Most developers have a really tough time creating a motorbike game that plays well. Making a game that has a vehicle with two wheels attached to it is an art, it seems. There’s just something about most bike games that feels clumsy. Move back in time to over 30 years ago and Nintendo already figured out how to inject some fun into this offroad bike game.
Your aim is simple – race three laps and cross the finish line in the fastest possible time.
In 1984 racing games were trying very hard to create something that simulates the real thing. Namco’s Pole Position was a take on Formula 1 while Spy Hunter and Zippy race tackled the genre from a top-down angle. There was no game that featured dirt bikes or an angled perspective from the side, and that’s exactly what Nintendo did. It worked as it was a simple take on the sport that had quite a bit of depth to it.
Your aim is simple – race three laps and cross the finish line in the fastest possible time. Fail to meet the third place time and it’s game over for you. Excitebike gives the NES controller a proper workout as you’ll be using both the A and B buttons, as well as all the directions on the D-Pad. The B button provides a faster acceleration that if held in for too long will cause your bike to overheat and will see you losing valuable seconds on the side of the road while the engine cools down. You’re constantly keeping an eye on the temperature gauge to ensure you don’t push the bike too far. Hit a set of painted arrows on the track and it’ll reset your temperature gauge to zero, which means you can press that B button to gain some momentum. This mechanic alone dictates the route you’ll take for each lap as it could be the difference between fourth and third place once the challenge increases.
The art of balancing
Your A button does not have the acceleration of the B button, but it allows your engine to cool down while still maintaining the momentum. Hazards come in the form of ramps, dirt and small hurdles that each require a specific technique. Before you hit any ramp it’s a good idea to press the B button, even if just for a second, to get that boost you require to make a gap. Landing is just as important. While in mid-air you can tilt your bike back and forth, but it comes down to split-second movements to time it perfectly. Should you land on a flat surface you’ll want your bike and wheels to be in line with it, so a balanced and leveled landing is what you’re after. Land on the downwards slope of the ramp and you’ll have to make sure you tilt your bike forwards to get the best momentum. Fail to do so and you’ll more often than not come crashing down, and the crash animation takes for eternity before you can jump back on your bike. To avoid dirt patches you simply press up or down to move into one of the four available lanes and to overcome a little hurdle in the road takes a tap on the left D-Pad button to wheelie the bike.
The first three levels can be considered introduction levels. From there onwards it gets much tougher. Ramps become much more inconsistent, which means you can’t time it as well as you once did, and the placing is just all over the show. It’s really tough later on, but there are at least 5 different challenge levels if you think it got what it takes. So that’s Selection A done. Choose Selection B and you’ll have to do all of the above along with three other bikes on the track. It’s definitely a lot of fun and you’ll swear at the other riders for tripping you up and moving into your lane at the last second, but it’s where it comes alive. If you need more of a challenge, or if you want something that’s more tailor-made for you, then you’ll find lots to love in ‘Design’, the level creation tool.
Super Excitebike Maker
It’s hard to think that a game shipped with a level creation tool in 1984, but that’s exactly what happened when Nintendo launched Excitebike. Creating your own level was as easy as can be and you’ll create something quite impressive in under 5 minutes. Think of it as Super Mario Maker in the mid 80s, except that you could not save, even if you thought it could. There was a load and save feature on the menu, but in the manual it reads as follows, “Save and Load menu selections are not operable in this game; they have been programmed in for potential product developments.” Oh Nintendo, you’re always such a tease.
Creating your own level was as easy as can be and you’ll create something quite impressive in under 5 minutes.
Excitebike has aged well considering that it’s now over 30 years old. It’s still a lot of fun to play, though you can’t help but notice that some sort of multiplayer mode is missing. If you want a NES game that’ll bring some excitement out of you then Excitebike will pull that off, it just won’t last as long these days.