If you’re a ’90s gamer who’s well-versed with racing games, there’s a good chance you’ll have fond memories of Microsoft’s Madness series. In the late ‘90s, two in particular dominated the PC racing scene: Midtown Madness and Motocross Madness. Midtown Madness was a gloriously OTT city driving game (which included 3D city sandbox driving a year before Driver took all the credit) that had you bombing round the crowded streets of Chicago causing mayhem, whereas Motocross Madness put a more realistic spin on bike games with its advanced physics, brutal bails, free roaming environments and realistic terrain deformation.
In the present day, it’s been an uphill struggle for motocross fans however, as no bike game has quite managed to recapture Motocross Madness’s magic.
Before we press on, it’s worth noting that I encountered a severe bug during play-testing that prevented Motocross Madness from launching. A patch has since been released to resolve the issue, but it took over a month before it was fixed despite numerous reports of the same problem.
Whereas its originator was realistic portrayal of the rugged world of motocross, Motocross Madness is an arcade racer aimed at younger audiences. The clue was originally in the title: Motocross Madness was originally named ‘Avatar Motocross Madness.’ Yes, that’s right – your rider is none other than the Xbox profile avatar you hastily created during the setup of your game account. In my case, it’s a pastey bloke wearing Top Gear-branded clothing, which is somewhat true to life. My alter ego clearly has no regard for his own safety, either: this renegade rider doesn’t even wear a helmet, and Motocross Madness never enforces you to wear any safety gear. What kind of message are you trying to send out to younglings, Microsoft?
If you don’t wish to ride as your avatar then you’re unfortunately out of luck, although you can at least change your racing gear. It’s a shame you can’t change your character to a more realistic-looking rider, though, as the cartoony avatars don’t quite mesh with the environments which, although colourful, are coated with a realistic aesthetic with richly detailed terrain and surroundings.
Indeed, the visuals look splendid for a budget XBLA title – each environment looks distinctive, the bikes are well-rendered and there are a multitude of novel touches such as the dust and dirt that accumulates on your rider, but a brighter colour palette on a par with, say, Joyride, would have perhaps been more suiting. Occasional texture pop-up mars an otherwise pleasingly pretty package.
The career takes place on fantasy tracks divided into three distinct, exotic locations: the sandy dunes of Egypt, the woodlands and beaches of Australia and the icy slopes and hazardous volcanoes of Iceland. At just three locations and nine tracks, the selection is limited, but the diversity of the locations provide plenty of varied terrain that manages to keep the short campaign fresh throughout. Admittedly, some of the individual courses aren’t very memorable, although one track set in a theme park is a particular highlight, as is the final Icelandic track set around an erupting volcano.
Being a game primarily aimed at younger audiences, Motocross Madness isn’t the most difficult game you’ll ever play – you’ll blitz through most of the events and achieve gold on your first attempt, though the difficulty does ramp up as the races get longer and the opponents become tougher without any tell-tale rubber banding. It’s a fun ride while it lasts, though, as every picturesque track is peppered with high-octane jumps and multiple branching routes and shortcuts highlighted with enticing coins and boost power-ups, and these layouts gradually increase in complexity as you advance. In short, traversing through these tracks is an absolute blast.
Adding to the fun is an accessible and forgiving handling model that’s responsive, nimble and intuitive, allowing you to zip along at speed with glee.
There’s also a dedicated drift button, which is paramount in order to keep your boost charged. It feels a little unwieldy at first as bikes aren’t exactly designed to drift, but you’ll soon be performing long Outrun-style drifts through careful coordination of the throttle, steering and holding the B button to keep the drift going.
Executing daring stunts earns you boost, and there’s certainly plenty of opportunities to practice your acrobatic skills thanks to the abundance of ramps that populate every level. Initially you can execute basic tricks such as wheelies which result in a minimal boost upgrade, but more outlandish tricks can be unlocked as you progress that have your rider performing pirouettes over the handlebars and knocking rivals off their bikes Road Rash-style. These tricks can be chained together to increase your points multiplier. Mistime a stunt, and watch as the ragdoll physics inflict virtual pain onto your tumbling rider.
Completing events earns you XP to unlock the aforementioned abilities and collecting coins give you cash to splash out on new bikes and upgrades. Here you can purchase parts to upgrade the acceleration, handling, top speed or cosmetics. It’s a necessity, too – some events will prompt you to either purchase a new bike or upgrade your bike in order to stay competitive, and you’ll certainly feel the difference after you apply them.
The career comprises of four distinct game modes, each of which are neatly divided between each location. Races have you jostling for position against seven biking rivals, whereas time trials are dressed up as Rivals events where you race against ghost riders that represent the names and likenesses of members from the developer team.
In a nice nod to the original Motocross Madness, the free roaming Exploration mode has been reprised, which fuse each career location’s three tracks into one expansive playground where you are free to ride at your leisure, hone your skills and search for coins and hard-to-reach collectible skulls – track down the target number of skulls to win gold, silver or bronze medals to progress. The skittish handling doesn’t do the mode much justice at times however, as lining the bike up for jumps and meandering across narrow ridges to reach the skulls can sometimes be problematic.
Meanwhile, Trick Sessions, which are unlocked later once you reach rank 8, repeat the format found in Exploration by utilising the same free roaming environments, but instead you compete against rivals to achieve the best trick score, testing your ability to score combos in what feels like a homage to the Tony Hawk skateboarding games.
Local multiplayer split screen is supported (a surprising rarity in consoles these days) as well as online multiplayer for up to eight budding bikers powered by Avatar Famestar. All modes are available to play online, and some extra meat is added by the inclusion of Bike Clubs, which lets you form clubs with other players (friends are automatically assigned to your club) where you can set challenges to your friends such as beating race times or set objectives ranging from racking up mileage to gaining air. It’s not exactly ground-breaking, but Bike Clubs add some welcome depth to what is a simplistic game.
Motocross Madness is a fun family feast that’s short-lasting, uncomplicated and unchallenging but nourishing and easy to digest, making for some good value casual racing action for less than the price of a KFC Bargain Bucket.