I always enjoy it whenever Nintendo digs into their back catalog and gives an international release to previously Japan-only games, so I jumped on Vs. Excitebike when it was released on Wii U's Virtual Console way back when. Since then the game has also appeared on Nintendo Switch Online, but recenty I dusted off my Wii U and finally gave my original copy a closer look.
I was a huge fan of the little-known update to Excitebike on WiiWare, called Excitebike: World Rally, so it's hard for me to rewind my brain back to 1988. Even so, Vs. Excitebike isn't a complete improvement over the original NES game. The core gameplay is the same, and racing against the clock or against CPU opponents to get through each track is as satisfying as ever. The controls are tight and jumping off of ramps is a lot of fun, and managing your boost to avoid overheating becomes a tense affair. The original release of Vs. Excitebike also had the advantage of making use of Famicom's disk system in order to save high scores and custom designed tracks, and the game also includes a great 2-player split screen mode and also much more music than the original.
In the original you could choose between two modes where you either raced solo or against CPU riders. In this game you alternate between qualifying rounds where you have to race one lap solo and beat a target time, and two-lap races against CPU riders where you also need to beat a target time. The game ups the number of tracks from five to seven, but you can only choose to start from the first, second, or third tracks. A free stage select would have made the game much more fun, because the game gets quite difficult around stage 4, and near impossible by the end. It was only thanks to many save states and a lot of practice that I was able to beat the final track, and although it was satisfying, I really have to wonder if anyone was ever able to beat it back in the day before we had the luxury of save states.
The game has a couple of other little surprises tucked away. You usually only have one chance to get as far as you can (with the last stage repeating, presumably indefinitely), but apparently you gain an extra chance at some point (maybe around 100k points?). There's also a bonus game that pops up twice in between races where you leap over train cars for a change of pace. I can't help but miss the addition of the WiiWare successor (namely, the bonus burst of speed if you knock out an opponent or hit a perfect landing), but even though this game improves on the original in many ways, overall I do have to rank this one a little lower than the original. The Vs. games were intended to be more challenging versions of the original games, but the extremely high difficulty of this game's core mode compared to the original really puts it into the "more painful than fun" category. I'm glad this game has gotten a wider release thanks to Nintendo Switch Online, though, and I'm still holding out hope for another entry in the series some day.