Ask a classic gamer about Excitebike, and you’ll probably get a handful of fond memories. And why not? It was a launch title for the U.S. release, and the NES had some memorable launch titles (Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, and Tennis to name a few) that continued to remain great games, instead of being lost in the flood of newer releases. Another fine example of how simplicity can win over flashy graphics and majillion dollar production budgets, Excitebike remains just as fun today as it did when it was released.
Excitebike is a simple motorcross game. Capturing the basic concepts of the sport – riding atop a motorized bicycle, leaping high into the air off earthen ramps, and waiting in anticipation for the tremendous wipe-out crash that will certainly come eventually, the game has you testing your skill by maneuvering down an obstacle course and vying for the fastest time.
Surprisingly, the game is very close to its original arcade release. Like many of the early arcade to NES ports, this one contains an A and B game. The ‘A’ mode has you racing on the games’ tracks by yourself, and can be considered a practice mode, or a pure beat-your-time challenge. The ‘B’ mode has you racing down the same tracks, but now against computer opponents. They offer a pretty strong challenge, and will try to interrupt your run as well as beat you to the finish line. Unlike the arcade, there is no two-player option – fair enough since the arcade version had two screens and two controllers. However, the game does store the fastest time for all the tracks, so it’s easy to swap the controller with a friend and try to top the other’s best run.
The actual process of playing the game is deceptively simple. Your bike is controlled with the D-pad, and you accelerate by using either the A or B button. The goal is to maneuver around the dangerous obstacles, like mud pits and speed bumps, and hop over the jumps and moguls as quickly as you can. That’s really it, and doesn’t seem like much at first. However, the game’s strengths are in its little tricks and strategies. You can certainly play the game by simply jamming the A button and letting your bike land as it will, but you won’t get much out of the game, and you won’t be breaking any speed records. Once you get the hang of tilting your bike forward or backward in midair, you’ll find you can increase your speed by adjusting your bike to land on two wheels. Next, once you learn that the B button drives your bike the fastest, but overheats the bike quickly, and the A button goes slower, but runs at a cooler temperature, you’ll learn how and when to juggle between the faster and slower gear to maintain a maximum overall speed. It’s a simple game, but these two nuances mean you’ll need to bring some real skill to the table, and use a lot of practice to feel out the best and fastest method to tackle a course.
You’ll need to really learn all this if you expect to have any chance of beating the computer bikers in mode B. They are painfully better than you are, and rarely make mistakes. They’re aggressive as hell too, and will cut you off or run right into you if they feel so inclined. Your human opponents will be even more crafty, if you choose to challenge someone to a fastest time competition. There are only five tracks in the game, but when this game was released, almost every NES gamer was hammering away at those tracks, looking for anything that would shave milliseconds off their time and give them a competitive edge, or a time worthy of mailing in to Nintendo Power
Five tracks may not seem like a lot, or a number that could maintain a phenomenon for very long, and you’re probably right. It’s a good thing that Excitebike’s trump card is an amazing track editor that was basically unheard of at the time. Though it was likely swiped from Lode Runner for the Apple II, which also featured an intuitive level editor to allow consumers to easily make their own maps for the game, it’s still a very welcome addition.
The design mode replicates an empty track and uses your biker as a marker. The A button advances your biker one space, and the D-pad cycles through a series of letters that correspond with a track obstacle to be placed at the position of the bike. This means that you’ll need to make some sort of reference card to know which letters go with which track piece, but it also means that custom tracks can be broken down into simple alphabetical strings that could be written on a napkin and taken over to a friend’s house. Or if you prefer, you have the ability to save and recall one user track right to the game cartridge. Shazaam!
Excitebike’s graphics are colorful but very basic, though what can you expect for 1984? However, they are almost identical to the original arcade game, so that is quite impressive for the day. Tracks look good, the ramps and moguls have a convincing 3-D look to them, and everything runs blissfully smooth. You do get a nice sense of speed, and you bike even shakes vigorously as you rumble down the track, and at different rates depending on your gear. The game’s sounds are just what they need to be. The two different gears on your bike sound very distinct, as does the whine of your bike when you’re overheating. This allows you to know the bike’s status almost automatically. The crowd cheers in the background, and your wheels squeal and bump as you jump and land. There’s no music during the race, which would probably get in the way of the helpful gear noises, but you do get a short theme for the title screen, and for the end-of-race results.
Though it certainly had a bigger impact when the NES was the system, and you and your friends could sit around with beer and chips, challenging each other to beat the current fastest time, Excitebike is still a fun game in its own right. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in a classic arcade-style game, and have the patience, willpower, and attention span to drill down on five tracks, plus however many you choose to make, until you create a perfect run.
Simple but deep, with time trial and opponent race modes. Bad-ass track editor lets you easily make tracks just like the ones in the game, or better.
Comes with only five tracks, not much here if you’re not interested in fine tuning your runs, or besting your fastest time.