The comic ridiculousness of Mario Kart, the speed of Burnout, and a few new twists? Anyone who hears that and thinks “sign me up” won’t be at all disappointed with ExciteBots: Trick Racing. A sequel to the Wii launch title Excite Truck and a distant descendant of the NES classic Excitebike, it’s an over-the-top, gimmick-packed gift to the ADHD generation: players pilot an assortment of metal bugs and small animals through obstacle-strewn tracks.
The racing itself is pretty simple, even mundane. Hold the Wii-mote on its side, with or without a Wii Wheel, and tilt it to steer. Use the 1 and 2 buttons to brake and accelerate. The B button and D-pad provide boost (which is unlimited, as it was in Excite Truck, the caveat being that you’ll “overheat” if you boost for too long). That’s it.
The reason the racing is so bare-bones, though, is that you’ll hardly ever just be racing. The tracks are full of hills, and whenever your wheels leave the ground you can hit the boost button to jump higher and farther. Once in the air, you can hold brake and turbo at the same time, and then turn the wheel left and right to spin around. You’ll run over boxes, which do everything from change the terrain ahead to give you mini-game tasks to complete while driving. You might have to hit a clown face with a pie, throw a dart at a board, catch a fish from the course’s water, knock a soccer ball into a net (or football through goalposts), or even smack your opponents with a hammer.
Then there are bars. When you come to a horizontal red bar, your character starts spinning around it like a gymnast, and you have to move your Wii-mote back and forth in sync with the spinning. The more in sync you are, the faster you’ll get off the bar, and if you get out of sync, it’s hard to get back on track. The other bars in ExciteBots also make you spin around them, but can be horizontal or vertical. To get off them, all you have to do is push the Wii-mote forward, the catch being that if you time the release wrong, you’ll crash.
These bizarre tasks are so important because, in ExciteBots, winning the game isn’t just about winning the race. Rather, the key to winning the game is collecting stars. Winning the race helps (a first-place finish gets you 50 stars, for example), but completing the other tasks can make up for a bad finish. You can get away with a lot of crashing if you can nail all the turbo-jumping, spinning, and mini-games. Even drifting and smashing into other cars give you stars. At the end of each race you’re awarded a grade, the highest of which is S, followed by, A, B, etc.
The single-player experience is well-put-together, though it’s home to some frustrations. There are six different cups to work through: School, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Crystal. When you earn at least a B grade in each of the races in a cup, you unlock the next. From there, you can unlock a higher difficulty by earning S grades on all the tracks, and even then there’s still a Mario Kart Wii-style Mirror mode left. Various new bots, colors, and useless bonus items (like statues) also unlock as you work your way through the game, though you have to buy them with the stars you’ve accumulated.
On early tracks, you can earn a B in just a couple tries, especially if you choose bots whose attributes (weight, cornering grip, turbo) match the course. However, we found many of the later tracks to be quite a bit more demanding, starting with the Gold cup. Getting even a B can take about an hour’s worth of work (each race usually takes three to five minutes). So, prepare for a challenge, especially when you go back for S rankings, and then on to the higher difficulty.
Even when we found ExciteBots more infuriating than fun, we always felt compelled to go back for just one more attempt. This won’t be the case for everyone, though. For some, the aforementioned star system will be a deal-breaker. Still others will find the rubber-banding excessive.
The game’s varying responses to crashes can be off-putting as well; sometimes, you have to keep trying the same trick over and over until you get it right, while your opponents get farther and farther ahead, but other times, you can crash without even losing a place. Finally, the controls aren’t always as responsive as they could be, especially when it comes to cornering, performing the mid-air spin trick, and trying to move the Wii-mote in sync with your character’s bar antics.
After honing skills on the main single-player game, players can explore a few other modes. In one, you can simply play the mini-games without any opponents around. Another is “Poker” racing – a dumb idea that somehow ended up on the final disc – where you drive around the track with your poker hand displayed at the bottom of the screen and come across a row of five cards. You select which card you want to discard with the D-pad, and drive through the card you want instead. When you have a hand you’re happy with, you cash it in for stars and get a new hand. The racing element comes into play because if other bots beat you to the row of new cards, they get first pick. There’s some novelty value, but it’s not something that’s worth mastering.
ExciteBots also features split-screen and online multiplayer, both of which are likely to become fan favorites. They work pretty much the way you’d expect them to, except that online you have to pick an amount of stars to wager on each race, and you’re rewarded with (or lose) stars depending on your performance. The game is popular enough that it’s easy to find matches over the Internet, and we noticed no technical problems with either of the multiplayer modes.
The presentation here is excellent, though there isn’t much improvement over Excite Truck. The graphics are top-of-the-line, at least as far as the Wii is concerned, and the high speeds never trip up the framerate. Loading times are never noticeable. There’s a nice variety of tracks from around the world, each with its own personality and detailed setting. The bots’ animations are cute and fluid. The sound is also handled well, with upbeat, catchy rock/dance music that somehow never gets annoying. The effects don’t stand out much, but they’re suitably hyper, bouncy, and light-hearted.
The Wii has a great controller for racing, but so far it hasn’t seen too many good racing games. Excite Truck was one exception, and ExciteBots is most certainly another: it’s enjoyable, fast, challenging, and delightfully absurd. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch, but it’s definitely worthy of a place in any racing fan’s library.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.6 Graphics
Some of the best the Wii has seen, though there’s little improvement over Excite Truck. 3.0 Control
The Wii-mote is great for racing, but some of the maneuvers don’t always work. 3.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is upbeat and catchy, but never gets annoying. The sound effects do their job. 4.5
There’s a lot to unlock here, and many challenges to overcome in doing so.
4.3 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.