Version tested: Wii
Nitrobike starts off well by being called Nitrobike. We like silly names, and Nitrobike certainly is one. Good controls, too. You hold the Wiimote with the buttons facing upwards and rotate it like a steering wheel. Turning is responsive, and the bike handling is intuitive enough that you quickly understand its limitations; when you need to throttle back, and the effect that the d-pad nitro boost has on cornering. Re-orientating the bike and performing tricks in the air are simple actions, the latter adding extra chunks to your boost meter so that you can rev for longer without exploding, with one chunk lost again whenever you're unseated.
Unfortunately, Nitrobike has a big problem. Nitrobike's big problem is called Excite Truck. Released here in early 2007, Excite Truck also had good, intuitive controls, but beyond that it offered bright, sharp and friendly visuals, huge, massively varied tracks with deformable terrain, a boost system that demanded vigilance to avoid overheating but paid out extra surges for good landings and tricks, and ongoing rewards that justified failure while sweetening success. Nitrobike does have some of Excite Truck's other good bits - like the jump-through-the-hoops levels, which take time to master, narrow the game's focus to precise steering and boosting and keep you coming back - but there's little else to shout about.
There's plenty to shout at, though. The steering can be great, but the camera isn't, and when your bike's spun around and you find yourself staring at it head on, you routinely overcompensate to correct your course, struggling to find purchase in the mud, while the camera swings back round. You're turned around a fair bit, too, because the braking is harsh and because bikes are fragile things, and the game's eager to smash them to bits or stop them in their tracks. The other nine bikers in any given race rob you of any speed or flip you around on contact, and the environment - full of barrels, nobbly incidental scenery and other bits that stick out unhelpfully - is inconsistent in its response to your brushes and bangs, blowing you to pieces and ragdolling your biker to the ground in some cases but barely worrying you in others.
Track design is largely unexciting. There's one route to follow, and while bits of the terrain can be smashed to pieces, the pieces just bobble around on the track like enormous rocky balloons. There isn't enough up and down, even though motocross - particularly arcade gaming motocross - is meant to be all about that. There are jumps, and getting the most air off them requires skill that will increase as you master lines into specific corners and improve your handle on the controls, while getting the best landing out of them requires good Wiimote wiggling and knowledge of which opposing ramps dovetail best into one another. But the scale is surprisingly small. The hillier individual circuits come into their own on the through-the-hoops levels, but in races and time trials they lack personality and feel more like gauntlets to run than challenges to relish.
This has a lot to do with how the game looks. Wii games aren't Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 games, and are sometimes accused of being a bit GameCube 1.5. Nitrobike is N64 1.5 - fuzzy, muddy, jagged and indistinct, full of geriatric effects and Vaseline textures. The way the camera drags you into the picture as you boost is a positive, and the sense of speed and consistency of frame-rate isn't in question, but if you dig out that Excite Truck disc again - as we did - the difference is alarming. One is full of rich, detailed graphics and effects. It's not this one.
Across the game's nine tiers there's undoubtedly a fair amount of racing to be done, with enough variety to stop you tiring of one particular discipline, but the game's various flaws conspire again and again to push you away. You dominate some tracks but get thrashed in others - the main difference being where you couldn't avoid contact with silly objects or other racers because of bottlenecks or the camera not showing you what's coming up. There's a decent stab at a reward system, with Achievements of sorts that unlock stat boosts, or even mini-games like Bowling, where you race down a course and smash into a barrier, your rider being flung the remaining distance to the ten pins.
Where Nitrobike does exceed its contemporary is in multiplayer, because as well split-screen there's six-player online racing. Except you'll struggle to get anywhere unless you coordinate carefully with your friends, because the "Auto-match" option wants you to input specific game-type and size parameters for each search. For all we know there could be dozens of other people sitting there staring at their "Attempting to match with other players" screens just as we have done for two evenings in a row, but without the option to widen the search or meet in lobbies the most likely outcome is a lot of drumming fingers before giving up. If you do find someone, often they're alone with you on a big track, and if one of you messes up then it can be very hard to close the gap again, discouraging risk-taking and theatrics off ramps, which are surely things the game ought to reward.
Nitrobike does have redeeming features. The hoop levels are enough to steal an hour here and there and the satisfaction of besting one is considerable, and there's no denying that developer Left Field Productions has a good handle on the Wiimote, which means we do. Plus it does well by default - there simply isn't much competition. But when the game finds itself up against one cheaper, much better year-old rival and fails to make any in-roads, it's hard to justify sending you out to buy it. Better to hang around and see if Nintendo re-commissions Monster Games for another round of Trucks, because this certainly fails to excite.
5 / 10