In this Soapbox feature, Gavin reminisces about the old days when Nintendo made multiple racing games...
Earlier this week was the 20th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, but there's another Nintendo 64 game that debuted exactly two decades ago, albeit on the other side of the globe. In the catalogue of Nintendo-published games, Left Field Productions' Excitebike 64 is rarely held up as a stone-cold classic, but I have great memories of the game that launched in North America on 30th April 2000. To me it represents exactly the sort of quality 'B-tier' game Nintendo hasn't put out for a long time - and the type of game Switch could really benefit from right now.
In the late '90s Nintendo was looking for a way to update its old motocross IP and ended up throwing the keys to the Excitebike series at Canadian developer Left Field Productions, the third-party team who were behind the fondly-remembered NBA Courtside games. Shifting the gameplay from side-on to behind-the-rider 3D, the 64-bit entry melded the careful pitch and throttle control of the original game with the subtle mechanics of N64 stablemates Wave Race 64 and 1080° Snowboarding to produce something just as deep, rewarding and addictive as those racers.
a solid entry in any one of those franchises would be a lovely bit of counter-programming for gamers who aren't utterly enamoured with Animal Crossing
In addition, Excitebike 64 included the original NES Excitebike, another 3D version of that game, a track editor and a bunch of multiplayer modes, including a giant soccer game mode (it's not exactly Rocket League, but it can be fun with four players).
The game wasn't perfect, of course. It arrived very late in the console's life (releasing in Europe in June 2001, over a year after its North American launch), and going back to it now reveals patchier performance than I remember at the time. The controls still feel fantastic, though and although I've never been a fan of the original Excitebike, both this and Excite Truck on Wii are massively underappreciated racing games in my book.
Those games (along with F-Zero X, I'd argue) had an arcade-style appeal but with added texture and the depth of a sim - the thinking gamer's arcade racers. The controls were nuanced and took real effort to master. You had to use your head and really read the terrain to get the most out of them, but the feeling of cresting a wave at just the right time, or spraying up powder on a long sweeping curve, or threading the turbo just so to nail a perfect jump was unbeatable. Everyone remembers their first 1080, no?
It's a shame that Nintendo is leaving it to other companies to fill its roster of racing games on Switch when these series have been lying dormant for two generations or more. I've written before about these 'precision arcade racers' and how there's a gap to be filled in Switch's otherwise substantial library, but the 20th anniversary of Excitebike 64 once again has me pining for the days when Nintendo used to make racing games which didn't have Mario in them. Don't get me wrong, Mario and the gang are brilliant company, but I'm also partial to a little Dion Blaster and Ayumi Stewart of an evening.
Let's make no bones about it - none of the above games are system sellers, and it's understandable why they haven't been a focus, especially in the lean Wii U years. Nowadays, however, Nintendo has plenty of killer apps for Switch and a solid entry in any one of those franchises would be a lovely bit of counter-programming for gamers who aren't utterly enamoured with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Yes, they do apparently exist. Alternatively, it might be quite nice to squeeze in a jet ski race or some downhill slalom between fishing and selling turnips.
Will we ever see the likes of these again? Will "Tricky" Ricky Stern make a glorious comeback in HD some day? We can but hope. However, with a big question mark hovering over Nintendo's upcoming Switch releases for the rest of the year and beyond, there's certainly space for some smaller, more niche games to keep the hardcore happy in between tent-pole releases. Goodness knows Nintendo has the cash to fund these projects and they'd spice up the release schedule between the breadwinners. Go on Nintendo, you know it makes sense.
Which series would you most like to see make an HD comeback on Switch? Let us know in the poll below:
Frankly, is there anyone who doesn't want a new F-Zero?! That's why you can choose two.
Got a soft spot for these games? Who's the best Ricky - Winterborn or Stern? Let us know with a comment below and join us in raising a glass to these blue-collar N64 classics and toasting 20 years of Excitebike 64.