Is the arcade version even more exciting than the NES original?
The original Excitebike was released on the Famicom in 1984 and was a launch game for the NES in 1985. However, shortly after the development of the original Excitebike, an arcade version was produced for the Nintendo VS. System in 1984. The VS. System was a way to get some of Nintendo’s home console titles in arcades and likely served as an advertisement for the NES. That said, many VS. System titles had differences over their NES counterparts and VS. Excitebike does change the NES game up quite a bit.
Upon dropping a credit into VS. Excitebike, players can choose a skill level of Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced. Each of these starts players off on either the first, second, and third tracks respectively. After picking a skill level, or simply a stage, the player will be shown a progression screen. While the original Excitebike lets you choose whether or not to race against opponents, VS. Excitebike starts players with a one lap qualifying race by themselves. Upon successful completion of the qualifier the player will then have to compete against other computer-controlled bikers in a two-lap race. Failure to rank in the top five in any race and it’s game over.
VS. Excitebike may appear as just a racing game like its NES counterpart, but it isn’t. Being an arcade game there is an emphasis placed on score. While racing, your score increases and you earn a bonus for placing higher at the end. If a player starts on a later track, they get an instant score bonus to make up for the points missed out on. The game also has a leaderboard for top times achieved as well as the scores and I think it’s cool that the game tracks two different forms of achievement.
There are seven different tracks in VS. Excitebike, unlike the NES version's five. The first two tracks seem like remixed tracks from the original, but after that they get seemingly longer and are much different. After fully completing the seventh track, the last stage keeps repeating itself until you lose. This component really hurts VS. Excitebike as a high score game since, similar to Sky Skipper, professional players will likely just find ways to master that final stage to stay playing as long as possible in order to rack up a high score.
A few other cool features found in VS. Excitebike make the title stand out over the original. First, there is a Bonus Game that challenges players to hit ramps in order to jump over trucks for extra points. This game may get old after a while, but it’s a cool feature that breaks up the typical action. Second, a mechanic encourages players to wipe out opponents on bikes as when enough enemies are wiped out, your Excitebiker will change colors to a bad ass red, yellow, and black color scheme and have unlimited Turbo power until you crash. This reward can even carry over into the next race. It’s a fun risk-reward mechanic that I wish was present in the original Excitebike.
Other than what I stated, the game plays just like the classic original Excitebike that Nintendo fans are probably used to. That said, being an arcade version, there is no custom track editor to be found.
The Arcade Archives wrapper has what you’d expect: a plethora of audio visual options, control options, and all the relevant game settings. There is an odd option that I also found in the Arcade Archives version of Sky Skipper called The Original Game’s Character Designs and is set to off by default. It can be turned on, but I have no idea what it does in any game when turned on. Is this just a leftover from some other game that keeps making its way into these releases? I have no idea. Aside from this confusing option everything is great and let’s users tweak the experience to their liking.
Like other Arcade Archives games, players choose from playing the game in Original Mode, Hi Score Mode, and Caravan Mode. The Original Mode lets players play casually, even after changing the settings, and even allows the use of save states. It is possible to upload a high score to an online leaderboard here, but with so many ways to cheat it seems pointless.
High Score Mode and Caravan Modes are where the real competition takes place. In High Score Mode players compete with the default settings and can upload their high scores to a competitive online leaderboard. Caravan Mode works in a similar fashion, but only gives the players five minutes to do their best. Both modes are welcome, but have their typical Arcade Archives flaws. If you mistakenly press the pause button while playing it will instantly end your run. I know I’ve made this complaint before, but it’s just too easy to screw up with a simple button press.
One other problem I have with the High Score Mode leaderboard is that it only ranks best scores. Even though VS. Excitebike also has built-in leaderboards for the fastest course times, the added online rankings don’t compile the best for each track. Considering how much I like the dual achievement tracking, this is a letdown.
For historical purposes as I near the end of this review of a classic title it would be odd of me not to speak of the second game titled VS. Excitebike, which released on the Famicom Disk System in Japan in 1988 and actually did come out on the Wii U Virtual Console in the west. VS. Excitebike (FDS) appears to be VS. Excitebike (Arcade) with even more bells and whistles. The Famicom Disk System version has the score tracking, new progression system, turbo mode risk-reward system, and tracks from the arcade release, but also has even more. The Famicom Disk System release also has a track editor, more music, and even a simultaneous two-player mode. While I can’t fault VS. Excitebike for not having features found in a later release, they do weigh heavy on my mind and think they are worth a mention in this review to inform our readers.
Overall Arcade Archives VS. Excitebike can be fun, but it may be best suited for big Excitebike fans looking for more stages and some slight gameplay improvements. While the high score component is a bit shallow, there are still some good things to be found in this release. The Arcade Archives wrapper offers some great and really appreciated options, but it is sad that the same problems never get adjusted. Also, it is a letdown that best track times aren’t tracked on the Arcade Archives leaderboards.
That said I’m super happy that VS. Excitebike (Arcade) was re-released for the first time since it hit the arcades and it's great that it can be played portably or at home on the big screen. I would recommend it to Excitebike super fans, arcade aficionados, gaming historians, and Nintendo fanatics who just want to experience any oddity related to the company’s history. Anyone else may get their fix by playing the original version of Excitebike, which is currently part of the Nintendo Entertainment System Nintendo Switch Online app. And who knows, maybe months or years down the line the ultimate version of Excitebike, VS. Excitebike from the Famicom Disk System, may hit the service as well.