Games 4/28/09: Excitebots: Trick Racing, Rhythm Heaven, Left 4 Dead Survival Pack

Excitebots: Trick Racing
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Monster Games/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)

For all the credit “Wii Sports” garners as the Wii’s gateway drug, perhaps no Nintendo-branded game better demonstrates the benefits of motion controls than “Excite Truck,” which launched on the same day and aptly set itself apart from other racing games in ways no non-Wii game ever could.

The entirety of that game exists within “Excitebots: Trick Racing,” which lifts the controls and methodology and inserts them into an entirely bizarre but blissfully fun racing experience starring giant, mechanized bugs and animals.

Like “Truck,” “Excitebots” asks you to hold the Wii remote sideways and tilt it like a steering wheel to control your bot’s steering. The setup isn’t particularly conducive to precision steering and hairpin turns, but it also doesn’t need to be. “Excitebots” prefers hilly straightaways to sharp corners, overtly encouraging players to drive recklessly and constantly ride the fast, fine line that separates edge-of-seat control from unwieldiness.

That strong embrace, combined with “Excitebots'” unique metrics for success — winning races is helpful, but racking up stars via dangerous driving and gravity-defying turbo jumping takes precedence over everything — make for a racing experience that’s wildly exciting and completely casual at once. Achieving gold medal scores is a worthy pursuit for skilled players, but anyone who can hold the Wii remote can enjoy “Excitebots” on some level.

The inclusion of mechanized turtles, ladybugs, bats and other creatures is the most overt symbol of distinction between “Excitebots” and “Trucks,” but it isn’t the only one. The off-road tracks wouldn’t look out of place in more traditional racing games, but Monster Games has littered them with ridiculous bonus contraptions ranging from stunt triggers to bowling pins to a constructible sandwich. Take advantage of these and other surprises littered around the track — including the cool landscape-altering triggers previously found in “Truck” — and you’ll have all the stars you need to unlock additional tracks and bots.

Annoyingly (and puzzlingly), you’ll also need a few good single-player runs to unlock the game’s multiplayer content. “Excitebots” includes splitscreen (two players) and online (six) play, but you’ll have to play through the first batch of single-player races to access it. Fortunately, it’s worth the small wait: “Excitebots” ranks right up with “Mario Kart” in terms of its online suite, and being able to bet accumulated stars on races is an amusing feature with obvious upside.

Finally, there’s the entirely unexplainable inclusion of the Poker Race mode, which tasks you with simultaneously winning the race while also forming the best poker hand using cards littered around the track. Why? Who knows. Who cares. Like everything else in “Excitebots,” Poker Race is there for your enjoyment more than your understanding, and it serves that purpose beautifully.

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Rhythm Heaven
For: Nintendo DS/Nintendo DSi
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

If you’re rhythmically challenged and prone to bouts of impatience, you may as well stop reading now, because there will be nothing heavenly about “Rhythm Heaven.”

For those unfamiliar with the series’ previous success in Japan, “Heaven” is best described as a “WarioWare” game without Wario and with an acute emphasis on keeping the beat. Like “WarioWare,” “Heaven” is digitized madness — a few dozen or so mini-games, each with its own strange art and music styles and each with slightly different objectives built around a recurrent theme.

In the case of “Heaven,” that translates into a string of minute-long exercises centered around keeping a steady rhythm. The objectives range from pulling radishes to playing ping-pong to controlling a three-piece band of ghosts, but the crux of each challenge involves some combination of tapping, holding, and sliding the stylus across the touch screen in time with the music.

As anyone who has experienced “WarioWare” already knows, the combination of simple objectives and short-attention-span theatrics is a magnificently fun one in the right hands. “Heaven,” happily, channels most of what makes those games so appealing, and it’s almost immediately apparent that it’s a product of the same developers rather than a troubled knock-off.

Just don’t expect it to be as easy as those “WarioWare” games — or anything close, for that matter. “Heaven’s” control scheme starts and ends with the touch screen, and the touch screen simply isn’t as conducive to split-second timing as the buttons would be. Compound this with whatever troubles you might already have with the game’s rhythmic demands — “Heaven” regularly requires you to switch between sliding, holding and tapping at precise intervals — and the result can be disastrous if you can’t bring a certain level of concentration, practice, patience and rhythmic instinct to the table.

“Heaven” isn’t completely unforgiving, and you need not perfectly achieve an objective to pass it and unlock additional challenges. But those fooled by the cute graphics and expecting the usual “WarioWare” cakewalk will find themselves on the business end of a pretty rude awakening.

This, of course, should be music to the ears of player who miss the days of Nintendo knocking them upside the head with brutally challenging games. “Heaven” is surmountable for those willing to bring their “A” game, and the rewards — new mini-games, marathon versions of existing mini-games, a handful of fun digital toys, the simple satisfaction of conquering a legitimately tough game — are immense. The game lacks any kind of multiplayer option, but there’s more than enough single-player content here to justify a purchase for the right type of player.

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Left 4 Dead Survival Pack
For: Xbox 360 and Windows
From: Valve
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Price: Free

PC gamers are used to Valve padding its games’ value with free content, but it’s a special day when console gamers get something for nothing. The “Left 4 Dead” Survival pack includes Versus mode versions of two campaigns, “Death Toll” and “Dead Air,” that previously only were playable in single-player or co-op form. But the reason for downloading — and the source of the pack’s name — is the new Survival mode, which tasks you with staying alive as long as possible while an ungodly number of zombies storm you in a confined space. Likely, that won’t be very long, because Survival mode sends special zombies at you in amounts the other modes wouldn’t dream of doing. But dying quickly and repeatedly makes for some exciting short play sessions that — thanks to the addictive nature of trying just one more time for a better score — add up to a lengthy, eventful good time with friends. Not bad for the price. The only nitpick: The mode, outside of a new map that takes place inside a lighthouse, uses the same locations you already visited elsewhere in the game. Also, if you prefer to play “L4D” by yourself, this pack offers nothing for you, as Survival mode supports online multiplayer only.