Released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan in 1984 (with the USA and Europe having to wait till 1985 and 1986, respectively, for their versions), Excitebike is a 2D side-scrolling racing game where you hop onto a bike and try to excite folk by winning races. At its heart Excitebike is a pretty straightforward race-em-up, but the racing itself can be tricky to master, and plenty of frustration can be caused to the player at times. I played Excitebike on my Nintendo Switch through the included NES emulator that comes with it when you have a Nintendo Online Membership. Just as an aside, I’ve been away from home recently for reasons I won’t bore you with here, and my Switch has been incredibly useful thanks to having these emulators on it. I just wish they’d get round to adding some more games to the NES and SNES library as I’m starting to run out of things I want to play!
I must admit that I went into playing Excitebike with a fair bit of trepidation owing to it being a very old NES game as those games are usually incredibly cheap after a certain point with artificial difficulty spikes designed to extend the life of the game by making it as ludicrously difficult after a certain point as possible. Back then, certainly in the West, Nintendo did very well for itself in the rental market, and for that reason they made games as tough as possible so it would be hard to complete them in one sitting; thus, meaning avid video game enthusiasts would continue to slap down the pennies at their local video rental store (ask your parents, younger readers) so that they could have another bash at completing the games once their original rental period was over.
This, combined with a lack of any real nostalgia I have for the console itself, often puts me off giving NES games a chance. I don’t know how many readers from outside Europe will know this, but we really didn’t get into the NES that much over here. Don’t get me wrong, we loved the SNES, and it had great success, but the NES just never really caught on for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the video game “crash” that happened over in America didn’t really happen over here as we still happily played our Commodore 64s and ZX Spectrums long after all those copies of E.T. were dumped in that infamous landfill. Thus, when the NES came along, rather than being the big shot in the arm for the industry that it was in America, we Europeans briefly looked up from our Speccys, shrugged our shoulders and kind of didn’t care. It didn’t help that we didn’t ever get the full library of games released over here either.
As a result of this, the nostalgia some Americans have for the NES that allows them to overlook the fact that a large majority of games for the machine were, frankly, utter cack because they have fond memories of playing them as a precocious nipper is not something that we share over on this side of the pond. This longwinded segue essentially exists to explain why I and others like me don’t see the NES as this titan of video gaming that you Yanks might. Don’t get me wrong, the three Super Mario Bros. games are great, and Punch-Out! is also good fun, but a lot of the NES back catalogue is pretty dire, and we Europeans don’t have the sheen of nostalgia to make up for it. That all being said, Excitebike isn’t a terrible game, and I did have some fun with it, but that didn’t prevent it ultimately wallowing in its own NES-iness.
Excitebike has two game modes, one that sees you racing on your own in what amounts to a time trial, and another mode where you are racing against CPU controller opponents. I personally preferred the first mode as the one where you have to race against other bikers is often a frustrating experience. For instance, even though the racetrack scrolls, the opponent racers don’t remain on the track in real-time, meaning that you can overtake everyone, but they’ll then spawn right in front of you elsewhere on the track, which usually leads to you colliding into them and losing precious seconds. As a result, you’re not really racing but just doing the time trial again, except there are now people that can get in your way. If Excitebike at least allowed you to overtake people and then keep them behind you instead of just transporting them ahead of you elsewhere on the track, then it wouldn’t be the worst racing game, but the fact it does that (possibly due to hardware limitations) just spoils that mode right out of the gate.
Racing on your own in Excitebike is a lot more chill and can actually be fun, although the difficulty of the tracks spikes pretty abruptly after a few races, and all of a sudden, you’ll be lucky to nab a place on the podium. It’s the usual NES tactic of spiking the difficulty to artificially stunt your progress without a care for the learning curve, which is probably even more frustrating now than it would have been back then due to how video games as a medium have progressed. I guess you can’t be too hard on a game from 1984 for being wildly outdated in 2022, but that doesn’t mean Excitebike gets a free pass either. Excitebike does at least look quite nice for a game from the first half of the 80s, although there’s not much going on with the sound outside of some jaunty tunes in the menu screens and some sound effects whilst you race.
Excitebike isn’t bad, but it’s hardly a classic either in my mind. Viewed through 1984 eyes, I guess it would have been more impressive, especially as you have decent control over how your bike lands when you fly off ramps, and getting it right can lead to some fun jumps. Overall though, Excitebike just has too many flaws to really be classed as “good” by my criteria, but if you have a Nintendo Online Membership, then you might get some fun out of it maybe.