Twenty-four years ago, on October 18th, 1985, the Nintendo Entertainment System went on sale in North America for the first time, and one of the first games to accompany the revolutionary system’s launch was a motocross racing game known as Excitebike. The game was actually released prior to this in Japan on November 30th, 1984, a bit over a year after the release of the NES’ Japanese predecessor, the Famicom.
From the outset, one could tell that Excitebike was cut from a different cloth than many of its sports-based brethren. In an era where many such games, including some of those found on Nintendo’s own platform, were named simply for the sport represented (Golf, Tennis, Baseball, Ice Hockey, etc.), Excitebike was able to offer the promise of something more in name alone.
Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo’s R&D team went beyond simply simulating the motocross experience, allowing the game’s Excitebike racers to make some fairly insane jumps, or shoot ahead of the pack with a burst of turbo speed. However, overuse of the turbo engines would cause a temperature gauge to rise, leading to the bikes overheating and stalling out. This potentially race-wrecking event could be avoided if one were to lay off the B-button throttle, or run over special arrow marks on the track that would reduce the gauge’s temperature.
Another interesting element of Excitebike that would carry into the game’s successors was the ability to control your bike in the air, moving the control pad left or right to adjust the pitch of the Excitebike in order to make a better landing over the tracks’ rough terrain. Improper landing could lead to some nasty spills that would take the rider clear off the track and separating him from his Excitebike, costing precious seconds as he recovers and moves back into position to reclaim his ride.
Players were given the option of racing solo, or against a group of computer-controlled riders; in either situation, the goal was to beat the posted times in order to qualify for the Excitebike championship race. Placing first would give players a positively-reinforced message that “It’s a new record!”
In addition to death-defying races, Excitebike also contained another feature, one which would lead to the game’s addition as a part of Nintendo’s “Programmable Series” during the “black box” era of the company’s releases. Not only could players race across tracks which came with the game, but Design Mode would allow players to use one of gaming’s earliest stage editors to create their own custom racetrack. Features which design enthusiasts could tweak included obstacles such as speed markings, speed-reducing mud pits, and ramps of all shapes and sizes, plus where each lap will end and how many will be needed to complete the course. The custom courses could then be played in either of the game’s other two modes.
However, there were some shortcomings with this feature. In Japan, it was originally intended to be used with devices such as the cassette-recording Famicom Data Recorder, but in America and Europe, no such device existed, thus rendering the “save” option null and void. The English instruction manual indicates that perhaps Nintendo had hope of making use of it, stating that “Save and Load menu selections are not operable in this game; they have been programmed in for potential product developments.”
Fortunately, after many years, it is finally possible to save one’s custom Excitebike tracks — sort of. Though perhaps not quite the same, the Wii features a sort of “save state” for Virtual Console games which keeps data stored in the system’s internal memory.
Beyond the NES
The original Excitebike stands as one of the most memorable titles from the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System, though until recently, it never quite stood as one of the company’s “key” franchises. Nonetheless, many gamers who were “playing with power” throughout the later half of the eighties remember the game as a fond favorite and classic.
But, despite the game’s firm place in the NES pantheon, it actually saw several other iterations prior to its first sequel, which would not arrive until 15 years later.
The first was known as Vs. Excitebike, an arcade version of the home game which saw release in 1984, following the release of the home game. In lieu of a Design Mode, the arcade title offered three levels of challenge (Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced), with levels arranged in a different configuration. Seven tracks would need to be played twice, with the first time being in a Challenge race, and the second as a full-blown Excitebike race. Failure to clear third place or higher would result in a Game Over.
Vs. Excitebike would also see a release on the Japan-only Famicom Disk System in 1988, but with differences from either predecessor. Among these were a two-player versus mode, which would let those racing decide the maximum number of rounds needed to win, as well as the track which would be used and how many laps would be needed in order to win on that track.
Other changes included the elimination of the original soundtrack in favor of a new version, and the “Original Excite” mode actually being based on the main mode of the arcade game, rather than the original NES home version. But most noteworthy of all was the ability to save custom tracks created in the game’s Design Mode.
Also a note for Excite trivia fans: Vs. Excitebike was used as the final game in the Omegathon game tournament at the 2008 Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). However, which version was used was unspecified on the convention’s FAQ.
Following Vs. Excitebike came other versions and re-releases. Much as they did with Super Mario Bros., Hudson Soft released a version of Excitebike for the Japan-only NEC PC-8801 in 1985.
Another Japan-only release came in 1997 for the Super Famicom’s Satellaview peripheral. This version would come to be known as BS Excitebike: Bun Bun Mario Battle Stadium, Mario Excite Bike, BX Mario Excite Bike, and even simply as Excite Bike 2. It featured Mario and his friends as the riders of the Excitebikes, and would see several iterations with different variations with each version.
The first version would feature distinct drivers in the forms of Mario, Luigi, and Toad. The second version added Wario, with Princess Peach joining in the third version, and finally Yoshi rounding out the cast in the fourth. The remaining drivers in each version were comprised of red and green Koopa Troopas from the Mario games. Other Mario additions included Piranha Plants by track side, and coins along the pathway as well: Collecting five would seem to give Mario some semblance of his invincible form from the Super Mario titles. Plus, it’s also noteworthy as one of, if not the only time, that Mario and company’s voices are heard on the 16-bit console.
Nintendo would eventually go on to re-release the original Excitebike in America in a number of forms, including as an unlockable in the game’s 2000 sequel, Excitebike 64; as an obtainable item/unlockable in 2002’s Animal Crossing for the GameCube; as “Excitebike-e” on the Game Boy Advance eReader peripheral in 2003; as part of the Game Boy Advance “Classic NES Series” in 2004; and finally, on the Wii’s Virtual Console on March 19th, 2007. Of note is that just over a month prior to its North American Virtual Console release, it was released in that same format in Europe on February 16th — the same day its second sequel, Excite Truck, would be released in that region.
Excitebike would also go on to feature in a cameo appearance as one of many collectible trophies in the GameCube hit Super Smash Bros. Melee, where its description reads as follows:
This top-of-the-line motocross motorcycle can accelerate like crazy with its turbo, but this also causes the temperature gauge to rise rapidly; if used too often, the bike will overheat. You can cool your hot bike down by running over special icons scattered across the track. The turbo and ramps let you pull insane airs. (Excitebike 10/85)
Rumor has it that “Excitebiker” was a contender, alongside “Balloon Fighter,” to be a playable character in the title, representing the NES era of the company’s history. However, that spot would instead go to Popo and Nana, the eponymous Ice Climbers.
Excitebike also found some further fame as the subject of a parody sketch on the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim show, Robot Chicken:
In 2008, Excitebike would make another appearance as a cameo in Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii, in a greater capacity than in Melee, but still not as a playable character. Instead, Excitebike filled two roles; the first was as a collectible sticker, which could be applied to a character’s trophy in the Adventure Mode, entitled “The Subspace Emissary.” There, it would add +31 to a character’s leg attack, and is regarded as the best sticker power-up for leg attacks.
In the game’s other, more traditional modes of play, Excitebikes would appear as an Assist Trophy; grabbing one of these items would result in the glass dome covering the pedestal shattering, releasing the game characters contained within. Unlike some other Assist Trophies, Excitebikes appear just as they did on the NES all those years ago, in an 8-bit styled, pixelated form. Hordes of Excitebikers in a variety of colors pour forth from the Assist Trophy, driving back and forth around the stage, dealing damage to the opponents of the player who summoned them.
You can witness them in action (though by now, who hasn’t?) at the start of the video below:
And finally, just as in Melee, there is a collectible trophy for the Excitebikes as well, which reads:
High-performance motocross bikes that handle massive jumps with ease. Using turbo on these beauties gives a speed boost but also causes the engine’s internal temperature to rise. Overuse turbo, and the bikes overheat and shut down. The engines can be cooled by running over certain marks on the track. Excitebikes cap off every race with an undeniably awesome wheelie.
Check back with us next week as we look to the next installment of the Excite series and continue to count down to the release of the latest installment — Excitebots: Trick Racing.
“Building Excite-ment” is a three-part feature which was originally published on Kombo in the weeks leading up to the release of the Wii title Excitebots: Trick Racing. The original post for this first part, Excitebike, can be found here.