The last Nintendo game I played has been considered one of the worst of the system's early Famicom era. This one, closing out their 1984 output, is considered one of the best, having been developed by Shigeru Miyamoto (who to be fair also developed the unplayable Tennis released at the year's start).
This is one that passed me by completely even though I had an NES during its glory years. Excitebike is an arcade-style motocross racer with an unusual sidescrolling perspective - something the NES is quite good at - rather than an overhead one like we've seen on Atari, or a pseudo-3D one as was trending in arcades and computers - something the NES isn't particularly good at (though clever programmers managed in years to come).
Three play modes populate the main menu as was Nintendo's custom of the day, though only one of them, Selection B, is the true Excitebike experience. Selection A is good for practicing the five courses without interference from your opponents, but it's a bit boring. Selection B adds three competing bikers, though they don't so race you so much as they just get in your way - your placing (and whether you get to continue to the next course or not) is determined entirely by time. Design mode, which I didn't really mess around with, lets you create your own course, but you're limited to a handful of prefabricated obstacles from the official tracks to place around the track at predetermined points. The options to save and load custom tracks, intended to interface with a Famicom Data Recorder tape deck, don't work on a U.S. NES console, but are still available, which must have been very confusing to players who didn't read the manual.
Controls in this race are simple and intuitive while also allowing skill, strategy, and a sense of risk and reward, well befitting a console game with arcade-style sensibilities. Up and down change lanes, 'A' accelerates, and 'B' engages a turbo boost which provides a bit more oomph but can overheat your engine with prolonged use, making it more useful for catching extra air on the ramps than it is for general speed. Forward/backward leans, which is the most demanding test of your finesse as this orients the bike while airborne, and your wheels generally has to be more or less level with the ground when you land on or else you bail.
Below is my best attempt to clear the five courses in 'B' mode. I don't quite make it.
The first course is really easy, and you can easily recover from several accidents and still qualify for first place by several seconds. But there's a big difficulty spike by the third course, as the qualifying time is now shorter than the previous course's record time and the track is longer and more difficult to boot.
Luck feels like it plays a part too, especially in 'B' mode, where obstacles can funnel you and your opponents into the same lane, forcing someone to yield or crash. Crashes can be pretty capricious too; sometimes costing your biker less than a second as he just gets up again onto his bike, sometimes hurtling him and his bike down a good stretch of the track before launching him halfway to the bleachers.
I never quite got good enough at Course 4 to beat it reliably, failing a few times for each success, and never managed to beat Course 5 at all, except in practice mode 'A'. But each attempt was fun, even exciting.
GAB rating: Good. This is the first original NES game that I can praise and recommend without any reservations. The racing mechanics are novel, accessible, and surprisingly deep. Excitebike doesn't always play fair, but for a game by a studio still coming out of the school of arcade design, that's to be expected, and even at its most punishing, I felt compelled to keep trying and improve.
Worth mentioning is a 1988 Japanese-exclusive release of "Vs. Excitebike" for the Famicom Disk System. Three modes are once again included, and all of them offer something worthwhile.
There's the confusingly named "Original Excite," which isn't actually the original Excitebike, but rather a port of the arcade version "Vs. Excitebike" which despite the title does not feature any two-player vs. mode. Rather, it is a remixed and expanded version of the original game, with seven new courses to race on, and a more logically structured system of progression where, upon reaching a new course, you must complete a single lap trial and make a qualifying time before entering the race in earnest.
New features include a truck-jumping bonus round, and a powerup system where sabotaging enough of your opponents turns your bike black and gains you unlimited turbo juice until you yourself crash.
"VS Excite" mode, not to be confused with the identically named arcade game, introduces a two-player race.
Finally, "VS Edit" corresponds to the original's design mode, only this time you may save and load your custom tracks to the game's disk card.