Excite Truck: delightfully absurd off-road arcade racing

You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about Excite Truck for Nintendo Wii. And you’d think as a spinoff to one of the NES era’s most beloved games — Excitebike — more people would be aware of it. But nope, apparently not. Well, that all changes right now, ’cause I’ve been playing Excite Truck — and it’s a ton of fun.

Excite Truck, as the name suggests, is a racing game themed around trucks. That means, much like its spiritual predecessor, there’s a lot of racing around in the mud — only this time you’re in charge of a much heavier piece of machinery than a bike; one that is less prone to shattering the human skeleton into several times more pieces than it’s supposed to be in.

Excite Truck

That said, despite the change in mode of transportation and the shift from a side-scrolling perspective to full polygonal 3D, Excite Truck actually has a lot in common with Excitebike. You can boost at will so long as you don’t let your temperature gauge get too hot; jumping in the air helps cool your temperature gauge; courses are seemingly set up to fling you to improbably high altitudes as frequently as possible; but ultimately your aim is to actually win a race.

Actually, that’s not quite true; while coming in front of the pack is an important part of Excite Truck, in the main Excite mode, it’s not the be-all and end-all of what you need to do. Of greater importance is the collection of stars through various means; a significant number of these can be attained through winning the race, yes, but the others must be acquired through performing ridiculous stunts while driving around the track.

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The simplest stars to acquire are the ones that come from air time and drifting; in the former case, boosting while ascending a jump helps you get more air, and you can also boost in the air just after leaving the ground to get some additional height and distance. Drifting, meanwhile, is accomplished simply by steering really hard around a corner; no special techniques required. Easy enough.

Excite Truck

Then you have the “Tree Run” stars, which are acquired by deliberately leaving the marked track and driving through as densely wooded an area as possible for as long as you can without hitting anything. Opportunities to go for a Tree Run are often combined with a “POW” pickup, which gives you an enormous speed boost while accompanied by the immensely satisfying albeit somewhat inexplicable sound of police sirens.

Where things get even more interesting is with the “Morph” pickups, which, when passed through, actually change the terrain of the track ahead of you quite significantly. Sometimes these are permanent changes, such as opening up shortcuts, while in other instances they’ll cause a stunt opportunity — usually a huge ramp — to suddenly burst forth from the ground, often with a series of rings to pass through during your air time. Pull these off successfully and you can get a lot of stars not only for big air, but also for accurately passing through the rings.

It’s really, really fun and utterly chaotic — and the emphasis on acquiring the stars means that it doesn’t even matter all that much that the AI opposition on the default difficulty level is really not up to much at all. You can even use them to acquire yet more stars by slamming into them or crushing them, preferably at high speed — and flinging them off a scenery morph just as they’re driving over it never gets old.

Excite Truck

If you tire of the Excite mode, there are several other “Challenge” modes to play, too. Gate mode tasks you with passing through marked gates of increasing narrowness against a very tight time limit, with time bonuses on offer for each gate you pass and time penalties given for missed gates. Ring mode challenges you to accurately fling yourself through rings that are worth stars, with more stars on offer per ring the more you successfully clear in succession. And Crush mode takes you into a completely open map, tasking you with hunting down and crashing into several opponents as quickly as you can.

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On top of that, there’s a versus mode for two players here, so there’s lots to like.

I suspect the one sticking point for a lot of players will be the fact that Excite Truck makes use of mandatory motion controls using just the Wii Remote. This makes it straightforward and accessible while meaning everyone who has a Wii can enjoy the game without needing any additional hardware — but those accustomed to the accuracy of an analogue stick or proper steering wheel will often baulk at the mere suggestion of using motion controls.

Excite Truck

But, to be fair, Excite Truck’s motion controls work well. They strike a good balance between sensitivity, responsiveness and accessibility, and it’s rare that I felt like my truck was out of control while playing. And they’re not overused, either; there’s no “tilting to accelerate” or “shaking to boost” here — controls that make sense to be mapped to buttons are mapped to buttons, with your brake and gas pedals being on the 1 and 2 buttons, and boost being applied by pushing any direction on the D-pad.

If anything, the feeling of wrestling with the Wii Remote while playing Excite Truck adds to the “arcade racer as thrill ride” feeling; Excite Truck is very obviously not a game intended to be taken too seriously, though the scoring system and additional unlockable difficulty levels do mean that there is a fairly significant challenge for you to enjoy over the long term if you do find yourself enjoying what the game has to offer.

Rather, Excite Truck is best considered similarly to a real arcade game; it’s something you sit down and play when you’re in the mood for a very specific sort of experience — in this case, a white-knuckle thrill ride through shifting scenery in a variety of different countries, pulling off stunts that would never be possible in the real world. In that sense, it’s a very worthy successor to Excitebike — and definitely worth adding to your Wii collection if you don’t already own a copy.

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Excite Truck can be yours for a couple of quid these days.

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