The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Excitebike - Nintendo - NES - 1985

If you were lucky enough to purchase an NES back at its launch in 1985, one of its marquee titles was Excitebike, a seminal motocross arcade title arrived home in nearly flawless translation with Nintendo's classic racer. Challenging players to beat the fastest time is the basic premise, but the execution is far more elaborate and original than it lets on, initially. The first thing you'll notice is that the game eschews the first-person mode for a side-view perspective. This might seem limiting but it allows you to look a little further ahead while also giving the game a pleasing 3D perspective. This comes in handy when you have to contend with rival racers on the course, allowing you to see exactly where they're positioned and how you can counter their movements. One of the things this system allows is the use of the four lanes, which you can see plainly at all times. Getting out of the way of fallen or slowed rivals is easy for the most part, though its difficult avoid collisions when the screen is clogged with multiple riders. Its essential to be nimble and quickly change lanes when you face these pile-ups. Slowing your speed and moving away might seem like it costs to much time, but not nearly as much as finding yourself caught up with these multi-vehicle crashes.

You begin the game with a simple task - navigate the oncoming course's obstacles and barriers while trying to beat the clock. You can choose to go at either a slow rate in low gear which gives you steady, but not record-breaking progress. In order to speed things up, you can switch to high-gear, but need to keep your eye on the heat indicator, which give you a quick burst of speed but rises rapidly. You can change gears nearly instantaneously during each stage. Hitting the jump button just as you hit a ramp at high speed sends you almost flying ahead of the pack, but mastering the timing takes some practice. A good strategy is to try and time these moves without other drivers present on the practice modes, then move ahead and try the technique with rivals present. It takes some effort to pull this off, but takes valuable seconds off your time, so it's worth the persistence. Learning this move takes some practice, but after awhile you should be able to pull it off consistently, adding a great deal of fun to the proceedings.

Another interesting technique arises when you encounter a rival rider on the screen. You can choose to hold back a little until you build up enough energy, then accelerate ahead of them. Once you're in front, you can then slam on the brakes, causing them to crash off the course. This has the effect of clearing out a path for you while giving you space to jump ahead of the pack. Of course, it takes practice and good timing in order to perform this trick consistenty, but once you get the hang of things, its enormously satisfying and undeniably enjoyable when you can pull it off. An additional skill is a bit harder but its worth it. You can leap right on top of your opponents ahead of you, which can have the same effect but it requires much harder timing to pull off, and you'll probably cause both riders to crash out if you aren't careful.

Obviously, this costs a lot of time and momentum if you get it wrong, especially in later stages where a single crash can make the difference in qualifying. This can be effective but you have to use it sparingly. Many of the obstacles are easy to navigate through, while others can be a little tricky in terms of layout and funtion. You can easily find yourself crashing up against them if you aren't careful. Memorizing their stucture and layout is essential to beating the game, especially when other drivers are present. The most important thing to remember is that you have limited amount of time, and you need not exercise too much caution when you reach these points in the race.

You need to be careful not to overheat, since the vehicle stalls out which causes you to get locked-in on the sidelines. This causes your driver to hit the side of the screen where you have to press the button rapidly in order to get back to your bike, the distance depends on the severity of your overheating. You can also get locked in the sides by crashing off the obstacles or colliding with another rider. While the early obstacles such as ramps seem easy to traverse, later stages throw multiple ramps in succession at you, requring you to time your jumps perfectly without crashing into their sides. More complex. multi-tiered ramps and bridges present a daunting challenge, but with skill and persistence you can quickly learn how to beat them, You need to learn when to use your high-speed mode and your brakes, though it becomes much harder with other riders present. If you can manage to find the quickest route and avoid crashes, you'll be rewarded by moving on to the next round if you finish in the top three. All the while attempting to avoid overheating your engine. Its sounds fairly complicated, but the straightforward controls and intuitive interface make things much easier than they sound.

Controlling your bike, switching lanes and jumping is fairly instinctive and you should get the hang of things quickly with a little persistence. You need to master the art of navigating past enemies without colliding with them, or getting caught in pile-ups. Movement is fluid and straight-forward, requiring only simple moves up and down to succeed for the most part. Each gear is assigned its own button, and getting out of a jam requires you to push the buttons quickly to return to your vehicle. Determing you position in the race requires you only pass the checkpoint at the half-way mark, where your time flashes on-screen, a good indication of whether you're close in pace or falling behind the pack.

Of course, there are sections that are easier than others, and its a good strategy to tear through the straight-aways and build up some time for the more difficult sections. The race can be construed as a race against the clock, since the individual racers aren't ranked during the match, it resembles a solo race where you're racing against the clock to defear your own best time. You're not trying to best the other drivers. This might seem counter-intuitive but it works because each course has a kind of non-linear construction that rewards you for consistency, not putting the 'petal to the metal' as in most racing games. This is probably the key to its longevity and durable appeal; you never feel like you've been cheated by another rival who charges ahead of you and pulls ahead at the last second. Instead. most of your losses feel like you're the one to blame. Sharpening up your skill-set and maintaining a determined focus are the keys to victory.

In the initial stages, there aren't any other riders on screen, which makes this a lot easier, but the lack of challenge means you're basically performing memorization. The simple hills and ridges from the early stages are easy to navigate, and players should be able to beat them with little practice. Initial stages are fairly simple, but later on you'll face more elaborate ramps and complicated hills that are much harder to traverse. One interesting aspect of Excitebike's design is its simplicity. The derezzed 8-bit graphics are easy to follow and the screen has a goof balance of detail and simplicity. You always know exactly where you're at during the race and movement and action unfold at a good pace that feels right, maintaining an appealing consistency throughout that never feels lethargic or frenetic. There main character is nicely animated throughout and you can see their body buzzing alongside the motor in a justifiably jerky motion that's fun but never intrudes on the action.

While the little touches, such as a camera that follows you from the sidelines might seem quaint by today's standards, this was quite impressive by the standards set by its contemporaries. showing an impressive level of detail in its design that retains an appealing charm. Sound effects, such as the consistent roar of the engine that turns to a higher-pitched squeal when you switch to high-gear are smartly implemented to enhance the action without drawing your attention away from the action. An above-average soundtrack features a tuneful score with victory tunes and a memorable theme song that's punctuated with examplary sound effects including what has become the now-famous 'pause' jingle. Excitebike has definitely held onto most of its appeal over these past decades, and the sheer ingenuity of the game's design makes for an excellent example in both pushing the boundaries and transcending the limits of the NES console's unique hardware.

Unfortunately, this leads to the biggest drawback in the game. It allows you to create your own courses with a surprisingly elaborate and detailed construction mode with is quite impressive, especially for its time. Its a crying shame, however tbat you cannot save your progress due to a glitch in the North American system's cartridges. This means any progress you make in this mode is lost the second you switch off the power, which is truly frustrating and the only major black mark for an otherwise sterling release. Despite this disappointing flaw, Excitebike remains a solidly entertaining arcade conversion.

While many aspects of the game's seemingly everlasting appeal can be chalked-up to simple nostalgia, its solid play mechanics, intuitive controls and inherent challenge go beyond the usual pangs for yesterday. Looking back, it's easy to see the level of detail and polish evident throughout that many games of the period lacked.Whether its the simple, yet sophisticated approach to way it handles and controls, the game pushes you forward without becoming excessively difficult. There's definitely a learning curve if you want to master some of its more complicated techniques, its shallow-grading difficulty means it isn't particularly daunting. Once you get ahold of the basics, things open up fairly quickly. Excitebike maintains a fun, yet deceptively challenging gameplay that keeps you engaged for the long haul, offering plenty of gaming entertainment that offers immediate thrills while maintaining a residual challenge beneath its exterior that will keep you coming back for just-one-more ride.

- Michael Palisano