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306 - Excitebike

Best Games - Excitebike

When you use a clutch on a motorcycle or manual transmission vehicle you have to get a feel for it. A clutch is not a switch that engages or releases instantly. There is a smooth gradient to the motion. You can feel the clutch gradually connect to the rotation of the engine and transfer that power to your tires. There is a point where the friction is enough to provide some motivation for the vehicle to move, but not so much that the engine can’t keep up and stalls out. That point is a balance that you can feel.
Excitebike is not at all about racing. Excitebike is about balance. The subtle difference between leaning too far forward or too far back. The balance between too much throttle and not enough speed. The balance between avoiding obstacles and deliberately choosing the collisions you can’t avoid. Excitebike is all about pushing that balance right up to the tipping point but holding on. Like releasing a clutch, Excitebike is about finding that balance point and riding it until you feel everything start to move as one fluid machine.
Excitebike was designed for the original Nintendo Famicom in japan and reconfigured for the NES in the rest of the world. The NES was a capable, but simple computer for the time and all of its inputs were digital on/off yes/no switches. When you pressed a button it was pressed. There was no soft curve of input for the NES. Even though everyone who played the machine would instinctively press the buttons and control pad harder, willing the in game characters to go faster or jump higher, there was just no physical way to do that. It registered all of its inputs as on or off. If you are trying to replicate a feeling of maintaining a tenuous balance with inputs that are all or nothing, what’s a game developer to do?
Shigeru Miyamoto is arguably the best game designer of all time. At every turn he and his team will design toward intuitive feel over mathematical specificity. They have become adept at turning the binary of on/off controls into something that feels granular and subtle. Something that you feel you can balance.
Excitebike uses two separate buttons to control the speed of your on screen dirt bike. On will never push the bike out of balance to the point that it overheats, but it won’t push the bike fast enough to get you past the finish line in the allotted time either. The other control revs your engine and pushes the bike faster, but you run the risk of overheating and stalling out. If you stall out you will have to sit by the side of the track for a few beats waiting for the bike to cool down. Using only one button will be too slow, using only the other button will generate too much heat and ultimately be too slow. To complete the timed races successfully you will have to rock your thumb back and forth between the buttons too keep your speed in balance.
Every design decision in Excitebike plays out the same way. Completing the jumps on the track requires you to nudge the pad left and right to maximize your jump distance, while still accounting for the stability of your landing. If you get too much distance, you sacrifice speed on the landing. If you pay too much attention to your landing you lose speed on the jump. Adjusting your track position up and down can help you avoid obstacles, but sometimes at the expense of the easier or faster path. When there are other riders on the course, there is no perfect path. You will have to balance your speed with your odds of a crash.
The arcade and famicom disk system revisions of the game retitled, VS. Excitebike, add more mechanics, but all of them deal with the push and pull of balance. No matter what version you play, it doesn’t take very long before you start sliding smoothly from pressing A to B and back and you start adjusting your bike in the air to land a perfectly smooth jump. Pretty soon, playing Excitebike is just like working a clutch. It’s not about speed, it’s about maintaining that balance and playing by feel.
Excitebike and VS. Excitebike are some of the best games.

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