Series Review: Monster Truck Madness

moho_00

published on 9/23/2019

Introduction

Despite the large, loud, metal crushing nature of monster trucks, there actually haven't been that many video games where they're the primary focus, relatively speaking. Sure, over the years we have seen licensed games like Bigfoot and Monster Jam, as well as some shovelware titles, but it just doesn't seem like any of them quite made it beyond being a novelty.

In the mid-1990's, the first out of four Monster Truck Madness games was released by a rather unlikely source: Microsoft. The game was popular enough to receive three sequels over the years and the purpose of this review is to take a look at each game individually, as well as in the context of the overall series.

Monster Truck Madness (1996)

The first game in the series was released in 1996 and was developed by Terminal Reality, who had previously partnered with Microsoft on Fury³. The game was originally called Metal Crush and was going to be a DOS game, but wound up being reworked to take advantage of the up-and-coming DirectX graphics technology that Microsoft was touting in Windows 95.

Although its name would lead you to believe otherwise, there actually isn't that much "madness" in the game. Monster Truck Madness is a pretty standard racer and a rather barebones experience, almost feeling like a glorified technology demo at times. There are three different race types: drag, circuit, and rally. Drag racing is exactly what it sounds like and it's more about reaction time and tweaking your vehicle than anything else. Circuit and rally races are more or less the same in that you're racing against other trucks on a track, but circuit tracks have much shorter laps.

The game is pretty much just a self-service, customize whatever you want kind of experience. What I mean by that is there isn't a "championship" mode or otherwise a true single player mode. You just pick the truck you want to drive, the track you want to race on, how many competitors you want to race against, etc, and then RACE! The closest the game gets to a championship is what it calls "tournaments". These are basically playlists of tracks for you to compete on. The game comes with a handful pre-loaded, but you're free to add whatever you want.

Initially, it seems like there are a lot of options, but I managed to place first on all tracks (except for drag racing) in right around an hour. I played on the medium and hard difficulties for the races and rarely had any challenge, so the game definitely skews on the easy side of things. I only did one of the drag racing tracks since I didn't really enjoy that mode as it seemed rather glitchy (likely due to a hardware issue). Speaking of which, I ended up playing the game on my Windows 98 machine and with hardware from around 2002.

Believe it or not, the game actually installs AND runs on Windows 10 fairly easily. Unfortunately, the AI was completely broken and opponents basically wouldn't react to the track...at all. They would just ram right into whatever was in front of them and I would lap them repeatedly even on the highest difficulty level. Luckily the AI seemed to work properly on Windows 98, though as I mentioned before, I did have some issues with drag racing.

Racing in Monster Truck Madness definitely feels like a mid-1990s arcade racer. It certainly shows its age these days with some severe pop-in and limited texture detail, but it ran smooth and even had some destructible terrain. Probably the coolest thing about it is that it's a go-anywhere kinda game, much like the Carmageddon games that would follow in 1997. This open-road approach to racing would be something Terminal Reality would later revisit in another series with the 4x4 EVO games.

All in all this was a decent start to the series. I wish I would've had a chance to play it back in the day as I think it would've had more of an impact on me, but I could still tell it was a quality game.

Monster Truck Madness 2

The original game must've been a success because a couple of years later, Microsoft and Terminal Reality teamed up once again to release the sequel. Monster Truck Madness 2 is essentially just a better version of the first game. It doesn't deviate really at all from the core gameplay of racing around monster trucks, but it made everything better. The graphics are much improved and everything just seems smoother overall from a technical standpoint. This game also worked on Windows 10 without any difficulty and the AI actually seemed to work properly.

In terms of gameplay, the most noticeable change is that drag racing is no longer an option (which didn't bother me one bit) and there aren't any tournaments this time around. Much like the first game, this one is straight to the point. Just pick your truck and track and let the mud flying commence! It's disappointing that they weren't able to add a proper single player mode because again, you'll zip around all of the tracks the game has to offer in a fairly short amount of time. It took me just a tad over one hour to place first on all of the tracks. They did add a new game mode called Summit Rumble, but unfortunately, it's multiplayer only, so I was unable to try it out.

Some other improvements include variable weather conditions (that do affect handling), some more varied tracks including some island / tribal and desert themes, and also some WCW-branded trucks, which was a nice nostalgic surprise.

In the end, Monster Truck Madness 2 is more of the same, but it's noticeably better in every aspect. The absence of a proper single player mode hurts again, but there's plenty of fun to be had if you take the game for what it is.

Monster Truck Madness 64

After two fun PC outings, the series headed to consoles with Monster Truck Madness 64 in 1999. This entry is often considered a port of Monster Truck Madness 2, but it does have some pretty significant changes to it. This is also the first game in the series to not be published by Microsoft as they licensed it over to Rockstar Games.

First and foremost, the game now has that elusive single player mode I've been harping about called Circuit Mode. This mode allows you to race on a series of tracks where you have to place first in order to advance. It's still pretty barebones, but at this point, I'll take whatever I can get. In addition to having some split-screen racing action, the game also has a variety of other party modes, including the aforementioned Summit Rumble from Monster Truck Madness 2. I didn't get to try any of those modes out though, so my thoughts here are based solely on playing single player.

Edge of Reality was tasked with porting Monster Truck Madness 2 and while the game runs fairly well in single player, the graphics are noticeably more blurry when compared to the PC version that its based on. This is understandable and was par for the course with games released in this era, but it was one of the first things I noticed after loading it up. Aside from a lower resolution, for the most part, Monster Truck Madness 64 has the same content from Monster Truck Madness 2 and then some. You'll notice the tracks, sound effects, music, and commentary are more or less the same as the PC version.

I mentioned earlier there are some significant changes in this version and the first one comes with the new control scheme. While the Monster Truck Madness games for PC support joysticks, they're perfectly playable with a keyboard. When porting the game though, Edge of Reality had to also revamp the controls to work with an N64 controller. Unfortunately, at least for me, the controls seem way off. Perhaps it's because I had played the original games with a keyboard, but the analog stick feels WAY too sensitive. Sure, the PC versions were a little clunky at times, but the N64 version feels clunky in a different way. I spent more time trying to stay on the track than I did actually racing and it was a huge distraction. It also led to a MUCH larger challenge than the PC games and it all felt unnecessary.

On top of the poor controls, Monster Truck Madness 64 introduced power-ups to the series. Much like Mario Kart, you can run over said power-ups to (maybe) give yourself an advantage. You have the standard oil slick to spin out unsuspecting tailgaters and missiles for shooting those in front of you, plus other unique ones, such as turning yourself into a...helicopter!?! Yep, that's right. You can just take flight and zip past pretty much the entire field with that one. And the thing is, the controls actually work well when it's activated, which makes me wonder why the trucks themselves are so...difficult.

In any case, Monster Truck Madness 64 is generally okay, but ultimately falls well short of the far superior Monster Truck Madness 2. There are plenty of better racing games for the system and although the power-ups do spice things up a bit, they're not enough to lift it up to the likes of Mario Kart 64, Diddy Kong Racing, Ridge Racer 64, etc.

Monster Truck Madness (2003)

A few years after making its console debut, the Monster Truck Madness series had its first outing on a handheld system with a sequel / reboot for the Game Boy Advance. Developed by Tantalus and released in 2003, this is a completely standalone entry and is not based on a previous release. Considering the lukewarm reception of Monster Truck Madness 64, it's kind of surprising that this game was released at all. Once again, a new publisher is on board and this time it's THQ, though Microsoft does still receive credit when the game loads up.

Although it's on a small screen, this entry continues forward in the direction laid out with Monster Truck Madness 64. You once again race monster trucks around on a variety of courses littered with power-ups for you to collect. Well, I guess "collect" isn't really the right term here. Unlike the N64 version (and pretty much every racing game with power-ups), you don't actually pick them up, but rather they are triggered immediately after you run over them. This removes a lot of potential strategy from the game as you can no longer hold onto one to try and optimize its usage. Furthermore, it's possible you'll run over a power-up that actually hurts you in a particular situation, such as the "Super Suspension" item that launches you up in the air.

The game does add a new mechanic in the form of the Destruction Meter. In addition to the aforementioned power-ups, tracks are also filled with various props that you can smash into. Once you smash into enough and fill up your meter, you enter RAMPAGE MODE and gain a ton of speed and perfect grip. This is such a powerful advantage that you can easily go from last to first place in a matter of seconds, at least on the lower difficulties. It's actually a pretty fun idea since the props are usually thematic and oddly satisfying to demolish. Unfortunately, like the power-up items, this ability triggers as soon as your meter is full and limits you strategically. This is worsened by the fact that your meter decreases if you go too long without hitting a prop. Overall though, this was a nice addition to the game and it would've been neat to see it fleshed out further in future releases.

Another thing this entry does well is provide a decent single player experience. It's still very much a "pick your track and go" kinda game, but you do have some sense of progression since you unlock new tracks and trucks as you work your way through. The game provides three different difficulties, but they're all the same set of tracks with some variations to add more challenge. For my playthrough, I completed all of the Rookie and Intermediate races in just over two hours. I tinkered with the Professional difficulty, but was a little bored with having to play the same tracks again and the AI was absolutely ruthless. It's a good thing they improved the single player though as this is the only game in the series that does not feature some sort of multiplayer mode.

So this one added some new stuff, which is great, but how is the gameplay? Well, unfortunately, it's the weakest of the bunch. The graphics are fine, especially considering the hardware limitations, but nothing to write home about. The framerate is solid, but the short draw distance on a winding course can be frustrating to deal with. The controls are much tighter than the N64 version, which is a welcome improvement, but the main issue with the game is that it's just boring.

The sound, however, is abysmal. For starters, there's only one music track in the game and it's the one you hear when you're in the menus setting up the game. Once you get into a race, the music is non-existent. This is very noticeable because the sound effects are not enjoyable in the least. If you haven't done so already, just watch a snippet of the video I recorded above. During the races, you hear the same engine sound loop over and over, regardless to what's actually happening in the game.

Overall, the GBA release isn't awful and is, in fact, somewhat enjoyable in small bursts, but it's my least favorite game in the series. I liked some of the changes they made to the formula, but it's just not as exciting as the other games and it's a tough one to recommend.

Conclusion

After playing through each of the four games, here's how I would rank them:

1) Monster Truck Madness 2
2) Monster Truck Madness (1996)
3) Monster Truck Madness 64
4) Monster Truck Madness (2003)

I feel confident in saying Monster Truck Madness 2 towers above the other entries. It improved upon an already fun game in pretty much every way and can still provide a solid amount of enjoyment even today. The only downside is there's just not a lot of content due to the lack of a proper single player mode. The N64 version spiced things up a bit by adding in power-ups, but the controls ruin the game for me, especially as you go up in difficulty. The GBA version added the surprisingly fun Destruction Meter, but is hampered by some technical issues and odd gameplay mechanics.

As I write this in 2019, the Monster Truck Madness series has been dormant for 16 years. I'm assuming Microsoft still owns the license for the name, but it seems very unlikely that it would ever make a comeback. Given that all four games used licensed trucks, there's almost no chance for any sort of digital re-release either. Luckily, none of the games are particularly expensive and are readily available eBay, should you choose to dive into the series.


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