Jet Moto: Do Futuristic Racers Have a Future
Jet Moto was one of my favorite games for the PSX. I recently manage to find my old CD of the game, and gave it a go. First thing I notice, man is it an ugly game. It is one of those PSX games that hasn’t aged so well in the looks department, with blurry, wobbly low-res textures spread everywhere. But I digress. Somewhat similar to a futuristic version of Wave Race, Jet Moto is a racing league for off-road hoverbikes, with courses that traverse dirt, sand, swamp, water, and ice. It’s always felt a little unique to me in the genre of futuristic racers in the sense that, while most of these games (e.g. Wipeout, F-Zero, Extreme G, etc.) charge through sleek and synthetic landscapes at absurd speeds, Jet Moto is a little more grounded in rugged outdoor settings, mostly themed around swamps, beaches, and icy mountains. It may sound strange, but Jet Moto feels like it could be something you could actually see on a channel like ESPN, assuming of course hoverbikes were a real thing.
The game also has a ton of personality to it. There are 20 racers in the game, each with a colorfully detailed backstory and hand drawn, comic book style avatar. These Jet Moto professionals range from cowboys and surfers to a jazz singer and a mad scientist. At the end of a circuit, the results screen shows the winning racer being bestowed with their trophy from a somewhat risqué member of the opposite sex. Male racers get rewarded by a scantily clad woman, usually showing lots of leg, and female racers get treated by an equally lascivious male. One exception though is a male racer called Rhino, who receives his trophy from the male variants, possibly indicating he is one of the first openly homosexual video game characters, so that’s something I guess.
Jet Moto was the product of SingleTrac, the studio behind the original Warhawk and the excellent Twisted Metal 2. Originally working as a second party studio for Sony, the studio was eventually bought by GT Interactive and its Sony-owned franchises were given to 989 (who would later become Sony Bend). Jet Moto 2 would be created by the latter studio. While I think it is a perfectly fine game, it has always felt a little less interesting to me. Eschewing the realism of the original, Jet Moto 2 becomes a little more whimsical, with fantastical tracks such as a circus, an earthquake-demolished city, and a finale that crosses through both Olympus and Hades. There would eventually be a Jet Moto 3, which sold especially poorly, and the series has not been heard of since.
Playing Jet Moto reminds me of how much I once enjoyed futuristic racing games. I’ve always enjoyed arcade racers as a whole, and futuristic racing games strike an especial chord of the imagination, with their extraordinary speeds and incredible settings. Almost all arcade racers are lenient with the laws of physics, but futuristic racers take an especially hostile stance to the Newtonian world. And it’s unfortunate that this sub-genre appears to be going extinct. Sony’s Wipeout is the only series that’s seen regular release, and with the close of the Liverpool studio, it appears that this last torch has blown out.
The disappearance of the futuristic racer is really more or less in line with the fall from grace the entire arcade racing genre has suffered. Need For Speed continues to see near yearly release, and Codemasters still produces, but their creations tend to lean toward the hardcore. It seems like the genre reached its climax with Spilt/Second and Blur. Both of these were excellent releases, Split/Second being my favorite racer from last-gen, but both launched in the same month against Red Dead Redemption and were abysmal failures from a commercial prospective. The failure of these excellent games seems to have deterred others, as there have been no real notable entrants in the genre afterwards.
Maybe it’s a symptom of the times. In the age of the PSX and N64, racers were of extraordinary popularity as they lent themselves well to the split-screen multiplayer of these offline machines. Meanwhile, PCs of the time were dominated by FPS and RTS games, which were far more compatible with online multiplayer. Controllers in the pre-dual analog age were not especially suited to movement in FPS, and split-screen FPS has always suffered from the screen watching problem. The limitation to four players doesn’t help as well. With such few players, it’s easy for skill differentials to make the game frustrating for less skilled players and devoid of challenge for more skilled players. Bots can be used to expand the number of competitors, but the consoles of the time were not really capable of competent AI. Racing games on the other hand do not require high-level AI to fill out acceptable computer opponents. As consoles have tilted toward online-focused multiplayer, it’s easy to see why team-based FPS games have ascended in popularity, while racers have languished.
So is there any reason for arcade racing fans to hold hope? I don’t really know. I imagine if they make a resurgence, it will be amongst small-scale developers (i.e. indie), but there’s really been no movement on the front. Maybe in FTP games? I could see a FTP Jet Moto monetized with cosmetics as possibly being successful. I’m sorry, I know it’s really kind of downer I’m ending on here. At least we can take solace in the fact that our old favorites will always be there for us, if they don’t make our eyes melt first.