Written by: Rik

Date posted: January 19, 2019


Doing a bit of motorbiking.

I distinctly remember the period in the early mid-90s when it became apparent that gaming on the PC might seriously be catching on. For a while, it was kind of like being in a secret club (even within the already fairly secret club of playing computer and video games) where rumours of games less well-known than, but actually superior to, the console favourites would circulate and grow more fantastical. Everyone’s going on about Street Fighter 2, but what about One Must Fall? We don’t need Super Mario Kart, we’ve got Wacky Wheels! Like the teenage wannabe musos who claimed to ignore the great Britpop battle because they preferred Kula Shaker to either Blur or Oasis, the fact that these sentiments ultimately proved to be entirely misguided didn’t undermine the fleeting sense of self-satisfaction they provided at the time.

Anyway, instead of your Megadrive Road Rash, the PC had Cyclemania. I can imagine the whispered conversations as the demo CD was passed around: “it’s much better than Road Rash because it uses real digitised video of roads”. Of course, in those days, this was considered to be A Good Thing. What’s more realistic looking than actual video of the thing you’re simulating? Certainly not your cartoon 2D or your jaggedy early polygons.

And so, Cyclemania is racing game in which sprites are overlaid onto some video footage of someone driving on a road, in an attempt to recreate a visually realistic motorbike racing experience. History has largely assessed the video-heavy era rather harshly, with games like this, Rebel Assault and MegaRace (to name three we’ve covered here) now seeming rather silly, shorn of their visual impressiveness and leaving the trickery beneath exposed. You effectively control the speed of the video, while your biker-shaped avatar sits apart from it, bobbing awkwardly about on top of the footage desperately trying to give the impression of being part of the same world.

Obligatory crash pic #1.

So, to deal with all of that first, Cyclemania does indeed look like a VHS video with some cartoon bikes and vehicles added on top. The footage is quite blurry and contains occasional glitches, for example when you reach the end of a lap and the light switches from dusk to daylight because of when it was captured, or the sudden gaps where recording clearly stopped somewhere and continued in a slightly different place. Other vehicles and obstacles bounce and loom awkwardly in the distance, often difficult to line up or make out until it’s too late.

Meanwhile, any pretence of realism is undermined by your bike being taken along with the video, a swerve to the extreme left or right of the screen and a possible skid or crash the only penalty, easily negotiated with swift application of the brake. On top of all that, you have the inclusion of – for the time – obligatory and completely unnecessary video clips, so your reward for crashing is a video of some real-life prang cribbed from some 90s motorsport video, accompanied by suitably Partridge-esque commentary.

That’s not necessarily to say that Cyclemania looks bad: to the eyes of a forgiving retro gamer, the decision to use video produces results that are no less visually unappealing than the alternatives available at the time. It’s a bit grainy and blotchy in places, and the option to reduce the size of the playing area in order to boost the resolution and access the map screen provides – as it did at the time – a tantalising glimpse of how it might have looked better without ever providing a viable alternative to the full-screen display.

And Cyclemania does replicate core elements of what it sets out to do, because there’s something about the tension and danger of high speed racing on real roads that is reproduced here. I’d say that’s down to three things: firstly, you can drive almost flat out most of the time; secondly, all kinds of hazards are flung at you; and finally, collisions have harsh consequences. Despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, the action can be reasonably diverting. Essentially, it’s an obstacle dodging game: things come at you, you lose time and take damage if you hit them and come off your bike, so the main objective is not to do that.

The map shows you the shape of the course, and where your opponents are, but it’s not desperately useful.

The most common hazards are, as you’d expect, other cars and your opponents. Unlike Road Rash, there’s no kicking or weapons, although you can earn a score bonus for blocking opponents that try and get past (although in doing so you risk coming off yourself). Sundry other obstacles also present themselves, be it a stack of tyres or a stationary cow in the middle of the road, or (most dangerously) a horse that dashes across in front of you, causing almost certain doom. Oil slicks, meanwhile, cause you to skid but not necessarily crash. At the end of a lap there’s a partial replenishment of your damage meter, but if you’re too accident prone across the course of a race you’ll find that it ends early.

Even on easier difficulty settings, careless riding can be harshly punished, although once you’ve got to grips with things only the hardest of them will really test you out. Crashing at some point is inevitable, although I’m pleased to note that your opponents do wipe out too, and they can be tripped up by your crash debris just as easily as you are by theirs, which can lead to some fairly comical mid-race pile-ups.

There really isn’t much to it, though: 5 tracks, a single race option and a championship mode, which involves one race on each track, doesn’t make for a lengthy playtime. There is an option to practice and undergo qualifying for grid position, but there seems to be little benefit in doing so, as starting from the back doesn’t put you at much of a disadvantage. Your options for upping the challenge include selecting manual gears or whacking up the lap count from 3-4 to a maximum of 30, neither of which feels particularly appealing, or in line with the kind of knockabout arcade experience on offer. If you eschew those options, the championship can be beaten pretty quickly, even on the highest difficulty setting (and no, there’s no reward video, screen or acknowledgement).

Obligatory crash pic #2, featuring horse.

There are nods to the world of real-life motorbike racing, but there’s little information given regarding the different bikes and riders available, and there seems to be a lack of correlation between their appearance in the menu screen and in game (fortunately a big arrow at the start of the race indicates which bike you are). There are also various upgrades available between races – better tyres, exhausts, engines etc. – in the championship mode, but any effect on your performance is difficult to detect.

It may be a bit of a cop-out to call Cyclemania a product of its time, but everything about it – from the concept, to the name, to the redundant video clips and the background music that calls to mind compilation videos of sporting highlights – says “this is a 1990s CD-ROM product”. As it turned out, racing games proved not to be the best use of the technology, and Cyclemania‘s action never quite overcomes the limitations its own setup imposes.

That said, when compared with the likes of MegaRace, a game towards which I am admittedly committed to maintaining a level of pantomime hatred, Cyclemania provides a level of speed and excitement that Cryo’s futuristic racer lacks. And although it’s over 10 years since I played the PC version of Road Rash ported over from the 3DO, I couldn’t honestly claim that I preferred it to this. Despite its inherent naffness, then, there’s some shallow and short-lived fun to be had here.