Friday, 29 April 2011

New to Me: Number 3 - Excitebike (Nintendo Entertainment System)

Not a very "exciting" title screen. Fnar-Fnar!!
Now available on: Wii Virtual Console (500 Wii Points)
Also available on: N64 as unlockable in Excitebike 64, GameCube as unlockable in Animal Crossing and Gameboy Advance

Being a bit of a Sega fanboy when I was young, the Nintendo Entertainment System and its huge range of games passed me by. At the time, this didn't really bother me. I don't think I knew anybody who owned a Nintendo and screenshots of NES games in magazines always looked quite ugly. The colours were drab and gaudy, nothing like the bright vibrant colours of the Master System, and there were none of my arcade favourites available for it, like Wonder Boy, Dynamite Dux (?) or Out Run. My first experience of a NES Mario game was when I played all of them via Super Mario All-Stars on the SNES towards the end of 1993. I didn't get to use an actual NES until 1998 when a university colleague invited me over to her place for tea one evening. After tea, she took me to her bedroom, and we had some Duck Hunt fun. Oo-er! Unfortunately, seeing as I wasn't very good at reading signals in my youth, my attempt at lame innuendo to suggest that something more exciting happened  was pointless as we really did play Duck Hunt on her NES. Knowing how useless I was with the ladies back then, she was most probably lying on her bed in her bra and knickers, and I caught a glimpse of her NES in the corner of my eye and said, "Oh my gosh! I can't believe my luck! I've got to have a go of that!" So I slapped a cart into her slot and had my first duck hunt. Oh well. Anywhoooow, this isn't a blog for me to write about the missed opportunities of my youth. Nope, it's a place for me to write about old video games. Hmmm... how else was I meant to interpret, "Let's go upstairs for some fun and games?"!?.
Duck Hunt how I hate thee

So, er, where was I? Oh yes, so other than Mario All-Stars on the SNES and my studenty misadventures, my exposure to the NES has been minimal. This means that its huge library of games is still waiting to be discovered by my good self, and is a fantastic resource for entries for my "New to Me" section. And so, the first NES game I have chosen to review for my blog is one of the console's earliest games. It's Excitebike. But, before I continue, I need to find out for myself how the game's name is pronounced. Although it's probably a word I've never spoken, I always read it as being pronounced "Excite-a-bike" but looking at its spelling, it's more likely to be "Excite Bike." I will be back to continue with this once I've found out.

Alrighty then, I'm back, and the game's name looks like it's pronounced "Excite Bike," so I've been wrong all my life, or however long the dilemma has haunted me for. On my quest for enlightenment, I found this rather hilarious page which begins with somebody asking the same question and then descends into an amusing argument between people on how to pronounce GIF. Apparently, ignorant people pronounce it with a solid "G" sound, but the more educated correctly pronounce it "Jif". I fall in the ignorant category. It just amused me how grown men (I'm presuming they're grown men) get all uppity and uptight about something so trivial and ultimately completely unimportant. I'm actually feeling quite depressed now. I haven't even started reviewing the game yet, but I've already reminded myself of the time I threw away a potential opportunity for a night of passion with a rather attractive young lady, found out I've been pronouncing Excitebike incorrectly (in my head) for 20+ years, and that I'm apparently ignorant because I say GIF wrong.

Weeeee!!! Or should that be Wiiiiiiiii!!!!??
Putting all of that to one side now (I'll drown my sorrows a little later - think there's some Shandy Bass in the fridge), here's my review of Excitebike. As I've already said somewhere, Excitebike was one of the first games for Nintendo's box of delight (if it wasn't for their stupid gaming system, I could have experienced another box of delight. Alright, I'll stop it now. It was 13 years ago. I'm over it). Released as a launch game in pretty much all territories, the game is typical of an early release - no frills (but plenty of thrills - hoho! I'm on fire tonight!). Upon starting it up, you go straight into the title screen and your options of game modes. There are two modes of play, Selection A and Selection B. They are pretty much the same except that Selection B features computer opponents, whereas Selection A allows you to take on the levels all by your lonesome. There is also a level design mode.

Oh, crumbs! I mistimed that jump something rotten.
On choosing either option, you can then choose to play any of the five levels. Levels take the form of side-scrolling tracks containing hazards and jumps of various shapes and sizes. Your task is simply to make it to the end of the track as quickly as possible, either by avoiding the hazards or smoothly taking each jump. Each track is made up of four lanes and you have the freedom to flip and switch from one lane to the other simply by hitting up or down on your D-pad. Of course, this is necessary to avoid some of the obstacles on the way. Pressing left performs a wheelie, or gives you some lift as you approach jumps. Pressing right does the opposite, pushing the front wheel down, allowing you to make pixel perfect landings on the track to avoid losing time. You have two other buttons to use on your control pad - one to accelerate and the other to use a turbo, handy when approaching jumps. Hold on to the turbo for too long though and the bike overheats, meaning you have to stop for a few seconds for it to cool down.
The screen displays two times to beat. One is in the scrolling background giving you the fastest time for the track, the other - to the bottom left of the screen - is the time for third position. This is the time you need to beat to qualify to go onto the next round.
Woohoo! First!!!!

'Snot the most pleasing colour scheme.
Presentation, as you'd expect for a game nearly thirty years old, is basic but does the job. You can be up and running into a game within seconds of starting it. The tracks change colour for each level, which, although a bit extreme in places (one level is lime green!), adds some variety to things. Sound is also perfectly adequate, with nice little tunes sprinkled throughout the game, engine noises and a warning noise to let you know you're about to overheat.
However, it's in the game's playability that it shines. The bike is easy to handle and it feels like you really are able to influence the its performance by how you control it. Unfortunately, after two weeks of playing, I'm still unable to master the game, but enjoy attempting it no end. Although Selection A and Selection B are basically the same only with competitors on the latter, they feel different. Selection A feels like a time trial, Selection B feels like a race, and it's good seeing that the other racers can be just as incompetent and accident-prone as yourself, and give as good as they get (they can knock you off your back, you can knock them off their's). Artificial intelligence is something that developers still have problems getting right, but, even in 1984, Nintendo did a great job of implementing it well in this game.

Some multi-rider shenaginans going on here

The final feature which, to be honest, didn't really excite me for very long, is the Design mode. This allows you to place your own jumps and obstacles on a track and then race it. Although fun for a few minutes, I just couldn't create any tracks that I really enjoyed playing. Apparently, on its original release, although the game featured options to save your creations, you weren't able to do this as your masterpieces were deleted when the console was switched off (the option to save was left in the game in case something came along in the future to accommodate this though - it was finally implemented for the Wii's Virtual Console rerelease in 2007. Nintendo really were thinking to the future when they made this game!).
I'm going to make this level a tough nut. And then not play it because it's too hard. Oh yes.
So, in conclusion, Excitebike is definitely a fun little game, easy to pick up and play, but hard to master. If you've got a few Wii points left over, this game is definitely worth a look at. It's a fine example of one of the games that begun Nintendo's route to video gaming domination.


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