Review: Excitebike: World Rally (WiiWare)

Will this remake kick the tires out from under the competition?

Nintendo’s often-overlooked Excite racing series kicks in the turbo and has released not one but two new games this year. This time, the series returns to its roots with a remake of the original NES classic. But with so many other “excite”-ing options to choose from on the Wii, is there room for one more? Or has this series overheated?

The original Excitebike for the NES holds a lot of nostalgia for gamers of that era (read our review for a good example). But in truth, the game was incredibly short. With just five tracks included and no multiplayer, the game could literally be completed in a matter of minutes. But it was the quality of its core gameplay that kept people coming back for more.

That basic formula remains here in World Rally mostly intact. Players drive a motorbike through an obstacle course and attempt to reach the finish line in the shortest amount of time. In the original, setting a low time was its own reward. In this installment, repeat play is additionally rewarded. Each track has a finish time goal set that you must beat in order to unlock some additional feature of the game. At first you must meet these goals simply to unlock the next set of tracks, of which there are a total of 16. But later the game tasks you with setting even lower finish times to unlock additional benefits, which are usually customized bike designs and colors.

In addition to obstacles, the track is populated with mysteriously respawning computer opponents who you must dodge as well, similar to the original. However, unlike the NES release, World Rally allows for up to four-player simultaneous play online with friends (using friend codes) or random matching. The online matching works the same as in Mario Kart Wii and is just as smooth and painless. The manual says that if the connection lags for a second or two then each player will continue to play and the game will correct their respective locations once able to do so. We only observed this phenomenon once, so it does not appear to be a problem and for the most part online play, like Mario Kart, is as smooth as if you were playing in the same room.

Ironically, if you actually want to play in the same room, that will not be possible offline. Although no local multiplayer existed in the original game, which was doubly bizarre at the time, Nintendo has increasingly emphasized local multiplayer as of late. It is a curious decision considering the game’s obvious value as a social activity. However, the online component is exciting enough to forgive this one oversight.

It wouldn’t be a Wii game if some sort of motion controls weren’t implemented. Mercifully, with one exception, it is entirely optional. When your bike is knocked over, in the original game you had to repeatedly tap a button to get back on, which has now turned into shaking the controller. Additionally, the game features two control options. One is a classic control scheme that uses the Wii Remote like an NES controller. This control set is so familiar and so perfectly suited to the game’s demands that anyone familiar with the original will instantly gravitate to this choice. Those new to the series or feeling adventurous may instead elect to use the second control scheme, or the “normal” controls. This set up is essentially the same as the “classic” but with one key difference: when doing a wheelie or pitching back or forward while in mid-air, in classic controls you press left or right on the d-pad, but the motion control option replaces this with tilting the remote left or right. It’s simple to do, but not quite as precise as the classic option. If you were hoping for full motion controls, such as the ability to change lanes with a tilt of the remote, you're not out of luck. There is one additional control option that makes more extensive use of motion controls to steer, but it must be unlocked by getting S-rankings on each course.

Also new to World Rally is the choice of camera angles. In the NES original, the only view was the traditional side scrolling 2D viewpoint. In an effort to show off, the game now features two additional angled viewpoints, one slightly angled and one more sharply angled. Essentially an isometric viewpoint, these new camera angles greatly enhance the illusion of 3D gaming and can be switched back and forth at any time. However, in addition to looking better, they also make the controls more confusing. Switching lanes from left to right is controlled by pressing Up and Down. This comes naturally when playing in the 2D perspective. Upon switching to a different “over the shoulder” viewpoint, these button selections feel less natural and require more thought. As a result, although fun for solo play and showing off to your friends, in competitive play these seem undesirable compared to the simplicity of the side scrolling viewpoint that most classic gamers are already hardwired to understand.

Perhaps some of the biggest changes are in how the game play has been tuned to be more exciting. For instance, the terrain altering effects introduced in ExciteTrucks makes an appearance here. Triggering an effect can cause a ramp to appear giving you a shortcut over an obstacle, or a hill to appear that may cause confusion for the drivers around you. Another update relates to the turbo feature. In the original game this feature merely made your bike accelerate faster. But here, your bike gains a noticeable top speed advantage when using turbo, although you still overheat when using it. So seeking out speed arrows, which cool off your bike, is a more important strategy than ever.

Lastly, Excitebike’s most endearing quality, the ability to wipe out an opposing driver by sideswiping his front tire, has been given a boost as well. Now when you complete this stunt your engine will cool off the same as if you ran over the speed arrows. It may not make much sense, but it encourages aggressive driving and rewards the daring with a cool engine and increased time using the turbo. Which in turn will decrease your finishing time. This is not merely a strategy, as later in the game it is absolutely essential. There are four cups and the first two are easy enough that they can be won through simple good driving. But by the time you reach the third and fourth cups you’ll need more than just the ability to avoid getting run off the road. The game gets much harder at these levels and will require all of your skill (and perhaps more) just to qualify. And qualifying just means you unlock the next level. Since the game additionally challenges you to finish with an even better time in order to unlock everything, it can become crazy difficult to meet these target times. Unlike the original, World Rally truly earns a place in the pantheon of classic “Nintendo-hard” games.

Finally, the venerable track editor makes a return. Most of the same features are included, as well as two terrain altering effects. You can save your tracks and even share them with your friends. Although they cannot be used in random online matches, the ability to use them in friend matches, or even just in solo play, considerably extends the lifetime of the game.

Conclusion

With more tracks, more bonus features and more strategic racing challenges, Excitebike: World Rally is a racing game that will keep you challenged with its ever-increasing difficulty and entertained with its track editor and online play. Not only does this remake vastly improve on its original formula, but also it provides a more polished and enjoyable racing experience than any other game currently available on the Wiiware service. Graphical enhancements aside, this is the full game that Excitebike always should have been. It not only leaves other Wiiware racers in the dust, but also wiped out on the side of the road.

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