The uneven ground catches my dirt bike’s back tire, causing me to release the accelerator and lean back to avoid splitting my head open like a fresh melon. I allow myself a smile of self-satisfaction before turning my sights on the 80-foot ramp that opens to empty air. Some call Trials Evolution, the sequel to the hit XBOX Live Arcade racing/puzzle Trials HD, a platformer. But there are no goombas to stomp or princesses to rescue. Movement becomes a victory, and every slope; every raised edge or obstacle becomes an enemy.
Every snapped neck or broken bone lays claim to a misjudged speed or angled descent and it’s rare to feel this level of complete control and immediacy of feedback. Except when, you know, the game literally drops a piano on your head. That’s not your fault.
Don’t be fooled by the explosions and spectacle of Trials, the control scheme is always the star of the show. Like the sublime PC game QWOP which tasks you in guiding a runner through the motions of sprinting, but with every muscle contraction mapped to a key, it takes all the autonomy out of moving an avatar. The motorbike simplifies the act of motion to leaning and acceleration, but the variables of each create a seemingly infinite number of variables, though without the awkwardness of QWOP’s jerky movements.
It made me think of how “on-rails” the movement in some games has truly become, whether it’s the automatically smooth transition between running and walking, or slamming into cover and drawing weapon or the infamous catch-all “interaction” button. But without giving us any crutches to lean on or shortcuts to take advantage of, we begin to take ownership of every step, every inch forward.
That’s why I love the name, not Excitebike HD (name rights aside) but Trials. It invokes images of hardship and suffering, but trials, the ones we can truly own, never leave us less prepared. Each one informs, strengthens and teaches us, until we’re the rider we could only dream of being.
Thematically, Trials Evolution is also a game about balancing, on one hand ungraciously cheeky about death and over-the-top danger with wire thin rails overlook deep ravines and fatal explosions, and on the other it is equal measure realistic physics and calculated skill. This balancing act between fantasy and realism, extreme challenge and forgiving checkpoint system seems to mirror your own balancing act to stay up and moving forward.
Together, all these seemingly disparate elements create an addictive rhythm. It’s a 15 second cycle of the roar of your dirt bike is drowned out by the crack of explosions and crumbling wooden platforms, the thrill of not knowing what awaits you on the other side of a mile high ramp or your sudden comical death and all this in rapid succession repeated again and again. Because if you’d just angled a bit more, or lay off the gas, or hit the throttle sooner, you know you would’ve made it.
I can remember chuckling with glee as my head bent backwards to nuzzle my spine after totally blowing a jump and my wife would blanch and “ewww” audibly.
“I can’t watch this,” she would say as she left just moments after being drawn into the living room, fascinated by my spectacular loop de loop.