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Two Wheels Good: A Short History Of Motorcycle Racing Games

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Two Wheels Good: A Short History Of Motorcycle Racing Games

Motorcycles: loud, fast, dangerous. They'll get you killed, son. At least, that's what some of our parents told us, to put us off ever wrapping our legs around them and throttling off into the sunset. But in the video gaming space, there's no risk of broken legs and shattered teeth, so since the earliest days of virtual play, we've been able to speed away on two wheels safe in the knowledge that what's on the pixellated screen can't hurt us in real life. Right?

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Here's a whistlestop tour through the history of motorcycle racing games - incomplete and obviously missing games that you played, in years gone by. But nevertheless, these are biker classics that no turbo-revvin' young punk should ever forget - some of which are as great to play today as they ever were.

And no, I've not included the Trials series, and games where it's the player against the environment rather than other riders, because they're not really racers, are they. Are they? Feel free to slip them into this list wherever you want, if you must. This isn't a science, it's just for fun.

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MotoRace USA / Credit: Irem Corp/Williams, MobyGames.com
MotoRace USA / Credit: Irem Corp/Williams, MobyGames.com

ZIPPY RACE / MOTORACE USA, 1983

Irem's arcade racer - released as Zippy Race in Japan and MotoRace USA in the US - has an interesting dual-perspective approach to play. Initially, players control their bike, weaving through traffic, from an overhead view; but the game then switches to a behind-the-bike angle, the kind seen in Hang-On and Road Rash, for the final stretch towards the finish line. Divided into five stages, the game depicts an OutRun-like drive across America, from New York to Los Angeles, and was ported to both the Nintendo Famicom/NES and SEGA's SG-1000 console. MotoRace USA is set to be reborn in 2021, as a new release for the forthcoming Intellivision Amico console.

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Excitebike / Credit: Nintendo, MobyGames.com
Excitebike / Credit: Nintendo, MobyGames.com

EXCITEBIKE, 1984

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Debuting for the Nintendo Famicom and in Japanese arcades (in its Vs guise) in late 1984, Excitebike pits the player against both the challenge of other riders and the obstacles of a stadium-set motocross circuit, including several jumps and bike-slowing mud pits. An immediate critical and commercial hit, which came to the NES in the US in 1985 and Europe in 1986, Excitebike spawned a number of follow-up games and spin-offs, with 2000's Excitebike 64 for the Nintendo 64 representing a terrific update on its demandingly mud-splattered gameplay; and it inspired a DLC track in Mario Kart 8, too, in the shape of Excitebike Arena.

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Hang-On / Credit: SEGA, MobyGames.com
Hang-On / Credit: SEGA, MobyGames.com
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HANG-ON, 1985

SEGA's iconic arcade racer, with a motorcycle-styled cab that you had to mount to play (a more modest upright version was also made), was amongst the first video games to use 16-bit graphics to relatively successfully simulate the sensation of driving 'into' the screen. Hang-On was the most profitable arcade game in Japan in 1986, and its home ports for 8-bit systems were well received despite being a shadow of their arcade inspiration. Designer Yu Suzuki would go on to help produce further seminal racing games for SEGA, including OutRun, Super Hang-On, Power Drift and Daytona USA, before realising the incredibly ambitious Shenmue for Dreamcast in 1999 (the third chapter of which came out in 2019).

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Road Rash / Credit: EA, MobyGames.com
Road Rash / Credit: EA, MobyGames.com

ROAD RASH, 1991

EA's Road Rash, first released for the SEGA Mega Drive in the autumn of 1991 before being ported to other systems, made a small but definitely memorable change to the standard motorbike-racing formula. It allowed the player to kick and punch out at other riders, and even whip chains and swing baseball bats into their helmet-shielded faces. Get knocked off your wheels and your rider will desperately dash back to their vehicle, with any ranking under fourth meaning you've failed a race. There are also Californian cops to watch out for, who will arrest you if they can. Several sequels followed in Road Rash's wake - Road Rash 2 appearing on the SEGA Mega Drive Mini in 2019 - and a spiritual successor, Road Redemption, was also released in 2019.

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Suzuka 8 Hours / Credit: Namco, MobyGames.com
Suzuka 8 Hours / Credit: Namco, MobyGames.com

SUZUKA 8 HOURS, 1992

Developed by Pac-Man makers Namco for arcades - and later the Super Nintendo, ported by Arc System Works - Suzuka 8 Hours is an adaptation of the infamous endurance race of the same name. One of the most popular arcade games in Japan in 1992, like Hang-On it used replica bikes as part of the cabinet, and offered two-player head-to-head races with a regular twin cab, and eight-player compatibility with four cabs connected together. Stylistically similar to SEGA's racer, Namco's game mercifully didn't demand that players stay in their seat for a full eight hours, although the home version did offer a still-gruelling 90-minute mode. While it never came out in Europe, Suzuka 8 Hours was well received critically, and a sequel was released in 1993.

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XGIII: Extreme G Racing / Credit: Acclaim, MobyGames.com
XGIII: Extreme G Racing / Credit: Acclaim, MobyGames.com

XGIII: EXTREME G RACING, 2001

Answering a question that I don't think anyone actually ever asked - what if WipEout was on futuristic motorbikes? - this third main entry in Acclaim's Extreme G series, which debuted back in 1997, was something of a cult classic for Nintendo GameCube and PlayStation 2. Also known simply as Extreme-G 3, this game sees players able to invest in weapons between races, and really makes the most of its hardware - even 20 years later, and with sights blurring by in a flash, this is quite the looker.

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Tourist Trophy / Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment
Tourist Trophy / Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment

TOURIST TROPHY, 2006

Another PlayStation 2 game, Tourist Trophy was developed by Polyphony Digital, best known for the Gran Turismo series. And much like their work on games starring four-wheeled vehicles, this was a remarkably polished simulator, even outputting at 1080i - yes, HD on the PS2 was a thing (for a grand total of four games). With multiple game modes, loads of rider accessories to unlock, and a wealth of licensed bikes, this is definitely more of a game for the dedicated fan of motorcycle games, and less fairweather arcade players. As of 2018, producer Kazunori Yamauchi was still keen on a sequel... some day.

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MotorStorm / Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment
MotorStorm / Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment

MOTORSTORM, 2006

While it's not all about bikes, Evolution Studios' MotorStorm for the PlayStation 3 - a launch game for the console in Europe - keeps them front and centre of its off-road action. By far the fastest and most manoeuvrable option, the in-game bikes are a favourite player pick, even if they're also the easiest to accidentally turn into a sparking pile of junk. It's not big nor clever, but MotorStorm was, and remains, an incredibly accessible, immediately exciting racer, and it was followed by a sequel, Pacific Rift, in 2008, before further games followed in the series.

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Mario Kart Wii / Credit: Nintendo, MobyGames.com
Mario Kart Wii / Credit: Nintendo, MobyGames.com

MARIO KART WII, 2008

Every new iteration of Mario Kart brings something new to the cartoon racer's mix of high speeds and power-up gameplay - and in 2008, on the Wii, the biggest addition was motorcycles. Okay, and motion controls - but those aside, motorcycles. Nintendo's cast of characters could pick from sports bikes or regular models, with the former enabling inside drifting, another new gameplay addition. Mario Kart Wii is pretty far from the best in its series, but it played its part in the march towards the stunning crown jewel that is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on Switch.

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Burnout Paradise Remastered / Credit: EA
Burnout Paradise Remastered / Credit: EA

BURNOUT PARADISE, 2008

EA's open-world racer-cum-destruction derby was a revelation upon release, and while its formula has arguably been bettered by Microsoft's Forza Horizon series, the raw thrills of Burnout Paradise still held up brilliantly when it was remastered for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Switch (our coverage of the latter, here). It didn't originally release with bikes included, but they were added as part of the game's original DLC, and come as standard in the remaster. And to take on the chaos of Burnout Paradise on two wheels really is something - a knuckle-whitening experience, where close calls feel even riskier thanks to the lack of a protective metal shell around you; and crashes and bangs crunch and crumple with greater bite.

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MotoGP 21 / Credit: Milestone, Koch Media
MotoGP 21 / Credit: Milestone, Koch Media

MOTOGP 21, 2021

The latest entry in Milestone's MotoGP series is out now (April 22, 2021) on PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X/S, and PC, and makes good on the Italian developers' learnings over several iterations. Milestone is something of a motorcycle game specialist, as it also produces the Ride and Monster Energy Supercross series. And clearly they're doing something right, as reception to these releases remains fairly positive. MotoGP 21 makes every use of the available hardware's capabilities, promising the most realistic motorcycle racing experience ever. Naturally, players will be the judges of that claim, but there's no doubt that it sure looks impressive in previews. Featuring MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3 classes, 120 official riders and 20 tracks, this is the game for modern motorcycle racing fans to live out their fantasies, taking their favourite competitors and teams to the top of the podium. It also includes 40 riders from the sport's past, online options, incorporates a comprehensive team management side, and has extensive customisation tools. A new high for motorcycle games? In terms of simulation-style ones, sure, could be.

Giveaway time! To coincide with the release of MotoGP 21, we have a PlayStation 5 console and copies of the new game to give away, courtesy of Koch Media. Simply head to our Twitter or Instagram pages to find out more.

Featured Image Credit: Milestone/Koch Media, EA

Topics: Sega, list, Nintendo, PlayStation, Opinion, Retro Gaming

Mike Diver
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