Original version: Excitebike, released on 1984/11/30 for Nintendo Famicom
There haven’t been many appreciation articles for 1984, and the reason for this is simple: it was the middle of the video game crash. Americans made a few notable games for arcade and home computer, but the console was basically dead. Across the Pacific, however, things were just beginning to heat up. In 1983 Nintendo released their first console, named the Famicom (ファミコン) (short for “Family Computer”) and immediately started putting out a decent variety of games. Let’s take a look at one of the games from their Sports series.
After the success of Pole Position in 1982 there was a slew of racing games attempting to push the boundaries of realism–which is why it’s refreshing to see this cute, cartoony offering by Nintendo. Excitebike, designed by Donkey Kong creator Miyamoto Shigeru, struck the perfect balance between cartoony and serious, resulting in a solid racing game with great controls and endearing characters. Honestly, those sprites are adorable.
As with his other games, Miyamoto set out to make a game based not on the problem of making a better racer, but on making a fun game that fit the circumstances. He concluded that a top-down or behind-the-shoulder perspective wasn’t as fun as a side-scroller, so he designed Excitebike from a profile view. It plays just like any other side-scrolling Nintendo adventure, which was extremely unusual, especially at the time. Even 1974’s Gran-Trak 10 by Atari strove to offer realism and impressive graphics and sound. The fun came from the idea of driving a realistic car, not from the racing. Even side-scrolling racers, such as 1980’s Dragster by Activision, focused on mastering the mechanical aspect of drag racing (including shifting gears). Excitebike proferred a different way to play. Aside from keeping an eye on your temperature gauge, there’s no mechanical aspect that you need to be concerned with. Excitebike‘s action is based on how you interact with the track and what you do with your bike, such as making daring jumps and sticking the landing.
Excitebike‘s 3/4 perspective allows for sidescrolling action, lane-shifting, and verticality, but without resorting to an isometric camera. Furthermore, the side-view makes the track apparently straight so the player never has to deal with cornering. Excitebike is all at once innovative and retro, being reminiscent of slot car racing.
There were two game modes. Mode “A” was a race against the clock…
…and mode “B” pitted the player against an infinite number of computer-controlled opponents.
Because the opponents are infinite, the player is still racing against the clock, but it has a very different feel to it. The key selling point, however, was the “Design” mode. A key distinguishing feature of Excitebike was its track editor.
With simple, easy-to-use tools included in the game, the player could create and save a track (onto a cassette tape via the Famicom Data Recorder peripheral; if you’re outside of Japan you’re out of luck), then run a race on it, as seen in the TV commercial.
It was not actually the first game to have this feature, though. An Intellivision game named Motocross allowed player-built tracks in 1983, a full year prior. Of course most players had never heard of that game in the US, let alone Japan. Excitebike had an enhanced release for the Famicom Disk System in 1988 called Vs. Excitebike. This version included a two-player mode and saving of tracks via the Disk System’s write-to-disk ability (again, only if you were in Japan).