It’s inevitable; franchises get stale. What once was a promising idea that sparked creativity and tantalized audiences has slowly faded from relevance, becoming a past tense reference of admiration, if you’re lucky. When this happens, and it will, what do you do? Do you say your fond farewells and let that idea fade away? Or do you try to save it in hopes of rekindling the spark that started it all? If you chose the latter – Congratulations! You’ve just taken the first step in rebooting a franchise.
In Give ‘Em The Boot, we’re taking a look at those franchises that could not only benefit from a reboot, but pull it off well and produce a pretty awesome gaming experience. For your consideration; the high-octane symphony of pain that is, Road Rash – The Reboot.
Take it from someone who has been forcefully ejected from a motorcycle at fifty miles per hour, it blows. It’s not so much the initial contact, or even the subsequent person-to-pavement collision that’s the worst part. The most terrifying aspect of the whole experience is the slow-motion period of weightlessness you endure; gliding through the air as the pavement whizzes below, it’s horrifyingly serene. In this brief eternity, your internal dialogue kicks into overdrive and you might find yourself instantly processing such thoughts as: “Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t, sh****t” or a more descriptive version, “Oh sh*t, this is really going to hurt.” Then you hit the pavement. Twirling, spinning, rolling and sliding are all accurate descriptions of what you will experience, simultaneously, and why physics will eventually kill everyone and therefore must be stopped.
But let’s back up a minute. For the majority of people out there, the rush of a high-speed motorcycle crash will always be a foreign concept, reserved for extreme sports bloopers and the 11 o’clock news. That’s a good thing, for a number of reasons. One – motorcycles are expensive and surprisingly susceptible to gravity. Two – mankind was never designed to move at high-speeds (notice the heart where your combustion engine should be), making impacts with hard surfaces kind of a big deal. Three – the full-body application of Neosporin, six times daily, is about as fun as it sounds (none.)
Fortunately, for the last thirty-something years, the videogame medium has evolved in such a way that ordinary people can now experience small, virtual slices of the impossible. This was the case with Electronic Arts’ 1991 street racing/attempted-murder simulator, Road Rash. Road Rash was the first motorcycle racer of its kind for two distinct reasons: it introduced an element of verticality to the landscape along with the associated physics, as well as the premise that just beating your opponent with speed and skill wasn’t enough, you were encouraged to beat your opponent … with chains and clubs. Rarely does the marriage of two unrelated activities resonate so forcefully with an intended demographic. Speaking from experience, adolescent males everywhere went absolute apesh*t for the high-speed motorcycle racing and wanton violence, all in the name of sweet, sweet victory.
What the original title lacked in form and function was slowly added in subsequent releases throughout the remainder of the decade. As consoles became more capable and development budgets increased, the series saw updates in graphics and features, as well as the physics system that had set it apart in its earliest days. By the turn of the century, the series had morphed into an arcade parody of itself, playing on biker stereotypes and cartoon-violence. It wasn’t a bad decision, but with the extended boundaries of new console hardware the series could have gone in different directions, innovating rather than arguably grafting the style popularized by Twisted Metal.
Surprisingly, that’s where our story just.. ends. Electronic Arts hasn’t optioned another title in the series since Road Rash: Jailbreak was ported to the Gameboy Advanced in 2003. For nearly ten years the once proud name has lain dormant, biding time and building strength. Though every few years, Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello says the words “road rash” in an interview, tying the proverbial carrot to the stick and using it to mercilessly beat our hopes and dreams into the nether, when nothing materializes. Well, dear reader, I’ve finished playing their game, today we start anew. We’re going to reboot this Road Rash franchise, right now, and this is how we’re going to do it.
If you don’t know why the series is called Road Rash, let me explain. See, road rash is a slang term for extreme friction burn caused when the precious fibers of your body rub against an abrasive surface at high speeds. In this case, your skin vs. pavement, essentially shearing off multiple layers and appearing as if you had a rash. A horrible, painful, god-forsaken rash concocted by Satan’s dermatologist in the sinister depths of hell.
Yet for a series that takes its name from a painful, scarring affliction, Road Rash has always been light on the consequences that would normally plague a lifestyle dedicated to the fast paced world of drive-by assault. Clipping a roadside barrier or chest bumping oncoming traffic will send your virtual racer rocketing into the hillside at speeds that would liquefy your internal bits. Game over, right? Not quite. Apparently a fifteen second exhibition of Newton’s Second and Third Laws of Motion is about as jarring as catching the corner of your coffee table as you fumble about your morning routine. The fact that the magnitude of forces exerted on a human body during an event of this caliber would reduce your racer to a lifeless, gelatinous state, doesn’t matter. The reality gets overlooked as he dusts himself off and climbs back on the bike, maybe a little embarrassed but certainly still functioning.
Any game that trivializes the consequences of negative actions breaks my number one rule of videogame design: I want to care about playing the game. For example, getting fined for $10,000 worth of hard currency for rampaging through a crowded shopping mall isn’t a big deal when your net worth contains more digits than a credit card number. Similarly, undergoing collisions that would obliterate a crash test dummy lose all meaning when my rider shakes it off likes the weightless experiences they are; I simply don’t care about my performance because there is no incentive to do so. Road Rash – The Reboot, will make the gut-wrenching crashes you experience just that, gut wrenching. Sure, you’re encouraged to win, even cheat if that’s your bag, but unless you enjoy sucking three meals a day out of a feeding tube you might want to reconsider that daring 80 mph slide coming into turn three.
That’s not to say Road Rash – The Reboot should be a boring, albeit impressive, real life driving simulator – we already have Gran Turismo (what whaaat?) It should be realistic to the point that those spectacular crashes we all love to watch and experience, carry some baggage.
“You’ve just hit the gas at the start of the race. A rider swings up on your right, he got a good jump off the line and is inching closer, ready to cut you off coming into the first turn. You could lose the entire race right here, this is a do-or-die situation. You reach for your sawed-off baseball bat, lovingly nicknamed “Thumper”. You take an arcing swipe at his head, he ducks. In your moment of unbalance, he capitalizes with a swift boot to the side of your bike. It sends you reeling, you try to recover but the turn is coming too fast. You grip the clutch, pump the brakes, lean-in hard. It’s not enough. You come into the turn too fast and slam into the guard rail. That’s the last thing your rider remembers, but for the rest of us, it’s just the beginning of the show.
Your rider goes limp, the inertial forces whipping him over the guard rail. Rag doll mechanics take over and his body is tossed down the hillside in a repeating, no-hands cartwheel. An obstacle approaches, it’s a tree – a damn big tree. Seconds before impact, time grinds to a halt, and a slow-motion dance of physics unfolds. Fortunately the bulk of his body passes by the tree, unscathed; unfortunately, his arm does not. The camera pulls in tight on the arm as it connects, cutting into x-ray vision. It snaps. It’s a heavy break, but it could have been much, much worse. Time slams back into full speed and the rider bounces off the tree in a modified trajectory, rolling down the hill to an eventual stop.”
Before you knew it, you were out of this race. You took a gamble, a good one at that, but it didn’t pay off and you paid the price. Did you do the right thing? Should you have let him pass, tried to catch up later down the road and introduced Thumper to his lower-back? I don’t know – you made the call and it didn’t pan out, and you lost the race. Will you do it differently next time? Maybe. Do you care about your performance? Absolutely.
The Road Rash series has never been much of a story-driven experience. There are varying degrees of plot in each iteration, but let’s face it, when the game’s premise comes down to winning races by beating your opponents with blunt objects, it’s hard to connect those dots. It’s not alone in that regard though, as the early days of commercial game development weren’t exactly brimming with unique narrative. Road Rash has always been a largely disposable experience, good for limited sessions of thrills and marvel, but lacking any real substance on an emotional or thoughtful level. The modern-day demand for complete, immersive titles, dictates a need for change in that department, and rightfully so. The gaming industry is expanding and with increased options comes an increased demand in quality. We’re going to have to answer that call and show the world that Road Rash – The Reboot can be more than just a handful of hilarious physics-based thrills, it’s going to tell a story.
While the necessity for racing two-wheeled vehicles whilst bludgeoning your counterparts might not seem like it lends itself well to a story-telling experience, there a few scenarios that could add a sense of plausibility to the case. In keeping with Give ‘Em The Boot tradition, I’ll supply my scenario(s), but if you’re cooking up something extra saucy in that brainpan of yours, feel free to run with it – it’s an open forum.
Scenario A – The Biker War
For those not familiar with the seedy history of biker clubs, let me explain. While the vast majority are harmless groups of riding buddies, the more infamous organizations are tight-knit and fiercely territorial entities that take rivalry and encroachment as serious as you or I would take a hostile invasion by our new alien overlords, which is to say, very. Unless that’s your thing, I’m not here to judge. Case in point, The Hells Angels and the Mongols, two California-based biker clubs with nearly three decades of violence towards each other. What started out as an argument over who was allowed to “claim” California on their vests, evolved into a bloody war that’s still going on to this day. In fact over here in my neck of the woods, as recent as last week, a Mongol member was found guilty for the 2008 murder of the Hells Angels’ San Francisco chapter leader. Biker gangs are very much alive and their wars are as well, so the premise of a modern-day turf conflict doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The real problem with this scenario is trying to believe that a modern war between rival gangs would only consist of clubs, chains and bats. The addition of firearms to our reboot would be like finding out your house has termites, and to deal with the infestation, you set it on fire – it’s overkill and completely defeats the purpose. Road Rash has never been about guns, and it needs to stay that way.
Scenario B – The Mad Max
I know, I know. The post-apocalyptic thing has been done to death in recent years, but hear me out. It’s the perfect setting for a world where melee combat and maneuverable, fuel-efficient vehicles would be necessity. After mankind nukes the surface of the planet to cinders and the inevitable downfall of society occurs (it’s gonna happen), I envision the remnants of mankind breaking into tribe-like societies. Their moral compasses destroyed by the blast, these groups will war with one another for the scavenging rights to what little resources remain. Food, fuel, transportation and shelter – it’s all up for grabs in a global episode of Shop ’til You Drop and the winner gets the biggest share. The reason this scenario is perfect for Road Rash – The Reboot, is three-fold. One – eventually the mountains of ammunition that were stockpiled by the world’s superpowers will run out, possibly sooner than later if there was any kind of global conflict leading up to the decline of civilization. So within a decade, maybe two, our firearm problem is going to solve itself. Two – fossil fuels are quickly expiring at our current rate of consumption, meaning anything left after the bombs drop will be worth it’s weight in gold. Or whatever our post-apocalyptic descendants value the way we value gold – probably fuel now that I think of it, so yes.. it will be worth its weight in itself. Therefore any transportation that runs on fossil fuels will have to be efficient enough to justify the use, meaning motorcycles! Or a Prius. Three – in a society of warring tribes, violence will be the forte of the ruling bodies, making blunt-force-trauma not only commonplace, but possibly a term of endearment (we’ll see!) Now, if that all sounds suspiciously familiar, it would be because it’s essentially the plot of The Road Warrior. Though if that’s the direction we’re really headed in the future, you should consider investing in chaps now folks.
If you’ve never played a Road Rash title, and I wouldn’t blame you, it’s a poorly guarded secret that the series is about as deep as a nun’s rap sheet. Relying almost exclusively on the thrill of the gameplay, once you’ve finished the finite number of race tracks, that’s it. As I mentioned earlier, the modern era of games puts emphasis on fleshed out experiences, meaning that if Road Rash – The Reboot is going to rebirth this franchise into the modern arena, it’s got to have some value. In my experience, there are a great many elements that could add depth to a title, but far fewer appropriate ways to implement them.
We’ve all been there. We just finished the main portion of a game, setting a new land-speed record in the process. Sweet – now what, hrm? Well, let’s see if we can go gather up all 65 million of these feathers, partially hidden in areas that have now become inaccessible, before mind-numbing debilitation takes over and we start foaming at the mouth. This is a shameful, diabolical ploy, used to cram fistfuls of filler into a game like a lubricated holiday turkey. Good game design should add the appropriate depth mechanics in the appropriate places so the user gets the feeling of a cohesive, singular experience – rather than a six-hour scavenger hunt once they’ve plowed through the selling points.
Let’s forget, for a second, about the ubiquity of the term “RPG Elements” and why it’s so infuriating. It’s a label for the current trend that presents the user with choice in how they customize their experience, which has come under fire lately for being passé, or something. The practice has been called everything from rampant to cliché, which I guess is true, in the same way modern medicine has “already been done”. Look, choice makes everything better, and it’s a one-dimensional argument that would lampoon a title for trying to inject some measure of tailorable mechanics. Road Rash – The Reboot could utilize these mechanics brilliantly to add a sense of overarching continuity, amid the inherently segmented nature of racing titles.
We can move away from the experience-points model, or even leveling up. If we decided to run with The Mad Max scenario as portrayed above, you could barter a forty-five year old bag of irradiated Skittles that you scavenged from a downed racer, trading them for weapons, armor or parts at a local mechanic. The point is, I want to build my personal experience through skill, rather than simply unlocking the BallBuster 9000 because I shaved a few tenths of a second off the best time. Let me build my bike, let me link together scraps of metal and PVC for makeshift armor, let me dip this baton in a glue-glass-shrapnel mixture. You give me the keys to this kingdom and I guarantee you I’ll explore every goddamn nook and cranny of it.
So here we are folks. We’ve come the end of this delirious, gasoline-fueled vision, twenty years in the making. Generally in The Verdict section of a Give ‘Em The Boot piece, I’d make my final case as to why the reboot would be awesome. I’m not sure that’s required this time around. As I close in on the three-thousandth word of this article, anyone still reading by now has to have experienced at least a modicum of enjoyment on the journey. Unless you’re building an impressive case for my arrest and eventual institutionalization – in which case, do me a solid and give me a ten-minute warning in the comments below.
In all seriousness, this needs to happen. Road Rash raised a generation of youngsters on the notion that motorcycles are cooler than a flaming-chainsaw fight between Miles Davis and The Fonz. It also subsequently dashed those poor kid’s dreams when they learned that “billy club etiquette” wasn’t actually part of the DMV test. If Electronic Arts ever opts to make another entry in this series, I sincerely hope they consider their former trespasses, doing it the justice it so rightfully deserves. Lazily slapping together another iteration might just be the final nail in the coffin for Road Rash, and if that’s the case, just leave it alone guys. After all…
Brandin likes motorcycles, videogames and post-apocalyptic fashion. He hates Neosporin, disappointment and man-slaves. You can rant at him on Twitter @I_AmNotAMonster.