So Nintendo have offering all sorts of activities during the NES period from Goomba stomping to fantasy adventuring and blasting alien creatures apart in a scifi environment. Where else should we go? Ah, of course, one of Nintendo's oldest racing gems deserves a little time in the spotlight. The basic concept of Excitebike is simple enough - you're on a bike and you need to reach the goal. What happens in-between shows a good sense of living up to its name.
There's three modes to pick from. The first two cover the typical gameplay where you are racing along a track, with the only real difference being that the first has you racing solo while the second puts various computer controlled bikes on the track at the same time. Despite the addition of other racers in the second mode, the aim is the same in both modes - reach the goal within a certain time limit. Both modes have five qualifier races and five main races, steadily increasing in difficulty as you progress. Fail to meet the time goal and you'll have to try again. The game does let you jump to whatever track you want to though so even if you do fail it's easy enough to jump right back up to where you previously were and give it another shot.
Track layout is view from a side-on perspective with four lanes to race in. Switching lines is as simple as pressing the D-Pad in the correct direction and the dividing lines between lines are clearly visible so it's simple to keep track of where you and obstacles are on-screen. Which is a good thing because you'll need to get used to being able to swiftly move yourself on-screen in order to deal with the challenges that you will be racing towards.
The key element that makes things exciting is the plethora of obstacles you'll be faced with as you race. Ramps, hills, raised track and dirt patches of other different shapes and sizes appear before you and its up to you to figure out just how to safely get by them. As part of this, you can change the angle of the bike (even popping a wheelie if you want to) which can seriously affect how your bike reacts to the track. Get it right and the payoff is great. Get it wrong and prepare to eat dirt as you wipe out and have to waste precious seconds recovering from the accident. When CPU racers are on the scene they basically act as additional obstacles, as when two bikers collide the person at the rear crashes to the ground while the other continues racing. There can be a sense of satisfaction in seeing your rivals fall from a perfectly executed interference, although there's no actual gameplay benefit as your opponent is always the game clock in terms of progressing to the next race. There's a definitely learning curve involved, as you have to work out the right way to work your bike to ensure a safe landing and continue racing. Once you've come to grips with how the physics work then it becomes a lot of fun. Chaotic when other racers are on the scene certainly, but that too still manages to deliver enjoyment.
To go in with the racing element is the turbo options you have access to. At any time you can press for that extra burst of speed. It's handy both for helping you reach the goal that little bit faster as well as clearing some of the taller hills and ramps. Naturally, they wouldn't just let you use this recklessly, as overuse will lead to your engine overheating and force you to take a penalty while it cools. Quite a good system in place and gives the game that bit of extra player input while still keeping things relatively simple.
As fun as it is, Excitebike does feel a little unbalanced in terms of crashes. Whenever you mess up a landing, hit the rear end of another bike or overheat your engine you can expect a timeout as you recover. The time spent doing this can vary greatly though and can often mean the difference between a quick recovery to boost towards the goal again or a race crippling accident that pretty much ruins any chances of winning. It's also hard, though being a NES game that should come as no surprise. While you might manage the first and second races just fine, things get a lot more tricky with the later tracks.
Fives main races does seem like not a whole lot too. Fortunately, the third game mode saves the day there, by allowing players to design and race their own tracks. The interface for the design mode is easy enough to work with, giving you access to all the same kinds of obstacles you had to face in the preset tracks. You can pick the type, amount, spacing and intensity of them to whatever you want and even set the number of laps. Once you've done you can then go ahead and race this track in either of the other two modes. With this option the possibilities are near endless and it is mostly definitely a worthwhile addition to the game that easily extends the lifespan.
The sound effects in the game are pretty solid. Some good audio cues are used to indicate different elements, like how close your engine might be to overheating. There isn't really any music in the game while you're racing, with only a few small music samples used at a few points, so you may have to get used to hearing the roar of the bike engines as the main audio accompaniment.
Visuals are pretty good for the time. The design of the bike and the driver are distinctive enough to be clear and the track features are pretty solid, giving you the usual 2D style level of depth to properly gauge the hills and ramps you'll come across. Other neat touches like seeing the best time to beat on the boards just off the track are certainly most welcome. It's a visual kind of simplicity that looks nice and conveys everything it wants to well.
Excitebike certainly is exciting. While the crashes may be a little inconsistent, there's no denying that there's a lot of fun to be had in blazing across the tracks deftly zooming over the ramps and hills that are in your way. If the preset tracks start to bore you there's always the design mode too. Definitely a good retro game to consider.
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