If there's one thing that Nintendo has in its corner, it's the huge collection of franchises that it can go to time and again when in need. With the Nintendo 64 needing to prove itself to the masses, Nintendo tapped Super Mario to showcase the system in the form of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Kart 64. As things became more dire, Star Fox 64 and The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time appeared in all their 64-bit glory to quiet the naysayers. But now as the console reaches the end of its lifecycle, Nintendo seems to be tapping even more of its properties lately. Donkey Kong saw some action last year, and this year Nintendo picked its ancient racing classic that hasn't seen the light of day since the 8-bit NES console was in the talk of the town. I'm talking about Excitebike, the high-flying, 2-D, motoracing title that was a hit in the '80s, but is back in full 3-D under the name Excitebike 64.
The original Excitebike became an instant classic soon after its release. It was an arcade racer with deceptive strategic elements implemented in such a crafty way that it went unnoticed to most gamers. The objective appeared to be quite simple: Victory meant getting to the finish line before all the other racers while navigating over, around and jumping off the many hills and obstacles scattered about the tracks. However, after only one race, it would become apparent that there was more care that needed to be taken by the gamer in order to win consistently. The multitudinous jumps of varying heights and lengths had to be negotiated cautiously; although they often resulted in (then) amazingly high jumps, the positioning of the landings could be so important that it often meant the difference between victory and defeat.
Nintendo threw in a couple of curves such as limiting the amount of "turbo" that could be used during a race. As you would expect when you used turbo you got a great boost in speed, unfortunately, if it was used too much the bike would overheat and stall—on the NES the bike would literally crash—so you had to pick and choose the right opportunities to use it. The final ingredient to the gameplay bonanza was that as in real-life, when racers brushed against each other, wipeouts were the result. That meant there were constant considerations of positioning on jumps, spacing while in the middle of the pack and use of resources—all these elements made the already accessible gameplay that much deeper and helped endear the game in the hearts of the NES-owning public.
Needless to say, porting all of this into a 3-D world would be an accomplishment, especially when such a key game element like the high jumps seemed so engrained in the 2-D world of the initial game. Thankfully, Left Field Productions managed to port all the great things about the original onto the Nintendo 64 game pak while upgrading the visuals and adding a few surprises for fans like me. The biggest accomplishment though was in how approachable the game is in all areas. Yes, the high jumps are still a key part of the gameplay, and on top of that they are literally taken to new heights in full 3-D, but other nuances are added to the game. For instance, I found that I could get far in the game with moderate use of the acceleration and braking buttons, as well as the analog control stick. However, as with the original, if I wanted to excel in the game, I needed to learn to the ins and outs. The R shoulder button was used to lean into turns and when used in conjunction with the brake I could pull off sharp turns with ease. Another technique was to hit the turbo button at the top of jumps for some added hangtime. These and many other techniques are readily available, so it is my advice that you go through the game's easy, but thorough, tutorial. That is the only way you will grasp all the moves and techniques available in the game.
Excitebike 64 faced a problem with one racing game element that had also given trouble to other 3-D racing games of its type. I refer of course to turns. Anyone who has played such games as San Francisco RUSH or Hydro Thunder will know that while the jumps are great to perform and look at, once turns pop-up you can be in for a world of hurt. I was unceremoniously reacquainted with this in Excitebike 64, and while I got the hang of it most of the time, it is certainly something that I had to keep an eye out for. Speaking of jumps, as with real-life motorcross racing, racers are encouraged to make use of all the time they spend soaring through the air. With a few button-pressing combinations, I was pulling off some very cool aerial tricks that not only looked great, but also scored me more some much needed points during races. Another welcome convention was the taking out of other racers. With a well-positioned back tire during a sharp turn, I could knock an opponent right off his bike causing him or her to crash. This gave me precious seconds with which to gain a lead. It may sound underhanded, but doing this also miraculously cooled down my bike so I quickly learned to check my ethics at the door before playing. It's also a testament to the talents of the developer that these and other gameplay elements were so easily integrated into the game while being such fun at the same time.
The fact that the gameplay that relied on the 2-D side-scrolling format was ported so flawlessly to the 3-D world, is an accomplishment in and of itself. But Excitebike 64 also benefited from above average visual and aural upgrades as well. The graphics are a far cry from the blocky pixel bikers racing over flat monochrome plains of old. The racers are now realistically rendered and animate fluidly (even when tumbling off their motorbikes). For that matter, the 3-D environments are spacious and full of towering peaks and valleys to race through. Admittedly, the graphics are not mind-blowing overall even with the high-resolution mode available, but they are certainly not hard on the eyes. Excitebike 64 does slip a bit when it comes to the music and sounds. While the roar of the engines and the surprisingly unannoying game announcer are well done, there really isn't anything that stands out. As soundtracks go, everything is pretty forgettable with the exception of opening intro music—that too manages to wear thin, as it seems to be played at every opportunity.
These negatives were forgotten once I slowly unlocked the extra goodies hidden on the cart. Aside from the standard racing modes like Time Trials, Championship and multiplayer modes, Left Field managed to cram two versions of the original 8-Bit NES hit onto the game pak. The first is the 2-D classic in all its outdated glory, but if the graphics are too hard on the eyes, there is actually a 3-D version of the original available as well. Excitebike 64's multiplayer modes are a blast, but my favorite has to be its variation on the soccer theme. In this mode, the bikes are used to guide a giant soccer ball into the opposing teams net. I will confess that the controls took some getting used to, but like everything else in the game, with a little practice, it became second nature in no time. And finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Track Editor that is available. It's not quite as complex as the editors some of the Mod fans would like, but the editor is extremely functional and easy to use. That was a big deal with the original game and with the ease of use of this new editor, it could be déjà vu all over again with this game.
A little known fact about the development history of Excitebike 64 is that Left Field spent a year turning it into a racing simulation on the level of Gran Turismo, but a "suggestion" from gaming guru, Shigeru Miyamoto, made them reverse course. That is remarkable because the game doesn't seem to have been hurt by such a drastic change in its makeup. In fact, it seems to have benefited greatly from such duality. The game isn't perfect—I would have liked even more tracks to race on as well as a few more racers—but there is no arguing the excellent gameplay. If Nintendo's future releases are this much fun, I don't see them encountering any problems with their upcoming hardware, and the Nintendo 64 can exit the stage with its head held high.