Legendary video game designer Yu Suzuki launched his illustrious career with his first big hit, Hang-On, in 1985. It’s an arcade motorbike racing game that is one of the first to use SEGA’s 16-bit “Super Scaler” board. The “Super Scaler” technology allows sprites to change their sizes rapidly and smoothly. This enables the creation of faux-3D games without relying on the, at the time, very-taxing polygonal model. It was a radical change compared to the standard 2D scrolling method. SEGA, with Yu Suzuki in charge, used this technique to create other “Super Scaler” classics such as Space Harrier, Outrun, Afterburner, and more. Among them was Super Hang-On in 1987, which improved the scaling effect, had larger sprites, more intricate controls, and was generally a faster game than the original Hang-On.
I write this because Riding Hero is a straight copy of Hang On. The problem is not that it’s copying Hang-On (which just purely adapted the real-life activity of riding motorbikes with little added artistic material that might possibly be infringed on). It’s just that Riding Hero is not as good as Hang-On, or more appropriately, Super Hang-On, which was 3 year old by the time Riding Hero got released on arcades.
In Riding Hero, you have three modes to play: W.G.P (World Gran Prix) mode, Story Mode, and System Link Multiplayer. Yes, Riding Hero is one of only three Neo Geo games with system link capability (the other two being League Bowling and Thrash Rally). Using a standard stereo male-to-male cable, you connect up-to-four MVS or AES systems through a port on the topside of the carts. Though with Riding Hero it only allows for two players (source).
In W.G.P Mode, you race across 10 international tracks against real life MotoGP racers (with slightly altered names) whom are briefly shown in the intro to this mode. The racers are: Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner, Wayne Rainey, Christian Sarron, Kevin Schwantz, Tadahiko Taira, and Freddie Spencer. You choose the color of your bike (I chose lime green). And then you’re off to race.
You get your standard gas and brake button. You also get a turbo button. As for steering, I thought the way SNK tackled it is pretty clever and definitely portrays how a bike handles differently from a car. You essentially use the control stick to choose the leaning angle of the bike and just let go. The sharper the angle, the sharper the turn. This significantly makes it easier to do long slight turns without having to continuously tap the controller. I wish more bike racing games would copy it honestly. This is easily the best aspect of Riding Hero. Sadly, not a lot else from the game is as well designed.
You see, Riding Hero is pretty hard. I had to use cheats to beat W.G.P and story mode. It might have the most egregious rubber band AI ever conceived. You won’t have any problems with the lower 5 bikes, but boy, you will have so much trouble contesting with the leading 2 bikes. And it’s always the leading 2 bikes together as an inseparable pair. As soon as you pass them, you won’t last seconds without them coming back and passing by you (or even THROUGH you). Unless you have stocked up a lot of turbo boosts, you can’t escape them. And to add insult to injury, they slow down once they are in the lead, and then you pass them, and then they speed up and pass you. And this stupid cycle of attrition continues on and on. Winning a race is a 50/50 shot basically dependent on which part of this cycle does the finish line lie on. And all of is at the best of times, after overcoming other obstacles like the narrow roads that make it hard to avoid other bikers. Or the fact that crashing always puts you back at last place. Or that it lacks a map. All these problems complement each and make this whole thing not fun.
The best strategy to follow seems to be to hold on to the turbo boosts, race until you have entered that cycle, and just stay there trying not to crash till halfway through the 2nd lap, then boost till the finish line. If you keep on this strategy and win all 10 races, you’ll be rewarded with a rather boring ending screen.
Now that we’re done with W.G.P Mode, it’s time for Story Mode. This mode was probably made for the home market like a lot of early arcade ports (such as Super Hang-On on the Mega Drive) to extend the game-time from a few minutes to about a couple of hours. Although it is playable on the MVS version, you are only allowed a few minutes of play before the game asks you for more credits. So I used an infinite time cheat in my playthrough.
Story mode is you’re standard rags to riches career mode found in every racing game. You start poor, only able to afford the absolute worst bike. Then you work your way up on waged street races and competitions, getting more money to afford buying better bikes or tuning up your own bike. Until you finally become good enough to enter the professional scene, where you race a couple of races and then beat the game. Sounds fine right? Well, not until you learn that SNK thought it fit to form it around a boring text-heavy adventure game filled with bad tropes of the genre (like hidden triggers that are only inexplicably activated by speaking to certain people, or the fact that you have to progress by following a specific sequence of people to talk to) . Actually, the amount of text itself might not be large. It’s just that THE FONT IS HUGE. The text box can barely hold 6 words without refreshing.
You first start out at your apartment, where you can wither “Sleep” or “Take A Break”. Since this mode has a day/night cycle, you might need to skip time by sleeping to catch certain events. Once you exit the apartment, you’ll see the map of the town with a bike shop, several ridges to race on, a professional racing circuit (that’s initially inaccessible due to convenient construction), a burger shop called the greasy spoon (Why spoon? Do people eat burgers with spoons? Or are the burgers so greasy that you can scoop mounds of grease on spoons? No idea) and a hospital to supposedly heal your wounds. The weird thing is I have no idea why you would ever need to go and rest at your apartment or treat your wounds at the hospital. I thought that there might be hidden stats that are affected by the amount of sleep and medical care you do. But I don’t think I ever needed to. It seems SNK put them there because “adventure games have them”.
As for the story itself, I don’t think it’s to anyone’s surprise to say there’s really nothing notable about it, despite the surprisingly sizable cast of characters. There’s a guy named Joe who owns the bike shop and helps you start off your career. There’s his niece, Susie, who sometimes handles the bike shop in his stead. You quickly learn about Diamond Dave, the fabled top rider in town who everyone speaks of in reverential tones. He’s the one rider you hope to challenge one day and defeat him. Dave has a cheeky friend named Davis who you have to race his bike called “Zett” to get some information. Turns out the Zett is not a bike at all but is in fact a car (a 90s Nissan 300zx, or “Zed”). There’s the “God Of Death”, a mysterious biker who races on the deadly Ridge X, which has claimed many lives. In a shocking twist, it’s revealed that the “God Of Death” is none other than Susie, who races on ridge X in the memory of her boyfriend who died racing there, or something close to that. Weirdly, she didn’t seem to care that she might have inadvertently lead more people to die while racing her. And then there’s a bunch of more replaceable bikers to challenge.
Thankfully, the blatant rubber-band AI is not present in the 1 on 1 races in story mode, so that mode is a lot easier (or maybe because I used the infinite money cheat to buy the best bike). Once you have beaten Diamond Dave, Joe contacts you to so that you can finally get your professional racing license and race on the Suzuka track in Japan, the same one in W.G.P Mode. Here, the race plays out the same as it did in W.G.P Mode, including the cheating AI and the strict 60 second timer. Once you win that race, Joe contacts you again in order to join the 8 hour team race on that same track. The two man team is composed of you and your partner, who, surprise surprise, turns out to be Diamond Dave. In this final challenge, you and your partner will take turns racing around the track for 8 minutes. When it’s time to change riders, you are forced to go to the pit area to rest and wait until your partner finish his leg of the race (time is accelerated when you’re at the pit so as not to let you get bored of waiting too long). I have to say that this is a suitably grand finale for the story mode. Once you win this you have beaten the game.
So how is Riding Hero overall? It’s a barely competent bike racing game, and not much more. SNK did succeed on a basic level, with great controls and smooth and fast scrolling and scaling. But the difficulty in W.G.P Mode is just not fun and needs readjustment. And the very talky story mode can get very boring very quickly, even if it does throw a few interesting curve balls every now and then.
Racing games did not flourish on the Neo Geo, despite the fact that both that genre and the Neo Geo were very popular in arcades. This is probably because a big part of the appeal of arcade racing games is having an elaborate cabinet that uses steering wheels (or bike handles), force feedback vibration, and other mechanical features that are not supported on the Neo Geo. So controlling a car on a normal stand-up cabinet using a joystick is simply not as exciting as using vibrating steering wheels inside a sit-down expensive cabinet equipped with racing seats. Only two more racing games were made for the Neo Geo: Thrash Rally by ADK, and Neo Drift Out by Visco.