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Excitebike 64 devs on the game’s development – origins, Miyamoto feedback, more

Posted on November 28, 2015 by (@NE_Brian) in General Nintendo, News

Last month’s issue of GamesTM has a very interesting feature on the making of Excitebike 64. We encourage you to pick up the magazine to read it in full, though we wanted to share some of the information and comments here.

Excitebike 64 was the next title from Left Field Productions following the Nintendo-published NBA Courtside. Several ideas were pitched, many of which were focused around sports given the studio’s specialty in the genre. The possibility of a motocross game was flying about in part due to a few producers at Left Field enjoying it, and that’s what was ultimately selected.

Henry Sterchi, a producer from Nintendo working on the title, mentioned to GamesTM that Excitebike 64 began “as a more traditional motocross game”. However, as ideas were being prototyped and mechanics were being worked on, Left Field came up with an idea of developing a sequel to the NES classic. It was eventually proposed to Nintendo, who approved it soon after.

Sterchi told GamesTM:

“Excitebike 64 started out as a more traditional motocross game to prove out the core engine, handling and basic play. The handling was physics-driven and realistic, but I wouldn’t have called it a technical simulation. We did try some real-time track deformation such as tyre ruts, but it was abandoned because it wasn’t that fun and quite a technical drain.”

“We’d already discussed and prototyped the thing we wanted around the turbo mechanic and track designs in order for it to be an authentic Excitebike experience, so it was always the hope that they’d go for it and if it didn’t work out, it was ready to stand on its own as a more traditional motocross racer.”

Having been approved by Nintendo, Excitebike 64 soon entered the core of its development. The team wanted to remain faithful to the original title while also innovating.

As developer Mike Lamb said:

“The key to the original game was controlling the bike in the air to stick the landings and I think we captured that pretty well. I don’t think a truly faithful update would have really been enough on a 64-bit machine and fortunately Nintendo understood this and were on board with making a more simulation based motocross racing game.”

Coder Sam Baker added that Left Field “wanted to make a kick-ass and great-looking racing game that captured all the speed and big air of motocross – and that we wanted to support indoor arenas and a variety of outdoor tracks.” Maintaining a smooth frame rate was also important, and 3D programmer Ben Stragnell says he “imposed some fairly draconian restrictions on the artists in terms of how the tracks were built”. Above all else though, they wanted to ensure “that the bikes handled well,” according to Baker. Because of the game’s “organic” development, there was plenty of “freedom to try out lots of stuff”.

GamesTM states in its piece that Nintendo didn’t impose any restrictions, with only regular check-ins and specialist reviews required. However, the team did receive some feedback from legendary Nintendo developer Shigeru Miyamoto.

Sterchi explained:

“He [Miyamoto] gave some great feedback in that we went too wide with the extra modes and should have stayed focused on depth instead. At the end of the day, some of the modes were nice distractions, but he was, of course, right. They didn’t improve the main game experience, which was the reason why people bought it.”

Excitebike 64 shipped in summer 2000 with just under two years of development. This was longer than originally planned, but the team wanted to enhance some technical aspects and the game’s scope continued to increase. Ultimately, Sterchi said Left Field thought “the game deserved more time than we thought.”

Even though Stragnell acknowledges that Excitebike 64 could have sold more had it come out earlier, in the end things worked out since the team was able to deliver a quality product.

“It’s possible. But the flip-side of that is that if we’d started development a year or two earlier, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to become as familiar with the hardware. I don’t know that we would have been able to make as good a game.”

As for improvements, Stragnell and Sterchi shared the following:

“If I had to single out anything I think we should have spent more time getting the announcer to sound more fluid, and it would have also been nice to have some crash animations that didn’t just involve the rider curling up into a little ball!” – Stragnell

“We had a good amount of feedback from testing that the crashes should have been more fun, but we didn’t really have the time to do any more with it, and we didn’t do the old Excitebike button mash to run back to your bike, either. At the end of the day, I think the feedback was probably right, but I still don’t think it was a high enough priority against the time it would have taken to do.” – Sterchi

Excitebike 64 was met with critical acclaim, and Lamb believes it sold over 2 million units worldwide. Sterchi also had this to say about its sales:

“From my recollection it did quite well and Nintendo thought it was a success. With something like the pedigree of Excitebike, expectations were very high, and a hit at Nintendo often meant sky-high multimillions, so it wasn’t a number one seller for them as I would have hoped. But it was well received and moved some good numbers.”

Finally, here are some interesting comments from Stragnell about the inclusion of the original Excitebike and track editor:

“I thought it might be fun to try and include the original game. It wasn’t actually a port – I spent a couple of weekends writing enough of a NES emulator to run the original Excitebike. The game also had a track designer save/load feature that was designed for the Japanese Famicom Data Recorder. I was able to put some hooks into the code and enable actual save/loading tracks to the Nintendo 64 cart. I also came up with the idea of the desert track. I’d just seen Motocross Madness on the PC and was really impressed that you could see for miles, so thought it might be interesting to get a level-of detail terrain engine on the N64. The terrain generation was easy enough – it’s just some simple fractals. The hard part was stitching together the various levels of details without seams. I don’t think I got it completely right. The track editor for Excitebike 64 was something we wanted from day one. It was pretty much entirely written by Sam Baker, who did a great job with it.”

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