Excitebike: Dirt Bike Daydreams

I’ve had something of a tumultuous relationship with Excitebike. As a kid I loved it, as an adult I felt that maybe that love shouldn’t have been so unrequited. But now…I finally feel like I understand it on its own terms and now I have a fondness that falls somewhere in between those two extremes.

Growing up, I lived in a ghost town in the middle of the Black Hills. I have no qualms about my childhood, but it did present some unique challenges that others probably didn’t have to think about. Such as going over to a friend’s house, which usually required a two or three mile hike that, yes, might actually have been uphill both ways, depending on your trajectory. Luckily for an NES fan such as myself, the other kids in my “neighborhood” were equally as enamored with videogames, so visiting and perusing each other’s libraries was usually worth the trek.

To this day I have a weird recollection of what games my friends owned, if only because we all owned a paltry amount collected throughout holiday’s gifts and birthday presents, but also because playing them required something akin to a journey. Well, unless your parents were nice enough to drive you there anyways. My buddy Rollie had Sector Z, Excitebike and this crazy bootleg 100-in-one cartridge filled with no less than fifty Super Mario Bros. ROM hacks. I’d Mario’ed myself out at home as it was and Sector Z was just plain too hard, so I focused my attention on Nintendo’s seminal motocross game whenever I was over to play.

A lot of NES games were able to bridge that gap between using your imagination to believe what was happening on screen with actually being able to present it. Excitebike was nothing like actual motocross, but when you watched your little bike zip up a ramp and fly…well, it felt like it was. Dodging mud pits and other riders while jumping hurdles and leaping berms was exhilarating, even if the goal wasn’t entirely clear to me. On top of that, building your own crazy courses felt like some kind of next level shit compared to what I had played up until that point.

It might sound like I was using Rollie for his games, but in fact part of my endearment towards Excitebike comes from the fact that we’d play it for hours together. We still keep in touch through social media from time to time, maybe I should invite him over to play it again someday. Hell, we can finally save our courses!

Back when the 3DS launched, Nintendo was quick to capitalize on the systems stereoscopic capabilities by re-released versions of NES games that took advantage of it. As a kind of soft introduction, they gave away copies of 3D Classics: Excitebike for free to give us all a little taste of what could be. Not one to say no to a free game, I hungrily downloaded it to my then starving new system that was bereft of anything to play at that moment.

While the 3D effects were neat, I couldn’t help but notice that the game didn’t give me the same feelings of elation it had given me twenty years prior. It seemed so simple; lacking in depth. Boring, even. I breezed through the courses both as time trials and as “races” and found that, at the moment, Excitebike had not stood the test of time and that the reason Nintendo was giving their 3D facelift away was because nobody in their right mind would actually pay for it.

I was weirdly indignant about it all, even writing a post deriding it as a cash-in and not worthy of anybody’s time. I still have that document saved and actually read it recently; I’m ashamed of it not because I didn’t like it at the time (everyone has the right to dislike things) but because it lacks the appreciation of my own reverence for it back in the day.

Nostalgia is an enigma; it means different things from a certain point of view. At the end of the day, I’ve realized that you can’t definitively say whether a game is good or bad. The more important thing is how they make you feel.

Excitebike isn’t as mesmerizing as it was when I was a kid, nor is it as baseless as my own jaded self thought it was back in 2011. As I’ve been replaying it today, I’ve discovered that if you approach it more like a puzzle game and less like a racing game, it takes on a new light. Placing among other racers is a superficial goal; the real gist of Excitebike is in finding the perfect route, landing your jumps as to not lose momentum and not run into your droning opponents as they make their way arbitrarily to the finish line. The thrill of soaring through the air was lost; it is instead replaced by getting both tires to touch evenly to the off ramp and you shaving precious seconds off your time.

I’ve been loving trying to topple my own high scores, even more so knowing I can actually save them for future runs. I took Excitebike for what it was and have made the most of it. Luckily my own children have been into it as well, but from an objective point of view I can see why someone born in the last few decades would turn a nose to it. It’s a little on the unforgiving side, and the reward may not be enough to ingratiate itself with a younger generation. And that’s OK. Not everything is for everyone.

I feel like I got something back internally that I  had lost when I started writing about games on a more regular basis; the ability to forgive something for its shortcomings because it makes up for it in its execution. More importantly, it won’t take away those memories of walking down a gravel road to walk to a buddy’s house just so I could play this game that I didn’t have.

It was worth going uphill, both ways.



PLATFORM: Nintendo Entertainment System

RELEASE DATE: October 18th, 1985

Clu Clu Land: One Flew Over the Clu Clu’s Nest

My history with the black box NES games is a little…off.

The realization really hits home with Clu Clu Land which, like Baseball before it, I didn’t actually play until the early 00s courtesy of Animal Crossing and its hidden emulated games. By the time my family got an NES in the late eighties all but the biggest games sort of disappeared from shelves. I don’t recall ever seeing them at video rental stores and even if I did they wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of capturing my 10-year-old imagination like a Simon’s Quest or Strider would.

They were transitional software; that somewhere in between quarter-munching arcade games and the more elaborate, deeply crafted experiences we came to know and love. That doesn’t make them bad games, just a product of their time in most cases. As you and I will soon discover, past experience will hold a lot of sway in what I write about these games. When you were a kid you only got a few games a year to call your own, so whether they were good or bad you loved them regardless because it was all you had. Which means something like Clu Clu Land, which I didn’t play until I was in my twenties, is more of a historical foot note in my playography (not a real word, but one I’ll use anyways) than something I look back on fondly.

Clu Clu Land is a bugger to describe. While the supposed plot of the game is to help a weird walking teardrop steal treasure from under some sea urchins, the actual conceit of the game is to travel through a bunch of pegs to flip what are basically rupees until you’ve found them all in a tidy little design. The urchins are present, and you can do this sonar-like attack that stuns them so you can push them into a wall and their invariable demise. Of course, they’ll just pop back up from the whirlpool in each board so you’re safety is short lived. The whirlpool itself is a danger (though you can catch a peg and spin over it) as are some rubber band-like traps that’ll send Bubbles (that’s our hero) back the way she came.

Unfortunately, the worst enemy in Clu Clu Land is yourself. You don’t have full control over Bubbles, rather you can stick her hand out to grab a peg and spin her to your given destination. Only, it doesn’t work that smoothly. I found myself constantly letting go of a peg too soon or too late and then running into a wall or urchin. It has a steep learning curve to it, one that I was never interested in figuring out. As I said, I played this a lot later in life which meant I had better things to do than master an unintuitive game from 1985. If I had somehow managed to overcome its horrible box art (or actually seen this game period) as a kid and pick it up, I may have given it more of a chance. But not in this day and age.

It’s the kind of odd ingenuity that makes 80s videogames so intriguing even today, wrapped in a theme that’s utterly nuts for no other reason than to stand out. That kind of weirdness and experimentation is slowly returning to video games, which makes me happy as this is where innovation truly begins. While Clu Clu Land didn’t resonate with me like a lot of other games would, I can’t help but appreciate that at least Nintendo tried something different even if it didn’t stick the landing.



PLATFORM: Nintendo Entertainment System

RELEASE DATE: October 18th, 1985