Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Excitebike 64

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Released on April, 30, 2000 by Nintendo, and developed by Left Field Productions, Excitebike 64 takes the classic NES motorcycle racer into the 64th dimension...third dimension...same difference.

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The Personal Story:
Excitebike for the NES was not my favorite childhood videogame. It is a fun game, and jumping the motorbike over hills is exciting, but I quickly grew bored due its repetitive gameplay and visuals. While other kids swore by Excitebike, I would take Mario, Ice Hockey, or Ducktales over that motorcycle racer any day. Thus, years later, when Excitebike 64 was announced, I did not run to the store to rip it off the shelf. However, this 64-bit Excitebike seemed to be receiving plaudits just as high as its 8-bit predecessor, and after a while, once Excitebike 64 hit the bargain bin, I put my $5 down.

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Graphics: What a difference 15 years makes. Excitebike 64 is a good looking game, suffering from none of the visual monotony of its predecessor (changing color schemes not withstanding). Textures are smooth and clear, bikes, bikers are finely detailed and animated, and colors are bright, vivid, and varied. Weather effects and smoke exhaust look excellent. The mix of indoor and outdoor courses looks great, despite a bit of draw-in, meaning if an object is far away, it pops into view when the rider approaches, as opposed to slowly growing larger as the rider gets closer. The draw-in is an alternative to distance fog (meaning, past a certain distance, all objects are shrouded in fog), and never distracts or affects gameplay. The outdoor backgrounds, generally consisting of mountainous or forested landscapes, look suitably majestic. Excitebike 64 never gives the impression of blazing speed, but it is fast enough. The game also features an optional high-resolution mode for those who own a Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak, and while this mode offers extremely heightened visuals when movement is static, it turns the racing experience into a slow, muddy trek, and is to be avoided.

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Sound: Motorcycle racing games from this era often feature bikes that unfortunately sound more like whining mosquitoes than powerful machines. Thankfully, Excitebike 64 gets the engine sounds just right, and makes gunning the bike constantly a temptation. Sounds of tires scraping on rocks, dirt, and whatever other turf the player comes across are spot on. The game features an announcer, but he is mainly limited to announcing what place each rider is in, and spouting the phrase "(the name of the character the player is using) gets a soil sample" anytime the rider falls off the bike, causing the player to want to give the announcer a "soil sample." Music, generally in the vein of 90's dance tunes, is serviceable and forgettable.  

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Gameplay: The meat of Excitebike 64's gameplay comes through Season Mode. In Season Mode, the player has the option to play through a tutorial in order learn the game's mechanics. While the controls are fairly intuitive, mastering cornering, jumps, and a judicious use of turbo (too much turbo, which is utilized by pressing the N64 controller's Z-trigger, and the bike stalls out), is an involving process, taking much time and experience. The player begins with access to the Novice Circuit and its Bronze, then Silver Round. Each round consists of five races, some indoor, some in the sprawling outdoors. The player must place first in the round to progress. Once this circuit is completed, the player is given access to Amateur Circuit, which is quite a bit more challenging. The same Bronze and Silver rounds must again be completed, now at this higher difficulty, and then the player is given access to the Gold Round. Once Gold Round is completed, Pro mode is unlocked, and here a line in the sand is drawn between the casual racing game fan, and the diehard. Pro mode features faster bikes, and opponents of much higher skill. At this point, memorizing the tracks and perfecting the game mechanics is not enough: the player must master navigating through and besting the other racers. Each track features six racers at a time, including the player. The game does not include any real life racers, and instead features six fictional male and female characters with varying attributes and skill. Some characters may sacrifice speed for control or vice versa, while some may be masters of jumping or cornering to the detriment of other skills. 

Regardless of whom the player selects, they are going to have to deal with the other five racers, and this is where the game's enjoyability becomes quite divisive. In Pro Mode, the other racers live to knock each other off their bikes. This is done by tapping an opponent's front tire with one's back tire. In Pro mode, the other racers are lecherous masters of this method, and the player may find they are getting many more "soil samples" than they'd like. Adding to this frustrating element are random other bikers (in addition to the six competitors), who just happen to be using the course for some unstated reason--perhaps in homage to the computer controlled racers of the 8-bit Excitebike who aren't actually racing the player, but only serve to get in the way...and they definitely get in the way. 
However, if the player does quickly grow tired of these frustrations, Excitebike 64 offers a multitude of other gameplay options. There are the requisite Exhibition and Time Trial modes, as well as the old Nintendo 64 staple, multiplayer. The multiplayer allows friends to race, as well, and thankfully, this split-screen action runs at close to the same speed as the single-player. The true jewels of Excitebike 64, though, are found in the Special Tracks. These courses include, among many others, a capture-the-flag like game set in a vast desert, a near impossible climbing challenge to the top of an incredibly steep mountain, and a full-version of the original 8-bit Excitebike, itself. These Special Tracks are earned by completing portions of Season Mode, and are actually a great incentive to remain persistent in toppling the more difficult circuits. Some of these Special Tracks can also be played in a multiplayer mode, as well, which is an added treat. The game also features a create-a-track mode, similar to the one found in the classic NES incarnation. While the track-editor is restrictive in the size and environment of the track being created (only indoor tracks can be made), this mode is a blast, featuring intuitive design mechanics and enough options to stretch the imagination of most track makers

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Lasting Value: While mastering the subtleties of Excitebike's mechanics takes time, the player, depending on their dedication to the genre, will either hit the point where they are thrilled at the increased difficulty, or want to give their Excitebike 64 cartridge a soil sample. For the latter, the aforementioned Special Tracks do stretch out the gameplay hours quite a bit. For those who truly love racing the same track a hundred times until they taste the sweet nectar of victory, or for those who are simply gifted at mastering racing games, the Season Mode's enjoyability will stretch on quite longer, Afterward, those players get to enjoy the Special Tracks, as well. Overall, Left Field Studios certainly gave their best attempt to make Excitebike 64 feel as full an experience as possible.  

Colorful, well-detailed and animated, and beautiful, Excitebike 64 is easy on the eyes, even if it doesn't run as fast as lightning.

Music and Sound
Motorcycles sound like the real deal, and sound effects are good, but the announcer is repetitive, and the music is bland and forgettable.

Complex, yet intuitive racing on the lower difficulties yields to frustration on the harder, but at that point, the game's wildly varied special modes pick up the slack.

Lasting Value
So many modes of play and special bonuses to unlock, it's a wonder Left Field fit them all onto the cartridge.