Sunday, November 16, 2014

Shades of Resonance: Emotional Scars - Memory Log #20


I have a lot of regrets about my history with video games--the lack of adventurous spirit, the close-mindedness, and the missed opportunities--but there's one that's been continually climbing higher on my list ever since I started planning this blog: I regret that I didn't start keeping logs of my gaming activities until 1990, when by then my long history with the 2600, Commodore 64 and arcades was married only to intangible memories and my NES collection was already 50-something games deep.

It stings most in regard to the NES, which was the first console I could truly call my own. Had I gotten an earlier start in creating my NES-themed "Superbooks" (made from those red and white Mead tablets), I might not have forgotten the circumstances behind the acquisitions of so many of these early games. 

Among the histories obscured by the clouds of memory is Excitebike's. I know that it worked its way into my collection sometime early in 1989, likely as a gift, but I can't think of any special event that could have led to its procurement. All I remember was that I had little interest in playing it based on past experiences.

What matters is that Excitebike was the first Nintendo-made game I considered to be a dud. That is, when I played it at my friends' and cousins' houses years earlier, I found it to be inexplicable, which back then I'd equate to "bad." I remember the same scene playing out again and again: I'd charge out of the gate, hit the first ramp at the desired speed, and then fly off the bike upon landing; then I'd have to wildly mash on the buttons just so I could get back on the bike if only for the purpose of falling off again in less than five seconds. All of those adjustments I could make while airborne seemed inconsequential, as if the option to tilt my wheels mid-flight existed merely to highlight the game's sense of animation. 

I'd try my luck on the game's other tracks, with their alternate color schemes, but the results would be the same: One violent crash after another. And when my racer wasn't in a constant state of slowly tumbling down slopes, he'd instead be limply hopping over a series of ramps at Hoveround speed--this while I'd desperately gesticulate my need for any type of guidance from the surrounding company that seemed to find much more pleasure in watching me struggle. I could only come to the conclusion that Excitebike was one of those "advanced games," made for the types who would spend hours a day at the arcade mastering all of those difficult-to-control racing games.

So I wasn't exactly thrilled the day that same Excitebike found its way onto my game rack. Now, I wasn't going to ignore the game, since I didn't want to feel guilty about neglecting an unearned gift, but I had absolutely no inclination to want to play more than a few minutes of Excitebike, about which I'd already formed a negative opinion. For a kid, that was always the pain of getting a game you didn't ask for.

So I decided to read through the manual and glean what knowledge I could (and who could have guessed that reading and understanding made such a difference?). Early on, I played mostly in Selection A, which was more a time trial than an actual set of "races"; though, I preferred this mode because the tracks weren't otherwise cluttered with a million-plus racers who were constantly speeding in from behind and purposely colliding with me (funny, since I only remembered seeing, like, four of them back at the starting line). What a luxury it was to be able to focus on the track without that endless pack of dinkuses swerving all over the place and repeatedly taking out my front tire, which they loved to do whenever I'd near a desperately needed arrow pad
or a ramp positioned as such to propel me over a long mud pit (almost as if some sadistic track designer planned it that way)

And, really, why even bother jumping over a mud pit when you could instead trudge through it and use the opportunity to take in the sights, like the bleachers with their abundance of "Nintendo" advertisements, the unaffected cameramen, and the hundreds of thousands of spectators who apparently showed up to watch me trudge through long mud pits.

This friggin' game, man.

No--staying perched on the bike under normal conditions was challenge enough.

Once I got a good grasp on the controls and figured out some of the more helpful tricks (mainly that I could trip up other racers by taking out their front tires), I moved on to the more-populace "Selection B," which I considered to be the real game, and began earning better finishes (strangely, this mode, too, worked under time-trials rules, the other racers acting simply as moving obstacles rather than actual competition). The key to victory was to learn the locations of the arrows and essentially turbo-boost for as much of the race as possible. 

Though, since I never truly mastered Excitebike's tilting controls, I'd always begin running into trouble on Track 3, which introduced those monstrous double-deck ramps; I could handle the likes of standard-sized ramps, oil slicks, and those tiny obstructions you could safely wheelie over, but any construction featuring more than two successive slopes was the doom of me (unless I could get lucky and just happen upon the correct positioning and trajectory). 

The two-leveled planks introduced in Track 4 weren't as intimidating, but the course on the whole was simply too complex for me to proceed without a lot in way of incident. It took a whole lot of attempts before I could qualify high enough to even reach Track 5 (the "nighttime track," as I called it), which proved to be even more chaotic with its mishmash of annoying obstacles faced in close succession. I could actually hold my own and clear a lap in, say, 46 seconds, but finishing under the track's 1:06 threshold required an exhibition of skill far beyond my current capacity. I was never able to earn a first-place finish.

I'd occasionally mess around with the game's design mode, but I just didn't have the instincts for creating good race-courses. Rather, I'd always make that same ten-mile-long track as filled with nothing but strings of those monstrous two-layered obstacles. And I don't remember the testing part being much fun.

In fact, I struggle to come up with a single positive memory of Excitebike. I remember it being another one of those games that every NES owner seemed to have in his or her collection, yet I don't recall ever meeting anyone who was actually any good at it. I mean, I certainly wasn't. But that's why I returned to it as much as I did--I wanted to get better at Excitebike even though I lacked the aptitude for racing games. And there was just something alluring about it; as an early NES release, it had that unmistakable classic vibe to it--that delightfully simple aesthetic that always had the power to overwhelm my reasoned judgments.

My most recent experiences with Excitebike have come via NES Remix and the 3D Classics version. I picked up the latter when it was still a freebie on the 3DS eShop, but I did so with that same sense of trepidation ("I'm still not gonna be any good at this!"). I really like what Nintendo did with presentation--particularly how the tracks spread out like a diorama as the 3D slider is pushed upward; it adds true depth to Excitebike's world, making visible personality-supplying touches like the metal overhangs and the cloudy skies in the background, and does so without forfeiting the game's all-important classic vibe. Unfortunately, none of its visual trickery makes the gameplay any more compelling to me, nor do the bite-sized challenges found in NES Remix.

Excitebike might very well be the very first example of a phenomenon best encapsulated by my second video-game mantra, which was 20 years in the making. It took me that long to come up with a suitable classification for games I had an affinity for but didn't necessarily enjoy playing. That's to say, "You don't have to actually like a game to have a strong appreciation for it."

That about sums up Excitebike, which despite the odds has proven to be much more than a fuzzy memory.

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