Back in the day, Motocross Madness was a technically impressive, addictive PC game that did away with the narrow borders of conventional racing games, providing a relatively open world for the player to barrel through. The last entry in the series – Motocross Madness 3 for the original Xbox – was a bit of a stinker when compared to its ancestors though, so Microsoft let the franchise rest, until now.
Comparing this new Xbox Live Arcade version to the originals sounds like it would be foolish, given the fifteen years that have passed since the game’s debut. Surprisingly though, there indeed are some direct comparisons to be made, given that Bongfish’s digital take does give more than a passing nod to the original games. The open worlds are reprised in this new game’s “Exploration” and “Trick BALEDED” modes, which give you and your avatar free reign to go wherever you wish within the wide open spaces of the game’s three maps, searching for hidden skulls and coins, or popping double backflips from the top of vertigo-inducing rollercoaster-style ramps.
Racing is where the real action is, though, and even though Motocross Madness provides a relatively low number of challenges in this department, those challenges are entertaining. Each of the three maps features three races to beat, alongside three “Rivals” events. A nice diversion from straight-up racing, these see you first trying to beat a time set by the game’s developers – who appear as ghost opponents – and once you’ve done that, you get to try your hand against the ghostly versions of those players who are at the top of the leaderboards. Also of note, is the fact that "rubber-band" AI is not present here in any way. If you're good enough to be in front, then you'll be in front and you'll stay there fairly. If you're not good enough to catch up with the pack, then you're going to finish in last place. This is how things should be.
There’s a good chance that you’ll have beaten all of the pre-packaged races provided by Motocross Madness within a couple of hours. Of course, this means that you’ll also have earnt enough money to have bought a couple of new bikes from the handful on offer, and upgraded them to the maximum level – which will give you a distinct advantage in the Exploration and Trick modes. Those modes are no cheap add-ons, either. You’ll spend all sorts of time trying to locate – and reach – the hidden items while free roaming, and the trick challenges will provide some players with a decent challenge as they bail time and again after trying one fancy spin too many. On top of that, the Bike Club feature keeps track of your scores and times and matches them against people on your friends list who have also played the game. Every time you log in, you’re notified if someone has lapped faster on a certain course, or has scored more points. It’s been done before – the Criterion’s “Autolog” service does the same for their Need for Speed titles, for example – but in a relatively cheap downloadable game, it’s a generous inclusion that extends the life of the game.
Unfortunately, it won’t just be excessive bravado or pushing too hard to build up your boost bar when tricking that throws a spanner in the works. In all modes, you seem to have a somewhat random chance of being thrown from your bike no matter how or where you land. Sometimes, it’ll be because the game hasn’t rendered an obstacle correctly so you can’t see it – one of the ramps on the Australian maps is laden with coins, but you can’t climb it as the ramp base doesn’t quite meet the floor, so you bail as you hit the edge of it, for example – or because the game thinks that you’ve landed on something that should cause you to crash when you’re actually a fair way clear of it. There’s very little logic behind your spills, either. You’ll drive into the wall of a house and start to ride up it, before flipping over backwards and landing on your wheels without falling off, but then drive slowly over a small bump in the road later on and go flying.
We’ve also found that the game gives off a bit of an air of instability. Every other time you start a race, you’ll see textures still being drawn beneath your bike, and that's just for starters. There are frequent graphical glitches elsewhere, and – as much as it pains us to say it – the final version of the game has entirely frozen two different consoles (we used a second machine just to be sure) six or seven times across the course of this review. That’s not including the handful of times that we’ve respawned under a rock after a crash, and subsequently been left with a blank screen, a cacophony of sound effects playing all at once, and no option other than to quit the race. A few folks – ourselves included – are complaining of issues with Xbox Live play also. The furthest we’ve got in a standard race is to about a quarter of the way around the final lap, at which point our opponents started dropping out one by one, until we were all that was left and the race ended as it was pointless to continue. This has come about on more than one occassion, sadly, and is clearly a fault with the software, rather than people just rage-quitting.
Motocross Madness is a fun and addictive game, despite being riddled with some pretty serious technical issues at times. There are a low number of standard events on offer, but there are tons of little challenges to beat in Bike Club, and that's before you get to all the Avatar FameStar reward tiers. If it hooks you, you'll mark those glitches and a couple of minor gameplay niggles down as the cost of doing business, as when it all works the game is fast, generally fluid, and right on the money, fun-wise.