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March 18, 2012 / jwaxo

Excitebike (Level Editing)

I have no idea if this relates to real motocross in any way beyond aesthetics.

So, let’s get a few things reminded, for those not keeping score: I don’t like racing games. I’ve never been very good at them, I don’t find that they pay off in terms of fun or challenge like other games do, and I’ve never really been able to get into them like I do other games.

There are very few exceptions to this rule, normally centered around the racing not actually being racing–that is, not racing other people. For instance, the old Need for Speed: Underground series, which was one third about making an awesome car, one third about drifting, and one third about actually racing (with nitrous and bonuses for looking cool while doing it). Or racing in the Grand Theft Auto series, which is always punctuated with running from the police and maybe, if you’re lucky, blowing up the enemy cars with guns. The actual racing isn’t that great, but the rest is. And you already know how I feel about Hot Wheels Stunt Track Driver, if you can even call that a racing game.

In a similar manner, I was always fascinated by ye olde Excitebike. It was sometimes found in friend’s collections of games, maybe at a relative’s or a neighbor’s, and, in a few select instances, at that bastion of childhood that is slowly fading into obscurity: the arcade.

Where you spend 50 cents betting that you’ll figure out the controls before losing.

Excitebike was a cool racing game because it was less about racing and more about getting past the obstacles while still making a good time. I suppose, in the end, it was really just a timed platformer; like all of the Mario games, but with it keeping track of who made it through the course fastest. In fact, having opponents was even an option that you could set at the beginning; if you turned them off, it was just you versus the clock and the triangular ramps. Can you set up for the jump in time to not wipeout, and then correct yourself to nail the landing?

The thing about Excitebike that makes me bring it up isn’t the fact that it was (technically) a racing game that I really loved. The notability comes entirely from one feature of it: “Design Mode”. In Design Mode, you could use an unheard-of ability to actually design a track. You could scroll from the start to the end of the lap, placing ramps and obstacles to your heart’s content. Again, pretty similar to Stunt Track Driver, which I discovered years later.

I, being a pretty creative person, found myself drawn to this feature again and again. See, we didn’t own Excitebike, as I said, and I never really got a chance to sit down and play it for a few hours like most other games. My time spent playing it was in snatches and fragments, trading controllers with cousins and friends.

And when it came my turn, what did I always do? Try to design the best track ever.

So much faster in the game world than in real life.

A few years later this kind of thing was the norm. Like I pointed out in my post about Heroes of Might and Magic, lots of strategy games have some kind of level editor. But ever since Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 we’ve been able to make the ultimate skate parks, and The Incredible Machine would let you set up scenario puzzles for other people to solve. This kind of feature was something that utterly captivated me, and later in my life hours would be spent making all sorts of levels and courses and miniature games.

Excitebike, though, was the first time we had ever heard of this. It was honestly probably the first time I had even thought of the idea of making your own video game, the idea that had set me on the path to eventually try (and fail) to build my own games. After all, if you can build your own course, what else could you build?

So, when the controller came around to little six-year-old me, and I had my chance to race, I would instead throw as many ramps down as I could and race over them, joyfully, before being forced to hand the controller to someone else and losing my custom-made track forever. We had a short time together, that level editor and me, but it planted the seed of a wish in me.

Of course, there were also constraints on the editor that I was not very happy with. Couldn’t make the ramps big enough, for one.

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