Back in 1991, I came upon a rather wonderful racing game called Vroom for the Atari ST; I know it’s called that because it says so in my very own handwriting on the disk! Ahem, a couple of years later, Domark created a Sega Mega Drive or Genesis (or actually various other systems) take on Vroom called F1, or Formula One in America. Not that they really care. Anyway, it had the same fantastic sense of speed as its ST predecessor, lots of tracks and customisation, but was a little stiff and jerky to control. A sequel came in 1994, which went a bit too far the other way on the controls, with you almost drifting around every corner, but it was a lot of fun and was very fast (albeit at the cost of much going on at the side of the road). I’m quite fond of the Game Gear version of that one too! That said, if I remember right it unfortunately came out at the same time as the much higher profile Virtua Racer on Mega Drive, and that’s certainly the one my brother went for on his, with no regrets I’m sure.
And then in 1995 (in Europe at least), along came Kawasaki Superbikes, built on the same F1 engine, but this time switching out the racing car with a more motorbikey-feeling racing bike, as well as adding a bit more detail back onto the track-side, though a turbo mode does allow you to zoom out and reduce all of that for a bit more speed, which I’ve always found a bit unnecessary. Incidentally, the US version, Kawasaki Superbike Challenge, had come out on the Genesis a bit earlier, in 1994.
Apart from the Kawasaki bit, everything is unlicensed, so you’re up against racers called things like Skid Mark, though I think all fourteen standard length tracks and the Suzuka eight-hour endurance race are all based on the real things. This also has a really nice Game Gear port (rumoured to be the remnants of an abandoned Road Rash II port), with all the speed missing (though unfortunately not the annoying crash animations) from its Super Nintendo counterpart… stick with the masterful F1 Race of Champions on there instead!
And that’s what I did all the way until the summer of 2020, when I was flicking through a May 1995 copy of Mean Machines magazine and came across an invitation to “feel the throbbing power between your legs…” Now, I’ve always loved a good motorbike racer, from Super Cycle on Commodore 64 to arcade Super Hang-On and everything in-between, but as well as that irresistible tag-line, I’d simply never heard of this and needed to find out more! And as happens from time to time as I’m exploring dozens of other gaps in my racer history (usually in the vain hope of finding a decent one on PC-Engine), it clicked. A lot. (Incidentally, the same happened a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing with The Duel: Test Drive II on SNES – just to show I really do love that system too – and we’ll probably come back to that on this bat-channel very soon…).
I think one of the things that clicked for me – also the case for most things – is the lack of faff here! With Kawasaki, everything is urgent and instant, getting you right into the action as fast as possible with minimal fuss. And this is evident the second you fire it up, as you’re hit by that classic upbeat “realistic” Mega Drive drum sound that goes on to dominate a sparse but bright sounding melody before trying out one of its repertoire of drum fills and changing things up it bit. It’s not magical like some Mega Drive soundtracks, but there’s something strangely addictive to it – you just want a bit more! Unfortunately, sooner or later the demo mode kicks in and it just starts again once that’s done. Aside from jumping right into the racing, there are options if you don’t want the default racing season though – you can mix up the difficulty, track order, set up the weather or that turbo mode or go split-screen two player.
Assuming you’re just here for regular single player throbbing between your legs, after entering your initials on a team contract, like a reverse high score table, you’re given some weather info on the first track and a choice of high or low gearing, which I think makes you go faster but with less acceleration or vice versa, so you can make your choice based on the individual track. Then you’re into a generous four lap qualifying, which is going to help with learning the track and where to avoid those pesky very-metal overhead sign poles that are positioned exactly where you’re likely to slightly overcook the same corner over and over…
You really feel the impact when you hit something at the side of the road, with a no-nonsense thud and the back wheel bouncing up as you go from 170mph to zero in a fraction of a second. That said, you’re getting away with this lightly as you’ve instantly back on the track with only a brief wheelie as you accelerate away again the only reminder of your embarrassing but death-defying detour. Beat yourself up enough though, and you will get bike damaged or pit-in messages, though they take some doing, and even then as long as you take those as a warning you should be okay to ignore them.
Qualifying done and all that’s between you and the race is another weather report and another choice of gearing. For a game so obsessed with the weather, it mostly amounts to sunny or has been raining, which affects the sky colour, general screen brightness and possibly the feel of the track but not to any great extent! Racing itself feels really competitive, and whilst there’s no Road Rash styled shenanigans if you get too close to another rider, you will be losing time, so piling into a corner and using the pack as brakes isn’t going to work! Instead, you’re being patient and picking your moment when the right gap is there, which results in a real sense of accomplishment when you’ve gone into that turn just right to go up the inside, or even more so when you’re right on the edge of your grip around the outside. You get a similar sensation simply by staying out in front if you get there too – there’s a constant risk of increasing familiarity with the track turning into complacency, and one mistake is five laps worth of good work down the pan, because more often than not you’re on the last lap when it comes!
The race is a constant wrestle with the bike, with continuous tiny adjustments to your steering and accelerator (which, incidentally, did remind me of Road Rash II), or sometimes it’s a heave up from a big turn, or even panicked back and forth as you get inches away from losing control from an oversteer. But conversely, you’re also getting the occasional Power Drift-style helping hand to throw you around some of the corners too!
At the end of the race there’s a rundown of racer and team point tallies, preceded by a boozy podium scene with a load of swimsuited lovelies draped around the place if you’ve come top three. Then there’s the longest password save system I’ve ever come across, and the choice to abandon or do the next race, which takes you to the next track’s weather report and gearing screen, no messing again!
Graphically you’re getting a unique mix of sprite bikes (both in your “cockpit” view and other racers, but everything else is 3D polygons (unless you’re still persevering on SNES for some reason), which honestly works better for some things like overhead signs or lights than for bigger things like entire pit lanes, which end up looking a bit devoid of detail. If I was making a tunnel I’m not sure I’d go for a checkerboard design either! Lots of nice undulation and general bumping around though, and there’s a variety of landscapes in the distance reflecting the location of the track you’re at. Look closely and there is some nice detail too – for example, seeing road markings or other bikes through the smoked glass of your bike’s windscreen.
This attention to detail extends to sound effects too, where on top of the up and down of the engine noise and those nasty metallic clangs when you crash, you can hear roadside stuff swish by if you’re close enough, and there’s some kind of air in motion sound in tunnels or along the edge of walls too.
With 15-20 minutes per race after all that weather forecasting, qualifying and the race itself, on all of those tracks, you’re getting a hell of a lot of game here. And once you’re in the zone and getting competitive, you’re going to keep wanting just one more race. It’s unique visuals might leave things looking a little barren, but the speed and variety of tracks more than make up for that, and the racing feels great – like you’re in a real race. And that’s where it grabbed me and that’s why I keep going back, just like that aforementioned all-time favourite of mine, F1 Race of Champions on SNES, just to give it a bit more love back before we leave! If you’re looking for a bit more meat than a classic arcade bike racing game like Super Hang-On, but not after some kind of bike nerd sim, you could do a lot worse than Kawasaki Superbikes… on Mega Drive!