F-Zero GX

February 5, 2006

This has been another speed-crazy episode of F-Zero TV…

…to put it mildly.

In reality, it would probably be more accurate to say “this has been another mind-meltingly fast series of some thirty hovercraft blurring over tracks clearly designed by people thrown out of the Roller Coaster Builders Association for being too reckless”.

[i]F-Zero GX[/i] is the latest in Nintendo’s “hovercraft from hell” racing series, this time on the GameCube — and more significantly, programmed by Sega’s Amusment Vision division (responsible for racing games like Daytona USA). They also had an arcade companion machine ([i]F-Zero AX[/i]), but I’ve never seen one, so let’s just stick to the console. [i]FGX[/i] is, at its most basic level, nearly identical to the N64 F-Zero X; it’s prettier, it’s faster, and above all insanely harder, but the basic forumla is the same: thirty hovercraft-style vehicles scream over incresingly twisted courses (in both senses of the word) in an attempt to become Grand Prix Champion.

In addition to the usual Grand Prix, Time Trial, Practice and Vs. modes, there are several new additions and one significant subtraction in [i]FGX[/i] when compared to [i]F-X[/i], not counting the “connectivity” with FAX. Cars beyond the original four (Blue Falcon, Golden Fox, Wild Goose, and Fire Stingray; unlike [i]F-X[/i], the White Cat and Red Gazelle aren’t available to you at the outset) can be purchsed wiht tickets that you win while completing other modes. In addition, those tickets can also buy you generic car parts (body, cockpit, and booster) that you can use to Frankenstein your own ride; you can even affix up to four custom emblems/logos that you can peck out on an editor similar to that found in Animal Crossing. What is missing from [i]FGX[/i] that I really liked in [i]F-X[/i] was Death Race (in which you tried to eliminate the other 29 contestants as quickly as possible); not a huge loss, but a fun way to kill fifteen minutes nonetheless.

In its place we find Story Mode. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think F-Zero needed a Story Mode, especially one this horrifically difficult. The first chapter (of nine) is simple enough — all you have to do is collect 25 capsules on a very basic track in less than 90 seconds — but the challenges quickly ramp up as soon as Chapter Two, which sees you racing against Samurai Goroh’s Fire Stingray through Red Canyon while huge freaking boulders fall onto the track. The challenges aren’t “outrace your opponent(s)” as often as you would expect, although Chapters Three, Seven, Eight, and Nine feature that as the primary objective. Chapter Four echoes back to the Death Race of old, Chapter Five has you escaping from a burning space station while blast doors inconveniently close in your path, and Chapter Six rips off Speed with a bomb that will detonate if you drop below 700 kph. Before and after each mission you get a nicely rendered (and less-nicely voice acted) cut scene explaining the situation/aftermath. Oh, and once you beat Chapter Nine you have the option of playing the entire thing in “HARD” mode (and I know there’s a “VERY HARD” mode too), but my masochism has very definite limits and the line is drawn well short of attempting that nightmare.

While a nice change of pace, the challenges presented to me in Story Mode are not really the kind of challenge I expect from my racing games; it’s a lot like having to beat up security guards and construction workers in Wrestlemania XIX, except not as completely horrendous. At least I finished [i]FGX[/i], which is more than I can say for WMXIX, but one or two times I’m sure I squeezed out a victory solely on luck and that just seems wrong. However, I did beat Chapter Nine’s ghost car with a good four seconds to spare, which anyone who’s ever played any F-Zero game can tell you is roughly equivalent to “an eternity”, so it’s not all random, but overall I could do without this mode in the next version of the series. I can’t help but think that the space taken up by Story Mode could have been better used by anything else, such as better endings in Grand Prix mode (even if I never see 29 of them).

The final significant mode is Grand Prix Mode, or “classic” F-Zero. Three cups of five courses in three difficulty classes eventually become four cups in four difficulty classes (I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent to the randomly-generated “X-Cup” we had in [i]F-X[/i]) as you triumph, and the courses don’t disappoint in their increasing insanity. All of the non-standard courses introduced in [i]F-X[/i] return: there are cylinders, tubes, and at least one half-pipe (which I hate with the heat of a thousand suns). If you finish in first place, a man in a hideous suit will “interview” your driver, allowing you to chose one of three (or four if you’ve unlocked Diamond Cup) questions each time; it keeps track of which question you’ve already been asked so you can hear them all, but Jody Summer’s (the pilot of the White Cat, my favorite vehicle) delivery was extremely wooden and generic, so don’t expect much from the rest of the pack. I’m curious to see how Gomar and Shioh (dual pilots of the Twin norita) answer their questions, but not enough to actually use that car. If you use a custom behicle in GP mode, you don’t get interviewed, sorry.

This game pushes the GameCube in ways no other game has before (or probably will). With speeds that typically flirt with 1200 kph (745.6 mph; I think my record is over 3000 kph while airborne), you’re hauling some serious ass more often than not, and adding twenty nine other cars on the track can’t help matters, but the game moves along at its supersonic speeds with nary a slowdown. If you’re dumb enough to take your eyes off the track, you’ll be treated to some nicely detailed backgrounds — probably as you fly off towards them on your way to fiery oblivion, you dumbass. In fact, the speed is so great that you may have trouble finding time to blink, and if you let yourself be distracted by any of the various heads-up displays on the screen you could find yourself a lump of twisted metal. If you’re a huge fan of stomach-wrenching vertigo, I recommend trying the first-person camera, but for the rest of us one of the three pull-back camera positions should be fine; it can be a problem occasionally on some of the more extreme tracks (especially on stupidly tight turns or impossibly steep hills), however, but these incidents are rare. More frequent were problems I had where my car would seemingly fall through a section of track and into the abyss (especially on that damned half-pipe track), but things move so fast it’s hard to tell if these were actual glitches or just gravity getting revenge for my outright defiance and grabbing me if so much as the nose of my car breached the rail.

As you might expect from a game that is about such unbridled speed, the controls are tight and responsive. As an added bonus, they’re also fully customizeable. One of the first things I did was to move the brake button from B to Z where it wouldn’t be in the way (who uses BRAKES in [i]F-Zero[/i]?!); I also moved the spin attack (originally on Z) to Y (formely boost, which went to its mnemonic home on B) although I didn’t use it often. The attack I did use more often was the slide attack (X, typically in conjunction with L or R as you lean into it) which was disturbingly efficient in sideswiping opponents off narrow tracks; unfortunately, it was equally efficient in creating reciol that sent ME off the track, so be careful with your aggression. Leaning into turns (“slide turns”) is still a vital skill, but I didn’t find much use for the new “drift turns”. Maybe if I used a heavier vehicle I would have, but I can’t say for certain.

Unlike most Nintendo games, [i]FGX[/i] has the potential to eat up a lot of memory on your card. At its most basic level (game data), it consumes a mere 4 blocks; however, adding garage data uses 18 blocks (which is good for four vehicles), ghost data another 3 per ghost, race replays anywhere from 3-13 per replay, and custom emblems 3 blocks per emblem. So if you want the full [i]FGX[/i] experience you’re looking at a big chunk of memory, but fortunately nothing but the Game Data is necessary.

In addition to the miscellaneous problems already mentioned, I think the overall difficulty deserves another mention here. You should expect Master Class Diamond Cup to be something of a teeth-grinding challenge, but the difficulty of some Story Mode missions are inexcuseable. I have a suspicion that the CPU cheats every now and then with unrealistic acceleration of certain rivals (the Fire Stingray and Black Bull especially), but my disgusting margin of victory in the final chapter has given me doubts. I also have mixed feelings about having to unlock each vehicle individually, but that may just be [i]F-X[/i] having spoiled me by unlocking six at a time. By the way, if (like me) you don’t like the original four cars, completing the first chapter of Story Mode should win you 15 tickets, which are more than enough to buy the car of your choice right off the bat; you won’t have to touch Story Mode again if you don’t want to.

As much as I like this game, it has three significant points against it. The first, as mentioned, is the insane difficulty. The second is the still-weak Vs. mode, which is the usual Nintendo two/four-way split screen nonsense; this game moves way too fast to be condensed into a quarter of the screen. I’d rather have no vs. mode than this, but with any luck the next version will be online (although I understand why this version wasn’t; lag would be UNTHINKABLE, and sadly [i]FGX[/i] came out before Nintendo thought that LAN play was a good idea). Finally, this game clearly isn’t for everyone. You need to be pretty hardcore to stick with this beyond Novice Class, and quite frankly the only reason I bothered to complete Story Mode was for this review. If this sounds like you, you’re going to love this game. If not, rent it first and see if your finges, eyes, and brain can keep up.

Score: 2/5

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