"Each time you manage a long power slide, you could earn anywhere from one to five stars. Launching into the air and staying there for a lengthy period of time also yields a similar reward, as does weaving between perilous stands of trees or even crashing spectacularly. There's a substantial bonus if you cross the finish line first, but the person who wins is ultimately the one who bags the most stars."
The phrase "arcade-style racer" has been used so often to refer to lackluster console games that it has lost most of its value. Somewhere along the line, the term became shorthand for "racing title that isn't Gran Turismo." The problem, of course, is that there's more to an arcade racer than just crazy physics, a steering wheel and a coin slot. There's a whole design philosophy, one that many home releases have ultimately chosen to ignore. Fortunately, ExciteBots: Trick Racing isn't guilty of any such oversight.
As the latest in the Excite franchise, ExciteBots is unexpected because it abandons the relatively safe approach that its forerunners took. Instead of placing the player in control of simple motorbikes--as in the NES and Nintendo 64 classics--or even monster trucks like in Excite Truck, the developers chose a new approach: robots. It's the sort of move that will have purists screaming, but if you can get over the initial shock you'll find that the game offers precisely the same hook that its predecessors did: frantic action.
You'll arrive at the starting line in mech form. The timer counts down to the race's commencement and you'll hunch over into a new configuration that resembles a small creature such as a mouse or bat, or even an insects like a mantis or a ladybug.
Once the actual race begins and you surge across the starting line, it doesn't feel like you're working your way around a course so much as passing through it. That's an odd distinction, but a fitting one. In general, you'll find that the track is just a suggestion. There are numerous branches along the way, as well as possible revisions that you trigger by passing over gift boxes. You can even grab a large wrench that allows you to revert to mech form and crash through explosive barrels before taking to the air and gliding over an inlet while collecting butterflies. Or in another instance, you might find yourself choosing between two paths leading through a dense jungle. You can veer left like your competition, but you may also notice an upper bluff with a conspicuous present waiting to be unwrapped. Snag that and suddenly the landscape dips to reveal a pole from which you can vault ahead of your rivals, scoring yourself a few stars along the way.
Stars are very important in ExciteBots, by the way. As you race around each course, you'll obviously want to finish in first place if you can, but that's no guarantee that you'll win. It's quite possible to place second or third--even fourth--if you avoid living on the edge. Each time you manage a long power slide, you could earn anywhere from one to five stars. Launching into the air and staying there for a lengthy period of time also yields a similar reward, as does weaving between perilous stands of trees or even crashing spectacularly. There's a substantial bonus if you cross the finish line first, but the person who wins is ultimately the one who bags the most stars.
One of the best ways to claim the top ranking is to seek out the various poles that are placed throughout the course. Sometimes these are hidden and you'll only reveal their location by passing over one of the afore-mentioned gift boxes. More frequently, the poles are right out in the open, just waiting for some interaction. When you run into one, you could find yourself speedily ascending one in rapid loops before launching forward along a new ledge, or perhaps you'll spin around one repeatedly while moving the Wii Wheel in time with on-screen prompts. On several courses, particularly the late ones, victory or failure depends on your ability to navigate the environment in that fashion.
Success also depends heavily upon your proficiency with tricks. That last bit is easy to forget since you can unlock every race on the default difficulty setting without once performing so much as a 360-degree rotation, but the real joy in ExciteBots doesn't come until you embrace its every last quirk. If you're too focused on negotiating each tight turn, you might miss the chance to punt an over-sized soccer ball into a similarly massive net, or to knock over huge bowling pins or toss a dart at a board or slam a pie into a floating clown head. You'll almost certainly forgo the opportunity to launch from a dune and fly through a cave, whirling crazily the whole way, before arriving on a stone wall on the opposite side in time to launch into the air again and glide over the finish line. All of that might sound bizarre, perhaps even excessive, but ExciteBots takes those disparate play mechanics and weaves them seamlessly together.
Or perhaps I should say "almost seamlessly." Sometimes, there's so much going on at once that becomes overwhelming. This goes a long way toward capturing the arcade vibe, but it's not without drawbacks. Put plainly, ExciteBot features some of the floatiest controls you've ever encountered in a racer. Courses frequently require that you launch into the air, yet there's often only one proper way to approach a ramp. Everything else is wrong by varying degrees. Try to weave in from the side and you're likely to send yourself flying straight toward the outside edge of the course, only to come crashing down as an unsightly ball of scrap metal. Your vehicle is actually responsive when you're on the ground, but so much time is spent in the air that a failure to properly launch can sting for seconds and perhaps even cost you a race.
Another concern is the relative lack of course variety. What's here is great, but you'll see many of the same locales popping up throughout your tour of the various circuits. Your second visit to Fiji won't feel much different from the one before it, except that laps are longer and hazards perhaps more varied. It's unfortunate that more unique destinations weren't included. The good news--for many players--comes in two forms: mini-games and online play.
ExciteBots' mini-games, while lacking the thrills that the main mode provides, do add some value. One might see you zipping along a course in an effort to hit sets of bowling pins, much like in the main tracks only without interruptions. Another challenge is a circuit made up almost entirely of various poles that challenge your ability to leapfrog through in the shortest possible amount of time. Yet another diversion, one that is given its own placement from the title screen, asks players to collect 5-card hands, like in poker. As you negotiate courses, you'll have to hold the cards you like and try to drive over others that give you good combinations like 2 pair or a full house. It's all interesting, but it pales in the face of online play.
Finding competition online is a snap, plus racing against someone halfway across the continent means that you don't have to share the television screen with a sibling or friend. Once you establish a connection, you can choose either to race against existing buddies or to play against everyone. Assuming that you go with the latter option, you'll have to wait a few moments before joining an in-progress match for its concluding seconds. From there, it's back to the main lobby to make choices. Then you're in for the next round and--if you like--many to come. A wagers system ensures that you'll want to stick around, since winning big can add significant in-game funds to your account. These can be used to purchase extras such as new vehicles and user icons.
ExciteBots is an arcade-style racer that actually lives up to the label while providing one of the most unique experiences that we've yet seen from the genre. Though a disappointing lack of variety and floaty controls keep the game from scoring a home run, it's still one of the most engaging racing titles available for Wii. If you like things fast and furious, consider it a must-buy.
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 12, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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