Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 21, Excitebots: Trick Racing

A game you need to play to understand, but I'm going to try to explain it, anyway.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

There is no racing game like Excitebots: Trick Racing, not even in the rest of the long running Excite series. It's unique, it's special, it's packed with fun and weirdness and wonderful ideas, and it is legitimately challenging to master and complete. It is a game that was well before its time, the kind that, if it released today, would probably benefit from streamers showing off all of its odd glory and significant challenge. Instead, though, it came out in 2009, on the Wii, after the world had already been graced with the latest iteration of Mario Kart. While less “casual” folks were focusing more on their Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 than a system unfairly derided by many, in spite of its impressive (and growing) library. Excitebots never stood a chance, even if it deserved to.

Nintendo of America did a horrid job of promoting Excitebots when it released back in 2009, even though it came in a month where it was the only potentially significant release on the system: the calendar was free of other major Nintendo releases, as well as significant third-party contributions. Despite this, the weird racer very much in need of marketing and promotion didn’t get very much of it: the only real evidence we have that Nintendo didn’t forget about the game the second it launched is that it also got a digital release on the Wii U shop years later.

The reception from critics didn’t help much, either: I had the sense at the time that it was just a little too weird for them*, and was less obvious and immediate about its greatness than something more familiar like Mario Kart, to be treated fairly in reviews. For example, my own review of Excitebots at its release was a full letter grade and then some above what the Metacritic consensus turned out to be. Excitebots, ranking at number 21 on this list, is pretty obviously the game in these rankings with the most significant gap between its review scores and my (accurate) placement of it here. If you’ve spent any time with the game, then you know that I’m on the right side of the debate. And if not? Well, go find a copy, because they aren’t expensive, and I’m still playing my original a decade-plus later.

*I should point out that quite a few outlets did award Excitebots the kind of score I myself did, but they are mostly the kind of places that Metacritic weighs less heavily in its formula, which prioritizes larger outlets as more important. So, for instance, a whole bunch of A’s and 9’s from smaller outlets doesn’t erase in the algorithm that, for instance, Edge Magazine gave it a 4/10. Presumably because that particular reviewer lacks the ability to feel joy. Of the 29 scores listed, 21 of them are better than Metacritic’s “average” score for Excitebots of 77. Your math sucks, website, this game kicks ass.

Excitebots is kind of difficult to explain — you really need to experience it to truly get it — but I’m going to give it a shot, anyway. It’s the sequel to Excite Truck (which, like Excitebots and Excitebike: World Rally, was developed by Monster Games), itself a sequel to Excitebike 64, itself a sequel to the original Excitebike, but really only in the sense that the game retains the series’ use of hills and well-timed and landed jumps with the ability to boost until your vehicle is about to or does overheat from it. It shares nothing else with the previous games in the series, because this game isn’t about racing dirt bikes or trucks: it’s about racing vehicles that are in the shape of animals and insects, vehicles that have robot arms for grabbing poles found on the race track that they launch themselves from, vehicles that can stand up on two legs to run through forests crashing through trees instead of driving sometimes. Vehicles that, mid-race, might attempt to hit a home run with a baseball bat held in their robot arm, in order to score more points and increase their chances of winning the race.

I told you it was hard to explain! Excitebots takes place in real-world locations, but nothing else about it feels real. Imagine this: your race car is in the shape of a centipede. You drive up a hill, hit the turbo button just before cresting, and launch yourself over a number of racers below you that stuck to the road thanks to the boost this gives you. While airborne, you decide to attempt a 1440° spin, since, what else are you going to do while floating up there? Not only do you rotate enough to pull off the difficult move, but you land your centipede car just right on the ground, and gain another speed boost because of it. You then steer into a mystery box while your free boost propels you forward without costing you use of your turbo, to see what’s inside. It turns out to be a football, which is placed in the middle of an upcoming portion of the race track. You drive into the football at just the right angle, and send it careening through the uprights further down the track. Your successful mid-race field goal has just earned you additional stars, on top of the ones your jump and your spin and your landing already earned you. These stars are not only currency for unlocking other animal/insect vehicles, but they also determine where you finish in this race’s rankings.

You earn stars for literally everything. For jumping, for landing, for crashing. For successfully launching yourself from the bars and poles scattered throughout stages that give you a major speed boost. For failing to launch yourself from those poles correctly, but successfully righting your car before it can crash because of your failure. For pulling off mid-air spins, for the amount of time you’re in the air, for driving perilously close to trees that will explode your vehicle if you hit them at the speed you’re going. For kicking a field goal, yes, but also for perfectly timing the swing of a bat at a pitch literally delivered from the sky, for using your car as a bowling ball to take down as many of 10 bowling pins as you can, for kicking a soccer ball into a goal with your car, for throwing a dart with your robot arm close to a floating bullseye, for throwing a pie at a clown’s face, for successfully making a sandwich while racing, for finishing the little bit of a song that plays by using a tambourine. You get the sense everyone making Excitebots had just a little bit of fun.

The game doesn’t tell you any of this, really, but that’s not a criticism. You discover it by racing, by trying out different paths, by hitting the various item and event boxes on the course. The surprise of it all is lovely at first, and, once you know, it’s up to you to do something with the knowledge you’ve attained. Some boxes have items in them, like a rocket that straps itself to the back of vehicle and lets you reenact the climactic chase scene from the end of Toy Story, or the chattering teeth toy that will hunt down your closest foe and wreck their vehicle by biting it. Some event boxes can reshape the environment, creating a hill out of a flat surface: if any cars happen to be on that portion of track as it raises from the ground, they’ll be launched off course, and you’ll get to do a jump off of the hill, to boot. And some of those event boxes let you perform any of the above sports-and-pie-related mini-games that occur mid-race. Trying to drive as fast and in control as you can while also attempting to hit the bullseye on a dart board is about as simple as it sounds, but it’s worth the effort.

You should do the training before you hit the track: it takes little time, and it does set you up with knowledge of the basics. How to drive at all, how to use turbo, jumping, turbo jumps, air spins. These are all vital, but basic, components of an Excitebots race. The rest — learning to essentially see through time and space so you can come close to but avoid hitting trees while taking a shortcut, for instance — you will learn through experience and practice.

That’s not an exaggeration of what you’ll feel like you’re doing, by the way. Check out this late-game course and how absolutely bonkers it looks to crush it:

Seriously, watch that video and the one embedded earlier, or else some of this is just weird to picture. In action, it’s incredible, it’s undeniably wonderful, and a mix of adrenaline-injecting and pure joy to play.

You’ll notice the music is extremely hectic and fast-paced. It fits the game, though, like with this stage itself, the music isn’t always quite this intense. Close enough, though, which is how arcade racers should feel and make you feel. This isn’t a racer you sit back to enjoy. This is edge-of-your-seat, leaning forward stuff.

You don’t need to finish in first place in order to win an Excitebots race. Don’t get me wrong, it helps, as the star bonus for placing first is considerably larger than the stars you receive for any other placement. But if you’ve spent a lot of time on the course racking up stars doing tricks, finding shortcuts, narrowly avoiding death by tree, and so on, you might not need to finish in first to win. More so than where you finish, what matters is how many stars you picked up in total, because those determine your grade. There are D, C, B, A, and S ranks. The latter require near perfection and perfection in order to get them, which isn’t so tough on the standard “Excite” difficulty after you’ve gotten used to the game’s quirks. On “Super Excite,” though, the real challenge begins. It’s the same courses as on Excite, only tougher, with more difficult opponents and what might seem like impossible star thresholds for high grades at first.

You’ll get there with practice, though. Once you have at least a B rank on every Super Excite course, you’ll unlock the final “Crystal” course, the only one in the game not based on a real-world location. And once you have an S rank on every single course, you’ll unlock mirror versions of all of them. As you can imagine, after hours and hours learning the ins and outs of every course so you can twitch race your way through them for maximum scoring, mirrored versions of those experiences are an entirely new challenge.

You’ll want to experiment with vehicles. The game keeps track of how many times you’ve used a particular vehicle, and once you’ve used one 10 times, additional vehicles become available to unlock. You use your stars to purchase them, then you race with those, and unlock even more vehicles, again and again. It’s worth playing around with them for reasons other than just to unlock more, as well, since you get much better vehicles through unlocking than you start out with. Better boost, better handling: these are necessary for completing the more difficult, later courses, especially on the tougher difficulties.

The game is controlled with the Wii Remote or the Wii Wheel. Turning is done with tilt with the former, normal turning with the latter. You accelerate with the 2 button, use Turbo by pressing up or down on the D-pad, and hold down 1 while tilting the remote back-and-forth while in mid-air to spin. The motion controls work very well, better than in Mario Kart Wii, which I didn’t have any problem with, in part because the emphasis here is so much more on where the nose of the vehicle is pointing then on large, looping turns like in some Kart courses. This is closer to F-Zero style arcade play than anything else from Nintendo’s racing history, so simple tilting gets you there without the need for any grand motions to get a corner just right.

The three difficulty levels of single player would be enough, but there is also a versus mode, where two players can face off against each other instead of one player going it solo. There was online multiplayer and the ability to challenge someone on your friend list to beat your score, but with the Nintendo WiFi service gone, that’s no longer an option. There is still so much to do here even with that significant chunk of the game just gone, though. All of those weird little mini-games I mentioned before? They have their own section in which you can practice them and attempt higher scores. They are not only fun score attack modes on their own, but can help you practice for the real thing mid-race, too. There is also a Poker Mode, where you drive around a course attempting to create a poker hand by collecting cards on the course, all while actively racing. These are all so much fun, and have local multiplayer, so they’re good for practice as mentioned or just for some less intense, and weird, fun with a friend.

Plus, whatever stars you earn here are added to your overall total, and can then be used to unlock more vehicles. So you’re not “wasting” time by playing around in these modes instead of replaying races again and again.

The criticisms of Excitebike I can muster are pretty meaningless from a big picture point of view. The environments aren’t stellar to look at, really, but you’re driving through them at a million miles per hour, focusing on specific points ahead of you and in your HUD while trying to keep an eye on the road, so I’m not all that concerned that the trees are sometimes too obviously made of polygons when you crash into them and the game slows down. The game runs at a locked in frame rate even when there are roughly a million things happening on screen at once: like with F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64, the fact that it’s such a smooth, intense racer matters a lot more than how detailed the backgrounds are. You can’t put a custom soundtrack on like you could with Excite Truck, but the music of this game matches the intensity of what you’re doing so well that I agree with the choice to get rid of that feature here. Excite Truck is good, mind you, but it’s much more of a generic racer where any music will do than Excitebots is. Excitebots is… it’s Excitebots. There’s nothing like it. So let the full measure of the Excitebots experience work for you.

There are only a couple of racers Nintendo has ever made that are better than Excitebots, which, despite its nature as a relative unknown, is the crowning achievement of the Excite series, and easily the top racer on the Wii by Nintendo or anyone else. It has aged phenomenally, to the point I like it more now than I did when it came out, and, as mentioned, I liked it more back then than plenty of people. It’s a true gem of Nintendo’s extensive library, one so many overlooked, but there’s still time to fix that issue if you have a Wii or a Wii U. It’s trending for under $10 on ebay as I type this: I would pay $60, easy, for an HD re-release of it right now, because I know I’d still be playing it over a decade from now, just like I still play the original.

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