Originally written in 2013 for RaceDepartment, with the recent release of Monster Jam: Battlegrounds, it’s time for an updated extensive look at the history of Monster Truck games.
Being a monster truck fan is painful to say the least.
Most auto racing fans deal with trivial changes from season to season. NASCAR has just introduced a new generation of bodywork, IndyCar is midway through its first season with the radical aero kits for the Dallara DW12, and Formula One constantly experiments with nosecone designs that are more functional than they are fashionable. Drivers swap teams with multi-million dollar contracts, liveries change based on associate sponsors, and a few new teams appear out of thin air when veteran drivers decide they just aren’t ready to hang up the helmet.
For some, these changes catch people completely off guard and cause widespread panic among diehard fans. Jeff Gordon’s sudden change to a basic blue and red flame scheme for the 2001 Winston Cup season was seen as sacrilegious. Michael Schumacher coming out of retirement to drive for Mercedes, after a dominant career with Ferrari was a scenario that nobody could have predicted. Dale Earnhardt Jr swapping teams and switching to a double digit number immediately sent hundreds of Junior Nation members to the tattoo parlour.
But regardless of the silly season in auto racing that takes place from the end of November to the beginning of February, the song remained the same. A new racing season, another shot at the title. Schumacher was with Mercedes, but it was still Formula One. Junior may be driving a Mountain Dew Impala instead of a Budweiser Monte Carlo, but it’s still NASCAR. John Force may be driving a Chevrolet Camaro instead of a Ford Mustang, but it was still drag racing. It’s not like the sanctioning bodies suddenly added donut competitions, tore entire pages out of the history books without warning, pretended entire teams of the past didn’t exist, scripted event outcomes based on the size of a drivers fanbase, or awarded championships to who could destroy their vehicle in the most creative way over a span of two minutes.
However, this is exactly what happened to Monster Truck racing.
I became a Monster Truck fan when I was four years old, back when SpikeTV was called TNN. Monster Truck racing was broadcast through a half hour program called “Trucks and Tractor Power”, commentated by Vietnam war veteran Army Armstrong alongside several rookie reporters who later found their way to Speed Channel or ESPN. The program covered the mid-90’s PENDA Points Series, a Monster Truck drag racing series that toured around the Midwest. At four years old, giant trucks drag racing over giant jumps and crushed cars were awesome, and flushing my goldfish named “Bearfoot” down the toilet at the end of the 1996 racing season was a traumatizing childhood experience.
The show was flawless, the racing was exciting, and the way it was presented gave the racing series some much needed legitimacy. Factory backed teams clashed in locations like Canfield Ohio and the Indiana State Fairgrounds, with Team Bigfoot flying the Ford flag proudly as Dan Runte dominated the rest of the field. His near-perfect 1996 season can be watched on YouTube from beginning to end, as some users have graciously uploaded full episodes of T&TP.
With the glorious PENDA series not returning for a 1997 season, the focus then shifted to rival series Monster Jam and USA Motorsports, who primarily put on arena and stadium events that were occasionally showcased on ESPN 2’s “Inside Monster Jam” and TNN’s “Motor Madness”. As the age group of the audience lowered and USA Motorsports went bankrupt, Monster Jam drastically changed Monster Truck events as a whole, assuming its very young audience couldn’t understand much more than giant trucks with comical names crashing into each other.
As a result, the entire concept of a points system was simply thrown in the trash overnight in favor of more destruction-oriented events that encouraged drivers to wreck their purpose-built race vehicles multiple times a season. Actual head-to-head racing became almost irrelevant, a partnership with the WWE brought in wrestling-themed trucks for a short time with embarrassing made-for-TV storylines, and television broadcasts were simplified to the point where things like tread patterns or even driver names were simply ignored in fear of confusing the six year olds tuning in each afternoon on Speed.
Nowadays, Monster Jam is in a bit of an identity crisis. There’s no doubt the top tier drivers are insanely talented, with many YouTube highlight compilations showing downright impossible saves and impressive leaps that are only magnified by the lack of visibility in the cockpit, but for every step Monster Jam takes to regain the hardcore fans who started watching when track records were a serious topic, they take two steps backwards by designing a truck that looks like Scooby-Doo or telling the fans to wave their Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam flag in a circle if they want to see their favorite driver do a donut.
Monster Truck games over the years have also suffered the same sort of identity crisis. Developers have struggled to balance much-needed sim elements that will appeal to the hardcore fans, with unrealistic features to appeal to the young children, who are the majority of the consumer base.
Ready for a history lesson?
The first game worthy of taking a look at is Terminal Reality Inc.’s Monster Truck Madness, released in 1997. While the trailer found on the Windows 95 promotional disc ranks right up among the most absurd game trailers of all time, Monster Truck Madness was an incredible blend of arcade gameplay with simulation elements. This was a simcade game that came out fourteen years before the term was coined by InsideSimRacing.
The game featured a solid fifteen-truck roster that included all major players in the 1996 PENDA points series mentioned above. Trucks like Bigfoot, Bearfoot, Samson, and Rampage were all faithfully recreated, and an extensive information menu outlined the history of these trucks, complete with real world pictures and facts. Track design was that of your generic off road arcade racer; you raced through several canyon, forest, and desert layouts, all with branching paths and a physical checkpoint system that allowed a bit of exploration to find the fastest line. At the time, the level of detail was unmatched and the 3D environments were immensely vast, all of which included unnecessary (at the time) trackside objects that were well off the beaten path.
On top of these solid circuit tracks, a benchmark at the time for all arcade racers to strive towards, the game also included ultra-realistic stadium races, using the exact same physics model throughout all game modes. These stadium races featured a few locations seen on Trucks and Tractor Power, such as the Indiana State Fairgrounds and the now-demolished RCA Dome. There was a fully working Christmas tree requiring the exact same staging procedure as real drag racing, there were qualifying rounds, elimination rounds, and a simplified garage menu to set up your truck. It’s unfortunate that the AI trucks do not react well to running MTM on a modern-day computer, as it is, to this day, the most realistic representation of a Monster Truck event ever made in a consumer video game.
The two main things Monster Truck Madness had going for it was both the replay value and the stellar add-on community the developers themselves helped kickstart. Not only was the AI challenging and the driving model a perfect mix of sim and arcade, but Terminal Reality was quick to release mod tools for a quickly growing fanbase. Within days of release, amateur modders were able to work with the same tools the developers used to create their trucks and tracks, and that spawned numerous third party content sites, drastically extending the life of the game.
Monster Truck Madness received a sequel in 1998, and to the dismay of fans, the stadium racing aspect was removed completely. Functionality for online racing over the MSN Gaming Zone was added, graphics were enhanced tenfold, the truck roster was increased to accommodate popular trucks from Monster Jam and USA Motorsports, and track layouts were given a significant boost in difficulty. Once again, mod tools were released early in the game’s lifespan, and as of this writing, MTM2.com holds an insane amount of add-on trucks and tracks for a game that is now considered abandonware and can be downloaded for free.
I have very fond memories of both Monster Truck Madness games because I loved Monster Trucks, and getting involved in the third party community helped me learn the basics of a computer. As a seven year old, learning how to install additional content gave me the basic file management skills needed to navigate around Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer on my own. The amount of content available always gave me something to look forward to after school, whether it was a twenty minute circuit through San Francisco, a supercharged cow on wheels, or a perfect replica of a truck that just debuted at an event the week before. The sheer variety and quality of user-generated content is impossible to put into words; it’s something only rivaled by NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, and the genre defining shooter Quake 2.
The stadium racing community, however, didn’t evaporate. As the casual arcade racers moved on to different games throughout the years and brought their modding skills elsewhere, core monster truck fans continued to make realistic stadium layouts and run legitimate online race series by finding a way around the checkpoint-based racing system. Some of these series are still active today, albeit with much smaller driver entry lists.
The one thing we can take away from the Monster Truck Madness series is that developers releasing mod tools are a must for any PC racing sim. The community’s creativity will always surpass that of the developers and breathe new life into the game.
Sadly, Terminal Reality chose not to continue the series. While both Monster Truck Madness games sold very well, and the company’s other main racing sim, CART Precision Racing, brought in an even higher number of sales, TRI instead used the physics model to create the 4×4 Evolution series in early 2001, an off-road racing game designed around Gran Turismo’s event and car collecting progression system.
The first officially licensed Monster Jam game did not land on store shelves until 2002. The Ubi-Soft release “Monster Jam: Maximum Destruction” was available for the Playstation 2 as well as the Nintendo Gamecube, and eventually was ported to PC.
The game’s launch was met with absolutely horrid reviews and a media campaign during Monster Jam events that tried to mask that the game supposedly offering an “authentic Monster Jam experience” was nothing more than a poor Twisted Metal clone. Machine guns, guided rockets, and trucks with spiked tires were hardly what we’d been watching on TV.
This was early on in Monster Jam’s phase of re-working the entire racing series to appeal to the casual fan, and this is where the identity crisis began. Truth be told, Monster Truck events feature very little actual driving. Each round of racing lasts no longer than twenty seconds, and the two minute orgy of destruction known as “freestyle” can end very quickly and most drivers struggle to fill half the clock before their truck breaks or they roll prematurely. Turning this sort of spectacle into a well-rounded video game is a challenge for any developer, and you really can’t blame Ubi-Soft for wanting to capitalize on both a major auto racing license and the car combat craze of the early 2000’s. From a financial standpoint, using the license to sell a generic car combat game was a much better idea than spending time and money, two things Ubi-Soft didn’t have, to develop the ultimate Monster Truck Simulator.
Still, there are a few good aspects of Monster Jam: Maximum Destruction. I bought it anyway, and enjoyed playing the game with friends as a dedicated car combat game. The level design was acceptable, and the truck models were accurate. Every truck’s individual chassis were modeled almost perfectly, with special attention paid to exact wheelbase dimensions and body styles. Virtually every monster truck competing on the Monster Jam circuit was featured, and as a fan it was nice to see little-known trucks like Sudden Impact, Thrasher, and Survivor appear in a video game alongside much more recognizable trucks like Grave Digger and Blue Thunder. Fan service didn’t stop there, as some unlockable bonus trucks eventually made their way into real life Monster Jam due to overwhelming popularity of the in-game versions. Despite the game being about shooting each other with roof-mounted machine guns, these little nuances gave fans hope for the future.
The next game in the Ubi-Soft Monster Jam series shifted to a true racing format, with 2003’s Monster 4×4: Masters of Metal. While still panned universally by critics, the game featured an updated truck roster and cross-country racing similar to Codemasters much loved PC racer, 1nsane. Corny career mode cinematics gave way to an acceptable licensed off-road racer with exaggerated physics, although it still came nowhere close to replicating true-to-life stadium events as the hardcore fans had been begging for. Trucks were jumping through flaming hoops and nitro boosting over the hoover dam, but it wasn’t an entirely bad racing game and is remembered fondly by Monster Jam fans for being enjoyable just to play through.
Ubi-Soft lost the Monster Jam license after Masters of Metal failed to sell, and the license was awarded to big bad Activision, who sat on it for several years. During this downtime from 2003 to 2007, the Monster Truck Madness 2 third-party community continued to pump out much requested realistic content, with entire Monster Truck racing seasons being produced over the span of a few short years.
In early 2007, Activision announced that Australian developer Torus Games would be developing the next Monster Jam game for next generation consoles, and the goal would be to bring the entire Monster Jam experience to home video game consoles. Press releases promised accurate stadium racing, realistic track layouts, and all-out destruction, or something to that extent. We were eventually let down by a game that was half-Motorstorm and half-FlatOut, complete with nitro boost and giant jumps through forest logging villages.
As an arcade racer, the game wasn’t entirely bad. All twenty trucks featured were immaculately detailed, and for little kids, it was the perfect stocking stuffer. The driving model was simple, tracks weren’t entirely difficult, and it was more or less a kids game.
The big news for hardcore fans was that true stadium racing finally returned for the first time since the original Monster Truck Madness. Unlike Monster Truck Madness, however, the physics engine did not lend itself well to these stadium environments. Sixty feet jumps were the norm, meaning it was entirely possible to land in the upper deck of the Citrus Bowl or Sam Boyd Stadium. Brakes were optional, nitro boost was required, and the AI was uncompetitive. Racing layouts, aside from the final in-game championship race at Las Vegas, were totally unrealistic, and most hardcore fans were left with a sour taste in their mouths. These hardcore fans actively took to internet message boards and YouTube comment sections in disgust; a message which fell on deaf ears.
A sequel was released in 2008, Monster Jam: Urban Assault, promising an even more realistic experience than the previous title. Unfortunately, Urban Assault only expanded on the arcade side of the series. Circuit tracks were primarily romps through downtown environments, stadium events were nowhere near realistic, and mini-games similar to FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage were added as a diversion to traditional lap-based affairs. The driving model had been tweaked to allow rolls and flips in mid-air, and this upset almost everyone who wasn’t six years old. Truth be told, it once again wasn’t a bad racing game, but as a diehard fan, Monster Truck Madness 2 needed a modern-day equivalent sooner or later
Twice in a row, a game developer had gotten sucked into Monster Jam’s identity crisis, unable to please both the casual fans inexperience with video games in general, and hardcore fans desperate for a true Monster Truck simulation. Activision attempted to finally address the hardcore fans in 2010 by boldly announcing little-known developer Virtuos was working on Monster Jam: Path of Destruction and coined it as the most authentic Monster Truck game ever. For the first time in history, Activision seemed to be telling the truth and had set up a dedicated pre-launch site, complete with developer diaries, driver interviews, and truck renderings. It was a great time to be a Monster Truck video game fan because maybe, just maybe, the hardcore fans would have something to write home about.
The game dropped on the same day as the insanely popular Call of Duty: Black Ops and was met with lukewarm reception from mainstream review sites. Hardcore fans, on the other hand, still aren’t able to make up their minds on it.
The game still included nitro boost, but the trucks drove somewhat realistically, and the idea of racing across forests and deserts had been canned completely. Path of Destruction was strictly set in and around American stadiums, all of which were modeled with stunning accuracy. Truck details were even better, with specific chassis designs easily recognizable, paint schemes spot-on, and body work carefully adhering to every last detail of the real thing.
Racing was a different story. With no threat of rolling over or basic weight transfer physics implemented, eight second sprints over two or three jumps just aren’t much fun. While the racing and freestyle layouts were finally realistic enough to be given the thumbs up by the hardcore fans, the driving itself wasn’t particularly difficult, and as a result, progressing through the game could be done in one sitting without much effort.
But, Path of Destruction laid the foundation for something bigger. Sure, the driving model was simplified, but trucks were no longer launching over skyscrapers and barrel rolling through the air. Events were now confined to just stadiums, and the track layouts were beginning to resemble something you might actually see at a real Monster Jam event. The developers were gracious enough to include a create-a-truck mode with a simple vinyl editor, and messing with the very basic garage settings allowed you to get somewhat realistic performance out of the trucks in freestyle mode.
Yet, for the PC users, Monster Truck Madness 2 was STILL the most realistic Monster Truck game out there. And they desperately needed something new, as compatibility issues with newer operating systems and hardware prevented many people from continuing to modify or even play the game.
The Monster Truck Madness 2 third party community gradually migrated over to the Freeware physics Sandbox, Rigs of Rods in late 2010 after the release of Path of Destruction. A game that is still in beta and largely developed by just one person, Pierre-Michel Ricordel, the open-source nature of RoR promised unlimited modding possibilities and an award-winning physics engine, much more complicated than any Activision, Ubi-Soft, or ancient Terminal Reality PC title.
The potential of Rigs of Rods was soon realized. A physics engine far more complicated than Monster Truck Madness 2 made early versions of Monster Trucks released for RoR very enjoyable to drive, coupled with modern steering wheel support, immediately turned Rigs of Rods into THE PLACE to drive Monster Trucks. Over time, basic stadium layouts were created by the budding mod community just learning their way around blender, and a niche group of around 30 active users quietly worked on bringing an updated roster of trucks and tracks to the sim.
Eventually, the dedicated add-on site Sim-Monsters.com was created as a central hub for all things Monster Truck related in Rigs of Rods. Recently, the boys released Version 4 of their ultimate truck pack, featuring over 170 Monster Trucks (all with several chassis or body variations, and many more available for separate download) weighing in at over 600 megabytes. Finally, there was a way to truly find out what it was like to drive a ten thousand pound Monster Truck. No more nitro boost or ten thousand feet jumps through a crowded forest.
And truth be told, driving one of the Sim-Monsters V4 trucks in cockpit view with a modern wheel setup is nothing short of breathtaking. Unlike console Monster Truck games, you rarely, if ever, get time to take in the view while soaring through the stadium. You’re ALWAYS fighting visibility issues, counter-steering to avoid weight transfer issues that often threaten to send you on your roof, looking through the floorboards to prepare for a landing, praying to God you don’t take a funny bounce, working the rear steer with one hand, and shifting when the situation requires it. The physics are very convincing, and many Monster Jam drivers quietly praise RoR for its accuracy; some using it as a way to brush up on their skills during off-weeks and their driving styles have noticeably changed because of it. These trucks are a handful, and it’s no wonder why some ex-motocross stars such as Damon Bradshaw, and CORR drivers like Todd LeDuc are starting to cross over into the Monster Truck world. The events may be celebrations of destruction and promote what all other racing series hate, but there’s no denying that these trucks take talent to drive on the limit, and the Sim-Monsters trucks faithfully recreate that experience.
The first, and most obvious one, is that Rigs of Rods is a game that is still in very early beta form. Because of this, simple issues run rampant, and constant updates and changes in compatibility are considered normal. Some builds lack simple features such as the ability to even change your controls, meaning just getting the game up and running is a nightmare. It’s hardly a game you can just “plug and play.” Rarely does everything work as it should, and wheel users with separate pedals are straight up ignored.
The second is that playing the game with an Xbox controller in a traditional swingman view exposes flaws in the truck physics. These trucks are MEANT to be driven in cockpit view with a wheel; being able to drive from an external view with a simple game controller lets you push the truck much harder than you’d ever feel comfortable with when sitting inside the cab. The lack of a damage model on the trucks can lead to bizarre flips, giant bounces, and insane saves that look utterly ridiculous in motion when your field of view isn’t restricted by a roll cage and bodywork. On the limit with full visibility, it’s comparable to driving a life-sized RC tuck.
The third, unfortunately, is the community. As with all games that rely primarily on third party content to enhance the experience, the community is ripe with forum drama, politics, and immaturity. Stolen content, little kids, cheating in online events, egos, internet cliques, and power-tripping moderators dominate the landscape of what is otherwise a rock solid Monster Truck sim. Upcoming releases are previewed but never distributed, only to be finished privately and hoarded among cliques to childishly taunt other members of the community who aren’t as skilled at creative programs like Photoshop or Blender. Drivers double as “race officials” in online events and are allowed to hand out penalties at will, significantly skewing the points chase. Modders format their entire PC’s out of anger at other members in the community, only to rejoin the mod team the next day. It’s an absolutely dreadful community to watch in motion, and unless you get your feet wet, introduce yourself, and ask a few questions, you won’t figure out how to properly install the game.
Since the rise of the Sim-Monsters.com community, two other games have failed to win over Monster Truck fans.
Monster Truck Destruction was originally released for the iPad a few years ago, but recently found its way onto Valve’s popular Steam platform. The game attempted to be a true sequel to the original Monster Truck Madness PC games, featuring a wide variety of real-world monster trucks from the O’Reily Autoparts Toughest Monster Truck Tour, forgiving yet realistic physics, and a primarily stadium-based atmosphere. While the game was one of the better racing games released for the iPad and had a career mode that implemented basic financial management when it came to repairing and upgrading your truck, microtransactions and an overall lack of polish prevented the game from becoming successful with its target audience.
Even changing up the game’s control scheme seems to be somewhat of an afterthought, tacked on at the last second for PC compatibility.
More recently, Monster Jam Battlegrounds was put out by Team6 Game Studios on Steam, Xbox Live, and the Playstation Network. The game attempted to combine Trials HD and Monster Jam: Path of Destruction, offering both a linear Trials-like platforming mode, and traditional arena events like Racing and Freestyle.
The game was an absolute abomination. Poor controls plagued the arena events, and the platforming segments lacked creativity and were a chore to play through. To make matters worse, the platforming segments were mandatory in the game’s career mode, requiring you to suffer through events that offered little entertainment value just to get back to the stuff you wanted to see in Battlegrounds. The AI during Stadium Races were incredibly slow and offered no challenge whatsoever, and at several points during my trial of the game I wondered what purpose this game served. The mode intended to capitalize on the immense popularity of side scrolling MiniClip games had bland stages, and the arena events were an exercise in frustration – fighting both poor controls, strange track boundaries that disqualified you for reasons that were unclear, and an AI that was programmed to let you win.
It appears that at no point in the forseeable future will Monster Truck fans ever receive a game they can be proud of. Rally fans can get behind DiRT Rally, drift fans can get sucked into D1GP 2005, and hell, even Saturday Night Short Track enthusiasts have several different rFactor mods available if they want to recreate their local Street Stock Class. But for a global touring motorsports event that makes yearly stops in all major NFL Stadiums, MLB Stadiums, NHL Arenas, and European Soccer Stadiums, they have only been represented by atrocious shovelware while simultaneously claiming they’ve listened to the fans this time.