Posted by Dave Letcavage
With all of the Excitebike-related titles to grace a Nintendo console over the past ten years, we’d be hard pressed to find any gamer that isn’t at least familiar with the brand. Numerous re-releases, a couple of spin-offs, a sequel, and a remake have garnered a mostly positive reception from critics and fans alike. So now that the classic NES Excitebike has bunny hopped its way onto the Wii U Virtual Console, we’re going to analyze whether or not this release is worth another lap around such a frequently visited track.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear to those who don’t know; this is the same version of the original Excitebike that’s been living in your NES, crowding your Wii’s Virtual Console or going mobile on your 3DS. The only difference – besides a few visual enhancements in the 3DS adaptation – is the inclusion of off-screen play and Virtual Console restore points. Many will find these are handy features to have if you regularly fight for supremacy of the television or can’t cram all of their racing into a single sitting. Since fans of the game already know exactly what to expect here, it’s our place to fill the rest of you in on what Excitebike is all about.
Excitebike is a side-scrolling racer with a heavy emphasis on physics that add a unique level of strategy to the proceedings. There are four lanes to switch between and you’ll have to utilize them all to avoid the other riders and obstacles. Much like a typical motocross event, players will have to traverse many hills of different sizes and inclines, which is where the physics come into play. Any gamers familiar with the explosively addicting modern Trials series should know that this is probably where the inspiration for those games came from; the price of admission to this event might be worth it to you if only for a brief history lesson.
One of our favourite things about Excitebike is that it’s easy to play yet tough to master. The A-button is used to accelerate, the B-button is for turbo and the directional pad is used to switch lanes and traverse the lofty terrain. Holding back when climbing a hill will shoot you high into the air, but a shorter distance, whereas holding forward will throw you forward at a greater speed, though you won’t catch as much air. Once airborne, it’s up to you to balance the bike for a smooth landing to avoid a loss of momentum. This is actually much tougher than it sounds and will take a deal of practice to maintain your top speed and set course records.
Where many people may strike issue with the game is its length. There are three modes available; Selection A which is a time trial mode, Selection B where you’ll race against other riders, and Design where you can design your own course and race on it – a feature ahead of its time. There are five tracks in total which can be conquered in a ten minute session and offer no real reward for successful completion. This lack of a goal to work towards means the game is best suited for short sessions, and ideally makes a great companion for a mobile device like the 3DS.
It’s safe to say that Excitebike has aged considerably well when you take into account that it debuted on the NES nearly 30 years ago. The frame-rate is silky smooth, the skill-based gameplay is as satisfying as ever and while the visuals are heavily reminiscent of an Atari game – mostly due to the colour palette – they’re solid nonetheless. Length aside, where the game stumbles a bit is in some of the questionable design choices.
One of the greatest challenges you’ll face is navigating the unpredictable riders that shift lanes, seemingly without reason. Once a collision occurs, you’ll be cast to the side of the course and need to mash the A-button to get back on your bike and on with the race. Sometimes this is out of your control and a bit too unforgiving when just a couple of crashes can cost you a top place. Wait until you bite it on the upside of a hill then have to wait to tumble over it, down it, and then get back on your bike. Say goodbye to 10 seconds.
Another thing that’s quite striking is the omission of music while racing. Instead you’ll have to listen to the obnoxious growl of your engine constantly fluctuating; then there's the squeal that comes from indulging in a turbo boost. We abstained from its assistance whenever possible. Fortunately, audio inadequacies rarely affect gameplay and most gamers may not even take notice. If it’s any consolation, the classic Excitebike intro music is still as charming and exemplary as it was all those years ago.
In recent years we’ve seen something of an Excitebike resurgence in the form of 3D Classics: Excitebike for the 3DS and Excitebike: World Rally for WiiWare. The former retrofits the original Excitebike to take advantage of the 3D capabilities exclusive to the handheld, whereas the latter gives the series a polygonal facelift while keeping the core gameplay intact and beefing up the package with new features. If you could only choose one of these versions – and that includes the one we’re reviewing – we’d recommend World Rally because it’s the most refined, plus it provides plenty of content to keep you engaged and coming back for more.
There’s no doubt that the quality of the core gameplay is what compels Nintendo to continually make the Excitebike experience available on all of its hardware. 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.
Does Excitebike’s arrival on the Wii U Virtual Console warrant another romp through the mud? Well, that depends on what version you may already own. With a number of re-releases and a remake available on the market, it may seem a bit pointless to double dip. But if the Wii U is your sole Nintendo console, and you’re a virgin to the series, it couldn’t hurt to get familiarized with this quality – if flawed – NES launch title. Just don’t expect to get a lot of mileage out of it.