original soundtrack during play. The hardware simply wasn’t able to render the game and stream audio from the disc at the same time, which is a shame when you consider the crappy Sega-CD demake could do this.
In fact, no 32-bit version has an audio mixing option, so the engine sounds will always be too loud and will always drown out the background music if you have both enabled. It’s not a huge loss either way because the original soundtrack sucks and is rather embarrassingly outclassed by the music in Road Rash and Road Rash II. I gather the 3DO hardware is to blame again here because its lack of dedicated sound chip meant composers had a tougher time producing memorable tunes.
The full motion video clips earn back some merit, I guess. FMV material from this generation rarely holds up, but the wild clips that show biker gangs cheering on the winners and booing the losers in cheeky vignettes are decent, and the crew was clearly having fun making them.
Overall though, Road Rash (1994) is a tough sell for me. The dated graphics and lack of 2-player mode really hurt it and the once strong presentation hasn’t aged well enough for me to consider choosing this over the Mega Drive originals.