Wednesday 23 April 2014

Road Rash for the Sony PlayStation

While we're on a nostalgic tip, let's do a proper post about an ancient video game. And this time it's the turn of the classic racer-cum-beat-'em-up Road Rash, which hit the original PlayStation in 1995. Identical versions were also available for the 3DO and Sega Saturn. And, if truth be told, it's a game I've been wanting to write about since, well, forever.

Road Rash began life on Sega's MegaDrive in 1991 and spawned a series of conversions and sequels, of which this was the last decent iteration. Of what came later - Road Rash 3D, Road Rash Jailbreak, and Road Rash 64 - well, they were tosh. It's a shame, but nevertheless they haven't addled the warm memory that attends the franchise.

If you weren't around back then and have not been playing it to death lately (like me), Road Rash is a simply brilliant concept. In all the iterations you are a rookie player who participates in an illegal race. Along the way you have to avoid roadside obstacles, cops, and cars in pursuit of a qualifying position. As you earn cash from racing you can buy newer, faster bikes that give you an edge on lower levels, and enable you to keep up with the pack on the higher. Sounds like a million other racing games with career modes. But this comes with a twist. You can beat up fellow riders. You can knock them off as you're hurtling down the freeway at 200kph, give a good clout with a nightstick or smack 'em square in the face with a chain. Sounds like the stuff moral panics are made of? You betchya.

These core game-playing mechanics were left untouched in the PlayStation version. Befitting a new system's launch title, it looked much better and far more technically advanced than its MegaDrive predecessor. It also added very little to what went before - why change a winning formula? The visuals and sounds kicked ass, the sense of speed was unlike anything else, but it was virtually the same game - definitely no bad thing. The main difference was that the computer players had a bit more nous about them. They clobbered as hard as you hit, and were adept at smacking you into what the town planners like to call "street furniture". This is truly the stuff vendettas are made of. But like the originals, the AI competitors are not motorcycle legends - they are as prone as you to screw ups and believe me, it's very, very satisfying to see a character you hate spread themselves across an oncoming windscreen.

PlayStation Road Rash adds a few extras. Because all 90s games had to have full motion video as and where they could, there's plenty of naff cut scenes of the programming crew pretending to be bikers and lots of shots of bikes. A big selling point at the time was the proper soundtrack the game had, featuring rock luminaries like Soundgarden and Swervedriver - though bizarrely not as in-game music. There's also a garish, charmless art style of distorted latex-looking characters to pick from. In between races you can "schmooze" in the menu/bar area and have some of them trash talk you. It can be diverting, I guess. Especially if you kicked them off their bikes in a previous run. In all though the presentation is horribly dated. Attitude was the in-thing back then, and the game reeks with forced irreverence.

Road Rash is an excellent game and still plays extremely well. If ever a modern version came out, I'd get a new console for the game especially. But this is very much an American game. It and its predecessors mine a rich vein of cultural lawlessness, of the highway as a parallel world for free spirits to flip authority the bird and go all out. Think Smokey and the Bandit, The Blues Brothers, Dukes of Hazzard. The American frontier has gone, paved over and crisscrossed by endless miles of road, but it remaons the place where freedom lets rip. The whole game is about thumbing a nose at convention - you can beat down on the cops as much as you like, but they do fight back. As such it's another instantiation of the outlaw aspect of American individuality. It plays up to it with its cartoon violence (the pre-game 'don't fight on bikes kids, it's bad' disclaimer notwithstanding), reinforces it, but amply demonstrates its faux, simulated character.

Billy the Kid killed men and stole stuff. Bonnie and Clyde shot up banks and rural stores. Don Corleone extorted cash and commanded "respect". These figures, real and fictional are thoroughly American in spite of their crimes. Their methods were lawless but their ends remarkably ... normal. They wanted in on America's prosperity, they demanded their slice of the cake. Ruthless killers one and all, but they're folk heroes because they affirm the individual route to success, and were willing to transgress to achieve it. A similar cultural logic is at play in Road Rash: you compete in illegal races to win cash to buy better bikes. And that's it. You break the law all for the sake of a new set of wheels.

Road Rash - and you can say the same for subsequent outlaw-themed games, including Grand Theft Auto offers safe, escapist fantasy that transgresses the everyday but without once putting it into question. It reinforces the acquisitive impulse - after all, if even crims want what consumer capitalism offers, that itself speaks volumes for its popular legitimacy.

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