Monday, April 29, 2013

Excitebots - Way More Fun Than It Has Any Right To Be

Platform: Wii   Genre: Racing   Release: April 20th, 2009 (NA)
There's a reason why I don't give the games I review a score and Excitebots: Trick Racing is a perfect example of it. Although the game has several aspects and missteps that would result in a critic detracting from the game's score, what really matters (fun) is still delivered in spades in spite of the game's technical flaws. 

So let me get those flaws out of the way first so you forget about them by the end of the review. First of all, the music, graphics, and presentation in general are average and forgettable. The animal-themed bots are more interesting than the trucks in Excitebots's predecessor, Excite Truck, but they'll never be as iconic as other Nintendo characters. Similarly, the environments, which are supposed to be themed on real-world countries, are simply not very memorable. The graphics are fine, but the art direction will leave you remembering levels as "that tropical level" or "that desert level", which still doesn't help you to remember which tropical level or desert level was the one you liked. The music is functional, but nothing special, and it's disappointing that the option to use music from an SD card that was present in Excite Truck is no longer available in Excitebots. Another complaint that many might have is that the game requires you to use motion controls to play, by holding the Wii remote sideways. Steering in this way works well, but some of the tricks can be awkward and feel gimmicky. 
Maybe this red bar acts as a loading buffer, but it uses annoying motion controls and interrupts the flow of the race.
Now that all of those complaints are out of the way, allow me to explain why Excitebots is so darn fun. Firstly, rather than simply racing to finish first, the goal in this game is to earn the most stars by the end of the race. Of course, you'll earn more stars if you finish first, but if you do enough stunts during the race, you can still win without finishing first. It follows that these stunts form the majority of the game, but you shouldn't think of them as just doing flips and spins like in some SSX or Tony Hawk game; Excitebots rewards you with stars for doing absolutely everything. As you might expect, you'll get stars for drifting, catching air, performing spins, and ramming other players, but you'll also get them for taking difficult paths through trees without crashing, launching off of floating bars, completing any of the many mid-race challenges, and even for crashing. The mid-race challenges are hella random and are usually triggered by passing through an exclamation point marker. They include sports themed challenges such as bowling pins appearing on the track to hit, hitting a baseball, soccer ball, or football, throwing a pie in a clown's face, hitting a tambourine with good timing, flying through rings, rescuing butterflies, throwing darts, fishing, and constructing sandwiches. 
Sometimes we all need to be rewarded for our sandwiches.

There's no rhyme or reason to these challenges, but the constant opportunities for more stars that they offer and the fact that you have to balance completing the tasks while driving makes them surprisingly fun. It's this constant positive reinforcement that the game gives you in the form of stars that makes playing so enjoyable. If you suck, you'll still be getting stars, and if you're good, the game makes you feel good by pouring out nonstop rewards and notifications of your achievements. You can then use the stars you've earned in single player or online to unlock new vehicles, colors, icons, and other collectibles.

The other thing that makes Excitebots so satisfying is how ridiculous and awesome the physics are. As well as making the previously mentioned challenges appear, the exclamation points on the track can also deform the track to create hills and valleys which work as ramps or shortcuts. Many of the ramps are huge, but even off of small ramps you'll be able to perform turbo jumps, which send you flying forward with a satisfying "whoosh" of flame. You're also able to control yourself in midair, and the motion controls allow for pivoting in all directions with ease. The boosting, which is used for the turbo jumps and just gaining speed in general, is limited by an overheat meter on the side, so you'll want to be careful to use as much boost as possible without overheating. Luckily, driving through shallow water will instantly reset your boost meter. Like the rest of the game, it doesn't matter if it makes real world sense; it's there because it's fun.
Catching huge air is so satisfying.
Apart from the two difficulties of normal races and mirror mode, there are also a few minigames. The majority of the minigames are simply challenges consisting of completing certain mid-race events consistently. These act as a good practice area if you find that you aren't able to figure out the events in the chaotic campaign races. 
Honestly, compared to the rest of the game, this isn't even weird.
Separate from those is Poker Race, which has you racing around one of three tracks while trying to swap cards from your hand with those on the track in order to get pairs, flushes, runs, and other scoring sets. As you might imagine, it's quite challenging to pay attention to the cards and the track at the same time. Playing against friends can be quite fun in this mode since you'll both be racing for a limited supply of cards and also for the first place finish bonus. 

Unfortunately, while this game does have online play and the ability send your records to friends, the online community is pretty much dead now (if the servers are even functional at all) and with WiiConnect24 being phased out on June 28th, 2013, you won't be able to share your records any more either. But don't let that stop you from trying out the game; going for all S ranks in single player is the real meat of the game and you won't be missing out too much if you can't get online.

The Final Word:
It doesn't look like much, but Excitebots is an incredibly fun and unique racing experience. If you can, you should definitely give it a try.
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