Two Wheels...Good?

Well, the weather’s finally decided to behave and we in the UK have been blessed (temporarily at least) with a fairly decent few days. No grey mornings, no torrential afternoons and no evenings where you think it might be safer to move your car away from the trees that are swaying dangerously close to the telegraph pole outside the front door. Yes - this happened just a few weeks ago. Granted, our weather here in good old England isn't as severe as in some other countries, but for the past few years it has been consistently shit. But hurrah! The sun has come out and stayed out for the past week, and that can only be good for someone like me...someone who rides a motorcycle! Yes, the recent fine weather has meant that I’ve been riding the highways and byways of Northern England, taking in the sights and sounds. But this ain't no Goddamned travelogue. No, this is the Dreamcast Junkyard: the epicentre/epicenter of all things Dreamcast, depending on where you reside.

So why am I bleating on about weather and motorbikes and all sorts of other unrelated crap? Well, it’s because I got back from my most recent bike ride and suddenly realised that the Dreamcast has a whole host of two-wheeled-mode-of-transport-related titles. Well, three dedicated ones anyway. And I figured it was about damn time that I had a look at them. There’s also another game that features motorcycles, and I'll get around to that. Eventually. But before then...let us cast a critical eye on the Dreamcast’s stable of ‘proper’ bike ‘em ups...

Suzuki Alstare Extreme Racing
The US and PAL version of the PC game Redline Racer, Suzuki Alstare was developed by Criterion Games - the same software house responsible for the Burnout games. So you'd think that Suzuki/Redline would be a fantastic speed fest featuring mind-blowing graphics and loads of neat details, right? Erm...No. For a start, Redline Racer was a tepid PC game to begin with, and the Japanese version of Suzuki was literally a straight port (even the name remained). All Criterion did to prepare the game for the Western market was add some Suzuki branding and slightly improve the frame rate of Redline Racer. But that’s enough with the history lecturing: how does Suzuki Alstare play as a game in it’s own right? Well, to be fair - it’s not that bad. As you’d expect from a late 1990’s arcade style racer, the options are limited, the graphics are fairly bland and the music is pretty terrible. One thing that I noticed as soon as I started playing was the horrifically basic motorcycle models: motorcycle tires are rounded because that’s how motorcycles are given the ability to turn, but if you had to ride one of Suzuki Alstare’s bikes in reality you'd have no choice but to drive straight over roundabouts simply because of the right angles given to the bikes’ tires! Also, there’s a weird ‘fish eye’ effect utilised, so rival racers look all weird and distorted whenever they come into view alongside you. Minor gripes, I know. 

The structure of the championship is fairly standard stuff: race on different tracks, place highly enough and then go on to the next one. You've played this a million times in a million different guises, and to be honest Suzuki Alstare does nothing particularly badly, but then it does nothing particularly well, either. And that’s ultimately the issue here: Suzuki Alstare is just, y'know, a bit dull. The number of tracks is decent (I think there’s 10), and there are multiple bikes to choose from...but once you've battled through the championship mode there’s very little to make you want to come back. Oh, and the ‘music’ is just a constant loop of the same two minute-long instrumental guff, so for the love of Zeus/Allah/Jehovah/Alanis Morrisette - turn it off.

Ducati World
Imagine a Gran Turismo clone featuring motorcycles instead of cars. Are you imagining Tourist Trophy on PS2? Excellent. Now, imagine a Ducati-licensed PS1 game that’s modeled after Gran Turismo and then ported, with the same amount of effort as Jason Statham puts into an American accent, onto the Dreamcast. Then you'd have Ducati World locked down. It tries, it really does: there are licenses to earn, leathers and helmets to purchase and a multitude of real-life Ducati motorcycles from different eras of history that you can collect and add to your garage. The thing is: Ducati World looks horrible. It sounds horrible. It plays horrible. Horribly. Whatever. I'm not blinded by swanky graphics, but when a game is ported from one machine onto a more superior platform, you expect the developer to put in a little bit of effort making it look nicer, right? Not the case here, people. It looks identical to the PS1 version, but without the pixelation...which in turn makes it look even worse when trackside details start wobbling around and morphing as you ride past because it’s so obvious. It’s as if the disc is laced with the juice of magic mushrooms and simply touching it turns your world into a psychedelic wonderland of warped textures and trees popping through walls. 

Why don't the bikes have illuminated headlights during night races? Why are the bike exhaust pipes diamond shaped? Why can I just hold down the accelerator and win every race? Because Ducati World sucks, that’s why. There are a few nice touches - the bikes have a front and a rear brake (although it makes no difference to the handling when you use either or both at the same time), and if you manage to collide with a wall (instead of riding up it) and throw your rider out of the saddle, the animations are pretty cool. I also appreciate the number of Ducati models from different eras of motorcycling...but that’s about as far as the positive aspects of Ducati World go. Here’s an excerpt from the Ducati World press release:

"It's got great physics, and the attention to detail in terms of handling and styling is remarkable. If you know something about the rich history of Ducati motorcycles, you'll recognize some of the real classic bikes here, and they're great fun to race on. If you're new to Ducati motorcycles, then get ready for romance, because you're going to fall in love with them."

- Evan Stein, Brand Director at Acclaim Entertainment

All I can say to that Evan, is this: Bollocks. It boggles the mind that Acclaim, the company responsible for publishing such epic titles as Extreme G, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil and Forsaken on the N64 were prepared to release something as shoddy as Ducati World on the Dreamcast. But what’s this? Acclaim also published another motorcycling game for the Dreamcast? Really...? Oh yes:

Jeremy McGrath Supercross 2000
Oh dear. I thought I'd seen it all. I thought the PS1-quality mess that is Ducati World was about as bad as things could get...I was wrong. So, so wrong. Supercross 3D on the Atari Jaguar. Motocross Championship on the 32X. Jeremy McGrath Supercross 2000 on the Dreamcast. Yes - it’s that bad. Zero physics, appalling frame rate, crap graphics. Go outside and find a carrier bag blowing in the wind. Now, tie a piece of string to it and try to control it as it blows hither and thither across the street. That’s (probably) about ten times more fun than playing McGrath is. In defence of Suzuki Alstare and Ducati World, whatever their respective shortcomings are, at least they're actually playable without inducing some kind of full-body spasm/epileptic fit. The frame rate in Supercross 2000 reminds me of one of those Victorian animation wheel things where you look through the slots and witness a top hatted, mustachioed gentleman pulling a candle out of his ass at 3 frames per second.

The riders' legs never bend. Seriously. It's like a load of Action Men on crossers.
And that’s it. The Dreamcast (unless I'm mistaken) has a grand total of three dedicated motorcycling games. Maybe if the DC had been the runaway success it deserved to be, we'd have been blessed with updates to Manx TT or even Hang On; and if Electronic Arts had been onboard possibly even a Road Rash game. But it’s all history now. The Dreamcast’s best motorcycling sim is Suzuki Alstare Extreme Racing. Sigh.

Or is it...?

Head Hunter
Boom! Didn't see that coming did you?! Headhunter is a third person shooter with stealth elements and is a pretty kick ass game. It also features a semi open-world hub level where you travel between objectives on main protagonist Jack Wade’s motorbike, and these sections alone boast more excitement than any of the other motorcycling games listed above. Sure, these sections are pretty limited, and the controls can be a bit of a pain in the back side (the bike has a tendency to pop a wheelie if you slam down the accelerator...which is actually quite accurate), but just think what could have been if this tiny part of what is a pretty massive (2 disc) game had been snipped out and turned into a full-blown racing title. It’s wishful thinking and a little far fetched, I admit...but welcome to the world of Head Hunter...the best motorcycling sim on the Dreamcast!

On a slightly different note, I'd like to briefly address something that happened in the last week: the death of games journalist Ryan Davis. Obviously I never met or had any dealings with the man, but I was and still am a fan of the Giant Bomb podcast, The Giant Bombcast. Ryan Davis was an integral part of the podcast, and a highly respected gaming/journalism veteran. I have no doubt he and the other members of the Giant Bomb team had/have no idea that the DCJY even exists, but all of us here at the 'Yard just wanted to pay tribute to the guy and say that we really appreciated, and will no doubt continue to appreciate, the stuff that he and the other Giant Bomb team members put out on a regular basis.


CD ageS said...

The western release got more than just an improved framerate and a Suzuki licence. It also received significantly improved lighting effects which looks nice. As bland as the game may be, it's solid where it counts the most. It controls decently, The framerate while running at only 30fps, is rock solid and never dips. It's far and away better than the other two offerings, but it ain't saying much I guess. I liked it and its super cheap.

I actually thought the 4th game you were gonna mention is Shenmue with it's superb translation of the Hang-On Coin-Op which can be played at "You Arcade". The game is still quite enjoyable and looks fantastic in a retro, pixel sort of way.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for the comment, CD ageS. You raise some valid points, and yes Alstare is a technically sound game. I actually totally forgot about Shenmue's version of Hang On...!

straitJacket said...

Also near the end of the first chapter, remember Ryo races to save Nozomi from the Mad Angels (borrows Naoyuki's bike without explanation).

Tom Charnock said...

Also, on the subject of Shenmue, I seem to recall that the end credits feature a motorbike ride...right? Or am I getting confused? Either way, I apologise for omitting Shenmue in this post - it should have been mentioned. Gah!

SirTea said...

I would say Sega used the motorcycle to describe the characters personalities!