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Published November 18, 2009

(originally published at Smile Politely, 11/25)

Since its debut last spring, Nintendo’s WiiWare service has scored a number of well-received hits: World of Goo, BIT.TRIP BEAT, Swords & Soldiers and a handful of others. But you may notice that the one thing missing from that brief list is Nintendo’s own lineup of beloved mascots. World of Goo’s bulgy-eyed globules are not without their charm, but they’re not going to move software like Mario or Donkey Kong can. This has been a deliberate decision, as the company higher-ups are trying to promote independent developers, whose games probably wouldn’t stand a chance against the plumber and company. That’s why it came as such a surprise last week when Excitebike: World Rally showed up.

Then again, the Excitevehicle series is almost tailor-made for WiiWare. The series is as active as it’s ever been, thanks to developer Monster Games. Their launch title Excite Truck had people turning their Wii remotes long before Mario Kart, and Excitebots ham-sandwiches-meets-transformers madness was great fun for anyone who bothered to pick it up. And as for the original NES game, Excitebike is particularly simple, making an update it a prime download. The name is still cherished but not a market killer.

For those of you who still fondly remember the side-scrolling tracks and overheating engines, you’ll find that not much has changed here. Though the default camera is now held from an isometric perspective, you’re still only moving between four dirt planes while climbing up dirt ramps and weaving between walls. The only significant addition is the wheelie. Now, rather than rear-ending someone else’s bike, you can tilt back the controller to hop over them, allowing you to maintain crucial momentum. It adds just enough strategy to keep the game interesting through the four main circuits.

As a single player game, the 10 dollar asking price would be a bit much. The off-road and beachside courses look slick compared to the NES game, but I can’t see anyone playing this alone for too long. Luckily, Monster Games has included robust multiplayer options, allowing you to play online with up to three other friends or strangers. You may have trouble telling your bike apart from the rest – most of the color options are too difficult to unlock – but other than that, it performs flawlessly. (We’ve all learned to put up with friend codes by now, right?) Not being able to share created levels is a boneheaded oversight though.

I don’t know if first-party WiiWare is a trend. A new Pokémon game released on Monday might suggest that is the case, but I’ve been wrong about Nintendo’s online plans before. But Excitebike: World Rally is a fun revival that feels right at home on the service.

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