Magic Frog's gonna lay you out.
Right out of left field (well, maybe not Left Field; that was Excitebike 64 – har har), Excitebots: Trick Racing has managed to impress me, against the odds. I’ll admit outright that I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from this one (Excite Truck was merely above average by my standards, though it was fun and unique). But part of my job as a reviewer is to begin each review with an open mind, and it’s a good thing that’s the case, because Excitebots is a whole heck of a lot better than it looks. Forget everything you’ve seen about this game—I’m here to tell you that it’s a blast, and that it’s absolutely worth your attention. Let me break it down for you.
Excitebots: Trick Release
Seen the videos? Probably—and more than likely what sticks in your mind is the fact that you’re racing with a bunch of shape-shifting bug vehicles and throwing pies at floating clown faces in the middle of the competition. But don’t let that deter you. True, Excitebots: Trick Racing looks like it should have been a Kids’ WB cartoon series instead of a Nintendo-published hardcore videogame, but it is, in fact, the latter. For all its chaotic tendencies and affinity for white-knuckle insanity, this game is actually a very competent action/racing/party game. In many ways, you might call it a faster-paced, more skill-oriented version of Mario Kart. It’s definitely not a game for racing fundamentalists (you don’t always technically even need to place first to win the match), but if you don’t mind a little extraneous circumstance in your racer formula, you owe this game a serious look.
If you played Excite Truck, you’ve already got a leg up on the Excitebots competition. It controls in much the same way, except tighter (and overall better—it’s honestly tough to go back). You still hold the Wii remote sideways and tilt to steer, and use the 1 and 2 buttons to brake/reverse and accelerate, respectively. While soaring through the air (something that happens a lot in the game thanks to the wildly exaggerated physics), you can also tilt forward/backward to control your pitch in classic Excitebike fashion. Likewise, the D-pad up/down offers a virtually unlimited supply of turbo, contingent only upon the temperature of your vehicle’s engine (shown via a gauge in the lower right-hand corner of the screen). If you overdo it, you’ll overheat.
But there are also plenty of new mechanics this time around that Excitebots uses to infuse itself with a much-needed dose of defining personality. For starters, there’s the fact that your star points determine your overall position in the contest (not that racing position is irrelevant by any means, as scoring first place nets you a crucial 50 stars, while second is just half that). These stars are earned by impressive performance during races—catching big air, narrowly missing trees (yes, tree runs are back), performing stunts, and the like. But don’t let the game’s title fool you: this isn’t some Tony Hawk- or Shaun White-esque package with a convoluted button-sequence trick memorization system or anything of the sort. Instead, the controls are all very straightforward and pretty immediately intuitive, and much of the “trick” execution is purely reactionary (at least, if you stick to the beaten path).
Shoot for the stars
Once again similar in style to Excite Truck, the game’s tracks are all very hilly and treacherous, filled with trees and other obstacles which can either hinder or bolster your progress. Rocketing off hills by turboing the instant you go airborne is critical to winning races and securing star points; while airborne, rotating the controller and holding a couple of buttons performs some additional stunts which earn you yet more stars.
A comparatively large portion of your stars, however, also comes from a variety of other wacky elements scattered throughout the courses which your bot-vehicle can use to perform specialized stunts and earn stars. Among these are the usual landscape-morphing tokens which in an instant turn hills into mountains and send rival racers soaring upward uncontrollably (these never get old). In addition to those are a number of other contextual elements new to Excitebots which you must master in order to succeed. Here are a few which you’ll find scattered around the game’s tracks in opportune places, along with short descriptions of how each factors into the gameplay:
Red Bars – Move your Wii-mote in a circular motion at a constantly-increasing speed to hook your bot onto it and spin around it gymnastically; these are mandatory for progress
Yellow Bars and Elevator Bars – Your bot spins around the bar automatically, but you must thrust your Wii-mote forward at the proper time to send it flying off in the intended direction. If you screw up, you’ll crash! These are used to great effect to produce a number of winding paths across the game’s wild racetracks.
Question Mark Blocks – Mario Kart, anyone? In Excitebots, you’ll find they contain power-ups as well, but more often than not they invoke some sort of zany spur-of-the-moment challenge which takes place right on the racetrack. Here are a few of those activities:
Soccer ball and goal – “Kick” the ball into the goal
Bowling pins – Run into the pins and try to knock as many over as possible
Field goal kick – Knock the ball in-between the u prights
Clown face – Throw a pie at the clown face
Assorted other items – Sometimes still more blocks appear, which play home to other useful items. Some of these can be used to attack the other racers, while still others simply provide an opportunity for more stars.
Transformation wrench – These turn you into the “leg form” of your robot racer, allowing you to run for a short distance by bouncing the Wii remote back and forth (it’s hard to get used to the rhythm at first). You’ll also sometimes run into ramps which either spring you into gliding mode (where you collect butterflies to “rescue” in exchange for stars) or send you careening across a wire collecting musical notes.
There’s even more than that, but you get the idea… this is a frenetic, unpredictable experience. And it’s one you’ll need to study, too, if you want to progress—since unlocking each new race of the 30 total requires you to score at least a B letter grade on the one before it (letter grades are awarded based on your star points). This generally isn’t too difficult, but the later races on Super Excite difficulty (which is unlocked by scoring an S rank on all Excite difficulty races) do get to be pretty tough. Your humble editor here has once again proven his dedication by unlocking all of the races in the game—including the elusive final race on Super Excite difficulty, which is hard enough to provoke a test of the protective dexterity of the rubber Wii-mote covers.
There’s also a variety of different vehicles available for purchase (each with its own attributes), as well as paint jobs, commemorative statues, and profile avatars—and the only currency in the game is star points. Most of these are ridiculously high-priced, so if you want to unlock everything, you’ll be playing for quite a long time (each race generally nets you, on average, around 300 stars... depending on skill level, of course). Fortunately, once you’re finished unlocking all the tracks, there’s still plenty to do—starting with the game’s challenge of obtaining all S-Ranks on Super Excite difficulty, which is practically impossible, by the way. There’s also ten mini-games, versus mode, a Poker Race mode (where you assemble poker hands by driving through desired cards on the track—lots of fun), and online gameplay for up to six simultaneous competitors (no voice chat, sadly). All of this works very well and adds plenty of lasting appeal to an already fairly solid hi-octane party racing package.
But let’s get back to the racing gameplay. Beyond all of that fancy superfluity, the tricky morphing landscapes coupled with the sprawling assortment of shortcuts makes for a fairly open-ended, nonlinear racing experience. There are boundaries, of course, as cutting too deeply into a corner would essentially be cheating… but for the most part, you can carve your own path through the various environments, sometimes weaving your way through a forest or bounding over seemingly-impossible terrain... and it’s deeply satisfying. It’s also rewarding, as the more secluded paths generally consist of near-miss “tree runs” or plenty of opportunity for airborne tricks. I’ll admit that in the later stages of my romp through the Super Excite difficulty in preparation for this review, I eventually devolved into a reckless rampage of star collection, blasting hazardously through forests in pursuit of the lucrative Tree Run awards and smashing into rival bots wherever possible. Frequently I’d end up in sixth (last) place, but that didn’t matter, because before I even crossed the finish line, I had gathered enough star points to move on.
Really the weakest link in all of this is—perhaps unsurprisingly—the Wii motion controls, which work well enough most of the time, but do occasionally fail. The most common situation in which you’ll find yourself cursing the little white console is when you’re working to cut a sharp turn at a high speed but instead enter into a drift (which is by design). Problematically, however, if you decide to keep moving your arms rotationally (which is natural instinct as far as I’m concerned), the game soon ends up confused and instead decides not to let you turn at all. At this point you have to reset your position and try turning all over again, and it can in fact cost you the race. Relatedly, tricks which depend on Wii remote gestures don’t always end up the way you’d planned them. While twirling off a trick bar high in the air, the game sometimes decides to ignore your repeated gestures indicating your desire to continue twirling. That type of thing quickly grows irritating, especially when playing on higher difficulties or against a challenging set of opponents online.
Other minor complaints include the removal of the SD card custom music option from the first game, the music serving as the replacement for such an option (the game’s fast-paced hyper-generic MIDI techno music is generally quite terrible to be perfectly honest), and, as previously mentioned, the lack of WiiSpeak support for online voice chat. The friend codes system is also, as usual, highly restrictive and quite a pain to deal with, but at least matching up with opponents is a fairly effortless process.
But having weighed all complaints, the game’s surprisingly appropriate balance provides an experience that is quite cohesive and mostly unintimidating. It’s indisputably challenging and hardcore in its depth, but simultaneously appealing to less-experienced gamers—and that’s what makes it a Nintendo title, even if it doesn’t sport the same thick level of polish we’re all accustomed to.