Developer: Monster Games
Release Date: November 19, 2006
For all the millions invested by Nintendo in marketing for the Nintendo Wii, is “Excite Truck” really the best name they could come up with for their premier launch racer? What does that say about the game itself? Based on the name alone, I would suspect that the actual game is rather dull and mediocre, thus requiring an “exciting” name to prop it up.
Yet, for all my qualms about how Excite Truck rolls off the tongue, it actually serves as one of the most literal titles in all of gaming. Yes, Excite Truck features trucks, and it is definitely exciting. Though the name is intended as an homage to the Excite Bike series that started on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Excite Truck feels more like a spiritual update to Midway’s Thunder series, putting the emphasis on high-speed antics in an arcade-style setting with zero regard for realism.
In fact, calling it a racing game might be considered a stretch for some. Sure, you compete against five other trucks in a dash for the finish line, but your ability to win is not dependent entirely on your placement. Theoretically, you could finish in sixth place and still be the victor.
So what’s the deal? Excite Truck uses a system of stars, which can be earned in several unique ways during the race. Earning the specified number of stars by the time you finish allows you to move on to the next event, while placing below will force you to give it another shot. True, the easiest way to earn points in Excite Truck is to finish quickly, but placing in first does not guarantee a win. The amount of stars needed to move on typically ranges from 95 to 250, depending on the length of the course and the difficulty level (Excite or Super Excite). However, finishing in first place will only net you 50 stars, while second place is worth 25 stars, and so on and so forth (except for sixth, which is worth zero stars).
Nabbing the other stars can be done in a variety of ways, with many dependent on your own personal performance and flair. Earning those stars will require a mastery of the control scheme, which manages to be both simple and rather versatile at the same time. Like Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam, the Wiimote is held sideways like an NES controller, with the d-pad on the left. Steering your truck is as simple as tilting the Wiimote to the left or to the right, and like Downhill Jam, the steering is incredibly precise. Excite Truck sports an incredible learning curve, as your first few hours will likely find you steering into tree after tree. If you turn too hard, the Wiimote may enter a dead zone and cease to steer properly, though it doesn’t happen enough to derail the experience.
In time, you will gain a better sense of how to stay on the track and avoid obstacles. Some of the unlockable trucks have more manageable steering, so keep an eye out for those if you are still having trouble. Acceleration is mapped to the 2 button, while the brakes are utilized by pressing the 1 button. The d-pad has no control over steering, and is instead used to control your boost. Pressing in any direction will launch you forward and drain the boost meter in the lower right corner of the screen. Additionally, you should tap in any direction immediately after getting some air, as it will give you a Turbo Jump that significantly increases the amount of distance you can traverse.
Once you get in the air, you can use the motion-sensing properties of the Wiimote to control how long you stay afloat, which also affects how many stars you will earn for that particular jump. Tilting the Wiimote towards your body will pull the nose of the truck towards the sky, giving you a significant amount of wind resistance (and thus, more hang time). Tilting the Wiimote towards the television will aim the truck at the ground, quickly ending the jump. How you land is also important, as putting all four tires down at the same time will grant you a landing boost. Naturally, this is also done by tilting the Wiimote in all directions.
Though the learning curve can be maddening, the control scheme ultimately feels quite comfortable in time, and allows for a lot of action with little physical effort. In time, you will be drifting, smashing competitors, and speeding through forests with ease, gaining a heap of stars in the process. Still, the amount of crashes in each race always seems a bit excessive, as nearly any tree or large rock can lead to your demise. If you crash, you’ll have to mash the 2 button until your truck is revived, though you will get a quick boost in the process. Bizarrely enough, the game will grant you a star for each crash, no matter the reason. Take ‘em where you can get ‘em.
Excite Truck features 19 main tracks spread across six locales: Mexico, Fiji, Canada, Scotland, Finland, and China. Each location has its own distinct style of terrain, with Fiji featuring beaches, while Scotland sports more of a forest setting with the occasional castle wall. In the Excite Race mode, the 19 tracks are separated into four cups, and earning an S rating on each track will unlock the Super Excite difficulty, which uses the same tracks, but with more challenging competitors. Finishing each track on the Super Excite difficulty will unlock a bonus course that is literally out of this world. It was unexpected, to say the least.
Scattered throughout the tracks are floating exclamation mark icons that, when hit, morph the terrain. It is a very strange new addition to the genre that keeps things fresh and can give you a tactical advantage. Activating an icon often causes a large hill to spring up in front of you, so if you are closely trailing your competitors, the emerging hill will launch them into the sky, giving you stars for a Truck Throw. More importantly, though, the morphed terrain may allow you to pull off a wicked jump, so it is usually in your best interest to hit every icon in sight. Sometimes, an activated icon will toss up a set of five rings in the air, and coasting through each ring will net you an additional star (on top of whatever air time you accumulate).
After you have had your fill of the Excite Race mode, you can check out the Challenge mode, which gives you three alternate ways to enjoy Excite Truck. The Gate and Ring challenges are quite difficult, as you must make your way through each gate or ring on the course. Missing a couple of gates or a single ring will likely prevent you from getting an S rating, and you cannot choose your vehicle, either. Luckily, the Crush challenge is much less frustrating, as it tosses you in an open area with the goal of taking down five wandering vehicles by ramming into them. Excite Truck does feature a two-player split-screen mode, which is quite enjoyable, though it would have been nice to have some multiplayer-specific modes.
Much has been said about the visuals in Excite Truck, and most of it is true – the game is not particularly attractive when viewed on a standard television. From the generic truck designs to the blurred, muddled textures, Excite Truck clearly cannot compete with any true next-gen game. However, if you have an HDTV, I strongly suggest hunting down the component cables. Running in 480p with a 16:9 widescreen viewing aspect, the visuals are much more palatable, sporting crisp models and a sturdy frame rate. It may never be impressive, but the visuals befit the overall style of the game and work quite well in that respect.
Though Excite Truck comes complete with a staggeringly lame rock/metal score, it is the first Nintendo game to support custom soundtracks. Gamers with SD Cards can load ‘em up with MP3 files and play their favorite songs while they catch serious air in Finland. Though the Xbox has supported custom soundtracks for five years, I see this as a strong step in the right direction for Nintendo, who have always seemed a bit behind the times in many respects. Still, I wonder if Monster might have crafted a more interesting original score if such an alternative were not present.
Excite Truck may underwhelm with its audio/visual presentation, but it has gameplay in droves. The high-speed acrobatics that would have had you pumping quarters into an arcade machine five years ago have been fine-tuned to create a console game that will keep you coming back for more. It may not be the must-buy title that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess clearly is, but it makes for a more-than-suitable backup purchase, and is among the better games in the Wii launch lineup.
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