There is, believe it or not, an occasional method to the madness that dictates the slow and steady drip-feed of games onto these here very pages you’re reading right now! My big list of favourite games currently numbers just over two hundred, all in order, and they’re the ones I aim to cover entirely one day, looking at each one detail, as well as its personal and wider context, as the mood takes me. Retro gaming is only partly about nostalgia though, and in fact a good number of those are not retro at all, with the likes of Demon’s Tilt, Stardew Valley, In Other Waters and Hollow Knight all lurking around the business end, so most of the rest of what turns up here is about discovery, which is, in fact, the bit that excites me the most about this hobby! There’s almost five decades of stuff out there that we never dreamed of being able to play at the time – something I’m always reminded of when I see an old photo of me playing Grand Prix from the VIC Innovative Computing book of type-in game listings, and next to me is my entire game collection in a tiny plastic basket, with Crazy Kong at the front and what would have been Pinball Wizard, the first game I ever covered here, and Arcadia, where this site’s name comes from (and which I really should cover soon), sitting just behind it.
Anyway, that element of discovery – and sometimes rediscovery – is serviced by another, far more chaotic list of stuff I’ve come across that I think I’d enjoy writing about and you might enjoy reading about. As I look at it now, there’s about twenty-five ideas on there in no particular order, such as Discovering Roland’s Rat Race on Commodore 64, which was inspired by a cover of the wonderful Freeze64 magazine but a Rat-Fan like me really should have played it by now; there’s similar for Star Gladiator on the original PlayStation, Mr Heli on PC-Engine and Demon’s Attack on VIC-20, which has the greatest box art ever – like Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove album cover, but silver instead of black! There’s also a few ideas I’ve had while writing other posts, for example A Nightmare on Elm Street on NES, accompanied by a full watch-along of all the movies, like I did with Friday the 13th and Splatterhouse 2 on Mega Drive a while back; there was also the list of my most disappointing games of all time to work through from when I covered Slaine on ZX Spectrum, although firing up Highlander on there again is going to take some building up to! And looking at the new Re-Xevious more recently as I write inspired me to also look at the cancelled Atari 2600 and 5200 ports of the original, speaking of which, I also realised there’s a whole library of Atari 7800 games I’ve never touched to inspire even more, no doubt! Then I had a really good time playing through the first Taito Legends collection on PlayStation 2 recently too, and a mini-review of each game on a compilation means you’re not only getting a bit more out of it, but is also usually sparking a few more ideas for me to dive into more deeply too, whether I decide to write about them at some point or not, so I’ll definitely do the same with the sequel, then probably the Midway collections on there too. It’s not quite all about to-do lists though, because sometimes something comes along that for some reason just grabs an instant hold of me and has to jump to the front of the queue – the arcade version of Wonder Boy after I played it for the first time when I was reviewing everything on the Sega Astro City Mini, for example, or Ninja JaJaMaru-kun on NES, or Kawasaki Superbikes on Mega Drive… And now Rally Bike joins that list that’s not a list!
Not being much of an arcade connoisseur at the time, although in retrospect I guess I did take in most of the classics up to the early nineties at least, I’d never even heard of Toaplan’s Taito-published 1988 arcade game until recently; in fact, I’d probably just about heard of Toaplan full-stop! I guess up to that point I knew Flying Shark, and I remember really looking forward to the Spectrum version on the strength of screenshots of the original in Computer & Video Games magazine alone. After that, there was some buzz around stuff like Twin Cobra and Truxton that I was aware of at the time, but it took my current odyssey into finally trying to get good (or, realistically, better!) at shoot ‘em ups after forty years of failing, and looking at their vertically scrolling early bullet-hell shooter Batsugun in particular, that led me to Rally Bike, simply from a YouTube recommendation down the side of whatever video I was watching to help me be less rubbish! Toaplan’s first big arcade success was another vertical shooter though, 1985’s Tiger-Heli, and that became very much the blueprint for where they’d head right up to going bust in 1994, as well as way beyond that into the likes of CAVE, which several of their developers would later end up founding. And while Rally Bike might not fit into the genre they’re best remembered for, that blueprint is still very much in evidence here.
According to the arcade machine operator’s manual, “RALLY BIKE is joystick-controlled no-holds barred motocross racing game in which the player much challenge 6 different race courses.” You’re travelling across the United States competing against other bikers initially, although later on cars seem to be adding to your overtaking tally too! Anyway, you start in San Francisco, then it’s off to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Boston and New York, and to qualify for the next stage you need to progress from your starting rank of 60th to whatever that stage demands. At the beginning it wants you to get to 30th, but that target is getting lower the more stages you complete. Strangely, apart from the first stage and very occasionally after, this was never that big a deal though – if I was going to see game over it was far more likely I’d have crashed out all of my lives, or – more likely – run out of gas! And I’m not sure, but I’ve a feeling that this might be because the higher you rank at the end of the stage, the harder the subsequent one is. Maybe I need to keep an eye on hanging around the qualifying position after all!
What you do need to keep a constant eye on is your fuel gauge, and when it’s running low you need to pull into a filling station pronto. These are reasonably generously scattered around each stage, and always in the same place, so you can get a good feeling for how far you can push on if you’re in a good flurry of overtakes before you need to stop, but it’s always a gamble because pushing on too hard is going to use more fuel more quickly, and once it’s gone that’s it, lives left or not! The trouble is, every time you stop it’s using up precious time, and you’ll be noticing other racers casually passing by in the background as the fuelling cut-scene painfully plods along, leaving you with an even bigger task on your hands once it’s done! Actually, that’s not the trouble… the real trouble is that no-one else ever runs out of fuel, so you’re the only one ever at a disadvantage from this! Reminds me of Continental Circus, where you’re the only one that has to go into the pits to change tyres when it starts raining!
Thinking about it, a kind of top-down, vertically scrolling take on Continental Circus isn’t a bad shout here for some context here though – Continental Circus meets Atari’s Enduro, maybe! It’s certainly inherited Enduro’s addictiveness, built around the same very simple risk-reward dodging mechanics where you’re constantly balancing maximum possible speed against the fear of whatever object is going to hurtle down from the top of the screen at you next! And that object is going to kill you, and so is the next, and so on, until you know exactly where it is and where you need to be to avoid it – just like playing one of Toaplan’s shooters! You’ll work out the first two stages pretty quickly though, allowing you to focus on some of the game’s set-pieces, which throw a nice curveball to mix up the action every now and then to stop you getting too comfortable with regular racing, like rogue fuel trucks bearing down on your back wheel through narrow city streets, or initially infuriating freight train interruptions…
You’ll get some mileage out of your coins before you need to worry about those though, and there’s some help at hand with the helicopter that will sometimes appear overhead to drop a power-up crate somewhere in front of you, though you’ll often be tearing your hair out as it drops a precious gas cannister right in front of two other riders and a car or something, and you just can’t get to it before it disappears behind you without crashing! Drops seem to be random, also dishing out bonus points, “wingman” bikes that will take an impact either side of you or speed boosts that work like your turbo button but at no cost to fuel, but actual extra fuel is what you really want from these because it means you’re not messing around stopping at petrol stations. Should also mention there’s some bonus stages too, with the helicopter permanently flying up the road from you dropping pennants to collect as you weave through loads of old-fashioned racing cars; I’m still not entirely sure if all of these collectibles are for extra points or fuel to get to the end, but I think probably both!
There’s plenty of variety in racing the different environments you travel through as well as how they look, giving at least a flavour of whatever American location they’re supposed to be taking place in. And considering this is a lowly top-down racer in the same timeframe as Out Run, Super Hang-On and so on, they look great too! There’s a huge amount of polish and care lavished everywhere you look, which I guess there had to be, but all the same, you will never stop noticing little things, from different breeds of pigs in one of the more rural locations to the symbols representing the different points of interest you’ll pass in a single stage on your progress bar, from sailing ships when you’re in the harbour to skyscrapers to those awful train tracks I mentioned before! But if we zoom in and look at just that latter tiny area that (hopefully) speeds by in the briefest second, there’s individual planks of wood authentically laid out on and around that railway crossing, and you can see the iron fixings in the rails sitting on their bed of gravel that have a slight reflection on them, and then either side there’s a textured kerb connecting the road, which has shadows from the long grass on it’s verges and a couple of subtle potholes. And for most of that briefest second it’s going to be covered by a train! Hit the train and you’ll get the most wonderful impact as you completely explode into the side of it, and it’s even better if there’s a couple of cars on the scene to get the same treatment too!
From the very outset, San Francisco quickly transitions from road to woodland, and I think that when you come across this kind of greenery is when you’re seeing the game at its very best – some of the later forest areas, like the one in the Denver stage with its glorious, lifelike tree canopies drenched in the red setting sunlight, spreading shadows across the makeshift grassy track, just demand you take your finger off of the turbo button and take it in! The care taken with the lighting and shadows everywhere – as well as a few wild colours – really adds a whole new late-eighties alternative to full-on 3D, and whether you’re in a city or skirting a lake or a beach or jumping over cactus-strewn desert outcrops, you’ll never not want to discover what’s next! While there’s only so much you can do to convey detail in top-down motorbikes, no complaints here, and the use of colour in all of the vehicle sprites has a similar effect, giving everything a unique identity that will continuously surprise you – almost as much as their relentless attempts to block you off just as you’re about to pass! Everything moves so fast and so smoothly too, even when there’s as absolute mass of stuff going on. By contrast, the various cut-scenes aren’t exactly cinematic, but they get the job done.
What is cinematic are some of the sound effects though, in particular the heft to your motorbike accelerating, although that does mostly give way to the jaunty loop of the simple background music fairly quickly, which is fine if not especially memorable, and does vary by stage, although I think there’s a missed opportunity to give each stage a bit more of a musical identity, like in Road Rash and its first two sequels. There’s some great incidental music when you reach the stage finish though, with a laid-back Out Run high-score table vibe! Apart from the welcome whirring of the helicopter appearing, there’s not a massive amount to the rest of the sound palette – bells, whistles, chimes and explosions that are all pleasant enough, but, again, nothing very memorable… Except maybe the overly shrill turbo sound that definitely encourages you to keep an eye on your fuel gauge (which is also very late eighties multi-coloured graphic equaliser cool, along with your speedo)!
Whatever it looked or sounded like, a top-down racer in a 1988 amusement arcade was going to live or die by how it played, although I am pretty much convinced that most of the less retro-tolerant audience back then never got that far, and is more than likely why me and no doubt many others had never heard of Rally Bike before… But let’s give everyone and everything the benefit of the doubt, and focus on the absolute thrill of playing this thing! Left and right, accelerate and brake, and push up for turbo is all you’ve got to worry about, allowing your full and immediate focus on the game itself. It starts off pretty easy, on a wide road with just a few riders jostling around to overtake, then, just as the first helicopter drop appears, you enter a wooded area, full of rogue trees and hedged multiple-route corridors, and suddenly picking up that crate it’s dropping in front of you isn’t so easy! As you re-enter the city, you need to keep an eye on the road signs or you’ll be face-first into a kerb, and then San Francisco’s trams make an appearance, giving you a tiny gap up the side to negotiate if you’re feeling brave, being careful not to career into any other riders doing the same. There’s a bunch of jumps here too, but only one you really want to look out for, which will land you in the back of a farm truck hauling hogs, allowing you to literally drive all over the remaining competition to the finish, where your race is assessed and bonuses awarded and you’re introduced to the next stage…
Don’t worry, I’m not going walkthrough again, not that I’m especially qualified to do so here yet – after a couple of weeks of loads of play I’m getting close to a bit of New York sightseeing now, but need to get to know those last two stages a bit better; it’s one of those games I’m afraid of finishing though because I’m enjoying discovering the next bit so much! I am going to pick out one more thing though, and for such a split-second element of the whole game I seem to be mentioning them a lot, but those trains we’ve talked about have probably provided my absolute highlight so far… The first time you reach the first set of train tracks, you’ll panic and smash into the approaching train. There’s then an instinctive urge to slow down the next time and work out how on earth you can get by; and there’s the clue – slow down enough and you can just about squeeze around the back end of it before you get trapped by the scrolling… There’s nothing fun about slowing down in a race game though, and sooner or later you’ll work out you were doing the exact opposite of what you really wanted to do all along, so you’ll slam that turbo button down when you see the train crossing sign and somehow get down that tiny space in front of the train by the skin of your teeth… But if you think that’s exhilarating, just wait until you’ve jumped the next train then puzzled out the third and final double-train bonanza – Hollywood gaming at its finest! There’s way more of that stuff besides, but just to close on this I reckon a lot of the pure excitement at play here is down to that Toaplan heritage we started with – it’s not a joy to throw your bike around because of its realistic bike physics; it’s a joy because it handles just like a shoot ’em up, and before long you’re in the zone and at one with your bike, just like something like Flying Shark or Batsugun! It’s a real coin-guzzler in the same way too, because in the main when you crash or run out of gas or just miss out on qualifying, you’ll know exactly what you need to do next time, and you’ll want to do it! What I wouldn’t give for a way to unleash a bit of their bullet-hell on those trains though!
If we’re being generous to the blinkered arcade-going public in 1988, another possible reason why this is a bit of an obscurity today is a lack of home ports, though I guess that could also be because it was also a bit of an obscurity at the time… That said, there is a NES port, which surprised me way more than not knowing that the original existed in the first place because I tend to be a bit more up to speed with my discovery on that system. Unfortunately, it’s not really something you need to discover though! First impressions aren’t bad, and it kind of feels familiar, if a little slow, but it seems fun enough… and then you crash, and you’re sent right back to the start of the race; doesn’t seem to matter where you are in the stage or how many bikes you’ve overtaken, you’re starting the whole thing again with one less life! The problem is that while you’re learning the game, you’re going to crash a lot, and even when you have learnt it, you’ll still be crashing, so this really stinks, to the point of being a total deal-breaker for me. I can put up with the default speed needing to be the turbo speed, and the flickering other racers that all look the same, or the dreadful ten second music loop that never goes away (even when you’ve switched this crap off), but going back to the start every time drove me nuts very quickly! Actually, almost as offensive is when you realise that the other racers are effectively driving in a straight line until they crash into something – I’m guessing they’re simply too stupid to notice that they’re getting sent back to the start over and over! Apart from a Sharp X68000 version (which looks very arcade-like) that was it for home conversions, but if the NES one is anything to go by then waiting thirty-four years to finally play on MAME was probably a good shout!
And after all that time, it was certainly love at first sight with Rally Bike; in fact, it also inspired me to think about other games that might also have been loved at first sight, and I came up with the following: Pac-Land, 1942, DoDonPachi, Deathsmiles and now this. That’s about it since the late seventies off the top of my head, and considering my lack of pedigree in the field, I was initially very surprised when I realised these were all arcade games! But then I thought some more, and actually it shouldn’t really be a surprise – after all, we’re talking about the very essence of the arcade game, drawing out your first coin and then taking the rest! It’s just a shame that Rally Bike never really got that first coin back in 1988, so it missed out on the rest… until now, at least!