Reviewed: September 11, 2003
Released: August 25, 2003
I can list the number of N64 games I truly enjoyed on one hand, and the original F-Zero definitely makes the Top-5 cut. The F-Zero franchise dates back to the now-antiquated SNES, and regardless of which system the game appeared on F-Zero has always held a special place in the racing genre, developing an almost cult following. There are dozens of futuristic racers out there; Wipeout, TubeSlider, Quantum Redshift, and others, but F-Zero has always had that certain presentation and style that put it in a class of its own.
F-Zero GX is the latest installment in the classic franchise and not only does it surpass its ancestors in just about every way possible, it is easily the new showcase title for the GameCube system, finally unleashing all of the power and potential Nintendo promised when the console was original released.
Developed by Amusement Vision, GX doesn’t stray too far from the proven formula of past F-Zero successes, but rather improves and builds upon a solid foundation of hardcore racing. Veterans will instantly recognize their favorite ships and their over-the-top drivers. Those of you who developed strategies or found favor with a particular ship will find the similarities uncanny, but not to the point where this is merely a next-gen knockoff.
The core gameplay has been expanded to include new racing modes and a garage where you can construct the ship of your dreams. Perhaps the most brilliant feature of GX is the innovative crossover compatibility with the new F-Zero AX arcade game. You can build the ship of your dreams in the new garage on your GameCube then take your memory card to the arcade and plug it into the AX machine and race that ship at the arcade. By exchanging data between GX and AX you can unlock new custom hardware and use it to customize your ships in GX.
F-Zero includes all of these exciting features:
The first thing all GX racers will want to check is their memory card status. Depending on what you want to do with this title you are going to need anywhere from 4-41 (or more) memory blocks. Diehard F-Zero racers can just plan on dedicated a 4mb card to this title – that’s what that little socket is for in the game case after all. Game data takes a modest 4 blocks but once you start playing with the garage and customizing your racers you will need another 18. Ghost data takes 3 blocks per ghost and if you want to save replays prepare to spend 3-13 per video. If you want to design your own team logo you will spend 3 blocks per design.
Not only is F-Zero GX one of the best looking games ever released on the Cube it is without a doubt the most challenging. I typically play the normal (or middle) skill level of any game I review but GX ate me up and spat me out. Placing in the top five was hard enough but on some of the later races it because nearly impossible not to get “retired” before I had finished my second lap. I quickly started a new game under the Novice skill level and was able to finally get a grasp on subtleties of the gameplay.
F-Zero GX isn’t a game to be taken lightly. First timers and novice racers will quickly find themselves overwhelmed and season veterans of the franchise are in for a surprisingly steep learning curve. The racers are faster and the tracks more fiendishly clever than ever before. There is so much eye candy assaulting your optical senses that you might just go blind trying to play this game. You’ll only begin to appreciate the complexity of the level designs when you sit back and watch someone else play the game.
A great racing game requires precise and responsive controls and GX doesn’t disappoint. I’m probably the biggest complainer of them all when it comes to the GameCube controller. Even with my trusty Mad Catz Cubicon I often find myself working around the awkward controls, but GX is a pure joy to play. The left and right triggers slide your racer while using them together combined with the stick allows you to drift around tight turns. The analog stick controls lateral movement and pitches the nose when you are making those tremendous jumps. The A button is the gas and the Y button activates your booster while the Z and X buttons handle spin and side attacks.
Veterans of the series will already be familiar with the energy system used in F-Zero. Your ship basically has an energy bar that is shared between ship health and your turbo boost. When you use turbo this takes away from your overall ship’s health and when you take damage you lose potential boost power. It’s quite possible to “boost yourself to death”. There are energy strips located around the track that allow you to replenish this meter. Learning when and where to boost is extremely critical in successful racing.
All of the traditional racing modes are back including Grand Prix, VS Battle, Time Attack, and the much needed Practice sessions that let you recover gracefully when you go flying off the track. As with most racing games, reflexes simply aren’t enough and you will need intimate knowledge of every twist and turn in each track. Practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more.
Of course the big new feature in GX is the new Story mode. This seems to be the new “thing” in racing games but GX manages to pull off the concept with some incredible flair. The story spans nine chapters; you are given the first and must “purchase” additional chapters in the Shop. Each chapter features a race or perhaps a timed challenge, and you can play each chapter on Normal and Hard modes. Normal is quite difficult and Hard is bloody impossible. The concept of having to purchase each chapter is quite innovative and forces the player to mix in a little Grand Prix racing between the chapters to earn the required number of “tickets” to unlock the next chapter.
The Grand Prix mode consists of three cups, each increasing in difficulty for both tracks and racers. If you run out of energy or fly off the track you are “retired” and must use a spare machine (continue) to keep going. The number of “continues” you have is based on your chosen skill level. You can earn additional energy and spare machines by destroying other ships during the race.
The selection of tracks is mind numbing, both in complexity and design quality. You’ll be racing inside tubes fighting centrifugal force or flying high off of towering jumps or holding your breath as you squeak down narrow sections of track without any side rails. There are tracks with multiple paths, shortcuts, and loads of turbo power-ups and strategically placed pit areas.
The Garage mode allows aspiring mechanics to mix and match a variety of ship parts to create their own custom racer. I didn’t find this aspect of the game that interesting since these ships can’t be used in the Grand Prix mode, but those of you with a major arcade in your area that has the new F-Zero AX sit-down machine can interchange your GameCube data with the arcade machine for some truly innovative gaming.
The multiplayer racing in GX is outstanding and for the first time ever the console has the power to allow for up to four racers to go head-to-head in split-screen racing action. This is some of the best multiplayer the Cube has to offer and not once did the framerate even attempt to dip below a smooth 60fps.
F-Zero GX does a fantastic job of bringing back all the nostalgia of the original games combining retro ship design and an almost superhero-like cast of characters with some of the most stunning racing environments ever seen on any racing game on any console to date. To help blend the old with the new the characters and ship models have been ever-so-slightly tweaked with subtle enhancements to update them for 2003.
You’ll find yourself racing in all sorts of futuristic and fantasy environments ranging from crystalline cities to tracks winding through pink clouds or through lush green forests or through raging manmade electrical storms. The winding tracks are highlighted with all sorts of ambient colored lighting and reflections as you race through giant casino environments or on tracks that go on and beneath the surface of the ocean.
Each of the race events is prefixed with a stunning intro movie guaranteed to trigger some vertigo in even the most stout gamer and the post-race replays are equally as stunning allowing you to watch the race unfold from a variety of thrilling camera angles. Watching via the track-level camera you can even see the metal mesh of the track vibrate and the racers speed by.
These fly-bys and replays are all generated using game engine graphics but the pre-rendered movies used for the story mode are truly a sight to behold rivaling the epic CG movies of Capcom and Konami. These cutscenes are sharp and vibrant and just ooze with creative style I haven’t seen since theReboot animated series.
And if all this weren’t enough you can also add 16:9 HDTV progressive scan support. If you think GX looks great on a standard TV just wait until you see it in all its high-def glory. My only complaint with the visuals is that there is often so much going on that details like the necessary “updraft” ports blend into the background making them hard to spot and even harder to use. Again, it’s all about track memorization more than vision and reflexes.
The music in F-Zero GX is right on track with any other competing racing game. Gone are the sampled cliché guitar-rock tracks of the N64. These have been replaced with multi-dimensional techno and futuristic rock beats that pulse and maintain a certain anxiety that mirrors the actual racing experience.
Sound effects are fairly minimal and the engine noise is rather subdued unless you are racing in the close-chase or cockpit view and then the game is virtually impossible to play. There are typical crashing sounds of spin and side attacks and the pulsing power-up when you pass through a pit area, but that’s about it.
There is considerably more dialog in F-Zero GX than any F-Zero game before it thanks mainly to the Story mode. You’ll actually get to hear many of your favorite characters speak for the first time and the script is surprisingly well written and humorous.
This could very well be one of the most comprehensive racing package available today. With 30 pilots, 20 tracks, 15 cup races and a 9-chapter story mode you will be playing this game well into 2004. I won’t even presume to put an estimated time on this game. I’ve logged over 30 hours and haven’t even scratched the surface.
And even if you do manage to conquer all the material that can be completed you will have the open-ended multiplayer racing, the Internet rankings, and the connectivity with the AX arcade game.
Every time I start to doubt my GameCube purchase Nintendo seems to sense my discontent and releases just one more game to keep me hooked for another few months. While the Cube is certainly plagued with its share of substandard ports and platform conversions the first-party exclusive titles are the real gems of the system.
Amusement Vision has created what may well be the perfect GameCube title. With its amazingly complex racing model even experienced gamers are in for a substantial learning curve and newcomers to the series will be in for quite a shock. Visually stunning and a total blast to play, F-Zero GX is a racing game that no GameCube owner should be without.