Review: Stunt Race FX (SNES)

Racing: Super FX style!

In 1993 the Super FX-enhanced Star Fox brought 3D visuals to the SNES with great effect, so it was a no-brainer that further games would follow. The second game to use the wonder chip came a year later in the form of Stunt Race FX, a cutesy 3D racer from Nintendo that featured a variety of tracks with slopes and bumps across four modes of play. The Super FX chip also helped with scenery providing planes, animals and the odd falling rock. It was all very impressive.

Of course that was then. Play the game now after 3D racers have appeared on more advanced hardware and the problems stand out: pop-up of scenery and track in the distance is troublesome and whilst you won’t have a corner suddenly appear from nowhere, it can be quite distracting. Another problem is the movement of the vehicles which are quite jerky, making handling them at first seem difficult. Of course it’s still perfectly playable (it wasn’t a problem in 1994 after all) but it may take you a few laps before you get a feel for the cars.

Early 3D could be ugly but the appearance of the game is good - in a stylised blocky kind of way. The fact that it was never trying for realistic visuals certainly helps. There is a choice of three camera views that you can switch between whenever you wish: the standard just behind view, slightly further back and cockpit. The latter is the best for judging difficult corners but the many bumps along each track mean it’s not recommended to anyone who suffers from motion sickness. The instruction booklet tells you how to get a fourth viewpoint (side-on dramatic TV style) but it's so pointless it'll only be used by people who plan to fly on a magic carpet to see the King of the Potato People and plead with him for their freedom.

Initially there are three cars available, each with its own unique look and as you would expect they handle differently with varying top speeds and acceleration. There’s the Monster Truck 4WD, the small and speedy Coupé and the F-Type that resembles a Formula 1 car (sort of.) Later on you can unlock 2WD: a difficult to handle motorcycle that will greatly improve your records should you manage to control it.

The controls are straightforward: d-pad for steering, shoulder buttons for tighter turns and drifting, B to accelerate and A to brake if you’re feeling cowardly. A also doubles as reverse should you find yourself facing the wrong way after a crash, possibly due to not breaking. You fool. X is a jump button used to avoid your rivals banging into you, though really you’ll just press it as it also honks your horn. Finally Y gives your vehicle a speed boost. There is a meter that decreases as the boost is used but it can be replenished by picking up the blue gems that you find as you drive around the track.

The first mode available from the main menu is Speed Trax, a four car event that sees you, your clone and the two other cars try to complete four courses. At least that’s the default setting; you can if you wish select four of the same car. There are three classes (Novice, Expert and Master) each with different tracks and an optional bonus game. Your position is noted but you’re not really racing the other cars – aside from the fact that finishing fourth results in a loss of life. You simply have to complete each three-lap course before the timer runs out. Passing through checkpoints results in an increase in time and in fact should your car manage to crawl past the checkpoint (if it’s close enough) after the timer has hit zero you get the time bonus and will be able to resume your drive. Only just making it through each stage however is not recommended, as your leftover time is carried forward to the next track and as they get tougher you’ll want all the extra time you can get. Upon clearing a class you are given your total time for the four tracks: the top three times are saved which adds replayability as you try to cut a few seconds off your (or a friend's) record.

Aside from last place finishes and running out of time, another way to end your race is damage. Bashing in to walls, trees or other vehicles will cause a damage meter to fill; once it’s full, you’re out of the race. Should you drive off a bridge it’s an instant retirement but other damage can be repaired by picking up the red gems, which like their blue friends can be found at various points along the track. The bonus game comes after you’ve completed two courses and sees you control Trailer (a semi-trailer truck), knocking over flags and trying to complete laps in order to gain extra time and lives.

The twelve tracks offer a great variety both visually and in their design. There's a range of terrain and you will find yourself racing during the day, at night and during sunset. You will find tunnels (both traditional and underwater) and there is a variety of backdrops such as trees and cities, meaning there can be quite a lot to look at on screen. However perhaps the best looking track is Sky Ramp, an airborne track where pop-up is less noticeable as some parts of the track are purposefully obscured by clouds. Simple, but very effective. Or maybe it just looks cool with the Arwings that are flying about.

Thankfully the tracks are fun to race on too. Some have long straights, others have lots of turns, sometimes tight, other times larger and one track has lots of right-angled ones. Parts of them have a definite Mario Kart feel, with the Novice Class’s Sunset Valley at times seeming like a prototype of Mario Kart 64’s Choco Mountain.

There is quite a big jump in difficulty between the Novice and Expert classes. Whilst eventually you will play through the Speed Trax trying to get the quickest time possible, your initial aim is just to finish each race. In Novice class you can do this quite easily without using the shoulder buttons for drifting much. In fact you can often get away with crashing round corners as you still end up pointing the right way and as you pick up little damage from the rest of the circuit there’s little chance of writing off your vehicle. Move up to Expert however and things are different. Suddenly corners are more difficult, requiring careful use of the shoulder buttons and a misjudged turn often means making that next checkpoint is very difficult. Of course once you get used to the circuits this is less of a problem, much like your suddenly more aggressive rivals who are only too happy to drive into you or smash you into a wall. The Master class is of course even trickier but as Expert has properly acquainted you with the controls it’s a less noticeable jump than Novice to Expert.

Music is the typical Nintendo upbeat variety, sometimes with added excitement and each track is catchy. The sounds in the game are excellent, from the revving engines and screeching tyres to the clown-like sound of your horn. The splash as you drive through shallow water is very good whilst the sound as you drive over a rickety wooden bridge may make you wonder if the SNES pad has a rumble feature you never knew about. Bumps and crashes have a more cartoon-like sound but this fits well with the visuals.

If you want a change from the Speed Trax there is the Stunt Trax mode where you must work your way through four areas collecting stars and try to get to the end before the timer runs out. There are four courses for you to tackle and each will see you bouncing over bumps as you try desperately to get all the stars, often situated in an awkward place: or rather it becomes awkward due to you misjudging the previous one. Like the Speed Trax each course has its own unique setting such as rocks or ice, though the most interesting is Blue Lake which places its obstacles in shallow water. Stunt Trax is a fun distraction but it’s not quite as fun as the other modes.

Battle Trax is for two-player head-to-head racing and so has obvious appeal. Unfortunately (presumably due to technical reasons) the twelve Speed Trax courses are not available so four new ones are on offer instead. These four seem like shorter, simpler versions of some of the other tracks and have very little in the way of track-side scenery, but the ability to race against another player is still a welcome one. Should a control pad go untouched at the start of a race the computer will take over and you will be racing a computer-controlled opponent instead - although you will have a couple of seconds' head start (you big cheater you).

By far the most addictive mode is the final one. Initially the fourth option is Test Run which puts you on a circuit and gives you three laps to familiarise yourself with the controls – though only one of the cars is available. It’s fairly pointless but upon clearing a class in Speed Trax this is replaced with the superior Free Trax (time trial) mode. Simply pick your car, your track (from any cleared class) and then try to complete it as quickly as possible. Although best times are also saved in Speed and Stunt Trax modes, there’s just a greater feeling engendered from flinging your vehicle around the track free from the distractions of other cars and detours for stars. As well as saving the top three times you can also check out the three fastest times for each vehicle giving you a variety of records to try to beat.

Conclusion

There are a few issues with the visuals and the limited two-player option is disappointing, but there is a great variety of well constructed tracks to hold your interest. Trying to shave just a little off your times (particularly in Free Trax) is where you'll get the most enjoyment, meaning Stunt Race FX will keep you occupied for a long time.