Monday, September 9, 2013

NES Replay: Excitebike

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: October 1985
With some games, you just had to be there.

Playing Excitebike today isn't all that exciting. It's a very simple side-scrolling racing game where you ride around a track on a motorcycle and try to get the fastest time while making sure your engine doesn't overheat. There's a level editor in there to make your own tracks as well.

But in 1985? This was off the hook.

The controls were pretty cool. When your motorcycle goes off a ramp, it flies through the air and you have to press the left or right buttons on the D-pad to rotate it. If you land on your back tire, the motorcycle bounces a little bit and slows down. If you land on the front tire, your motorcycle crashes and it takes time for you to get back on your feet. With just a bit of practice, you can get your motorcycle to land on both tires at the same time and keep up your momentum.
But while the racing was fun, the biggest draw was the track creation. The ability to make your own racetracks on a console game was amazing, and certainly wasn't possible before. Sure, there was a definite learning curve to the track editor, but once you got the hang of it, you could make any track you wanted!

There’s a problem with Excitebike, though. You can't save any created tracks, so once the system is shut off all your hard work goes in the toilet. You also can't transfer the track to a different cartridge or play any tracks that your friends have created either.

Why would Nintendo overlook such a basic function? Well, it’s wasn’t exactly on purpose. There are menu options for “Save” and “Load,” but the instruction manual explains that they don’t work. They’re a holdover from the Japanese version.

The ability to save your track was available in the Japanese version because of a peripheral called the Famicom Data Recorder. It looked just like a regular tape recorder and had the ability to record game data on cassette tapes. Nintendo included that save/load function into Excitebike just in case they decided to bring the Data Recorder to North America, but due to the low sales of the Data Recorder in Japan and its limited usefulness, they didn't see any point to it.

That's shame, since that's what really hampers Excitebike's long-term replayability. Once you've raced through the tracks, there isn't much else to do but race through them again. You can't even save your best track times. And if you create a track, it's just going to vanish once you turn the game off. Why bother?

Nintendo has, of course, re-released Excitebike several times since then, and almost every time they've included the save function, which allows created tracks can be stored locally. At this point, though, it's too little, too late. The world has moved on from Excitebike.

But did Excitebike work as a launch title? Yes and no. It worked because the racing was good and because the level editor was a neat idea. It didn’t exactly come together, though, because it was missing that fussy little save function. Fortunately, this didn't inspire much anger at the time or hamper sales of Excitebike too much. Excitebike is still remembered fondly, despite what it's missing.

Final Rating:

Next Week: Golf

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