It’s the fastest circuit board on two wheels

Excitebike (1986)

A friend of mine recently expressed his desire to dispense with that ozone-killing, turtle-plastic-trapping deathmachine known as a car, and instead get himself a motorbike. It’s a lot more nimble, he said, and would get him to and from the train station or the shops a lot quicker.

Cheaper to run too, of course, and I imagine less chance for something to go wrong. Well, it all sounded very green to me, though not as green as his even more outrageous intention to test drive and intentionally buy an electric car. Still, his motorcycle wish was definitely up there in the madness stakes.

Of course, his partner strongly vetoed his planned decision. That doesn’t mean an awful lot of course, any man can get around that. But when his mother put her foot down, from her house miles away, that was the decider. And, although it’s not like I had any kind of casting vote, I like to think my input was taken on board as well.

 I’ll admit that there’s definitely something enticing about the idea. After all, motorbikes are almost the personification of speed, as close as you can get to stupid fast without somehow bringing a drag racer or jet fighter out onto your street.

I’ve been on them before, and driven one for myself, and even at a speed that I would call “moderate” and proper bikers would call “granny”, I felt like I was cheating death and injury. It was as if the Gods of physics were going to notice me any moment, as I tore right through the air at an impossible speed, and swiftly rebuke me with their grisly concept of terminal velocity.

Wouldbe bikers get this idea in their head that they’ll be tearing through the city at night-time, with nobody around – it’s just you, the lights, and your own sense of death-defying thrill as you try to get home as fast as possible. You might even imagine some Japanese synth blaring in your helmeted ears as you slip through the neon city.

Well I’m sorry lad, but you’re not Akira, and this isn’t Super Hang-On. It’s like how people also entertain the idea of buying a sporty car with the roof off, just because they’ve seen the ads and they reckon they’ll suddenly be driving through a sunny, mountainside vista, or through a hundred miles of open road, maybe with a dollybird next to them. Well, this isn’t Outrun either.

The final argument against getting a bike, if you really needed one, is that you are now consigned to years of having to wear all that leather stuff, which is pretty damn heavy, and not at all fashionable, and in any case it’ll do the square root of Fanny Adams for you in a crash.

If you’re sent flying from the damn thing, perhaps by a particularly disgruntled driver, or by a truck whose blind spot you nestled up inside, then you might get helped by your helmet. And even then, only if it’s used as an anchor for your head as your upside-down, collapsed heap of a body skids along on the concrete.

This means that in actual fact, bikers only wear that gear as a clothing preference, a case of leather form over crash-protection function. Need I say more? Just bag yourself a supercharged go-kart if you really want agile city running. That’ll put your bum close enough to the ground that if you put a match between your cheeks you could light your saddle with it.

This is why I’d always be a Rad Racer man, rather than an Excitebike man. Actually, there’s a question for the boffins – is there much that can be done in the way of innovation for bikes? Will there soon be hybrid bikes or fully electric bikes?

I ask this because, apart from caring deeply about the environment – I even use green bins now – Excitebike for NES is quite a primitive game, coming right at the very beginning of the Famicom, or the NES if you want to be all American about it.

Excitebike is one of those games that seems to have made its way into every NES collection ever, so a lot of people will have played it – you wouldn’t have spent a fiver getting it on the Virtual Console, that much is certain. I’d sooner put that five-spot towards a bike, I’d be that reluctant to play this.

You’ve got some classic, instantly recognisable upbeat music as you switch the game on, which is probably the best part of the game. Then you hop into the exhibition, pick a track and race the other leather-clad clowns to the end.

Well, I’m not a follower of Moto GP – I far prefer four-wheeled racing to two – but I can at least get behind the idea of bikes if it’s gonna be thrilling races, where one’s knees scrape the asphalt. After all, I’m sure you’ve seen some of the madness the riders get up to on the Isle of Man? I’m referring to riders in the Isle of Man TT there, by the way.

There’s really not much to the game beyond that. You might have played the Excitebike track in Mario Kart 8, probably the most boring track of the lot – it’s really just an expanded, very slow, dirt track version of Baby Park that happens to be slightly random. Well, that’s what Excitebike is, a plod to the end, where you’re not really racing the other guys but rather the clock.

Still, the other guys can knock you somersaulting off your bike at a moment’s notice, although one of the most fun features of the game is how it lets you intentionally take out other riders by cutting your bike across theirs.

Yes, no penalties, race bans or black flags here – as long as you’re in front of them, they’ll be the ones going tumbling, and you can ride off into the pixelated sunset as they clamber back to their bikes, presumably ready to chase after you in hopeless pursuit.

The other great part of the game is how you can properly launch your bike off jumps, with speeds and angles so wildly out of whack it might get those Gods of physics looking up from their paper plane manuals again, frowning with disapproval.

You can give yourself a proper boost to get even more height as well, by holding B to get some vital turbo going in your bike. You just gotta make sure your turbo meter doesn’t hit the max, or your bike will overheat and you’ll slow to a crawl.

But that’s no problem – since motorbike owners seem to be 99% men, this is where you need to do what any man with alone time has learned to do: edge as closely as you can, while making sure you don’t blow too early.

A bit of airtime can help your bike cool down, though, and if you can find a nice stretch of road to build up speed, you can even jump high enough to overlap the screen and start appearing at the button of your TV instead. Is that some exciting bikes, or what?

Excitebike is also part of the Programmable Series of NES games, as its black box proudly advertises us – and indeed, there is a rudimentary track editor present in the game.

Now I love track editors, especially when you can make some absolutely ridiculous circuits with them that turn the AI racers into frightened mutes. Well, you don’t get the ability to make proper circuits in Excitebike, since this is a just a straight line, left-to-right, race against other bikers.

Anyway, even if you make a fiendish track for your pal to play, there’s little point in the feature outside of Japan – even though the abilities to Save and Load tracks still exist in the menus in the US and EU versions, there’s no way to actually save your tracks for later. Not that you’re going to making, I don’t know, Assen, in there. But it’d have been nice to be able to revisit your bumpy nightmare track at a later date.

Without that ability, Excitebike, now in its mid-30s which I believe is exactly the right age for people to go doolally and start shopping for motorcycles, suffers from the same problem as biking: a bit of a lark for five minutes, but you’d have to be certifiably mad to give it any more time than that. If you do, I promise you this: you will not be cool, and people will laugh at you and your leather jodhpurs.

19 February 2020

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