Summary: The original F-Zero debuted on the Super NES back in 1991. Since then, it has become a successful racing title that Nintendo calls its own. Now, 12 years later, the latest version is here courtesy of Sega. My, how times have changed -- but one thing remains constant: when playing F-Zero, don't blink and drive!
A dozen years after the original, we’re finally upon the latest version on the GameCube: F-Zero GX – and it’s every bit as exhilarating as first game during its time.
Nintendo and Sega, sitting in a tree…
It’s interesting to note that Sega are the ones behind this latest chapter of this Nintendo franchise racer. More accurately, Sega’s Amusement Vision, known on GameCube for Super Monkey Ball, was responsible for the development of F-Zero GX. Seeing the Nintendo and Sega logos side-by-side on every boot-up is something that I’m still not used to.
Five game modes send you off to the tracks. Grand Prix is the main mode and gives you the chance to select from three difficulty levels and three different Cup classes, each with its own unique set of tracks. Vs. Battle allows up to four players to race head-to-head. Time attack is for attacking times (duh). Practice mode is for taking practice runs on the circuit. And finally, Story mode takes you through an interesting tale as Captain Falcon.
The game box advertises 20 courses to race on, but only 15 are selectable. In reality, there 26 tracks in total, but it’s not an easy task to unlock them all. The track design in F-Zero GX is awesome. There’s plenty of variety and each track has its own distinct personality with a unique bag of tricks. There are even certain tracks where you don’t even dare blink in fear of not making the perfect line to hit a dash or jump plate. It’s all very involving, thanks to excellent design.
The usual ‘classic’ flat, snaking tracks are there as well as ones that are more curvaceous. You’ll find yourself racing on both the inside and outside of a cylinder (think Nanotek Warrior, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of playing it on PSone), as well as a half-pipe.
SIDEBAR: An expansion kit to F-Zero X was released in Japan and made special use of the 64DD for hovercraft and track editing. Too bad we never got to play it over here.
Being “all speed and no control” would be a terrible thing, but thankfully, F-Zero GX controls beautifully. Perhaps it all comes from developer Amusement Vision’s experience with fine-tuning controls from making Super Monkey Ball, where controls made the game. When you mess up in a race, you realize that it was pilot error instead of blaming the controls.
The analog stick controls lift and steers left and right. The L and R shoulder buttons aid in slide-turns (better for hovercrafts with high top-speed), and holding down both does drift-turns (better for hovercrafts with good acceleration). The (B)raking and (A)cceleration buttons aren’t analog, so it’s all or none – but no matter, full-throttle all the way, eh? Hitting Y when permissible gives you a speed boost. The X and Z buttons are offensive and are used to knock, bump, and damage rival racers.
SIDEBAR: Ndcube developed F-Zero: Maximum Velocity as a GBA launch title. Despite looking very similar to the SNES game, it played and handled quite differently.
The sound effects seem relatively underwhelming in comparison to the fantastic graphics, but they do serve their purpose well; no complaints there. The music, however, is surprisingly good. The beat-filled racing tracks are right for the races, and even the title song (with vocals) is catchy.
Getting tickets for speeding = good
Unlocking stuff works by way of a ‘monetary’ system. After each successful completion of a cup class, a chapter in the story mode, or defeating ghosts in the time attack, you receive a set number of tickets. With these tickets, you can then purchase new pilots, machines, story chapters, upgrade parts, etc.
The Story mode is a new addition to the F-Zero family. Book-ending each chapter are nicely rendered CG movies to help explain the premise as well as providing a conclusion. The voice acting accompanying each character is, quite frankly, laughable. But this is the first time that this much personality is injected into the characters of F-Zero, and its addition is a very welcome one. The nine chapters of story mode give the game an extra level of depth that wouldn’t be found if all we had was the Grand Prix mode.
SIDEBAR: Want to know more about the Robotic Operating Buddy?
A reason to go to the arcade
Another notable Sega/Nintendo achievement is the GameCube game’s tie-in with the arcade version of F-Zero. Also developed by Amusement Vision, F-Zero AX (the ‘A’ is for arcade) could accommodate a memory card that could transfer bonuses to F-Zero GX (‘G’ for GameCube). The arcade and GameCube versions of F-Zero have a different and exclusive set of tracks, machines, and custom parts. The idea is that if you complete a certain task, such as finish first on any of the AX tracks, you can then take that save data and plug it into your GameCube where you can purchase the new goods from the in-game shop using tickets.
To unlock the AX hovercrafts without going to the arcade, finish the story mode on the hardest difficulty.
There are some issues with the game’s difficulty balance. The Novice and Standard difficulty levels are relatively easy if keep to a basic strategy: take it relatively easy during the first two laps and then go full-tilt for the last bits of the last lap. Unless you’re way behind, you’ll be able to pass at least a handful of others to clinch first as long as you’re in the top few.
Hard to master.
Things really heat up when you hit the Expert level, where all your opponents are much faster and more aggressive. You don’t even want to know how hard the Master class is – but then again, if you’re good enough to unlock it by finishing first in every cup in Expert, then you’ll be up for it.
Even though F-Zero is a racing game, it’s as far away from Gran Turismo as one could imagine, simply because F-Zero is all about delivering insane thrills over realism. The only real tweakability you get with your stock hovercrafts is balancing acceleration with top speed, just like setting up gear ratios. What it does share with Gran Turismo is that you’ll get hooked, addicted, perhaps even obsessed trying to shave split-seconds off here and there just to reach the next level.
Just because F-Zero is high-adrenaline arcade style racer doesn’t mean that you can check your brain at the door. You’ll need tons of strategy to get far into this game. The tracks are designed so that you can spend literally hours trying to come up with the perfect performance, after which you can save your replay or ghost data to your memory card for future reference.
F-Zero GX is a fantastic racing game, and easily the very best racer for GameCube. The only thing keeping this game from a higher score is the extremely steep learning curve. Mind you, we're not afraid of hard games, but when F-Zero GX decides to crank up the difficulty, many gamers will find themselves under a glass ceiling. This will cause frustration for many, perhaps even anger. And as we all know, anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.
If you're not afraid of a challenge, or actually enjoy being driven to the brink of insanity, then F-Zero GX belongs in your game library.
Interested in seeing F-Zero GX in action? Click here to download the E3 2003 game trailer (11.6 MB QuickTime) or browse F-Zero.jp.
SIDEBAR: 12 years after we first experienced F-Zero, we’re still playing sliding hovercrafts around twisty tracks at insane speeds.
Is Nintendo in danger of turning this into just another tired franchise, or will there always be this need for ludicrous speed?
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