At the start of the game, the player can choose from five tracks in which to race.
The player controls the position of the red motorcycle with the Y-axis of the directional pad, and controls acceleration with the A and B buttons. Using B causes greater acceleration, but also increases the motorcycle’s temperature shown as a bar at the bottom of the screen. When the temperature exceeds safe limits the bar becomes full; the player will be immobilized for several seconds while the bike cools down. Driving over an arrow will immediately reduce the bike’s temperature.
The pitch of the motorcycle’s airborne trajectory can be modified with the X-axis of the directional pad: left raises the front, and right lowers the front. In the air, this rotates the bike, but can also be used to perform wheelies on the ground. Pushing up or down turns the handlebars left or right, respectively, when the bike is on the ground.
If the player crashes by colliding with an opponent or ramp, or by landing badly from a jump, the rider is knocked off the bike and lands in the field. Pushing A repeatedly allows the rider to run back to the bike and continue the race.
Excitebike has three modes of gameplay.
In Selection A, the player races solo.
In Selection B, CPU players join the player. They act as another form of obstacle.
In Design Mode, the player has the ability to build racing tracks.