Of the sports games in the N64 era, Excitebike 64 feels left out of conversation more often than siblings such as Wave Race 64 and 1080° Snowboarding. Perhaps its release later in the console's life cycle didn't give it as much time to gain traction in people's memories, or maybe it's drowned in the limelight of its inspiration, the original Excitebike. Whatever the reason, it doesn't detract from the fact that Excitebike 64 is a rather smart motocross game.
The N64 version of Excitebike takes the action firmly onto 3D courses, which naturally throws in more obstacles for riders to consider. The proper angling of jumps and landings is still there, but so are sharp turns, weaving corners, and a much more dynamic field of competitors.
While the ever-loving turbo boost and the danger of overheating remain a solid staple of the game, there is absolutely no getting to the finish line by holding down the accelerator button. Considerate speed control, anticipation of turns, and wise use of braking and sliding are essential to staying ahead. It's a challenge that takes some getting used to, but begins to feel rewarding once it clicks. The game sets up a solid Tutorial mode to help players along, showing a demo of what to master, then asking you to use it to reach the finish line in a certain amount of time. Good bikers who do their homework and finish the whole tutorial are rewarded with the original Excitebike. Now that's incentive!
A slightly shallow pool of six racers is available for all the game's modes, each with differing stats in cornering ability, jump height, turbo use, and ability to land well. They don't have much in the way of personality (except for having nicknames like "TRICKY" or "THE VIXEN"), but at least their equipment colours are customizable.
Season races are the heart of Excitebike 64, with 20 different tracks to tackle. A little over half of these are indoor arena tracks which don't look all that different from each other stylistically, but have varying track layouts and plenty of demands. The outdoor courses range wildly in atmosphere, from quarries to the Congo, and have a more open, rugged feel; shortcuts can also be found in these races. The tracks alternate form indoor to outdoor each race to keep one's palate cleansed.
First place is the price to pay to win a season and unlock new courses and difficulties, and it's no instant cakewalk even on the lowest class. Expect to try and try again, learning and mastering the courses, and sometimes relying on some strategic wiping out of opponents later on. It's a challenge, yet an engaging one as the course designs require constant attention from players in a way that feels fair the majority of the time.
A selection of additional modes were thrown in for fun, and are either available at the start or unlocked in-game. In addition to the original Excitebike, there is also a Desert event where you race challengers over a procedurally generated sandscape, aiming for campfire checkpoints in the distance. Stunt Mode is a more laidback mode where riders can catch big air and pull off button and stick combinations for points. The Hill Climb is a hardcore challenge to make it up a steep, mountainous incline without losing momentum or killing oneself. Soccer is a mode for 2 or 4 players that will just make you want to play Rocket League instead. Finally, Excite 3D requires the most work to unlock but provides a rather exciting 3D representation of an original Excitebike course. Some of these extras are better than others, but are present to provide quick bursts of unique fun.
A course editor is also available from the start for those who like to build and tinker. It has a gridlike structure, but provides a decent amount of pieces for those who want to engage the time into building something fun. Although the game might complain about having no Controller Pak, tracks can still be saved.
Excitebike 64 leans more towards realism than whimsy, and its controls are thankfully up to the task once learned. Adjustment of wheels and countersteering out of slides are important, and they feel right in execution. There's a comfortable weight to it all that can really get you into it. The framerate can slow a bit now and then, but it doesn't tend to interfere much with the sense of pace.
Don't expect any graphical mastery or robust environmental embellishments from this game, but it still doesn't look that bad for a product of 2000. It's clean and not thick with fog, which are big plusses. On a humorous note, rider crash animations have no ragdoll physics whatsoever. You could even say they have the opposite of ragdoll, curling up into a tight, motionless fetal position no matter how they fall. Too funny to be a negative.
Sound, however, does have its pluses and minuses. The revs and whines of the bikes sound very good, but the music is disappointingly bland rock and hip-hop. It's not rough to listen to, but it's entirely forgettable. The announcer sounds decent, but could have benefitted from having more lines or at least different inflections of them.
Excitebike 64 may not have as much of a legacy as other titles of its time, but its solid controls, engaging course design and challenging field of opponents still provide a surprisingly engrossing experience that can goad players on for "just one more try." Easily frustrated players might not flip for it, but those willing to master their bikes might find themselves tearing up dirt for some time.