Memorable Ideas from Forgettable Games - The Poker Race

ExciteBots: Trick Racing
ExciteBots: Trick Racing Cover
Platforms Wii
Genre Ridiculous Racing Spontaneity
Buy from Amazon

Some games are unforgettable. After forking over our birthday money at K-Mart, we bounce all the way home in the backseat of the station wagon, wrestle the plastic wrap away from the box, gingerly place the game in the system, and steady our feverishly shaking hands with an anaconda grip on the controller. We don't let go for hours. And when the credits roll, we tear up a little, knowing we'll always cherish that first time through.

And then there are games that are largely forgotten weeks after release. Niche appeal, scathing reviews, or even just lack of hype can doom a game to obscurity and the Target bargain bin. But even these games deserve a second look...sometimes. Every once in a while, a kernel of brilliance can be found within these steaming piles of mediocrity. The purpose of this feature is to sift out some of these conceptual gems and put them under the microscope.

Today we'll deal out the Poker Races from ExciteBots: Trick Racing, and see how easy it can be to add layers of strategy to a game by simply cramming another game into it.

It's hard to say ExciteBots: Trick Racing was forgotten when, in actuality, nobody knew about it in the first place. The quirky racer was unceremoniously introduced to the world in a February 2009 release list from Nintendo, and landed on store shelves in April, less than two months later and exclusively in America. The latest installment in Nintendo's Excite series, ExciteBots was the follow-up to 2006's Excite Truck, itself a spiritual successor to Nintendo' Excitebike games, on hiatus since Excitebike 64 in 2000. Though lauded as a superior game to the already adequate Truck, the discount-priced Bots managed only 150,000 sales, a fraction of its predecessor that almost hit a million.

The floaty steering, enormous moon-jumps, and terrain-changing items in Excite Truck provided for enjoyable races won with points rather than placement, but the boring trucks and empty locales offered little personality otherwise. Monster Games realized this and made a few changes for the sequel, most obviously scrapping the trucks for animal/robot hybrids on wheels, though the alteration was more cosmetic than functional. More game-changing, however, were the ludicrous minigames added to the racing system. Around every corner, some small challenge presented itself and presented a chance for more points. A racer could suddenly be bowling, slamming a pie into a clown's face, collecting butterflies, shooting a soccer ball, or plenty of other wacky ordeals. It was unpredictable, hilarious, and fun.

Excitebots Darts

While that main racing mode could be likened to WarioWare at 100 MPH, the alternate Poker Race option provided for a speedy experience that had a less reflexive and more cerebral feel. It's exactly how it sounds: you zoom around a track while playing Poker. Each racer starts with a hand of four cards and may build their hand by replacing them, one at a time, with those on the track. Upon compiling a valuable hand, the player cashes in the five cards for a point total congruent to the worth of the hand, and receives four new cards. Rinse and repeat until time runs out, when the player with the highest point total wins the race.

Excitebots Flush

Much like their casino-table inspiration, Poker Races in ExciteBots can be a game of varying tactical plans. Do you aim low and rapidly build with two-pair or three-of-a-kind, or save up for a flush or straight for more points? Can you zoom ahead of the pack to get the pick of the pile, or does your brain have trouble driving and appraising incoming cards at the same time? Will you play aggressively and try to wreck your opponents to mess up their plans, or stay on the defensive? There are a variety of Bots with varying levels of speed, acceleration, size, and grip to suit your play style as well. Or will you bluff at the vehicle select screen and choose the speediest little Bot, only to force your larger competition offroad with fast hits? It's still a racing game, but it suddenly finds new folds of strategy to supplement the required driving skill.

Excitebots HammerIt's not just racing games that can benefit from throwing some cards into the mix. It only takes a bit of imagination to see how a shooter could fold some gambling goodness into the fray. Consider the following: each player in a free-for-all has a five card hand, partially-visible to the other players, and can get new cards by killing opponents and taking their cards. It's a simple arrangement, but set such a game in motion and the blend of strategies and play styles will undoubtedly mesh into something interesting. Though the game is a free-for-all, there may be resistance to kill everybody you meet. After all, if you've got valuable cards, you don't want to risk losing them in an unnecessary shootout. It might be wise to hunt the person with the cards you want, but watch your back; somebody probably wants your cards as well. Or maybe you'll take the dangerous route and kill a player whose cards you don't need in order to lure vultures to the corpse. You may be looking for a bigger catch than the dead man's pair of threes, so leave them lying on the carcass and bait others who may have the cards you need into your iron sights.

In an era where genres are overpopulated with imitators and pretenders to the thrones, game designers have to think up ways to set themselves apart from the competition. Call of Duty: World at War made a huge splash by introducing a Zombie Nazi mode to the multiplayer suite, setting it apart from other military shooters and attracting a lot of attention (and sales). ExciteBots' Poker Race didn't quite meet the same success, but I think the card game mishmash could be a gold mine buried under under a scrapyard of grasshopper hot rods and turtle rovers.

Excitebots Great Fish