Reposted Review: Road Rash 64

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(Originally published on the defunct Retro Retreat)

The lauded Electronic Arts series lands on the N64. Except that this entry was not made or published by EA. Confused yet?

Originally an exclusive for the Genesis, Road Rash saw rare ports on the Amiga, Game Boy, before a quick reboot on the 3DO, and Windows before disappearing awhile. EA also brought it over to the Playstation as Road Rash 3D, and took one last stab with Jailbreak. But Electronic Arts final attempts on the Playstation failed to capture the 16-Bit glory days of the series on Sega’s most popular console. Enter the late, THQ with a grand proposal.

PROS: Truly captures the feel of the Genesis classics. 4 player split screen.

CONS: Like F-Zero X it goes with low poly counts. With worse textures.

WEIRD BUT TRUE: The game totally calls bull crap on you for gaming the system.

Back in 1999  (Has it been 13 years already?) a strange thing happened. It’s not uncommon to find late ports of titles showing up on a competing platform. It is however strange to see a franchise entry be created by a developer with no apparent ties to that franchise’s IP. Stranger to see that entry be published by a publisher that doesn’t own that IP.

Strangest of all, seeing that title in a store, on a shelf, and all completely legitimate.

But that’s exactly what happened. Back in the early 90′s, Electronic Arts published a 3 game motorcycle combat racing series called Road Rash. A Genesis exclusive, the first title later saw ports to the Commodore Amiga computer, and the Game Boy handheld. As it’s ports were not on traditional consoles, anyone who wanted to play the series on the big screen had to buy a Genesis. It was a great series too. Going head to head against friends, while you swung bats at each other while driving bikes at 200 mph was a blast.

So much so that gamers temporarily put aside the petty console war, and challenged each other whenever they ended up at the Sega kid’s house on a Saturday. The series briefly made an appearance on the 3DO when EA founder Trip Hawkins left to create the 3DO company. That version made it to Windows 95. After the 3DO was defeated by the Playstation, and it’s rivals however, EA would bring the motorcycle combat racer to Sony. When they did bring over Road Rash as Road Rash 3D though, they toned down a lot of the fighting aspects, and focused on the racing portions. This probably would have been passable among the series’ most ardent fans if not for the fact that RR3D had no multiplayer mode whatsoever. EA tried to make up for it with Road Rash Jailbreak, (USA gamers got it late) and reception while not bad, was still a far cry from it’s days on the Genesis.

Enter the late THQ. Around this time it was finding pretty modest success on the Nintendo 64 with it’s World Wrestling Federation games, and previous World Championship Wrestling titles. Besides this, the publisher always seemed to attempt filling gaps on the platform. It tried publishing Quest 64 during the N64 launch period to give RPG fans something to play in the wake of losing Final Fantasy. While that was a very blunderous miscalculation, with today’s title the practice was one of their successes.

THQ contacted EA, and worked out a publishing deal to make their own original motorcycle battle racer using the Road Rash moniker. They certainly didn’t squander the opportunity.

Road Rash 64 took everything fans knew, and loved about the Genesis games, then amped them up to eleven. Moreover, the game even did a few things some of your favorite modern racers do. Like the 16-Bit originals, RR64 will have you racing against other psychotic bikers in violent races for blood sport. Make it from point A to B in one piece while placing in the top three you qualify for the next race. Make it through all the races, and you will find yourself in the next circuit. RR64 also does all of this on one large map. While being A to B distance racing, the game does not put up any invisible walls. You can feel free to drive off-road, drive lines through “S” winds of track, or even attempt to skip long areas of track.

But don’t think that any of that will help you. Because Road Rash 64 also calls you out for being conniving. Get used to seeing the question “Cheat much?” crop up in red, and white if you do anything the developers found questionable. If you flat-out try to skip a race by driving around the preplanned route, right to the end you can expect your bike to mysteriously break down while a warning “Cheaters never prosper.” taunts you. You won’t want to break down either, because each breakdown takes away prize money. Prize money is very important in this game because you need it to buy bikes. Why do you need bikes?  Because later circuits require faster bikes to enter. If you can’t afford a bike that meets the race requirements, you can’t progress. So you’ve been warned.

The game also brings back police chases. Biker cops will show up to crash your party. Unlike the other bikers who may need to keep making you total your bike until it can’t race anymore, the police only need to make you crash once to arrest you. Get arrested, you lose money for bail. Run out of money, and it’s game over. So not getting arrested is just as important as not crashing, and having the nicer bikes. Be that as it may, the real fun of the game ARE indeed the fights, and crashes. Road Rash 64 features amazingly, hilarious crashes. Where other games will infuriate you because one tiny mistake cost you a victory, here you will laugh, and wonder how your racer is still alive. It even has an award called “Cascade”. It will pop up when half of the racers are involved in the same crash. Bodies will fly hundreds of feet in the air, rag doll in the street, and then be run over by traffic. There are also pedestrians you can hit during races for bonus points.

There are so many fun weapons to use here too. Of course there are the typical B-movie biker staples like bats, chains, or clubs. But you can find pool cues, steel pipes, mace that can be used to blind other bikers, and the greatest weapon for this sort of game: a taser. Even once you make it through the main game you’ll have a lot of multiplayer modes to play. Thrash mode is probably going to be the best of the bunch. This mode lets you, and three friends race on any of the tracks featured in the campaign. All of the weapons are available to you, and as in the main game, you can pick up other stuff like damage amplifiers.

Other modes are lap based modes on tracks not seen in the main game. Here you can run a 1,3,5,or 7 lap race against one another, or play variants of these like tag mode (Everyone has to gang up on a specific player before the game assigns IT status to the next player). Deathmatch mode is here too. In DM you get a frag for each lap you make, and if you are knocked off you lose a frag. The final multiplayer bit is Pedestrian hunt. This mode sees players trying to run over anyone standing in the street or on a sidewalk. Whoever hits the most at the end of the track wins.

There is one major off putting thing here though, as you can probably tell by the screen caps. That’s the graphics. Even at the time of release they are far below what most players expected. The N64 did have a lot of games people cited as visual power houses. Turok 2, Goldeneye, Perfect Dark to name a few. But Road Rash 64 goes just a minor step above the fidelity found in SNES games like Star Fox or Stunt Race FX. One likely explanation for this is the lower polygon numbers increase performance. Even Nintendo’s own F-Zero X did this. But even F-Zero X had pretty respectable textures in comparison.

Nevertheless, Road Rash 64 does take advantage of the Expansion Pak cartridge. Players who have one installed in their N64′s will have access to a few graphics options to mildly improve the quality. Widescreen mode (Although it’s really stretch o vision), Letterbox mode ( Really more of a window box. Makes the screen smaller, and centered to sharpen the image.), and then there’s the option of using Higher Resolution Textures at the normal 4:3 setting. For most  players, the typical Normal setting or the Hi Res mode are the best options. Hi Res doesn’t add much of a performance hit either. So if you have the Expansion Pak, it’s probably the best bet.

Road Rash 64 is the odd duck of the series. It’s a game that nobody ever expected to see, and then when they did see it, they had to do a double take. While it isn’t very much to look at, it is a great example of gameplay over graphics. It’s a lot of fun, and is the only four player entry in the series. It’s also not terribly expensive, so if you’re looking for another party game to add to your Nintendo 64 collection you can easily do a lot worse.

Final Score: 7.5 out of 10 (A lot of fun despite it’s faults.)

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