Excitebike was never about throwing pies. Sometimes we forget that.
The game's first sequel, Excitebike 64, was a near-racing sim, with at-the-time cutting edge, realistic graphics, and a plethora of tricks and combos — no doubt a response to the massive popularity of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater franchise, while the two Excite games for Wii (Truck and Bots) were wonderfully bombastic, breakneck-paced, thrill-a-minute, pie-throwing sensory overloads that are still the most bat-crap crazy racing games of this generation.
But Excitebike, the NES original, was different. It wasn't a game about speed, big jumps and sweet wheelies (even though the game does contain all of those things); like Super Mario Bros., Excitebike was a game about movement. The thrill didn't come from the big jump; it came from the joy of landing without losing momentum, weaving seamlessly between mud puddles and speed traps. It's a design philosophy that differs from the most recent games in the series — and indeed most racing games in general — but like all truly great Nintendo games, it's a philosophy that still feels fresh and exciting today.
Whether you're dodging traps and revving up steep hills in Time Trial Mode (Selection A) or taking out opponents and racing for a shiny gold trophy (Selection B), Excitebike proves to be a deceitfully strategic game. Angling your bike to be level with the ground while in midair will prevent you from losing momentum upon landing; swiping your rear tire against an opponent's front tire will cause them to spin off the track; and going for maximum air on a big jump may look cool, but you also might go too far and land on bumpy terrain that'll slow you down. When all these elements are working in tandem, the game lives up to its name, and feels pretty much unlike any racing game currently on the market.
It also looks better than any previously-released version of the game, with or without the 3D turned on. The colors are brighter, the sprites look slicker, and it looks fantastic running on the 3DS's wider top screen. Nintendo has also thankfully updated the interface as well, with a spiffy-looking bottom-screen menu that allows you to pause, quick-save and review the controls. The stereoscopic 3D effect obviously looks great, and certainly modernizes it a bit more, but other than making it slightly easier to tell which lane you're in, it doesn't really have any significant effect the gameplay. But then, how could it, really?
As a free download (which, at the time this review was published, it is), this is a no-brainer. But when you think about the fact that the game will eventually cost $5.99, things get a little iffy. Aside from the updated visuals, Nintendo hasn't taken any advantage of any of the 3DS's extra features, here; StreetPass would be a great way to share custom levels made by the game's track editor, and online leaderboards should really just be a standard at this point for high-score-centric games like this. With the other currently-free eShop launch title, Pokédex 3D, taking full advantage of the system's unique capabilities, Excitebike definitely feels a little behind.
But aside from the lack of 3DS-specific features, Excitebike's charming aesthetics and deceitfully strategic gameplay have only gotten better with age. With the 3DS's impressive horsepower, we're going to see more and more handheld titles trying to provide console experiences, but with Excitebike 3D, Nintendo assures us that the eShop will be a place where gamers can find the sort of fun, pick-up-and-play experiences that made handheld gaming such a success in the first place.