It’s a racer! It’s a platformer! It’s a beloved motocross classic!
Japanese title: エキサイトバイク • Excitebike
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-EB-USA]
Japanese release date: Nov. 1984 [HVC-EB]
European release date: Sept. 1986 [NES-EB]
Genre: Racing (Motocross)
Alternate versions: Vs. System ; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1985]; Sharp X1 ; NEC PC-8801 ; Famicom Disk System *; Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002]; eCard [GBA, 2003]; NES Classics series [GBA, 2004]; 3D Classics [3DS, 2011] Virtual Console [Wii, 2008; 3DS, 2013; Wii U, 2013; Vs. Excitebike – Wii U, 2015]
*Note: Famicom Disk System version was an expanded adaptation of the Vs. System game, released under the name Vs. Excitebike.
Excitebike wasn’t the first racer Nintendo developed for its 8-bit home console, but it was the first one that mattered—the first one that felt Nintendo. About a month prior to Excitebike’s Japanese release date of November 30, 1984, Nintendo had published its very first Famicom racer—and, to my knowledge, the company’s very first original racing game (their only prior experience with the genre being distribution of a rebranded version of SEGA’s Head-On). That release, bearing the mundane title of F-1 Race, did precisely what its name indicated: It brought Formula One racing to Famicom.
Generally speaking, F-1 Race took the same basic approach to the sport as Namco’s Pole Position, with a behind-the-car camera view and shifting scenery. Technically, it looked pretty impressive for a first-generation Famicom game running on a basic NROM chip. This should come as no surprise, though, given that future second party studio HAL (and programming genius Satoru Iwata) lent a hand to its production. F-1 Race rounded out the release schedule and fleshed out the roster of game genres available on Famicom. It didn’t exactly break new ground, though, and F-1 Race would remain stranded in Japan along with a handful of other first-party Famicom titles like Devil World and Japan-centric board and language games for a reason: It wasn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire in the U.S. Europe loves Formula One, but America doesn’t care. Besides, by the time NES launched in the U.S., Nintendo already had a much more inventive and engaging racer to offer up in the form of Excitebike.
Designed by Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Excitebike feels like a quintessential work by Nintendo’s most famous designer—quite the contrast to the simple, literally formulaic F-1 Race. That is, the design of Excitebike appears to have emerged less from any notion of how to make a better, more impressive racer and more from the question of what kind of racer would work best on the NES’s specific hardware. Miyamoto arrived at the conclusion that a standard top-down or over-the-cockpit view would be less suited to the NES than a side-scrolling racer—despite the fact that very few developers had ever attempted to create such a thing.
As far as precedents go, Excitebike had practically none. Activision had published Grand Prix for Atari 2600 back in 1982, but that was more of a top-down vertical racer turned sideways. Excitebike used a forced 3/4 perspective that made it as much a platformer as a racing game, which means it falls closer conceptually to Irem’s Moon Patrol (which was a shooter) than a racer. In short, Excitebike played unlike anything before it. Yes, it involved racing, but not the way most gamers had come to expect racing to work, as its artificial perspective allowed for side-scrolling movement, lateral shifts across lanes, and a heavy element of verticality.
Excitebike’s innovative design neatly corresponds to the technological limits and features of the NES hardware. The NES processor supported scrolling as a basic feature, which was a big plus at the time; contemporary consoles (ColecoVision, SEGA’s SG-1000) and computers (MSX, PC-8801) lacked that ability at the hardware level. The smooth scrolling of Famicom software gave the system a strong advantage at the time of its Japanese debut. Based on both remarks by hardware designer Masayuki Uemura and various online technical documents, it seems the system could inherently handle either horizontal or vertical scrolling, it could only smoothly scroll in one direction at a time until special enhancement chips came along later in its life. Hence Devil World and its awkward multidirection scrolling: The screen scrolls pixel-by-pixel on the horizontal axis, but in big tile-sized chunks when you move vertically.
It seems fair to say that Excitebike’s design likely came about in response to Miyamoto’s experience working on Devil World. As his first NES project, Devil World would have represented a learning experience, a chance for the young game designer to get a sense of what worked and what didn’t on this new hardware.
At the same time, you can’t help but see shades of Super Mario Bros. here as well. Miyamoto’s next major project would arrive about nine months after Excitebike, and this racer clearly helped inform that work. The big idea behind Super Mario Bros. was to take the characters of Mario Bros. and break them out of a single-screen format into a world that scrolled. And here was Miyamoto iterating on the scrolling concept—along with Super Mario Bros. programmer-to-be Toshihiko Nakago.
So: Excitebike, a racing game that scrolls left to right. It’s at once a fresh and inventive take on racing yet also a total throwback. Excitebike recalls old electromechanical horse racing games in which plastic jockeys sped along grooved tracks on a fixed vertical track, or pre-video racing games in which players would steer their car left and right to avoid obstacles while a road printed on a paper roll unfurled beneath them. It’s slot racers as only a video game could depict them, allowing players to switch lanes at will and perform acrobatic stunts that enabled them to fly through the air and break contact with the track altogether.
Miyamoto significantly decided not to go with standard cars here but instead used motocross racers as the player’s avatar. This resulted in a game with much more personality than you’d have seen in a game centered on little metal boxes—the little racers kick their feet in despair when they lose and run desperately back to their bikes when they take a tumble, and it’s totally adorable. However, the shift to bikes also opened up new approaches to gameplay, too. Cars don’t really lend themselves to dynamic, comical, physics-defying action. Sure, you had rare exceptions like the bounding autos of Vic Tokai’s Bump ’N Jump, and Jaleco would add cars to the Mappy/Mario Bros. formula in 1985 with City Connection, but otherwise car-centric racers almost universally focus on speed, avoidance, and handling.
By putting players in control of dirt bikes, Excitebike still allowed those factors to come into play. But those realities of “bikes” no longer existed as the sole focus of the racers but rather as complements to the elements that put “excite” in the title: Manic stunts and unpredictable track designs.
Excitebike doesn’t offer much in the way of game modes; Mode A presents a time trial (man versus track), while Mode B gives you a more standard competitive race (man versus man). Yet even Mode B doesn’t present a proper race, with the player against a small set of racers; it’s just a more complicated time trial, with your goal being to beat a target time rather than outperform the infinite array of competing racers who drift into view as you zoom along. Belying this simple array of play options, though, Excitebike offers pleasantly sophisticated racing. In adopting a sidescrolling perspective, the game does away with the shape of the race track as a consideration. You never need to worry about cornering or hairpin turns, because speeding from left to right will eventually cause the track to loop for a second or third lap. There’s a certain level of abstraction here, with a presumably circular track flattening out for its side view.
Anyway, corners and turns would simply have been a distraction that would over-complicate the game. Excitebike already has plenty going on for the player to deal with, even though at a glance you’re simply blazing from left to right as quickly as possible. The inclusion of bikes in the Excitebike mix causes a certain element of physics to come into play in the form of the player’s balance. The tracks here may consist of an endless linear left-to-right loop, but the scenery includes hazards, obstacles, and convolutions aplenty. Unlike your typical 8-bit race track, Excitebike’s courses don’t consist of simple, flat stretches of road. Where the action in, say, F-1 Race came in steering correctly into each turn on smooth pavement, Excitebike challenges you with rugged dirt tracks where bumps, hills, and rough patches can potentially send you flying off your bike in an instant.
While it’s perhaps a little generous to say Excitebike has a physics model in the modern sense, the game absolutely requires you to think about how you approach each track hazard. Your bike flies off ramps and embankments at an angle, and the faster you drive the more unstable your cyclist becomes. If you don’t pay attention to the angle of your cycle as you return to the ground, you’ll go tumbling and lose precious time as your upended biker scurries slooowly back to his ride.
You can (and must!) control the angle of your bike by pressing forward and backward with the D-pad. Holding left causes you to lean back and raise your front tire, while leaning forward will cause you to shift your weight forward and lower the bike’s forward portion. Generally speaking, leaning forward as you land is likely to result in a bike disaster; your motorcycle is more stable on its rear tire. As long as you don’t pull back too far you’re generally safe performing wheelies. If you land on a downslope, though, you’ll want to pitch forward to lean into the ground.
It’s not a complicated setup, but it requires some practice. It also ties in with the game’s other primary control consideration, your speed. The NES’s face buttons each have a separate function in Excitebike: A gives your bike some gas, while B revs up your engine for extra speed. Hitting ramps at high speed becomes a crucial maneuver in Excitebike, as it gives you added lift and often allows you to clear obstacles while airborne. Those bursts of speed come at a cost, though: Holding down the B button runs the risk of causing your engine to overheat. Opening your throttle makes the engine rev up and a temperature meter at the bottom of the screen to rise. If you let the meter max out, your bike will stall, which has the same effect as you falling off your ride. The temperature meter emits a harsh noise when you’re in the danger zone, so as long as you don’t get greedy it’s not too hard to play it by ear and avoid ruining the race. Your engine heat bleeds off while you accelerate normally, and the meter resets entirely if you drive over one of the chevron patches on the track, so racing in Excitebike becomes a matter of balancing speed versus heat and memorizing where on each track you can cool down your bike.
Really, that’s about all there is to Excitebike. It’s simple, but it offers just enough nuance to keep each race interesting.
If the game has a flaw, it’s that it shipped incomplete—in the U.S., anyway. Excitebike features a third main menu option in addition to Mode A and Mode B: Design mode. This was the first of several “programmable” games that shipped for NES and Famicom, jumping on the level-editing trend that was all the rage at the time. Bill Budge’s influential Pinball Construction Kit had sparked an obsession with the idea of letting players create their own custom level layouts, and Nintendo entered the fray with Excitebike.
The game’s level editor isn’t the most user-friendly thing in the world, but it’s straightforward enough. Players are given a blank stretch of track and nearly 20 different level design components, which they can place to their heart’s content. The editor breaks the track into horizontal segments, and you can’t place more than a single item per segment. Otherwise, though, you basically have the same freedom of design as the dev team, all the way down to determining the number of laps players have to complete.
It’s an interesting idea, but it has a problem: There’s no way to save your work. Once you switch off the NES, all your creative course designs vanish into the ether. Strangely, though, the game includes menu options for saving and loading—features that don’t actually work. The save feature takes you to a blue screen for a few moments before returning to the menu, and attempting to load will basically end the game by sending you to the same blue screen, from which there is no return. These inactive features seem strange and sloppy. The manual even mentions that they don’t work. Instead, it says, they were included in “anticipation of future product developments.”
In truth, “future” developments was something of a misstatement—the mechanism for saving custom tracks already existed by the time Excitebike launched in America… it just didn’t exist in America. To save an Excitebike course, players needed to own a fairly elaborate setup of Japan-only peripherals: The Famicom BASIC set, which included both a full-sized computer keyboard and a special cartridge, and the Famicom Data Recorder, a tape cassette drive specially designed to interface with Famicom BASIC. By plugging the Data Recorder into the BASIC keyboard, and the keyboard into the console, players could preserve their creations on cassette tape. It was quite a cumbersome setup, and it only worked on Famicom consoles: The BASIC keyboard plugged into the Famicom expansion port, which was situated on the front of the Japanese console and used a socket not present on the NES.
One of the main differences between the NES and the Famicom was that the latter featured hardwired controllers. The NES, on the other hand, had removable controllers, which gave American players more flexibility when it came to input choices, but it also introduced a regional incompatibility between the NES and Famicom. In Japan, Famicom owners had to rely on the system’s expansion port for their peripherals, not only for controllers, but for add-ons like the BASIC keyboard. The Famicom’s expansion port was dropped for the American NES, replaced instead by a never-utilized covered port on the bottom of the console. Nintendo never figured out what to do with that port, but its presence and the wishy-washy “stay tuned for future product developments!” in the Excitebike manual suggest the company was still open to bringing peripherals like the BASIC keyboard and Data Recorder to the U.S. After all, they had been key components of the proposed Advanced Video System version of the console. But it never happened.
In practice, using the Data Recorder to save Excitebike stages almost seems like more trouble than it was worth. Besides the cumbersome setup of plugging a tape recorder into a keyboard peripheral, it also involved the sheer impracticality of the tape medium. The Data Recorder appears to have lacked an onboard control device to allow the Famicom to send signals that would stop and start the tapes. In other words, players had to manually begin recording before attempting to save, and to queue up and play a save file segment after loading. Excitebike save files amounted to a few seconds of white noise that would tell the Famicom to “listen,” followed by a short burst of data static, like running a modem. In theory, the static would feed track layout data back into the console. In theory. Not only is it cumbersome, it’s extremely unreliable as well.
In any case, Nintendo seemed to understand that the Data Recorder solution was far from optimal. No game ever used it for saving progress, and only a handful of releases besides Famicom BASIC and Excitebike allowed player to store their custom creations on cassette: The list consists of Wrecking Crew and Mach Rider from Nintendo, Lode Runner from Hudson, and ASCII’s Castle Excellent (the Japanese version of CastleQuest). Supposedly, Arkanoid II did as well.
Around the time the NES went national in the U.S., Nintendo launched the Famicom Disk System in Japan, which offered a far more elegant process for storing data on 3” diskettes. Fittingly, two years after that, Nintendo reworked Excitebike to take advantage of the new peripheral. VS. Excitebike for Disk System debuted in Japan in December of 1988, almost exactly four years after the original Excitebike and well into the twilight years of the Japan-only peripheral. As such, it’s remained something of an obscurity, which is a shame, because it was by far the most comprehensive Disk System overhaul of a cartridge game that ever saw release, even more so than Clu Clu Land D.
For all intents and purposes, VS. Excitebike constituted a full sequel to the game, not just a remake. Despite the name, it wasn’t simply a port of the coin-op VS. Excitebike; that 1984 arcade release had been a fairly direct adaptation of the original game and removed the track editor altogether. The Disk System release, on the other hand, featured a comprehensive overhaul of the track editing mode, where players could move freely forward and backward along the custom track and select course components from a convenient palette of icons. This made for a tremendously more user-friendly edit mode than in the original game with its line of letter codes. And, most importantly, you could immediately save up to five different creations to diskette.
Among its other improvements, VS. Excitebike lived up to its name by introducing head-to-head competitive split-screen play. The original Excitebike allowed players to race AI opponents, but not other humans, and VS. Excitebike rectified that by bringing a two-player mode into the mix at last. The game also included what it termed “original” mode, a slightly deceptive name. Original Mode in VS. Excitebike basically amounted to the single-player game, but even that received a significant overhaul for Disk System, with more of a campaign-style interface and what appear to be new track layouts.
Nintendo’s history of peripherals basically consists of a series of experiments to give form to creative ideas. With Excitebike, America received an incomplete version of the rough draft, and the final revision didn’t arrive here until 2015, when the import of VS. Excitebike showed up without fanfare on Virtual Console. It’s hard to feel too put out about Excitebike on NES, though. Despite its nearly useless track editor, the main game offered such a refreshing take on racing that it would remain a fan-favorite for years to come.
Nintendo has gone back to the series’ well a few times, beginning on Super Famicom with a series of downloadable Mario-themed Excitebike courses for the Satellaview peripheral. Since the U.S. never saw that add-on, either, we naturally never had the chance to play those games. We did get the excellent Excitebike 64, though, as well as 2009’s largely forgotten Excitebike: World Rally for WiiWare. The developer behind World Rally, Monster Games, also created two Wii spinoffs: Excite Truck and Excitebots. We haven’t seen much of the Excitebike franchise recently, but given its history, its Miyamoto connection, and Nintendo fans’ fond regard for the original, it’s pretty safe to say we haven’t heard the last of it. The game remains a landmark NES classic, and a good time even if you’re not much for racing. But don’t bother with the NES game—if you’re going to play Excitebike, do it right and grab the Disk System remake on Virtual Console. It’s not that the original game isn’t good; the update is just that much better.