The latest incarnation of Motocross Madness has its share of visual surprises scattered across its Egyptian, Australian, and Icelandic vistas, but none leaves so great an impression as a daredevil in the Elite Knight armor from Dark Souls flipping his dirt bike 30 feet above the Egyptian desert. Is this the titular madness? Hardly. Rather, it's just Motocross Madness' use of your Xbox Live Arcade avatars to serve as the actual racers, and it's but one way that this entertaining dirt bike racer maintains its emphasis on fun all the way to the finish line.
As welcome as it is to have a use for Xbox Live avatars, however, they sometimes seem out of place. At heart, Motocross Madness is a fairly realistic racer that doesn't shy from moderate challenges, and the sight of your gangly avatar on an almost photo-realistic bike occasionally emphasizes the game's awkward juggle of realism and cartoony aesthetics. Not one for racing in whatever crazy getup you display on your XBLA social panel? Fear not: Motocross Madness also awards you with in-game helmets, T-shirts, and other assorted cosmetic goodies for leveling and completing some achievements so you can look more like a professional racer and less like Skyrim's Dovahkiin in a Portal shirt.
Cosmetic fluff aside, much of Motocross Madness' appeal lies in the simple but intuitive act of controlling the dirt bikes themselves. Each of the six available bikes feels noticeably different from the last, and tire upgrades provide undeniable improvements to the initially wobbly traction. The camera sits at just the right distance to impart the sensation of dangerous speed, and the nine tracks contain enough shortcuts and challenging jumps to keep them interesting despite their relatively small number. As in many racers, you need to rank at least third place in the career mode to qualify for the next round, and it's a testament to the strength of the design that reaching this goal rarely feels tedious if you fail a few attempts.
That's partly because Motocross Madness isn't just about crossing the finish line. Instead, the act of getting there yields the game's most entertaining moments, chiefly through the speed boost meter that builds power through drifts and unlockable tricks performed after launching from the game's many ramps. Some of those, such as the humble wheelie, are simple and practicable; others have you performing what seem like dance routines on your handlebars or, more brutally, pummeling your opponents as they glide in the air beside you. Scoring the most money and experience to continue outfitting your bike (or to buy new bikes) depends on using these combos often, although amusingly, Motocross Madness also rewards you with generous XP gains for spectacular crashes.
The true fun lies in Motocross Madness' multiplayer mode, which allows you to play on both XBLA and locally via a split-screen for two players. The game's multiplayer charms go far beyond merely pitting your racing skills against seven other players, though. For one, matches stick you with players who are close to your same skill level, ensuring that you have a smaller chance of having to keep up with someone with one of the best bikes in the game during your first forays online. Then there's the Bike Club, which lets you attempt to beat your friends' scores and race times, as well as complete tasks centering on objectives such as driving a certain number of miles, or punching non-club players.
Outperforming your buddies can be challenging enough, but if you're looking for a real challenge, you can't do much better than Rivals mode, which pits you against "ghosts" of the best racers that re-create the actions during the races that earned them their medals. It's intense stuff (and brutal for arcade racing amateurs), but even if you lack anything approaching the same skills, attempting to keep pace with these players is a handy method of discovering shortcuts you may never have noticed on your own. That translates well into the career and online races, allowing you to gain an edge on tracks that were previously giving you trouble.
Rivals mode is only one of the ways that Motocross Madness allows for changes of pace to suit your mood, and if you find yourself stuck on a race, you can always jump into the infinitely more leisurely Exploration mode. Here, you speed through the tracks of each region, unhampered by offtrack warnings or the pressures of other players, and the scattered coins, many tucked away in seemingly unreachable nooks, provide excellent opportunities to earn some additional cash for outfitting your bike or buying a new one at the garage if you're weary of grinding through the career or online races. Trick Session, on the other hand, concerns itself with the accumulation of points via tricks rather than merely crossing the finish line, and the shift of focus makes even the most familiar courses seem fresh.
All this amounts to a surprisingly fun and feature-filled package for a mere 800 Microsoft points, hampered only by its small selection of tracks and minor graphical disappointments, such as the way many of the higher-resolution textures take a second to load even when you're standing right on top of them. Motocross Madness delivers enough gameplay variety to make up for its unabashed lack of innovation, and mastering the deep racing lurking behind its accessible controls will keep you busy for hours. You could do far, far worse than Motocross Madness if you're seeking a racing game that appeals to all age groups and skills levels, and if you've been put off by some of the earlier releases using the title, now is a good time to come back.'