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Review: Excitebots: Trick Racing

2:00 PM on 05.19.2009 // Jonathan Holmes

Like Animal Crossing: City Folk, Excitebots: Trick Racing's name fails to even remotely describe what the game is really about. From its title alone, one could easily infer that Excitebots: Trick Racing is just like Excite Truck, only with robots and tricks. That would be like saying that Super Mario Bros. 3 is just like Super Mario Bros., except with more racoon-ass waggling. It may be true, but the statement does little to let you know what the game's real selling points are.

Where Excite Truck is as dry and unappealing as a crusty piece of half-cooked bread found at the bottom of your toaster, Excitebots is consistently funny, fast-paced, and most of all, engaging. It's a racing game that asks players to prioritize fly fishing, butterfly rescuing, and field goals over first-place finishes, where robot-cockroaches get crushed by giant rock monsters (and motherf*cking Master Hand from Super Smash Bros.) on a regular basis.

You really can't get a good idea of what this game is like by reading about it, but if you insist on trying, hit the jump for the full review.

Excitebots: Trick Racing (Wii)
Developer: Monster
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: April 20, 2009
MSRP: $39.99

The main thing I want you to know about Excitebots is that it's more fun than you probably think it is. Even if you've read reviews of the game or watched video of it, you probably still can't grasp what playing the game is really like. It shares that in common with the WarioWare games, which look relatively boring, but can be exciting as hell when you play them. Also worth noting is just how different Excitebots is from every other racer game on the market today. The only other racing game that even comes close is Uniracers, and saying that is quite a stretch.

Your main goal in Excitebots is to amass stars. Winning races is one way to get stars, but others include making sandwiches and playing poker, or smashing into your enemies, or smashing yourself into a tree. It's rare for more than a few seconds to go by without another bizarre star grabbing opportunity to present itself, which is where the WarioWare comparison continues. Excitebots forces your mind to switch gears at a quick and constant pace in a way that is not unlike WarioWare at its best. All the game needs is WarioWare characters and art design, and the signature ticking time bomb at the bottom of the screen, and it could have easily been sold as WarioWare Kart.

Speaking of karts, the game can be played Mario Kart Wii-style via the Wii Wheel, or with the Wii Remote alone à la Excite Truck. The basics are simple enough ("2" button for gas, turn to... turn), but the controls do get more complicated as you go, particularly when first getting the hang of doing aerial spins or gymnastic flips off the horizontal bar. There are also bits where your robot gets up on his hind legs and starts running, requiring you to jostle the controller back and forth like a see-saw. Since your 'bot's steering is also controlled by tilting the Wii remote, these brief sections (which usually end in a gigantic, butterfly-rescuing, sky-diving climax) can be a little bit hard to control, but not in a way that seems unintentional. It all just works to add to the sense of controlled chaos that the game is shooting for... most of the time. 

That's the main problem with Excitebots: it only partially commits to its own weirdness. The game's music is painfully mundane, as phoned-in as any game soundtrack in recent memory. The graphics are well-crafted enough, but they really lack personality. Tracks are set in generic locales such as "Mexico" and "Scotland," though they could have just as easily be called "desert" and "forest." The 'bots themselves also share in the overall blandness of the title. Actually, they're more than just bland; they're downright off-putting. Maybe it's the fact that their inclusion just comes off as unexplained and forced, or the fact that robot-cars that aren't Transformers have a long history of sucking (sorry, Go-Bots), but the the Excitebots in Excitebots are not only unexciting -- they are a little insulting.  I half expected them to yell "Bling Bling!" or "Check out my Tweets on!" as victory quotes -- that's how much they seem to be pandering to "whatever the kids like these days." 

Though they do make a crappy first impression, the 'bots do grow on you, as does the game as a whole. For the first half hour or so, it feels a bit like all style and no substance. From the very start, it's consistently fun to see what new trick the game will throw at you, and the sense of speed and control inherent to the Excite Truck engine is nice, but it all feels a little too easy. Unlike Mario Kart, the game only pits you against five other racers at a time, so as long as you use your turbo consistently and economically (just enough to not overheat), you'll likely cruise through the first five tracks without a problem.

After the fifth race, the game starts to really pick up. From that point on, you really have to learn to make the most of your air time, memorize each track's particular tricks and secrets, and -- most importantly -- learn to pull of each trick to its utmost potential. There is a pretty steep learning curve in mastering all the game's tricks, mostly because there are just so damned many of them. I haven't gotten an accurate count as of yet, but from what I know, there are least forty tricks in the game. This includes anything from rhythm-based tricks (like playing a tambourine and pulling off chimey rail grinds), to airborne tricks (like spins and flips), to purely action tricks (like smashing into other 'bots, or screwing with Master Hand) -- not to mention the various sports- and "comedy"-related tricks (bowling, sandwich building, etc.) There are even combos and bonuses for pulling off tricks in tandem.

Finding that sense of mastery over these techniques makes the game almost feel like a fighter, or at least like a classic Tony Hawk title. Just like with those games, the better you get at Excitebots, the more fun it gets. After playing the game for over three hours, my intended review score for the game went up by a full point. It's a little irritating that it takes that long for the game to really make the most of itself, but it's definitely worth putting the time in to get there, as the intial shock value of the game's trick system does plenty to entertain you along the way. 

If you get tired of campaign mode, there are also a series of "mini-games," which are really just stunt challenges, perfect for learning some of the game's more difficult tricks (poker, soccer, and Master Hand dodging, to name a few). Like the rest of the game, these modes only allow for two-player offline competition, something of a downgrade compared with most racing games. To make up for it, the game's online mode is perhaps the smoothest running on the Wii to date. Matchmaking is quicker than in Mario Kart Wii, and the game has yet to lag on me. 

Adding to the already high level of replay value is the game's enormous set of unlockables. There are alternate versions of each 'bot to buy (the bat becomes Dracula, the centipede becomes a dragon, and so on), all-new 'bots, new paint jobs for old 'bots, RE4/RE5-style statues of 'bots, and a new set of tracks to grab -- but only those with the persistence necessary to get an "S" rank on every track will see it all. Fortunately, you don't have to play the tracks in Excitebots in circuit-style chunks, meaning that if you screw up in the middle of the bronze cup, you won't have to play the entire cup over again to get a decent rank.

In the end, Excitebots is just a hair less satisfying than the best of racing games, but compensates well for its shortcomings with nearly endless amounts of peculiar, one-of-a-kind tricks. For Wii owners who love wacky racers but are sick to death of snaking and blue shells, the straightforward skill-based gameplay of Excitebots is an excellent alternative to Mario Kart Wii. Strangely enough, the only firm complaint I can make about the game is that it looks a lot more generic and uninspired than it actually is. Give this game a chance, and I guarantee that you'll have more fun than the title and box art would lead you to believe.

Score: 7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)

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Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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