I'll confess that I didn't come into Excitebots: Trick Racing with particularly high expectations. This is largely because its predecessor, Excite Truck, struck me as pretty half-assed, both in its arcade-racing execution and its feebly manufactured connection to the classic Excitebike. You can see many of the ideas from Truck at work in Bots, some of them copied verbatim, but the rest of the game has been built up with an unhindered enthusiasm for high-speed chaos and a stance towards physics and reality in general that borders on contempt. It's a sugar-rush of a racing game, one that spends as much energy trying to distract you from the race as it does demanding that you give it all of your attention.
Like Excite Truck, Excitebots is an arcade-style racing game with a focus on big jumps and lots of speed. The basic control profile is almost identical, with you holding the Wii Remote sideways, tilting it to steer. Excitebots also touts support for the Wii Steering Wheel, and you can buy the game bundled with the wheel, though the net effect is that you're tilting the remote in a slightly different way. The core handling is kind of mushy, but the track designs tend towards lots of straightaways and multitiered jumps, and they rarely feature serpentine turns that demand much more precision than what is offered. In a way, the handling actually magnifies the sensation that you are perpetually on the verge of going completely out of control--a sensation that I find elusive, but immensely satisfying.
It helps that, amongst the things you need to concern yourself with during a race, the actual racing isn't always at the top of the list. Regardless of which mode you're playing in Excitebots, stars are the metric by which success is determined. You'll earn some stars for finishing a race in a top position, but you'll get more for catching massive air, performing aerial tricks, drifting around corners, and slamming into other racers over the course of a race. The game will even toss you a star when you crash. The best way to earn stars, though, is by successfully activating the totally insane triggers that litter the tracks.
As in Excite Truck, you'll find triggers on the track that will change the shape of the course in front of you, usually for the purpose of creating a big-ass ramp where there previously wasn't one. This is, far and away, the tamest of the triggers in Excitebots. Many are sports-themed, requiring you knock over giant bowling pins or knock a giant soccer ball into a goal. Some are just crazy, requiring you to throw a pie at a giant, floating clown face, or construct a fabled “super sandwich” while attached to a grind rail. Tracks are also littered with glowing bars that you can swing around by moving the Wii Remote in a specific way, building up momentum to ultimately send you flying through the air with great vigor.
Now, if I haven't yet made this clear, the vehicles that you're driving in Excitebots are transforming-car robots that look like animals. It's mostly insects, but there are creatures like a bat, a mouse, and a turtle in the mix as well. I can't make much sense out of the reasoning behind the animal theme, but the fact that they're robots is material to the gameplay. You'll find wrench icons on specific sections of track, which will transform your car-bot into a leg-bot for a short stretch. It requires you to rock the remote back and forth to create speed, which makes steering even harder, though the upside is that you can move at incredible speeds, plowing through otherwise impenetrable obstacles.
If I have a complaint about Excitebots, it's that there doesn't seem to be a huge number of tracks in the game. The standard race mode consists of five different cups, and by the time you hit the third cup, you've seen just about all of them. It's less of an issue than it might seem, since the way bars and triggers are distributed can have a profound effect on how a track plays.
Once you play through the first set of races in the excite mode, you gain access to the rest of Excitebots' goodies. Top of the list is poker race, which is almost exactly what it sounds like. You're competing in a race on a standard track, but you're also trying to make five-card poker hands by picking up giant cards on the track. Different types of hands will net you varying amounts of stars, though if you end up with five cards you don't like, you can use the D-pad to select one of them, allowing you to replace it with the next card you collect. There's a real pat-your-head-and-rub-your-belly challenge to making poker hands while hurtling across a dirty racetrack, which is kind of a definining characteristic of Excitebots in general. It's certainly true of the minigames, which put the spotlight on the goofy triggers and contraptions you happen upon during regular races.
The online mode in Excitebots is pretty to-the-point, allowing you to jump into either a standard race or a poker race with randoms, or trade Excitebots-specific codes to play with your buddies. It's the very definition of irony that the way the whole friend code system has been implemented actually makes it profoundly more difficult to play with your friends than strangers, though to its credit, Excitebots allows you to send specific performance challenges and replays to folks who are on your general Wii friends list. What makes the online in Excitebots of particular interest to me is the way it will let you wager stars you've earned in other modes on an online race. Stars are basically currency in Excitebots, so the ability to lose them all or double your money based on your performance really heightens the risk/reward online.
As time passes, it gets harder and harder to find games that can actually offer a surprise, so I found the ways in which Excitebots managed to catch me off-guard to be quite pleasing. Even amongst its arcade-style ilk, Excitebots isn't a very nuanced racing game, but it's loud, ridiculous, and crazy enough to be plenty of fun anyway.