Mach Rider (NES) – Off The Beaten Track

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If you know the NES, you know what the Black Box games are – Early Western releases for the system that were distinctive because of their cover art that featured over the top, zoomed in renditions of in-game sprites. You’ve probably seen the covers for Super Mario Bros., Ice Climbers, Excitebike and others – But one game from the black box era that is never spoken of is Nintendo’s own Mach Rider.

This is Pug Hoof Gaming, and we’re going off the beaten path with a game you might not have played.

Mach Rider has its origins in Nintendo’s pre-videogame past. At least in name only, as a 1972 toy from the American toy maker Hasbro, was produced and marketed to the Japan region by Nintendo, and given the moniker of Mach Rider instead of Hasbro’s original name, Yellow Tail Funny Car. I’m seriously not joking about that last bit. However, I am joking when I say that the follow up was called Purple Elbow Serious Bicycle. Actually, that’s pretty good, I might just make that toy myself…

I digress. Using a battery operated motor, this little car could supposedly be launched at a surprising amount of speed and could probably be launched quite high in the air using the included plastic ramp. I can only imagine the amount of injury no doubt caused by launching toy vehicles at other children’s skulls.

In any case, this interesting toy bears little resemblance to the game we’re looking at today – As a company more than willing to give reverence and reference to its own past, Nintendo’s decision to give this game the Mach Rider moniker is likely little more than a cheeky nod to a long-forgotten product. 

Truth be told, Mach Rider: The Game seems quite uncharacteristic of Nintendo, and its co-developer, HAL Laboratory. For a start, the whole game is based in an apocalyptic Earth of 2112, that’s under invasion from aliens that resemble quad bikes. Meanwhile, you’re the eponymous Mach Rider of the title, straddling the throbbing engine of some sort of superbike. Oh, and you have a gun. Which is good, because you’re about to partake in a deadly race through 10 sectors of the twistiest roads seen this side of Spaghetti Junction. Actually, we’ve already established that this is the future, so this could actually be Spaghetti Junction and that wasteland in the distance could be Birmingham. Who’s to say?

Mach Rider consists of three main play modes. You’ve got Fighting Course, which is your full-fat Mach Rider experience, featuring ten levels of dangerous hazards and even more dangerous aliens. You’ve got a finite number of energy or lives to reach the end of each sector, and if that wasn’t hard enough for you, you’ve also got a time limit to finish the stage as well. This mode is tough, even by 1980’s Nintendo standards. You’ve got to constantly avoid being bumped off the road by enemies, avoiding barrels at the side of the road and sometimes right in the middle, plus avoid dangerous oil slicks, the occasional floating ball, and on some levels you need to worry about icy conditions that make cornering even more difficult than it is usually. You’re also riding a bike with four manual gears, and it’s one of those games where you’re actually going to have to slow down to take corners, at least if you don’t want to die a horrible death. But slow down too much and it’s all too easy for an enemy to come up from behind and ram straight into you, killing you. Not even your rear view mirrors help in that regard. If I was a lazier writer, I’d say it was the Dark Souls of motorcycle games. But, I’m not that lazy – Besides, It’s more like the Contra of motorcycle games. Shooting is incredibly fickle as most of the time you’re too busy trying to navigate corners and avoid slamming into enemies, to actually line-up shots properly. It’s actually more effective to get your shots in when you’re just about to slam into the back of an enemy.

In an unusual move, for each of the 10 sectors, you can choose between two different courses. If you’re a coward like me, that means you can pick the one that looks less twisty and hard, but you might not be as much of a wuss. My favourite bit is when you select a course, the game tells you that “You Are Mach Rider” with type that appears character by character, alongside an awesome sounding jingle. It’s the sort of stuff that really psyches you up, and quite frankly I could do with this sort of encouragement in life – When I come into work in the morning, what I’d give to have a positive message alongside such a great jingle. Of course, that positivity counts for nothing the moment Mach Rider’s difficulty hits you in the face at 60 miles per hour.

If that’s all too intense for you (and let’s be honest, it probably will be), at least you’ve got some other modes. Endurance Course is similar to Fighting Course, only instead of racing a set course, you need to ride a certain amount of distance within a time limit – 22Km in 250 seconds, for example. You’ve still got all of the hard as nails hazards and enemies like Fighting Course, but you have infinite lives and only need to worry about the time limit.

But if you really want an even easier time, you have the Solo Course. It’s just you, the open road, some hazards on said road, and no enemies in sight. It works just the same as Endurance Course, with just a little less annoying things to get in the way, but still relatively challenging due to those aforementioned road hazards. Seriously, this game doesn’t want to give you a break.

If all of those twisty-turny tracks are too much for you, or you want them twistier than if M. Night Shyamalan directed an episode of Twin Peaks, you can Design your very own course. Similarly to fellow black-box release, Excitebike, Mach Rider gives you the tools to make your very own tracks. Want to ride in a straight line from A to B? You got it. Want to make the toughest tracks around and make your friends play them and then watch them cry as they slam into barrels over and over again? Well, that’s your prerogative. There’s a surprising number of pieces you can use in your creations, and the designer is helpful enough to block off those pieces that can’t be used.

Once you’re done creating, you can play those tracks in any of the three standard modes. The only problem is, like Excitebike, there’s no battery backup, so you better take a photo of your favourite tracks so you can painstakingly recreate them at your leisure. Of course, the Japanese version had a way to save tracks, via the rarely-seen Famicom Data Recorder, a tape cassette recorder for the Japanese Famicom. In a pre-Famicom Disk System era, this recorder was used for save games, user-created content within certain games like Mach Rider, Wrecking Crew and Excitebike, as well as their own programs coded in BASIC. I can only imagine the Hellish noises created by this device when saving and loading tracks.

So yeah, that’s Mach Rider. The game’s profile and legacy are still relatively minimal, despite the occasional reference. Mach Rider found its way into two separate arcade cabinets as part of Nintendo’s Vs. series of arcade ports in 1985. Japan received an edition based on the Fighting Course mode, while America received a course based on the Endurance Mode. Both versions are relatively close to the original NES game, except for a slight increase in speed and some interesting scenes that played in-between stages. As players complete each track, they’d be greeted with an image of Mach Rider which slowly changed, tile by tile into a slightly underdressed woman, implying that Mach Rider was a woman all along, ala Metroid’s Samus Aran.

And that was really Mach Rider’s only starring roles. The character and game has been sporadically referenced over the years, as a brief microgame in WarioWare: Twisted!, a trophy in Super Smash Bros. Melee, an unlockable sticker in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and as a Spirit in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. On the subject of Smash Bros., an arrangement of the main theme to Mach Rider has also appeared in every Smash Bros. release since Melee. Mario Kart Wii has an unlockable vehicle called the Mach Bike, which may be a possible reference to Mach Rider, and finally, Mach Rider has, of course, found its way onto Nintendo’s Virtual Console service on Wii, Wii U, 3DS, with the console versions finally allowing players to save their designed tracks. And of course, it’s only a matter of time until the game finds itself onto the Switch’s collection of NES re-releases.

As of today, Mach Rider is probably one of the least-known of those early Nintendo titles. Save for the aforementioned references, neither Nintendo nor HAL Laboratory revisited the game for a follow-up, despite the occasional rumour. Tonally, the nearest cousin in terms of Nintendo franchises is F-Zero, and considering that game has more cache amongst gamers and still hasn’t seen a new entry since 2003’s GX, the chances of a new Mach Rider is next to non-existent. Maybe the only chance to see this motorcycle-riding hero again is as a future fighter in the Smash Bros. roster, joining fellow Black Box brethren like the Duck Hunt Duo, Donkey Kong and Mario.

You’ve been watching Pug Hoof Gaming, and I’ll be seeing you soon for another dose of gaming greatness.

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