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Excitebike: Not that exciting

Excitebike is one of the more beloved NES launch titles. It was one of the 30 games included in the fantastic NES Classic. It even has a level in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe! But does the game hold up well today?

First the good news. The basic concept of racing motorcycles off-road (motocross) works, and the controls are simple and smooth. This alone ensured it would be a hit in 1985. You hold A to go at normal speed, or B at turbo speed (but don't let the engine overheat!). Tracks have hurdles and rough patches to avoid, as well as speed boosts you can hit. When going over a ramp, you press ↑ to tilt the bike up for extra height. When you land, you need to make your tires even with the ground, so you don't go flying off. If this happens, your racer scrambles to get back on the bike, costing you several seconds.

Regrettably, there is no two-player mode. You either play solo ("Selection A") or against computer-controlled racers ("Selection B"--who named these!?). The latter is more fun (though solo mode is good for practicing the tracks), as you have to avoid crashing into other racers. You can deliberately knock them down by turning right in front of them. In addition to playing, you can even design a track of your own and then race on it in either mode! Overall, it's a well designed game, and it's clear why it's beloved.

Now for the bad news. The biggest problem, by far, is that the game has only five tracks. Just five! That is way too few. Oh, you'll just design your own, you say? You can only save one at a time, and it vanishes if you turn off the system (battery-powered saving was still three years away). Consequently, this game is best played on the NES Classic or Switch, which allow four save states.

Another weakness of the game is that you aren't actually racing against the computer-controlled racers; they come and go onto the screen at random without continuity. Ostensibly, you need to get at least third place to successfully finish a race, but this is a fiction. The "places" are determined by how long it took you to finish, with no correlation to the computer-controlled racers.

Worse still, there is no music to go with the five different tracks (they use different color palettes, at least). Adding good, unique music to each track would seriously improve this game!

For the reasons I outlined above, the game doesn't work well today. Don't get me wrong, you can have fun trying to master each of the five tracks, but unless you're really into track design, that's about all you can get out of the game. Still, because of what it does right, especially judged as a launch title, Excitebike should not be considered a bad game. I give it a B-.

Linked Reviews
"It may not be the longest ride, and it’s definitely not perfect, but it’s a classic nonetheless and at least deserves a look."
Dave Letcavage, Nintendo Life, 7/10

"The game remains a landmark NES classic, and a good time even if you’re not much for racing."
Jeremy Parish, NES Works

"Everything from the goofily fun intro theme to the cutesy graphics of the racers and the audience made this a flag-bearing title which helped buoy the system in its precarious early existence in the U.S."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 4/5

"Excitebike distanced itself from the pack by offering truly addictive motocross gameplay."
IGN, #14 of Top 100


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