Game Wars: So unoriginal, nobody else did it!
Game Wars: Mach Rider VS Excitebike
When looking at the greatest consoles the gaming industry has produced, you can tell a lot from the final games released on them. The last game produced for the N64 was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. The last for the Playstation was FIFA 2005 (In North America at least – In Britain, we got... Yetisports World Tour. That totally makes up for no Earthbound, Drill Dozer, Super Mario RPG, Chrono Cross, or Tales of Destiny.) A port of Frogger was the last game for both the SNES and the Genesis.
... Okay, so maybe looking at the last game released on a console isn’t such a great way to judge the quality of it as an entertainment system. But the most important releases by far are the initial ones. These could be the first thing people will play on the console, and the first memory they take from what the experience will bring to them – a memory that will forever stay with them as a representation of the value of that console. Whichever game they play will be the first impression they get of what could be a potentially life-changing hobby.
Looking at the launch titles of various consoles, it’s clear that they really are important. In Japan and America, the SNES launched with Super Mario World and F-Zero. The US Playstation launched with Rayman. Christina Perri launched with ‘Jar of Hearts’. And the Nintendo Entertainment System, the console that stopped the video game crash of 1983, launched in the US with several memorable titles, like Duck Hunt and Kung-Fu. But also the two subjects of today’s comparison, Mach Rider and Excitebike.
Considering that the last two games featured on ‘Game Wars’ were beloved RPGs, this isn’t a match that will get the blood of fans pumping, but I genuinely believe that these two games are practically perfect for comparing. They’re both similar enough – launch titles for the NES, bike-racing games, both with options to design your own courses, neither one a failure, but neither one an amazing smash hit that changed the face of gaming forever. At the same time, there are vast differences, mainly the gameplay variation, as Mach Rider’s 3D style of racing is radically different to Excitebike’s classic 2D races.
So let’s take a quick look at each game before we jump into the comparisons.
Mach Rider, with an American launch date of October 18th 1985, is one of very few games that were released in America before it was released in Japan, albeit only by a month. It was developed by a subdivision of Nintendo called ‘Nintendo Research & Development 2’, who were also responsible for the addictive ‘Ice Hockey’ also on the NES, and if you ever played one of the four GBA games with the ‘Super Mario Advance’ title, they were in charge of porting those too, before being merged with other development teams to form ‘Nintendo Software, Planning & Development’ or Nintendo SPD, in 2005.
In 1972, long before Mach Rider was a video game, it was distributed in Japan as an actual toy racing car, although it was going to be named ‘Yellow Tail Funny Car’ until Nintendo decided to change the name to something a little less... that. Anyway, in game, Mach Rider takes place a full century from the date I’m typing this, 2112. Earth has been invaded by the evil ‘Quadrunners’ and it’s Mach Rider’s job to travel from village to village, searching for survivors and destroying all enemies he encounters.
Mach Rider was received positively, but has since sunk into relative obscurity – it isn’t unknown, but it’s nobody’s favourite game – it didn’t even place on IGN’s Top 100 NES Games List! Despite this, its music has been featured in Super Smash Bros (as well as a sticker in Brawl), it inspired a mini-game in ‘WarioWare: Twisted’, and several staples of the series, like the 3D perspective, futuristic setting and aggressive high speeds saw a return in the F-Zero series. It’s not popular, but it’s regarded as a good game.
Now, a little background information on Excitebike.
As a fellow launch title for the NES, Excitebike was also released in America on October 18th 1985, a whole 11 months after it was released in Japan for the Famicom System. Its development was handled by a vastly different team compared to Mach Rider, since it was developed by ‘Nintendo Research and Development 1’, not 2. Then again, this was a division that also developed Metroid, Kid Icarus, Tetris, Donkey Kong, Dr Mario, Duck Hunt, and Mario Bros, although they were also merged into Nintendo SPD in 2005.
Excitebike doesn’t have a story, but the basic gameplay tells you what you need to know. You are someone who rides a motorcycle, and your aim is to win races against a variety of opponents, each of whom also ride on a motorcycle, as you ride through different tracks. On your motorcycle. Everything you’d expect from an NES game about riding motorcycles. It doesn’t have any kind of plot, but nothing would be improved if it had one.
Excitebike’s reception was more positive, and it’s remained an icon of gaming and pop culture far more than Mach Rider has – it has a sequel on the Nintendo 64, a downloadable WiiWare game, and a spiritual sequel in ‘Excite Truck’, all of which were also received positively. Excitebike crossed over with the Mario series in a Japan-only Satellaview (Japanese SNES Modem add-on) game featuring Mario characters, and a few little changes like coins on the tracks. In contrast to Mach Rider, Excitebike made it all the way to number 14 on IGN’s list of the Top 100 NES games, beating River City Ransom, Megaman 3, Ninja Gaiden, Kid Icarus, Bubble Bobble, Kirby’s Adventure, and even Castlevania!
With the games explained, it looks like we’re ready to move on. IT’S TIME FOR A DEATH BA- I mean, erm... Game War!
It would be a lie to say that the graphics of these games are still impressive today, and it would be an exaggeration to say that they were some of the best the NES had to offer, but they were still good. Mach Rider’s view stayed behind the titular rider, similar to games like F-Zero and Burnout, whereas Excitebike took a sideways-on approach, similar to, erm... the Expresso racing mini-game in the GBA port of Donkey Kong Country 2. I expect you’re all familiar with it.
I’m instantly surprised by the level of detail in Mach Rider, especially considering that everything, from the puddles of oil to the Quadrunners trying to kill you, has about 5 different sizes due to the 3D perspective – and everything is seen not just on the main screen, but in your rear-view on the top-right of the screen. Speaking of which, you can see all of the information you might need, like the gear you’re in, your score, how far you have left to go, your ammunition levels, and how much energy you have left, all without making the screen cluttered or obscuring your view or distracting you.
Excitebike is a little less detailed, but still appealing to look at. Your own bike, as well as the bikes of countless others, move fluently and are easy to tell apart. Like Mach Rider, there can be a lot to take in from one screen, but it’s not a challenge to keep an eye on the time, your bike temperature, and any upcoming obstacles. There’s also a few background objects, like the crowd, occasional television crew (well, some people with cameras) and even a guy to wave a flag around when you finish the race.
Mach Rider’s colour scheme looks a little duller, but it’s much more colourful than you’d think from the odd screenshot. The roads, landscapes and backgrounds regularly change into a surprisingly large variety of colours, but unfortunately, it’s definitely not enough to compete with Excitebike’s visuals; even when the colours change, they instantly become a little repetitive due to how much of the screen they take up.
Conversely, Excitebike isn’t as colourful as it looks after playing for some time, but it still holds a larger palette than Mach Rider. The audience, obstacles, and other riders just make it enjoyable to watch, and even though the number of different colours in a random screenshot of either game is a strikingly similar amount, Excitebike just looks better, partly due to the brighter, more pleasant tones.
What this really comes down to is whether it’s better to be visually impressive, or visually appealing. The 3D view of Mach Rider is amazing from a technical point of view, but the lighter shades of Excitebike are just more pleasant to look at. Normally, I would choose Excitebike, but let’s bear in mind that both games were launch titles for the same system. I feel more inclined to side with the visually impressive one. For this reason, Mach Rider takes round one.
There’s a reason the picture for ‘gameplay’ is both riders having crashed. It’s kind of eerie in Mach Rider that you actually... explode into several pieces, then reform and keep going. Looks like you just accidentally drove into a wild Missingno. It’s more impressive in Excitebike – if you crash on a hill, you could be going head over bike several times before reaching the bottom, and the first thing you do is run right back to that bike and keep going.
Excitebike’s gameplay is a little easier to get the hang of than Mach Rider. The ‘A’ button moves you forwards at a steady pace, although you can go faster than normal by boosting with the ‘B’ button. There’s no set limit to your boost, but it heats up your bike quite quickly, and when it overheats, well... prepare to stop and admire the scenery for a few seconds, while everyone else drives straight past you. There are things that look like boosters that you can run over that don’t boost you at all, but it does cool your bike down a lot, so try to hit as many as possible.
It’s more complex to get the hang of riding in Mach Rider, since you manually change gears on the bike by pressing up and down. You only have four riding speeds, but it’s best to be a little patient – immediately changing up to the 4th speed results in the bike going consistently slow. I still don’t fully understand it. Still, it’s best really to stick in the 3rd speed, although it’s fun to go nuts at top speed and charge round corners all the time, although you’re much more likely to ram into enemies, and oil spills, and rocks, and oil spills which send you spinning into enemies, or rocks, or more oil spills.
Speaking of things it’s hard to completely get the hang of, Excitebike has jumps, something Mach Rider completely lacks. They’re pretty fun at times, but can also be confusing – you can lean back on your bike when riding it, and lean forwards and backwards when you’re in midair. It’s best to lean back if you’re about to land on an upward slope, but every once in a while, you’ll still end up rolling around because apparently you landed wrong. It’s confusing, but it doesn’t happen too often. The only other annoyance is that it feels like there are as many other racers as there are in F-Zero X, and since there are only 4 lanes, you’ll crash into other people often.
What Mach Rider has in place of jumping is shooting. Yes, you can blast those annoying enemies until they blow up rather than just sitting there and letting them slow you down. You can also get bonus points for blocking them off, but that requires some fancy work with the rear-view mirror, and that’s always been a little too much to focus on for me. Still, it’s satisfying to have some way of getting rid of your obstacles, even though shooting does nothing against non-living obstacles.
Overall, both games have their own confusion, and their own charm. They’re great examples of games that are easy to learn but difficult to master, but I think the winner here has to be Excitebike, simply due to the overall simplicity when it comes to moving around. They might both have complications, but Excitebike is easier to get used to in general, and thus easier to play.
When I say ‘Design’, you may think I’m talking about the tracks, and how they’re set out. You’d be completely justified to think this, but also utterly wrong – see, another startling similarity between these games is that they both let you design your own track. You can’t save them (unless you’re playing the Virtual Console version,) but it was still a really nice touch to give the players some control and creativity. So in which game is this the most fun?
First up, Mach Rider. My first impression is immediately riddled with frustration over how hard it is to create a course, and in general, how... un-fun it is. Given that it’s 3D, it’s bound to be more complicated, but it’s just not entertaining. It takes a while to pick up how to move around – you have to hold the ‘B’ button when moving to select the course part you want, and... yeah, it’s complicated. If that’s not enough, you can have fun making a track, only to forget that unless it starts at the left and ends at the right, you can’t use it. Long story short, when setting up your course, go ahead and changed your relationship status with Mach Rider to ‘It’s Complicated’.
Designing a course in Excitebike takes roughly 1/25th of the time it takes to make a Mach Rider course. You can’t control the direction, like Mach Rider, but you can set out obstacles, jumps, ramps, boosts, and even more. It can still be confusing looking for the choice you want, considering you have to cycle through all of the options, but considering again that it’s an NES launch title, they really couldn’t have made it any simpler. Or better. Excitebike utterly dominates Mach Rider when it comes to how accessible the track designer is, and it’s actually fun to design your own track, even if, like me, you’re not very good at it.
Actually riding your self-designed track in Mach Rider doesn’t improve much on the design experience. Given that you only control the direction of the track, there’s not a great deal that makes it substantially different from riding a normal track. It’s nice that the game automatically puts obstacles in, which would’ve been too difficult to program in, but they could’ve had a frequency setting for the amount of obstacles in your path. Overall, it’s still fun, but no more fun than any other track.
Excitebike’s self-designed tracks really have a home-made feel to them. Even though you design them roughly 1 minute before playing them, you find yourself thinking, “Hey, I placed this jump!” and “Hey, I accidentally put that boost there!” and “Hey, that’s where I nudged the keyboard and put 3 ramps in a row!” In a way, it could even be nostalgia, limited to a few seconds ago. The tracks I made always felt a little unnatural compared to the game’s normal tracks, but they really felt like I had made them, not the game.
Not much of a contest here, Excitebike’s designing is better executed in both areas – both designing your own track, and then playing through it. Designing your own tracks in Mach Rider is tedious, limited, and not different enough from the normal tracks to make it worth your while. Excitebike’s more personal tracks seem a little less professional, but much more fun to play. Also, it’s awesome. Excitebike takes the prize for the design feature!
Back on the NES, musicians had to be a lot more creative when designing tunes for games. Without breaking the limits of the console, a tune had to be catchy, simple, and unique in its own way, especially as some pieces of music would be heard over and over again, whether at the beginning of a restarting level, or just at the menu screen. Excitebike and Mach Rider both had their fair share of catchy music – not the best on the NES, but enough to stay in people’s memory once they’d played them.
If you pressed the ‘play’ button on the link above, you’ve probably gotten to about this part of the sentence and been greeted with silence. Well, that’s because Excitebike’s music isn’t very long. You’ve got the title screen, pre-race jingle, and post-race jingle, which seems to change in tone depending on where you finish. That’s it. It’s not bad, and their certainly catchy, but I have the feeling Mach Rider may take this round. Not to say that the opening tune isn’t a perfect opener, and let’s face it, why would you be on the menu screen for any longer than the time it takes to play through anyway?
My favourite piece of Excitebike music is probably the happy victory theme. ScrewAttack’s own Video Game Vault from back in 2007 (Actually posted on Gametrailers exactly 5 years ago today!) even mentions it, so to quote Handsome Tom ‘When you finish a level, even if you get last, the music, the flashing crowd and the trophies at the top of the page make you feel like a winner every time!‘ It kind of defeats the point that the tune playing at that point is the ‘You got first place!’ tune, and the tunes for lower places are substantially more dreary, but still, the music is good, albeit limited.
In contrast, Stuttering Craig handled the Video Game Vault for Mach Rider, and mentioned the ‘kickass soundtrack’ as part of its many appeals – wait, sorry, manly appeals. Well, Craig has a point – the soundtrack to Mach Rider might not have the balance of tracks in Kid Icarus, the excitement of Metroid, or the classics of Mario and Zelda, but it’s still one of my favourite NES soundtracks. It feels quirky and disjointed, which actually works in its favour.
It’s also known for its remix in Super Smash Bros Melee, which takes the quirky and disjointed feeling and multiplies it by 10, and I love that too. Probably one of my favourite tracks in Melee, and that game had a great selection of tunes. The music from Mach Rider is catchy, simple, and actually quite sinister in a few places. The end of the title theme for example, is an uncomfortably high note that can feel a little unnerving. There’s also a second track that plays on a few levels which starts off similarly to the main theme, but has a strange bridge that sounds pretty creepy actually. Reminds me of the radio broadcasts in Pokémon Gold in the Ruins of Alph.
Overall, there’s almost no contest here. Excitebike has some great jingles, but that’s all they are. Mach Rider has an actual soundtrack, and while it probably wouldn’t last more than 7 minutes, it’s infectiously catchy and a great song for a futuristic racer. Mach Rider takes the crown for music.
I’m not going to judge each game on how difficult it is – I’m going to judge it on how balanced the difficulty is. Does it give the player a fair chance of avoiding obstacles? Does it let them know in advance if an enemy or opponent is about to crash into them or cut them off? Do the controls make responses to danger fluent, or is there a risk of panicking, driving off the road, crashing through a caravan, and coming out the other side without bike, nor helmet, nor dignity?
Excitebike’s difficulty is a little deceptive – you can see all of the other racers on the screen, so there’s no chance of missing one that you’re about to crash into, but sometimes avoiding them is nigh-impossible anyway. They can change the lane they’re in just as freely as you can, and although the computer controlled bikers don’t seem to be malicious, they can and will swerve directly in front of you in order to make you crash. There’s also a problem when the track is thinned to 2 lines, where overtaking is incredibly risky, but your only alternative is to slow down and let the other motorcyclist keep his lead. Obviously, this is not a good thing to happen often in a racing game.
Mach Rider’s enemies are easier to avoid due to, well... you have a frickin’ gun. Is it in your way? Shoot first, dodge later! Enemies go down, even if rocks and oil spills don’t respond, so it’s much easier to race along without crashing into anything... or so you’d think. Given the 3D view and the drastic curves on the track, you can sometimes be heading at amazing speeds, swerving around a corner into something completely unexpected, like a Quadrunner, or oil spill, or a God of War game with a decent plot. Either way, you’ll be taken by surprise, and sometimes quick reflexes just aren’t enough.
The difficulty in both games is largely related to how complex the control schemes are. Neither is confusing, but as mentioned before, Excitebike can suffer when it comes to making sure you don’t end up tumbling off a hill after a big jump, and Mach Rider’s gear-changes can vary a lot when it comes to how fast they make you go. Luckily, since these are the only complications, everything else works pretty well – you won’t find yourself cursing the game for an unfair loss very often, if it ever happens at all.
When it comes to comparison, it’s difficult to say which game handles difficulty the best. Excitebike makes you more aware of your difficulty, but doesn’t necessarily provide the possibility of overcoming it, whereas Mach Rider has the odd unavoidable smash round a corner, but it’s very rare. I would be giving this to Mach Rider if it weren’t for one thing – shooting your enemies in Mach Rider is fun, but the Quadrunners aren’t your racing opponents, so their position doesn’t matter. In Excitebike, cutting off your opponents results in YOU riding away happily while they tumble and fall off their bikes. Excitebike thus eliminates any stress of the difficulty by providing you with a lovely bit of stress relief, not unlike the way you can block cars into driving headlong into oncoming coaches in Burnout. Excitebike’s difficult may not be the best, but I think it deals with the difficulty overall in the best way.
I remember the last time I had to reach a conclusion, between Chrono Trigger and Earthbound. It was difficult due to the overall quality of both games being remarkably similar – they’re both amazing, but it doesn’t look so because Chrono Trigger was appreciated at the time and has always been regarded highly, whereas Earthbound spent a decade being criminally underrated, although to call it that now wouldn’t be entirely true.
In the same way, Excitebike has always been a fond memory on the NES which Mach Rider has not matched. Excitebike has had sequels! Excitebike was the topic of a Robot Chicken sketch! Although both games match up well, Mach Rider’s biggest claim to fame was a musical remix in a Super Smash Bros game more than sixteen years after it was released! It is definitely the underdog of this battle, but can its amazing soundtrack and impressive graphics win it the Game War?
Well, I’ve made my decision.
Mach Rider VS Excitebike.
The winner is...
Once again, the underdog is an amazing game that deserves more credit than it’s gotten, but that doesn’t quite take it past the opponent. Excitebike is a wonderful game, and there’s a reason so many people find a simple motorcycle racing NES game to be so nostalgic.
Earlier I said that Mach Rider wins the ‘Graphics’ category as the game was more visually impressive, and it was a launch title. Although I stand by that, Excitebike really is more colourful and appealing to look it – and that tends to last. It’s quite rare for a game to keep you consistently impressed, but Excitebike will always look and play amazingly. It’s a fun game, could’ve used a soundtrack, but still worth a play today, and still worth winning this edition of Game Wars.
Well, I think that’s about it. Congratulations for Excitebike for winning and congratulations to Mach Rider for losing, but still being a truly excellent NES game, worthy of much more attention than it’s received.
Next time on Game Wars! I take to the internet to pit two teeth-grindingly hard tributes to retro gaming against each other.
Thanks for reading!
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