To be realistic about it, there were only so many ways you could make a racing game in the days before true 3D graphics came around: Top-down, isometric, or fake-scaling pseudo-3D. And when it came to motocross-style motorcycle racing, your options became even more limited; because bike racing leans so heavily on uneven tracks dotted with ramps and ditches, the pseudo-3D and top-down styles weren’t really suited for the task.
So perhaps it’s inevitable that Konami’s Game Boy debut, bike rally racer Motocross Maniacs, feels like a mutant strain of Nintendo’s Excitebike; how else were you going to have made a bike game back then? Sure, Mach Rider had the over-the-shoulder camera style of an Out Run, but it sprawled across a smooth, even course — a far cry from the sort of ground that allows for crazy leaps and wheelies that Konami was going for here. So yes, Motocross Maniacs will almost certainly remind you at first glance of Excitebike.
The similarities come to an abrupt end rather quickly, though. After putting you through a couple of Excitebike-esque leaps, the track design soon takes on its own distinct style. What initially appeared to be a blatant knock-off of Nintendo’s classic NES dirt bike rally forced into a side-scrolling 2D perspective turns into something wilder, more focused on learning the lay of the track and perfecting your racing skills.
Motocross Maniacs doesn’t focus on racing in the traditional sense — your goal isn’t to best other racers but simply to beat a given time limit. This probably has as much to do with the Game Boy’s limitations as anything else; the Link Cable enabled multiplayer, sure, but it was a slow and unreliable connection, and while developers would eventually figure out how to make it work for racing I don’t think it’s impossible that this early in the system’s life — a mere five months after its debut — those advanced programming techniques had yet to be sorted out.
Whatever the case, Motocross Maniacs turned out to be as much a platformer as a racer. Taking the straight and obvious path along the ground would send you crawling through the mud at glacial speeds, a guaranteed way to fail to make your target time even on the easiest tracks and settings.
Instead, the proper approach to the game involves making liberal use of the raised portions of the tracks, suspended high above the ground — and the only way to do that is to make smart use of your nitro boosts. You start each race with a handful of boosts that send you flying forward at high speed for a brief second or so; this won’t take you far on the ground, but use a nitro injection as you hit the lip of a ramp and you’ll go flying. This allows you to reach those out-of-the-way places over your head or skip over some of the muddier patches of ground.
At many ramps you’ll find nitrous refills or other power-ups dangling in the air to encourage you to take a leap at the right times. Ramps also frequently lead to more complex aerial structures, complex arrangements of loops and half-pipes that demand proper use of boosting but in turn reward you with even more power-ups.
Motocross Maniacs rewards practice; you definitely will not finish most tracks on your first run-through. The later tracks in particular demand you learn their ins and outs in order to succeed, and often if you don’t hit the ramps and make extremely conservative use of nitrous you won’t get anywhere at all. If Motocross Maniacs has a flaw, it’s that many tracks will actually lead you to a dead end if you run out of nitro, and there’s no easy way to forfeit besides resetting. Once you get a feel for the tracks and learn the ideal times for jumping (as well as master the art of jumping without a ramp by boosting out of an Excitebike-style backwards lean), you can clear the finish line for a well-earned victory.
One of the game’s more fascinating features comes in its undocumented power-ups. In addition to boosts and time bonuses, you can also gain the jet power that allows you to literally fly by burning multiple successive nitros. And if you perform flips at certain points in a track — generally wherever you see a sign in the background that reads “GO!” or something similar — you’ll be granted a strange reward in the form of mini-bikers that follow you like Gradius Options. After extensive research, I finally managed to find an explanation for these guys in an old IGN review of the sequel: Normally if you take a tumble on a ramp, you’ll lose your Jet power-up. If you have a mini-biker in tow, they’ll soak up the damage and allow you to keep your booster even if you screw up. Interesting, and not at all hinted at in the instructions.
Motocross Maniacs makes for a fairly unique entry in the annals of racing history. It saw a handful of sequels up through the Game Boy Advance era, and a similarly slim collection of racers borrowed from its design (notably DMA’s Uniracers and RedLynx’s Trials Fusion). That’s about it, though. Side-scrolling, trick-centric, platformer-racers just haven’t made for one of gaming’s richer legacies. Well, unless you count Sonic the Hedgehog — that series’ mechanics and style bear more than just a slight similarity to Motocross Maniacs, though in a far more expansive context (and graced by considerably better tech and polish).
Still, you can trace its unusual style back to Excitebike; Motocross Maniacs followed closely on the heels of a Japan-only racer by Konami called Motocross Champion, which was basically Excitebike on circular course rather than as a belt-scroller. The Game Boy’s limitations caused Konami’s designers to take Maniacs the other direction, simplifying its presentation to a side-scrolling format. As often can be the case, though, the game designed under sharper constraints proved to be more interesting and memorable. Motocross Maniacs may not be a timeless Game Boy classic, but it’s worth exploring as one of the more distinctive releases for the system: A racer like few others.