Racing games are one genre where pretty much everybody agrees that they've improved drastically over time. With the exception of a few classic titles like OutRun, the early 2D days were not kind to racers, and the pre-Mode 7 era was just downright cruel. Before titles like Virtua Racing, F-Zero, and Mario Kart changed the way racing games were designed, you had to really wade through a lot of crap to find anything even half way decent. If you've forgotten how much better we have it these days, what with all of our Gran Turismos and Cruis'ns and such, then just go back and replay some of those old 8-bit racers and you'll see what I mean. I doubt that very many tears have been shed over the death of old-school-style racing games, but I'd argue that there has been one majorly tragic loss - the 2D horizontal racer. Something about moving right, dodging shit, and never having to turn is just awesome - that's all there is to it. However, these games weren't even all that plentiful back in the day. Luckily, a few noteworthy titles have been made over the years. One such series of games is Konami's Motocross Maniacs.
Motocross Maniacs started back on the Famicom with a game called Motocross Champion. When the series moved to Nintendo's portable consoles shortly thereafter, "Champion" was retitled to "Maniacs", which the series has been known as ever since. While the original isn't a purely horizontal game like its sequels, it does focus primarily around that same concept. As a whole, the entire quadrilogy could easily be referred to as "Excitebike clones", but the feel of the series is very different from Nintendo's classic, even if they still aren't exceptionally original. Given that it's not exactly among Konami's more popular franchises, it's had a surprising longevity, beginning back in the late 80s, and continuing into the early 2000s.
At first glance, Motocross Champion looks like a similar-to-the-point-of-plagiarism clone of Excitebike, and in several ways, it is. The ramps look like they're taken straight out of Nintendo's classic racing game, and Konami even stole the whole system from that game where you lean back when climbing ramps for extra height, and lean forward to land jumps. You've also got the same two gameplay modes where you can choose to either practice any of the game's eight tracks or go up against the CPU. However, that's where the similarities end. In practice mode, the tracks can go on forever (push Select to exit), and when you're taking on the CPU you have to actually beat the other racers, and not just the clock. When racing the CPU, you're forced to start out at the first track. To move on to the next, you need to come in the top two, then follow that with a first place finish. Also, there's no turbo, so you don't have to worry about overheating, and you'll begin to tip backward as you speed along, so you need to lean the front of the bike down once in a while to keep from falling over.
The similarities to Excitebike are ultimately superficial, and the core of the gameplay is actually very different. As opposed to the straight tracks of non-stop jumps that you'll find in Excitebike, the focus of the game isn't on ramp jumping, at all. In fact, the ramps aren't really all that important, and are mostly just there for flair. The tracks instead move in all four directions, so the real challenge of the game is simply in taking the turns. However, Konami didn't pull off this part of the game all that well. Your bike's steering is just a bit too sensitive to just lean into the more obtuse turns, but still not quite sensitive enough to drive through the sharper turns at full speed. So you're going to be crashing into the walls a lot. The CPU racers, however, won't have any such problems, so it's damn near impossible to get anywhere when racing against them. You can lean on the wheel with the brakes on for more precision steering, but that'll take some practice with before you can routinely rely on the technique.
For a while I thought that Motocross Champion had potential, but was just too difficult to work. But there are several little things that make the game stand out, and that have always kept me coming back to it. Even though the ramp jumping isn't all that well developed, or even particularly important when it comes to winning a race, you simply can't go wrong with a game that lets you pop a wheelie off of one jump, then bounce right off of the tops of the next two without even hitting the ground in between. There's also a lot of variation in the ramps, ranging from the impossibly tall, to near ground level plateaus, and even weirdly shaped ones with multiple peaks - several show up in no more than one track. You can also drive the wrong way, which is cool if you wanna just screw around with the jumps in practice mode. The presentation is pretty bare bones, but it's well focused on the theme, and there are some nice little details to it. For example, you can give some extra flair to your jumps by trying turning the front wheel while airborne. Also, watch for Moai from Gradius along side the track in the fourth course.
Released later in the same year as the Famicom game, Motocross Maniacs was among Konami's first titles for Game Boy. Though it still retains strong Excitebike inspirations, it's otherwise a total reworking of the series. You no longer have to worry about turning, as there's only one plane of movement. The gameplay is instead focused on properly utilizing the game's many, and sometimes very elaborate, ramps. Both the way that the tracks are designed and how the ramps work is very, very different from its predecessor. Throughout each course there are craploads of platforms and loops suspended in the air that can be reached via ramps on the ground. These can be avoided entirely, but they're often the only way to grab valuable power ups or avoid having to drive through sand on the ground.
There's a great deal of creativity in how all of the platforms and jumps are arranged, as well. For example, you might have to drive straight up half a loop, then back flip the opposite direction to land on a suspended ramp that's positioned right behind you. Or you might be forced to pop a wheelie to reach a platform that's just slightly above the ground. To reach certain platforms, loops, and jumps you also have to take into consideration the height and distance of your jumps. By holding Up on the D-pad you can get more air off of jumps, or you can hold it in the Down position to land faster - both are virtually required at times to make jumps correctly. While there's no actual reward for it, you can also do flips while airborne, which is always entertaining.
Whether you choose to take on the CPU or fly solo, what you have to worry about most is the clock. To finish a track you have to complete two laps before the timer in the lower right runs out, or else it's Game Over. If you wanna have any real chance of making it to the finish in time you're going to need to grab these giant letter T's, which will extend the clock a bit. To get you there faster, you can activate a limited amount of turbo thingies for a quick boost in speed - more can easily be found in the shape of giant letter N's. You can also find power ups that'll temporarily boost your speed ("S") or make you drive through sand faster ("R").
Whether or not it's quite as good as Motocross Champion, it's a hell of a lot more creative, and among the very few acceptable racing games for Game Boy. Motocross Maniacs made its way into the Japanese exclusive GB compilation Konami Collection 2. There's also a colorized port for GBC as part of Konami GB Collection Volume 3, where it's been retitled "Bikers". This compilation was never released outside of Europe.
Maybe somebody at Konami was feeling nostalgic, or something, because they dug Motocross Maniacs up from the grave after a whole decade for a third installment, this time for Game Boy Color. It basically plays identically to the Game Boy title, only better in every way, faster, and with some really cool extras. This time you've got two different modes of play - "Championship Mode" and "Time Attack". In Time Attack you can turn on a "ghost" CPU biker in the options mode to represent the time that you're trying to beat. Championship Mode is just the regular mode where you try to beat all of the courses in order. In both modes the timer has been replaced by a gas tank meter, which basically works the exact same way, except that it doesn't run down when you aren't driving. With no timer there's obviously no need for the giant letters T's, but you still need to grab gas tanks to refuel.
The levels have been improved even further, both gameplay-wise and graphically. The stages are made up of the same kind of platforms, ramps, and jumps, but you've also got a couple extra kinds of terrain the weren't in the predecessor. For one, you can bounce high into the air by running over or falling onto certain objects, like balloons or tires embedded half way into the ground. Once in a while you'll run across these green springboards with arrows on them - just running them over does jack shit, but turbo boosting exactly as you pass them will catapult you a small distance upward.
The track designs are the best in the series yet, even better utilizing your boosting and flipping abilities in each course. As opposed to the empty backgrounds of Motocross Maniacs, each level in Motocross Maniacs 2 is well detailed, with one of five different visual themes (stadium, fairground, etc). Should you get tired of the game's ten courses you can also build you own in Design Mode. While that's easily the coolest thing in the entire game, the somewhat overwhelming amount of parts to wade through, and how precise their placement needs to be to make them work well, means that making a good course takes a bit too much effort for it to be something to just casually fool around with.
The first two games must not have been very well received in Japan, because this only got released in Europe and America. Other than the European version being retitled Crazy Bikers, the two releases are both exactly the same. Japan really missed out, because it's arguably the best game in the series overall.
The fourth and final installment in the series is the creatively titled Motocross Maniacs Advance for GBA. It still plays mostly the same as the previous two titles, but the whole thing's been given a major overhaul. This time you start out with six different characters, each with their own stats, and as you go you'll unlock a bike riding bull and robot, for a total of eight racers. You can choose to race against the clock in any course in Time Attack Mode, but the real meat of the game is in Championship Mode, where the tracks are all arranged in six cups. After you beat the two novice level cups you get access to a couple of advanced level cups - finishing those opens the two expert level cups. After you choose your biker in Championship Mode the CPU selects three opponents for you at random. As long as you don't come in last place, you'll nab a few points after you finish each track. Then at the end of the cup you'll be rewarded with a gold, silver, or bronze trophy depending on how many points you finished the whole thing with.
Aside from the point system, there seems to be a few other possible Mario Kart inspirations. Weapons are scattered throughout each stage that you can shoot down, blow up, or freeze the competition with, as well as a shield that will protect you from various hazards. There's also something called "Action Mode", which consists of three different "mini-games". "Bomb Tag" is simply Hot Potato on bikes. You pass a time bomb back and forth between the racers, and whoever has it when the thing goes off blows up. In "Hidden Lab" you've gotta leap over frozen penguins (?!) and grab coins to earn points, while watching out for hazards along the track. "Zombie Attack" has you racing through a haunted graveyard where the goal is to blow zombies to bits by turbo boosting through them - whoever takes out the most by the end wins. For whatever reason, Action Mode is the only mode with a two player option.
Where it most strongly deviates from its predecessors is in the layout of the courses. The actual length of each track is much shorter, but you have to lap each several times - making them at least as long overall. Each track extends high into the sky, with enough suspended platforms both high and low to give you many possible paths to the finish. That idea alone might have made it the best game in the series, but it's just not utilized in creative enough ways, and mostly amounts to pointlessly leaping from platform to platform. However, it is absolutely vital that you memorize the placement of gas tanks, or you'll have no chance of even finishing any of the more challenging courses.
One area where it totally blows away the rest of the Motocross games is with its presentation. For starters, the music, while still not spectacular, is probably the only memorable music in the series. The graphics, though, are excellent, and leagues beyond the prequels. Each course has its own very distinct visual theme, some of them relatively odd for a racing game. In one Christmas themed level, the ground is caked with snow, and the trees are decorated with flashing lights. Yet another course takes place in a giant-sized children's room, with the track made up of toy train tracks and building blocks, with huge stuffed animals in the background. A stage set in a stadium has a huge jumbo-tron perpetually in the background with a flashing image a biker on it. There's also two Konami references in the game - Moai from Gradius represents a course at the stage selection screen, and there's even a whole track based on the Famicom RPG Lagrange Point.