Generally our mission here at RGCD towers is to bring you the best in retro homebrew, but this month's featured game is a departure from the norm. It's not retro; it's a newly produced game from an original design document. Also, whilst it bears a resemblance to several old games it's certainly not a remake of anything you've ever seen before. That said, neither is it strictly homebrew; instead the game was developed by a commercial developer who had a contract with a publisher.
So why are we so interested? It's because we love a story and this game has a good one. Motocross Challenge has been in development for three years now by relatively small indie developer DHG. In 2006 they signed the game to what they describe on their website as "a very big and international publisher that shall remain unnamed". After a further six months of solid work, the game was finally completed in February 2007 - yet while it was in final testing the publisher decided that the GBA market wouldn't support enough sales of a non-licensed game to make releasing it worthwhile. The project was thereafter cancelled, despite just needing to be written to a cartridge, stuck in a box and shipped to the shops.
So far, so disappointing. This actually happens quite often in the industry, and usually we hear nothing for several years until someone leaks the game when the machine is long dead. On this occasion though, without the resources to port the game to something else and with a strong desire to actually let someone play the damn thing, DHG made the amicable decision to host their opus for download from their website. So there you have it - Motocross Challenge has been released absolutely free in its completed commercial form for you to play on your GBA emulator or (if you're me) your shiny new Gameboy Micro.
It's an inspiring move that we at RGCD whole-heartedly salute. As soon as we heard the news we relegated the previously chosen featured game and our international media team (aka James) leapt into action. We're your one-stop shop for this game, not only do we have this superbly written review (... - JM) but also an interview with the good people at DHG. Of course, it goes without saying that the GBA file is ready on disc for you to drop straight onto your flash cart or emulator of choice...
So what is Motocross Challenge? Well in short it's the bastard child of that old GB racer Motocross Maniacs and the NES classic Excite Bike (with maybe just a dash of the bike sections of California Games). To be more specific, the viewpoint is that of Motocross Maniacs, the tracks are classic Excite Bike (although considerably more complicated and imaginative) and the game features a neat and very intuitive trick system much like that found in California Games.
The main Challenge mode involves a series of rounds in three major categories (in separate trees so you always have at least one of each open). These categories are 'Beat the Clock' (time based), 'Trick Attack' (points based) and 'World Tour' (where you race against the AI opponents). Each of these rounds demands a subtly different play style and is probably the first indication that we're dealing here with a proper commercial game rather than a polished piece of homebrew.
Graphically Motocross Challenge is a thing of beauty - its right up there with any GBA game you care to name. The artwork is detailed without being cluttered, the frame rate is absolutely 100% rock solid and the general presentation is very professional and intuitive. The mistake a lot of GBA developers make is to try and ask too much of the machine, but DHG have succeeded in pushing the console as far as they can without jeopardising the game-play.
The controls mark Motocross Challenge out as more than the standard arcade-style bike games it originally appears to be a copy of. The main noticeable innovation is in the physics - when your bike accelerates the front wheel will start to leave the ground and you'll have to keep nudging the d-pad to make your rider lean forward and correct it. This is crucial since many of your tricks will require you to get the bike in the right position when making jumps (and of course, you need you to continue adjusting the bike in mid air to ensure a safe landing). It's a nice little touch that makes pulling off tricks slightly more involving than the usual 'take-off and mash buttons' technique.
There's also the addition of a turbo boost, which gives you a much increased top speed for a limited period. This is useful for those desperate mad dashes to the line in 'Beat the Clock' or 'World Tour' modes but also rewards you with you extra air-time when jumping off ramps - thus giving you a few more seconds to ramp up those trick scores. The boost is strictly limited, but crucially also recharges continuously (albeit at a slow rate). You really do have to keep an eye on it, ensuring that you don't max out (which results in your bike losing speed) and also that you save enough for those tricky ramps ahead.
You may have noticed from the screenshots that the courses aren't entirely 2D - much like Excite Bike you can move into and out of the screen. The game utilises this depth by placing muddy sections which slow you down, obstacles to avoid and wooden ramps across the z-axis as well as along the length of the track. Learning the position of these is crucial to your success as the same courses have to be played in a completely different way in each of the game modes. For example, while in trick mode you'll be looking for every ramp you can find in order to maximise air-time for pulling off stunts, whereas in the beat the clock mode performing tricks is only going to slow you down. You'll plan a route to blast by as many of them as possible, taking into account the ramps that allow you to jump a muddy section or obstacle. It's all surprisingly strategic considering we're looking at an essentially simple motocross game in two-and-a-half dimensions.
With the exception of the somewhat disappointing sound and ineffectual password save system, MXC is a first-class professional product. It's our collective opinion that if it had had been released back in the GBA's prime MXC would have been a top seller - and it's an exceptional title compared to the avalanche of licensed dross the machine has suffered in the last couple of years. Even with a £20 price tag this would be easily the best game of its type on the GBA and the bargain-price of free makes it an essential addition to your collection. If DHG organised the production of a £15 homebrew cart I'd personally be the first in line to buy a copy. As it is, it's probably earned a permanent place on my flash cart and I strongly suggest you award it the same on yours. I really hope this release secures DHG a future DS publishing deal, as they have certainly shown themselves to be more than worthy of it.
Motocross Challenge is a fantastic GBA game - it's as simple as that. It's uncomplicated, easy to learn, fun to play and shines with quality, even when compared to its commercial peers.
The only flaw with the game is its archaic password-save method - a system more suited to home consoles than handhelds. However, that aside, I agree unequivocally with Dudley's review and eagerly await news on any future projects from DHG Games - they've definitely proven themselves to be a competent development group with plenty of original ideas.