If you were lucky enough to pick up a shiny new NES way back in 1985, you would have had your pick of several future classics from a legendary launch-day lineup. If your idea of a digital good time happened to involve motorcycles, you were particularly spoilt for choice, with Excitebike and Mach Rider representing two-wheeled racing from two very different perspectives — in every sense of the word. Nintendo's retro re-release schedule seems to indicate that most players preferred the side-scrolling sunshine of the former, but in truth those who opted for the faux-3D future-noir of the latter were treated to an equally enticing experience. While it lacks the longevity or legacy of the NES' best titles, Mach Rider is a quirky little curio that remains both fast and fun nearly thirty years later.
Set in the year 2112, Mach Rider straps players into the superpowered saddle of a military-grade motorcycle and tasks them with liberating the earth from a group of four-wheeled alien invaders known as the Quadrunners. In the game's main Fighting Course mode, that's accomplished by driving full tilt through ten different 'Sectors' - each with two selectable tracks apiece - and picking off enemy vehicles with your laser blaster while avoiding oil slicks, barrels, tacks, and bombs. Baddies will appear ahead of you as you twist around the track, but they can also sneak up from behind - keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror at the top of the screen will help you spot incoming adversaries.
In terms of gameplay, Mach Rider is an early and entirely enjoyable example of vehicular combat. It's very simple, but certainly well done; driving feels great, with manual shifting allowing for a surprising amount of control, and the hit detection on your single weapon is generous enough that aiming from the behind-the-back perspective really works, even at speed. That last point is particularly important, because like many games of the early NES era, Mach Rider ramps up in difficulty rather quickly, and becomes very tough very fast.
Thankfully, in addition to the main Fighting Course, you can also select Endurance or Solo Courses, both of which tweak the gameplay in subtle but important ways - and are considerably more merciful. The Endurance Course acts as a sort of time trial, replacing the worry of finite lives with the ever-advancing tick of the clock; you can respawn as many times as you need to, but in order to advance you'll have to travel a certain number of kilometres before time runs out. The Solo Course operates on the same concept, but also removes all the enemies, making for a more straightforward race to the finish that's a satisfying change of pace from Fighting Course's drive-by battles.
Impressively, Mach Rider also sports a rudimentary level editor in Design Mode. Here you can create a custom course by combining forty Tantrix-style blocks of track in any way you like - as long as you start at the left and end at the right, you're good to go, and there's a surprising amount of freedom in what you can create. Once you've set your route, you can save the result and play through it in any of the three main modes, though the effect of your artistry may be somewhat dampened when you hit the pavement - the in-game perspective makes it hard to appreciate the subtle differences of patterns assembled from a birds-eye view, and aside from a crowning achievement which we dubbed 'The Straightaway', in practice, our handcrafted courses never felt appreciably distinct from the ready-made raceways. Still, it's undeniably appealing to tinker with track layouts, and a save system lets you come back to your creation even after a reset.
Outside of the slightly cumbersome setup in Design Mode, the controls for Mach Rider are relatively simple: 'A' accelerates, 'B' fires your fore-mounted guns, and D-Pad is used both for steering (left and right) and switching gears (up and down). Everything is responsive and movement is pleasingly forgiving; after a bit of practice, you'll be able to tear around the track with a grace and panache that seem to defy the very pixels of the obstructions laid out before you, and going off-piste won't send you screeching to a stop either. In fact, if there's one thing that Mach Rider gets entirely right, it's the serious sense of speed that accompanies the transition into that fourth and final gear - though it can't match the eye-melting momentum of later titles like F-Zero X, it's surprisingly speedy for an eight-bit experience, and careening around corners can genuinely get your adrenaline pumping.
Of course, some of that epinephrine rush comes from the arm's-length pop-up distance; the faux-3D scrolling in Mach Rider is impressive, but doesn't leave much room or time for defensive driving. Still, for an early NES game, the presentation is excellent - your character's sprite is large and detailed, enemies scale as they get closer to the centre of the screen, and Nintendo's vision of the dystopian future is a charmingly colourful one, with levels taking on palettes of blues, greens, pinks and oranges as often as whites and greys.
Mach Rider's single musical selection is catchy, funky, and distinctly different from the system's usual suspects, with modulations, major and minor modes, and a steady-rocking bass underpinning some oddly disquieting melodic lines. The sound effects are made up of familiar Famicom bleeps and bloops accompanied by the constant, hairdryer-like hum of Mach Rider's engine and the occasional crunchy blast of your weapon, which also has the oddly charming side-effect of taking over the bass channel, temporarily reducing the soundtrack to tweeters-only range each time you fire.
Mach Rider might not be remembered as fondly (or as often) as other NES launch titles, but with its unique aesthetic, fun gameplay and impressive sense of speed, it certainly deserves to be. Though the action can get repetitive, three distinct modes and track editor make it easy to jump into a slightly different game each time, and score-chasers will find plenty of replay value in revisiting racetracks for better times and scores. Pop-up obstacles and the faux-3D perspective will date the presentation for gamers raised on modern (or even Mode 7) motorways, but retro-race enthusiasts will definitely enjoy revving up this overlooked old-school experience.