Seeing as we’ve just taken a look at the NES Classic Mini on the January Podcast, I thought it only right to revisit one of its titles and a game I haven’t played in about twenty five years – Excitebike.
If the name alone doesn’t get you excited then nothing will… I first played this on a dodgy NES compilation cart a friend of mine obtained from Mayalsia or somewhere similarly exotic and the other titles on it were largely ignored. Because they were rubbish. I kid, it’s because this game is insanely addictive. If you’ve never heard of it, Excitebike is essentially a motocross game with five different tracks where you can race against the clock or against umpteen other petrol heads. You can even design your own track but I’ll come to that later.
Graphically it doesn’t wow compared to a lot of retro games but you need to consider that this is a 1984 NES game. 1984. I was two years old when it came out! Compared to anything the 2600 churned out, this looks amazing. Your character (I’m going to call him Evel) looks like a cross between ET, the predator, and a white Corvette, which I’m sure was the look Nintendo was going for. Two frames of animation is your lot, but it’s functional. The tracks have single-shade backgrounds with a few textures and remaining colours used to give the ramps a 3-D effect (it’s all about the foreground). It’s colourful, which is a good thing.
How does it sound? Like you’d expect a 1984 NES to sound. The vroom of the 8-bit is as genuine as anyone can hope for and has been copied in 8-bit games since. Barring the bike, it all sounds a bit like Space Invaders although parallels between Evel Knievel (there, I said it) and the outer limits have been drawn.
Graphics and sound aside, why is this game a classic. It gets the adrenaline pumping. Excitebike is fast, and the first times you try out the tracks, this combined with the not-knowing-what-comes-next of it all will mean that you’ll be on the edge of your seat. Sometimes falling off, as Evel is prone to doing. Hit a hill in the wrong place, slightly tangle with another rider, will see him perform the most hilarious of forward roles (please do not try this at home). It’s infuriating and amazing at the same time. The Excitebike is actually the championship race, finish lower than third in the qualifying race beforehand means you’re not getting there. The “rev” button in conjunction with the normal accelerate is a great idea. Except for when you overheat your engine and embarrassingly pull over to the side of the course.
Did I ever get anywhere with this game? No. Did I have many ridiculous crashes? Yes. Would I do it all over again? Of course. I can’t believe I haven’t played it in this long. And then there’s the track designer, on a 1984 8-bit game. 1984. The creator is simple but it works. Each letter at the bottom of the screen represents a part of track, whether it be a stretch of green grass or a massive ramp, it’s easy to string them together. Save your work and then put your mate through his/her paces. Laugh hysterically. Repeat. It’s pure joy that motorbike games actually failed to capture for a good few years after.
All in all, thirty three years later Excitebike is still a great package. Whether you’re playing it on original cart or the mini, you’ll still be able to hear Evel’s screams (and your own).