When I started this job, Chris made the mistake of telling me I could write about whatever I wanted as long as it was interesting and motorcycle-related. Challenge accepted. Since I'm a huge nerd, I love video games as much as I love motorcycles. Now, in the grand scheme of things, there aren't a lot of motorcycle games out there. There are even fewer good ones. So I decided to write up a list of my favorite motorcycle games—which are clearly the best motorcycle games ever made since I'm the final arbiter in all matters of taste and style—and present them here for your edification.
This was a serious undertaking. I had to dig out a bunch of my old consoles, hook these antiques up to the television in the basement with various adapters, find all my controllers and cables and games, and even scrounge around on eBay, Craigslist, and Amazon for games I didn't have. I read a bunch of reviews, dug up old magazines ('sup Nintendo Power), and generally spent a bunch of time in the basement playing PlayStation with my daughters. Tough life, right?
In doing all this dicking around with video games research, I narrowed down my list to these five games. They span thirty years of game development, three generations of consoles, and run the gamut from point-and-click adventures to hardcore simulation. So, without further ado, let's talk about motorcycle games.
- Developer: LucasArts/Double Fine Productions (Remastered)
- Platform: PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita.
- Release Date: 1995/2017 (Digital Remaster).
- Rating: 5 out of 5 pre-regulation, Destroyer-class, solid-fuel recoil boosters.
I'll be straight with you guys, Full Throttle isn't just my favorite game on this list, it's in my top five favorite games ever. Originally released in 1995, Full Throttle is one of LucasArts' SCUMM-based graphic adventure games. For those of you who don't know, from about 1987 to 1997, LucasArts released thirteen graphic adventure games—Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, etc.—that combined sharp, clever writing, challenging puzzles, great (for the time) graphics, and fantastic soundtracks to make some of the most memorable games of the 80s and 90s.
Unlike more common platformers or side-scrollers popular in that era, the SCUMM games look and play almost like animated graphic novels. Action is largely static (or played out through animated cutscenes), and gameplay is a lot of point-and-click environment exploration and puzzle solving. They're extremely engaging, but they play slow and require a bit more thinking around corners than most modern games do.
Now that we got the history lesson out of the way, let's talk about the actual game. Full Throttle takes place in some undetermined, vaguely-defined, cyberpunk-cum-post-apocalyptic future where high-tech biker gangs rule the western highways and only one motorcycle manufacturer is left in the world—Corley Motors. Players take on the role of Ben, the tough, laconic, gruff-voiced leader of a biker gang called the Full-Throttle Polecats. After a chance meeting with Old Man Corley on a stretch of lonely highway, Ben and the Polecats get tangled up in corporate politics and, as part of a hostile takeover, are framed for the bike mogul's brutal murder.
The rest of the game revolves around Ben's quest to clear his name, spring the Polecats from prison, and bring Corley's real killer to justice. Along the way, he gets mixed up with a mysterious mechanic named Maureen, a plucky investigative reporter from out East, and a handful of other weirdos and fringers. At the end, he finally manages to exonerate himself and the Polecats, saves motorcycling, and then rides off into the sunset after an extremely satisfying final chapter.
To be fair, while I included it in this list, Full Throttle isn't really a game about motorcycles or motorcycling. Aside from one section where you ride through a winding canyon and fight various other biker gangs to get their gear, there's no real riding to do. Instead, as I mentioned before, it's a whole lot of poking around and puzzle-solving as opposed to actual riding and fighting. At its heart, Full Throttle is a stylish, funny, entertaining murder mystery dressed up in a biker jacket and engineer boots. That's not necessarily a bad thing—I did say it was in my top five games ever—but it may not be what a lot of modern gamers are looking for.
- Developer: Electronic Arts.
- Platform: Sega Genesis, 3DO, PlayStation, PC, Sega CD.
- Release Date: 1991 (Genesis), 1996 (CD-based systems).
- Rating: 4 out of 5 felony reckless driving charges.
An update of an earlier, more straightforward Road Rash released for the Sega Genesis in 1991, Road Rash '95—as I'll be calling it from here on out—is a combo racing/vehicle combat game that pits a number of colorful street racers against one another in illegal races all throughout California. There are five, relatively challenging tracks – The City (Los Angeles), The Peninsula (San Francisco), Napa Valley, Pacific Coast Highway, and Sierra Nevada – each one with its own unique challenges. As players progress through the game, the tracks become progressively longer and more difficult which adds a decent amount of challenge to what is, after all, a pretty limited number of tracks.
Throughout each race, players are beset by opposing traffic, fellow riders armed with chains, pipes, and crowbars, oblivious pedestrians, and aggressive cops trying to shut down the race. Players who manage to outrace and outfight their opponents enough to place in the top three get a pile of cash with which to buy new bikes, pay any legal fees—you can get busted by the cops and fined heavily if you're unlucky enough – or repair damaged rides.
Road Rash '95 has two game modes—Thrash Mode and Big Game. Thrash mode is a simple, arcade-style mode where you jump on a bike, pick a track, and go. No character selection, no frills, just ride or die. Big Game mode, on the other hand, is the game's "campaign mode" for lack of a better term. In Big Game mode, you select from a list of eight characters, each with their own stats and unique starting bikes, cash, and weapons. This cast of bike weirdos is surprisingly diverse for a mid-90s product, features men, women, and riders of color, which is a pleasant departure from the "all white dudes all the time" cast that a lot of games of that time had.
All non-racing parts of the game take place in either a biker bar called Der Panzer Klub or a bike shop next door called Olley's Skoot-a-Rama. Between races, players can gossip with fellow riders—a system that gives players good gameplay hints and information on different tracks and opponents—at the Panzer Klub, shop for bikes at Olley's, and sign up for new races. While there is an overarching plot in Big Game mode, it's pretty thin. Honestly, it's almost non-existent. If you place first in every race over the course of the game, you become the King (or Queen) of All Street Racers forever – or at least for this racing season. Full motion video clips sprinkled throughout the game help flesh this out a little, but as I said, it's still pretty thin. It largely doesn't matter though, because you don't play this game to get first place, you play it to run over pedestrians, jump traffic, hit dudes with chains, and generally be a hooligan while listening to the game's killer soundtrack.
Speaking of the soundtrack, what really sets Road Rash '95 apart from its predecessor, and makes it so iconic, is its sheer style. The art is dark and moody, and the characters are rendered in this weird, distorted, caricature-like style that looks like something out of a Primus CD insert. Seriously, there's some straight-up Frizzle Fry or Seas of Cheese art direction going on here. Then there's the music. Man, the soundtrack is fantastic. It features 14 tracks from some of the best bands to come out of the 90s—groups like Soundgarden and Monster Magnet. To this day I can't hear the opening bars of Rusty Cage without getting a little rush of adrenaline thanks to its use in Road Rash's opening sequence.
Man, Road Rash '95 is the 90s-est game ever made. Even games that are ostensibly about the 90s, like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, can't touch the pure, concentrated EXXTREME 90s attitude baked into this game. It's like Electronic Arts took all the flannel shirts, Soundgarden CDs, tye-dyed tank tops, combat boots, and ZX-7Rs in the world, put them in a huge blender, and this was the result. It's one of the most iconic motorcycle games of the 90s and is in my top five favorite games made in the last couple of decades. It's dumb, fun, fast, violent, nostalgic, and provides more laughs per hour than anything else you're likely to play that's not a straight-up comedy game. You definitely need a copy of this in your retro games library.
- Developer: Nintendo
- Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
- Release Date: 1984
- Rating: 4 out of 5 wheelies
Whew, Excitebike. What a game. Modern gamers may look at it as quaint, simple, and a little (or a lot) frustrating like most NES games, but Excitebike was a pretty revolutionary title for its time. One of the launch titles for the Famicom/NES back in the mid-80s, Excitebike is the first game of the "Excite" series—a game series I didn't know existed until I started research for this article. In the game, you play a motocross rider racing against the clock and fellow riders through increasingly difficult, obstacle-filled courses. If you place in the top three, you advance to the next race. Place first in enough races and you win the season.
The game's controls are extremely simple. The D-pad controls your bike's position on the ground and in the air. Up and down allow you to change lanes, and right and left control the bike's pitch when jumping and allow you to pull off some sick wheelies on the ground. Acceleration is handled by the A and B buttons—one provides regular acceleration and the other gives the bike a kind of turbo boost that increases speed for passing and for clearing serious jumps. Simple, right? Well, yeah, but that's not all there is to this game. Not by a long chalk.
There are definite consequences to careless or reckless riding. Hit an opponent, land a little too hard, or run over an obstacle and you'll get pitched off the bike into the infield. While there aren't hit points or anything, crashing does cost you time and makes you lose your position. The bike's health is tracked through a temperature meter at the top of the screen. Heat increases with acceleration, so you have to be careful with the turbo boost. Use too much of it and the bike'll overheat, stranding you on the side of the track for a couple of seconds while it cools down enough to start again. That's one of the game's pretty revolutionary features, a sort of tactical metagame where you have to balance your need for speed against the limitations of the bike. It's a necessarily simple system—there just wasn't enough room in the NES/Famicom's memory of anything more complex—but it adds additional layers to the game.
Excitebike also features three game modes—Section A, Section B, and Design mode—another surprisingly advanced feature for a game from this era. In section A, you ride solo through the tracks and your only real opponent is the clock. This mode is great for getting a feel for the controls and for improving your track times. Mode B introduces a handful of aggressive, extremely annoying fellow riders to the mix who act not just as opponents but also as straight-up obstacles. Design Mode is just what it says on the box. This allows you to design your own tracks by choosing track length, the number of laps, and the shape, height, and frequency of obstacles. Once you design a track, you can then race through it in either A or B mode. This provides a really surprising amount of replay value in a game that consists largely of riding in a straight line as fast as you can.
Man, screw this game. When I went through my old consoles and games in preparation for this article, I couldn't find my copy of Jet Moto. I had everything else in there, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I didn't remember selling or trading it, I don't loan games, and I definitely don't just throw them away, so I couldn't figure out what the deal was. I remembered owning it, but strangely enough, I didn't remember much about playing it. I remembered that it was kinda hard, but it had cool hoverbikes and licensed product sponsors like Mt. Dew, but where was it? I poked around the house for a bit, decided it was really gone, then turned to the internet to grab a copy. Once I got it and slapped it into the old PlayStation, I quickly realized why I couldn't find it. The game is so hard, so frustrating, and so weird that I must have thrown it out into the street and blocked out all memories of it. Why's it in this list of best motorcycle games ever, then? Well, because it is really good, creative, and fun, and my complaints stem mostly from being bad at video games.
Jet Moto is a futuristic motocross game where players ride high-performance hoverbikes called Jet Motos in a worldwide race series called Jet Moto (yes, very original). Like in Road Rash, each character—and there are a ton of them—has their own stats and associated selection of hoverbikes to choose from. Tracks are a mix of land, water, and obstacles and provide for some pretty challenging racing. The physics in the game are pretty weird, and it takes a lot of practice to really get the feel of each bike's handling. There's also a neat "Magnetic Grapple" feature that allows a player to grab special energy pylons with a magnetic beam to slingshot over broad chasms or take extremely tight corners at speed.
Now, I'm not going to lie to you guys here, I didn't finish playing this. I got a few races in, decided that since I'm a grown man with two kids and three jobs and a ton of other responsibilities that I simply didn't have ten hours a day to devote to getting good at Jet Moto, then watched an extended play on YouTube. This game is frustrating as hell and has a steep learning curve. If you have the time and energy though, there's a huge payoff. The tracks are really cool and range from beaches to swamps to snow-covered mountains. The art direction is great and even with the weird Mt. Dew and Butterfinger Bar branding, it makes for a pretty immersive world. Even the music is great, with a selection of tracks inspired by old surf music and 60s garage rock.
I'm not going to tell you to not play this game, but I'm not going to recommend that you do either. It's really cool and all, but if you just want to do some racing and look at cool bikes, there are better and more modern titles to choose from. Still, it belongs on this list just for its sheer weirdness and amount of style.
- Developer: Milestone S.r.l.
- Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
- Release Date: 2016
- Rating: 5 out of 5 gasps of delighted surprise.
Back when I was a big-time console warrior—between, say, 1999 and 2009—the Gran Turismo series was one of my absolute favorite perennial video game series. The thing that really appealed to me about it was the car modification system. For me, racing was almost secondary, simply a way to make money so I could play the real game—race car builder simulator. For years I looked for a motorcycle racing game that could match GT's immersive customization and modification system, but the closest I ever got was a PlayStation 2 game called Tourist Trophy (Which is good and you should play it.) When I set out to write this article, I noticed real quick like that my selections were, like me, old. I decided that I needed something newer to really round out the selection, so I went searching through Steam for a good motorcycle game for PC since I now do the majority of my gaming there. What I found was the holy grail, a game I've wanted for almost twenty years now, a fantastic racing sim called Ride 2.
Ride 2 is, essentially, Gran Turismo for bikes. Produced by an Italian game company called Milestone, it's a fanatically detailed and gorgeous game wherein you buy bikes, modify them, and race them on some of the world's greatest tracks. Like in the GT series, the bikes included in the game, all 200 of them, are all licensed from real manufacturers and run the gamut from dual sports to standards to bonkers superbikes. There are 30 courses, all faithfully reproduced from real-life locations and rendered in amazing detail—right down to the Nürburgring Nordschleife's track graffiti.
At the start of the game, you build and name a character—character customization allows for a super diverse cast of riders—and start out on small bikes and work your way up. As you win more races you earn more money, which you then pour into faster bikes and more mods. Unlike, say, Jet Moto or Road Rash, there's no plot in Ride 2. It's just practice, race, win, spend money, which is fine by me. There are twelve different race modes, everything from street racing to track days to rough and tumble motocross courses. There are also different modes like time trials, invitational events, and even constantly changing daily and weekly challenges.
While the racing is great and all, where Ride 2 shines for me is in the customization system. There are hundreds of different mods to improve the performance and handling of your bike. If you want to go nuts you can even get into things like changing gears in your transmission and fiddling around with brake proportioning. You can even customize your rider. I'm not just talking about suits and helmets here, but you can even tweak your riding position to take advantage of different bikes' handling characteristics.
Ride 2 is the purest motorcycle game on this list. It's a straight-up simulation that provides a pretty faithful replica of real-life racing on famous tracks. It's amazing, you guys. It's gorgeous, full of your favorite bikes, has incredible playability, and great music. Of all the games on this list, this is the one I'd recommend to a real gearhead or bike nerd. There's just so much in this game, and I can't stop playing it.