Some people would say Road Rash II is overly faithful. True, it only has a pinch more graphical detail over the superb original, and also subtle are its improvements in gameplay and track selection. This close similarity is understandable when you consider the tight deadline its development team was faced with. Nevertheless, whilst it does feel like a v1.5 upgrade at times, Road Rash II still released to critical acclaim and eventually sold more copies than the original game did.
This is because Road Rash II makes good on its biggest promise of delivering the best 2-player experience it can. The upgraded 8MB cartridge presents a simultaneous 2-player mode that fans will adore. Some of the rider animations have been simplified and the splitscreen view is a tad squished, but these are small concessions for the entertainment players get in return.
Friendly fire is always active, and yet players are free to make their own rules. Both players contribute their winnings towards qualifying status, meaning the entire game can be fully cooperative. You could designate one player as the speedster trying to qualify and the other player as a brawler who just beats on the AI rashers. You could agree to swap roles, get the leader to feed down information about the track layout ahead, or do the complete opposite by declaring anything goes, may the best player win.
The competition meter (a 2-player exclusive asset) lets each player see their respective progress in the current race, which is really useful considering the condensed view. Password copying returns to greater impact here, as the dominant player can share their winnings and bike with their partner. Players can also change modes via the new and improved menu system, so if they fancy switching to versus or alternating on a standard race for a while, they can do it with passwords tracking all the necessary progress for each player.
Wrecking your bike or getting busted by a cop will still eliminate you from a race. This can be a downer in 2-player because you’ll need to wait for your partner to finish before continuing, but otherwise the formula holds up very well.
It can be argued that some of the original game’s personality hasn’t carried over. On the plus side, players see more of the United States with tracks set in places like Vermont and Arizona. Your rival rashers also have more realistic portraits, with animated vignettes playing at the end of each race.
Those vignettes are funny, though I do miss the old splash screens. There was something about them that conveyed motorcycle culture so well, and it’s a similar disappointment with the shop that features miniaturised renders of the bikes instead of the jumbo sprites that Road Rash had. And if the music doesn’t sound quite as memorable as it did before, it’s still pretty rockin’, and there are no repeated tunes this time either.
Fortunately, the software manual has flavour to spare. Check out this awesome backstory for instance:
“Legend tells that when he busted out of San Quentin, he hot-wired a police bike and roared into the desert. A one-car chase ensued; and when the crusier flipped off the road, Chino circled back to the wreckage and put his fist through the windshield. Through the haze of radiator steam, he looked into the blank eyes of the trooper and whispered, “Brother, I’ll see you in hell.”
A big change in Road Rash II is the rebalanced combat where players must now land several punches to knock down an opponent. This gives rise to the powerful new steel chain weapon, which technically speaking, absolutely kicks ass. However, the more demanding combat is a reason why Road Rash II is often considered harder than its predecessor.
The qualifying position being raised from fourth place to third is a harsh change. I speak from experience here as I recently completed Road Rash II without cheating — a feat that very nearly cost me my sanity.
A welcome improvement that unfortunately works against you is the enhanced AI. Your opponents are faster and more aggressive and they often catch up to you, spoiling for a fight. Cops get the same treatment: they too are more persistent and can now be attacked and knocked off their bikes just like everyone else.
Perhaps the biggest threat that your opponents bring — worse than any steel chain to the face — is their increased tendency to ram your bike. You’ll mainly see this at higher levels, but there are some rashers whose only tactic is bumping into you, which is nastier than it sounds because bikes are very sensitive to skidding and players are vulnerable to obstacles that the AI isn’t: things like animals standing in the road or pylons that will damage a bike’s health meter.
With the frame rate still being so low, players rarely get adequate time to react to these threats, and it becomes a real nightmare on complex tracks like Alaska and Tennessee because of the blind turns that can upset your race in a heartbeat.
The one new addition that actually helps players is nitro bikes. These premium machines have a limited number of nitro injections to boost your top speed for a few seconds. Activating these boosts is clunky and accident prone, but they’re also exhilarating and can slingshot players past their rivals when timed correctly. It’s all easier said than done though and the high price of nitro bikes means that many players won’t ever afford them.
Playing via emulation is still recommended because of how useful save states are for quickly restarting tough races. I’ve also found it keeps things stable. Whether it’s a deeper problem or simply bad luck on my part, my physical Road Rash II Mega Drive cartridges always had a tendency to lock up, especially during hectic 2-player sessions.
It’s a shame that Road Rash II remains so brutally hard. It’s just fortunate again that casually repeating the easy levels and smashing in people’s faces with weapons will be enough fun for most players.
Speaking of fun; let’s not forget the cheat code that grants you the hidden “Wild Thing 2000” motorcycle. This awesome black bike has unlimited nitros, godlike speed, and whilst it’s not a smooth ride, crashing into things becomes silly fun thanks to the extreme hangtime your airborne rasher gets whenever they collide with something.
So even though Road Rash II doesn’t introduce much new content, its beloved status still feels well-deserved. Its wonderful 2-player mode was the key ingredient that made this arguably the best entry in its vaunted series.