Road Rash is one of the Sega Mega Drive’s most acclaimed and cherished originals. It’s one of the rare motorcycle video games from the early Nineties; one that sees players competing in illegal street races across California.
In 1991, Road Rash became Electronic Arts’ most profitable in-house release, and its various spin-offs and sequels would be a fixture for the company over the next several years.
The game sees players naming their “rasher” before hitting the highway to race past their rivals, navigate tight corners, and dodge obstacles to finish in a qualifying position of 4th place or better.
Featuring a pseudo 3D track that twists and undulates in an impressively realistic manner, Road Rash was a technical achievement for its day, as it built upon the solid formula of similar games likes OutRun and Super Hang-On.
However, it’s the addition of combat that makes Road Rash truly inspired. Being able to punch your rival rashers in the face or kick their bike into the path of an oncoming car makes everything twice as compelling as it would be otherwise.
Fighting between rashers is typically decisive and satisfying. Some opponents can be knocked off their bike with a single punch whereas others will swing a club in your face if you get too close. Time it correctly and you can snatch that club from them and wield the deadly weapon for yourself. It’s a deceptive level of depth considering the Mega Drive’s 3-button limitations.
This was one year before the debut of Mortal Kombat where you can see Road Rash being firmly ahead of the trendy adult-themed curve. Although there’s no blood or fatalities in this game, it still features some wonderfully excessive moments that have cemented its brutal legacy.
This includes the dazzling spectacle of rashers colliding with an obstacle at high speed and corkscrewing through the air before crashing down with a nasty slide across the asphalt. Of course with this being a video game, the rashers quickly shake it all off and remount, ready to do it again for our pleasure.
With limited video RAM to work with, programmers of the day had to count their pixels at every turn, and yet Road Rash’s slimmed down visuals allow several rashers to be on screen at one time. Mix in the aforementioned combat mechanics and any race can be pure chaos from the start.
The vivid graphics and picturesque California locales like Sierra Nevada and Pacific Coast Highway make for a handsome looking effort, though it is one with a very low frame rate. Connecting with a punch can be tricky due to the choppy animation, making it just as likely that you’ll bump your target’s motorcycle as you try to move within range.
The SFX aren’t particularly impressive in this sense either. Punches and collisions sound a bit flat and there are no female voices for the female rashers. The soundtrack fares much better though. Its collection of synthesised rock tunes will surely be an acquired taste, but I find them to be enjoyably catchy and complex — even if I did forget to include them on a certain list I made years ago. Mea culpa!
Dismounting your bike during a crash feels like a big deal. Your rasher will run back to his bike on foot, but players maintain control to avoid being squashed as they cross the road. Racing video games of the time would typically respawn your mounted rider automatically and so there’s just something oddly satisfying about Road Rash’s separation of bike and rider. It’s a tangible quality that lends things a certain believability.
Indeed, game designer Randy Breen is a biking enthusiast himself and it shows in many of the game’s little details. The bike UI has an odometer that indicates how far you’ve travelled in the race — not the most intuitive feature seeing as players must memorise the track length from the awkward menu system beforehand, but it’s certainly thematic. Likewise is the tachometer showing your bike’s RPM and the pair of working wing mirrors that are both useful and fun whenever a rival behind you gets wiped out by a passing car!
Due to the game’s violent content, Electronic Arts couldn’t license any real bikes, so the shop is packed with clones that enthusiasts will recognise: like the “Diablo” Ducati-like and the “Kamikaze” standing in for Kawasaki. In fact, this shop looks especially cool as the bikes take centre stage with their awesome sprites.
This adoration of bike culture contributes to the game’s personality. You’ll find only a brief backstory in the instruction manual, but the characters featured within get a chance to shine thanks to the splash screens where their talking heads comment on your efforts.
Most notable is Natasha. She is one of Road Rash’s recurring faces; a secretly ruthless competitor who is nevertheless a helpful ally, assuming players stay on her good side. Attack Natasha and she’ll respond in kind with her portrait turning angry and her hints turning into threats.
Little touches like this make your rivals feel like real people and it’s helped by them having their own approach to racing. Some rashers are naturally faster, some more erratic, and some aren’t shy about fighting back if provoked. Throw in the post race vignettes of bikers drinking at the tavern or relaxing near the swimming pool after a hard day of racing, and it feels all the better for it.
Rounding out the presentation is a hotseat mode for two players. Whilst alternating goes like this is unrealistic due to the considerable length of the later races, its inclusion does show how important the prospect of 2-player was to the original development team, only the real deal of simultaneous play couldn’t be squeezed onto the cartridge (yet).
As good as Road Rash is, the biggest barrier to enjoying it is the difficulty. Reflecting on it now after having played this for nearly thirty years, Road Rash is a low-key consideration for one of the most consistently hard video games in existence.
The curve isn’t bad at first. The early levels are manageable despite their steep challenge, but from Level 3 onwards the game becomes extremely hard. The main way this ramps up is via the length of the tracks. Whereas a track raced at Level 1 will last a brisk five miles or so, the final Level 5 variants are three times as long. With longer tracks comes more pressure to stay in control as well as an increased chance of crashing. Your bike’s health meter won’t survive repeated collisions and this can become a problem on the longer tracks that grind your bike down through attrition.
Later levels also demand higher top speeds to stay competitive and Road Rash gets gradually harder to control as your speed climbs. Tight corners will jerk your rider back and forth if you don’t brake at the right moment, meaning the likelihood of colliding with a road sign or oncoming car is always quite high, even for seasoned players.
There are also times where a hill will hide an oncoming car that the low frame rate gives absolutely no hope of avoiding in time. Trial and error will help players learn the tracks eventually, but memorising a complete fifteen mile layout with all of its many twists and turns is a challenge that only the most hardened veterans will be willing to accept.
You’ll also encounter cops patrolling the highways. Cops are immune to attacks, making them more of a swingy obstacle than anything else, and if you crash whilst near one, you’ll be penalised and immediately fail the track. This can be very annoying when later races last six minutes or more.
The aggressive rubber-banding is a double-edged sword. Whilst it allows you to climb your way back to a qualifying position following a time-consuming crash, it also makes it harder to maintain a solid lead. Even if you speed into 1st place with not another rasher in sight for miles, a single crash or some excessive braking can result in several rivals passing you in the blink of an eye.
Qualifying on all tracks automatically advances players to the next level, but this too is a trap because players should grind the early levels for the cash needed to buy a faster bike first. The early levels have easier and shorter tracks, so even with the increased payouts of later levels, players can earn cash less quickly if they haven’t purchased a bike of higher tier. They’ll have a hard time keeping up if they don’t.
A password system means you can always retrieve your progress if something goes wrong, but the letter strings are long and clunky in the extreme. Playing the game via emulation smoothes this out because digital save states allow you to quickly restart a failed race and get right back into the action with minimum fuss.
I did ponder why Road Rash is rarely mentioned when the talk of ‘hardest video games’ comes up in conversation, but the truth is I already know the answer to that. Quite simply: this game’s unforgiving difficulty doesn’t matter to most players. The gameplay is so immediately fun and the concept so pure, that many will enjoy repeating the lower levels just to speed around, bash a few brains in and generally have a merry time without worrying about what comes next.
Road Rash supports this approach perfectly. The later levels bring new rivals, longer tracks and a few palette-swapped bikes, but there aren’t many crucial differences that you’ll be missing if you don’t get there. Fighting plays less of a role when your bike can reliably speed past the throng of enemy rashers, but otherwise not much about the basic formula changes as you advance.
And even with my criticisms, the game’s incredibly steep challenge does at least offer longterm value and there’s even a high score board that encourages you to make as much money as you possibly can. Completing Level 5 reveals a short animation where two rashers (presumably you and Natasha) kiss and ride away to further romantic adventures (you can’t play as a female rasher, sadly) and that’s it in terms of closure. In other words, by not engaging in the hellish end game, you’re not exactly missing out on much anyway.
Diving into Road Rash this many years later has reminded me why it’s so special. Whenever I play a racing game that has linear tracks without laps, I always refer to that as “Road Rash style”; my own little way of remembering its unique influence.