VROOOM! The classic Nintendo series gets overhauled with big trucks and huge tracks, but the spirit of Excitebike is still going strong in this outrageous arcade racer.
Excite Truck is refreshingly absurd. In the era of a Gran Turismo demo selling better than most real games in Japan, and a series like Ridge Racer being called "arcadey" just because the cars drift, Excite Truck does a Super Truck Smash!!! into the competition and reminds us all of what arcade racers really are. The game is intensely focused on driving like a maniac around off-road courses, all of which feature insane ramps that must be jumped and landed properly to succeed. There's no car tuning, no license test, no tournament structure, and no physics model resembling anything in this dimension. Just get out there and tear up some mud.
Excite Truck plays like a 3D version of Super Off-Road and is every bit as addictive and fun as that classic. But in this game, the time you spend in the air is just as important as what you do on the ground. Some tracks will have your truck flying more than driving. In the air, you can activate a free boost just after takeoff with good timing, and there's another free boost available if you land all four wheels on the ground at once (which is very challenging when landing on a slope). During the actual flight, you can steer your truck to land in the direction of the track, do air spins (which rarely work, unfortunately), and tilt the truck forward or back to change the trajectory and distance traveled. Many ramps are set up in series, so you can save a lot of time and get more boost if you jump over the next ramp and land on its far side. This mechanic will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Excitebike, but the way it has been implemented for this game is immensely satisfying in its own right.
It's also challenging due to the sensitive, analog nature of the game's control scheme, which has you holding the Wii Remote horizontally and tilting left/right to steer and forward/back to change attitude in mid-air. There is definitely a learning curve for the controls, but most people seem to get the hang of it within thirty minutes to an hour. It may also take that long to find a truck with the handling characteristics that best suit your playing style. Even though Excite Truck's tilt controls could easily be mapped to a joystick, the game would not be as much fun without these controls. The mid-air control is especially intuitive in a way that I have never experienced before, even in other racing games that feature attitude adjustments in the air, such as the F-Zero series or Excite Truck's predecessor, Excitebike 64. The only problem with the controls is that air spins are awkward and unresponsive. Luckily, this move is completely optional and doesn't give you enough stars to be missed.
Stars are how the game judges your performance. Winning is nice, and it results in a lot of bonus stars, but you can earn a passing grade on many tracks while finishing in last place. That's because most stars are awarded for driving like a psycho; as in the great Burnout series, more risk means more reward. You get stars for driving between trees, drifting around long curves, slamming into other vehicles, scoring big airtime, and flying through rings. To help you perform these feats, the game offers two kinds power-ups on each track. The POW symbol makes your truck invincible to trees and other vehicles, and it also makes the truck drive at top speed for several seconds. Because you don't need to worry about tree collisions when under this item's influence, you are free to drive through densely wooded shortcuts (usually located close to the power-up), passing opponents and racking up major Tree Run bonus stars. On the other hand, exclamation point power-ups affect the track itself rather than your vehicle, terraforming a nearby section of the course. These markers usually create ramps and/or rings, which can help you earn tons of stars. If you're really lucky, the terrain shift will even toss opponents into the air, which may cause them to crash. Along with tons of shortcuts and alternate paths, the exclamation points help to make the tracks highly unpredictable and replayable.
Arcade racers are usually known for being great multiplayer experiences, but Excite Truck doesn't hold up in that regard. There is a two-player split screen mode which has no computer-controlled racers, so it's just a one-on-one competition for stars. Despite the player limitations and lack of bots, two-player is still a lot of fun when comparable players take the wheel… but this mode could have been truly great with more options and features. Instead, multiplayer is a fun novelty that takes a back seat to the addictive and challenging single-player mode. In this main portion of the game, you play through sets of tracks and try to earn at least a "B" rank on each one, based on how many stars you accumulate in a given race. This mode can be very challenging on the more complex tracks, but as you continue to play, new and better trucks are unlocked, and you will naturally get better with the controls as well as learn more tricks for getting stars. There is a higher difficulty setting, but in order to unlock it, you must achieve the "S" rank on every single track, which would take a very long time aside from being incredibly difficult to complete. Even though many players will learn to dominate the competition, it is likely that very few will ever get the chance to play the next level of difficulty.
My last complaint regards the soundtrack. Excite Truck features some of the worst guitar rock music I've ever heard. As someone who loves the guitar and has seen some of the world's best guitar players in concert, I am probably the target audience for this soundtrack. Unfortunately for the developers, people like me know the difference between quality and garbage, and this soundtrack is the latter. It's shallow, obnoxious, and shockingly repetitive, and most folks will turn down the volume immediately. Perhaps in admission to this failing, there is an option to create a custom soundtrack from an SD card, and largely thanks to Excite Truck's awful in-game music, I just ordered my own card today.
Don't let the musical woes put you off, though. This is Nintendo's best console racer since F-Zero GX, although it will appeal to a somewhat different crowd than that hardcore series. Excite Truck is crazy enough to enjoy immediately (even though you may not feel in control yet) and deep enough to play for hours on end, with your heart racing the whole time. I'd like to see a sequel with more varied environments and much better multiplayer features, but this is a great launch title worth the consideration of any Mario Kart or Burnout fan.