Nowadays I am not that much of a fan of racing games, but there was a time when that was different. The NES was home to many fantastic games in this genre, and while Rad Racer and R.C. Pro-Am can’t really compare to the likes of Forza nowadays, these games offer excitement and racing fun in their own way. The NES launch library, of course, had one of these of their own. Introducing: Excitebike
All about misjudging jumps
In Excitebike you step on a motorcycle and get to partake in races across 5 different tracks. The game is viewed from a semi-isometric view and you switch between different lanes on the track by pressing up and down, which you do to dodge obstacles, other racers, or to get power-ups. You accelerate by pressing A and can activate a turbo with B, but doing the latter will quickly fill up the temperature gauge at the bottom of the screen. If you let it fill up, the engine overheats and you are forced to the side-line until it has cooled down again a few seconds later.
So racing is a matter of dodging around and managing your use of the turbo, but there is one other trick the game has up its sleeves. Each stage is filled with a number of hills and jumps, many of which are unavoidable. Once you take one of these your velocity determines how far the jump will take you, but the important part is how you stick the landing. You might land on flat ground, grass, or on yet another jump. When the ground is uneven you have to push left and right on the D-pad to change the angle of your bike while in mid-air. Land at an awkward angle and you’ll, yet again, be forced to the sideline to recover from the mistake, whereas a good landing will allow you to retain more speed to continue the race with.
The stages are filled with jumps like these and this creates a racing experience unique to Excitebike, where you are always weighing off when to use turbo and what lanes to use. The mechanic for landing is fun and challenging to play around with, but becomes even madder in Game Mode B. When you play on B, you’ll be racing alongside other racers that all have their own AI. This forces you to cope with slackers blocking you on your preferred lane or idiots falling off their bikes right as you try to pass them. Mode A is fine, but B really makes the game that much more crazy and fun. I do have to say it’s a bit cheap, however, as the AI racers continuously spawn as you move through the track rather than being fair competitors; it guarantees you’ll always be racing alongside others, but it doesn’t feel like a proper race.
The game boasts a simplistic campaign where you start on the first track and then gradually work your way up to subsequent ones so long as you keep placing in the top 3 racers on each track. Once you hit stage 5 it will begin to loop and count how often you can beat it in a row. Considering each race is only 2 laps and can generally be beaten in just over a minute, this makes the game incredibly short. However, it makes up for this with its strong replay value, both in regards to beating your own best times, as well as just generally being a mechanically fun game you can keep coming back to.
Another intriguing inclusion is the level builder, allowing you to craft your own race tracks using a simple interface and then race on them in either mode A or B. While it is a cool inclusion, you can’t actually save the stages despite the game implying you can, at least not in the NTSC/PAL cartridge versions of the game. The Japanese version does allow you to save in a round-about fashion and if you have a virtual console copy you can reportedly save to the system’s internal memory, but I can’t confirm that. If you want to share your track with others, you’ll have to call them over the moment you finish and not turn that console off at any point, lest you lose it all.
Gameplay & Extras score: 8/10
Bikes and hills
The game’s visuals are what you would expect from an early NES title. They look fine and colorful, with especially mode B being fun because of all the different colored bikes and racers on the track. The tracks do lack features, however, as they are mostly constructed from flat colors and simplistic shapes. Still, an effort was made to vary these up and there are a variety of different obstacles present that are easy to identify.
A downside is the game’s sound-design. It only has music for the title and score screens, with the only sound-effects during gameplay being the roaring of your engine. It’s an obnoxious and persistent noise that sees little alteration throughout play time, something I wager drove many parents back in the day absolutely crazy.
Presentation score: 5.5/10
Excitebike lives up to its name and really is an exciting racing game for the NES, but it does have some shortcomings. Its mechanics are fun to use and especially in mode B it offers challenging gameplay, but like many other NES launch titles we have tackled so far, it attempts to use replay value as an excuse for being short. With just five tracks and a stage editor that can’t save anything, Excitebike might be a game you’ll replay often, but only for maybe 20 minutes at a time.