Review: F-Zero GX (GCN)

F-Zero is the name of the game, but will it also be the score?

In 2003 Nintendo’s premier racing series returned in superb style on the GameCube: F-Zero GX came out of the gate lightning fast, brutally hard and, rather oddly, developed by Sega. Made by Sega studio Amusement Vision, it marked the company’s first collaboration with Nintendo after having dropped out of the hardware market and it's a corker.

F-Zero GX places thirty futuristic racers in high-speed hovercars on a variety of mind-boggling tracks, then fires the starting pistol. As with most racing titles, the aim of the game is to be the fastest on the track, but with races playing out at speeds of over 1000 km/h, F-Zero is arguably the fastest game around. Races are not only fast but also furious, players are given the ability to ram and spin attack their opponents in the hopes of dislodging them from the track. Being attacked depletes your vehicle’s energy, run out before you finish your three laps and you’re out.

From the second lap onwards you can also activate a boost, sending your vehicle surging forwards at crazy speeds. However, boosts also deplete your energy, meaning they must be used sparingly as recharging strips on the track are spread out. Juggling all of these factors makes races intense and hectic; a closely won victory will have you leaping out of your chair in celebration.

In the bid to be first across the line choosing your pilot is crucial, and F-Zero doesn’t exactly lack options. There are over thirty different pilots to choose from; the eclectic bunch of drivers ranges from the relatively sane Captain Falcon and Dr. Stewart through to the downright barmy Octoman and Beastman. Each pilot has a unique vehicle with individual statistics, and this plays a massive role in picking a character too. Amusement Vision did an incredible job in balancing the vehicles; no particular type is necessarily better than another and whatever your play style there will almost definitely be a vehicle to suit.

Before a race you are also given the option to tweak the balancing of top speed versus acceleration using a simple sliding scale. This detail proves handy when changing between different types of tracks; for instance, on a track with lots of straights and big banking corners it would be advisable to have a higher top speed that you can reach gradually, rather than accelerating quickly off the line and later finding that you lack the oomph to go the distance.

Learning the tracks is an important part of playing F-Zero GX, although at times this can prove difficult considering that many of them defy logic, physics and sometimes belief. There’s a lot going on, from jumps and loops to the odd smattering of bombs and lasers, and just getting through three laps on some of the harder tracks can be a challenge, as often you’ll find yourself going too fast and careening off course. Starting over never feels like too much of a hassle though, as it gives you an excuse to marvel at the game's excellent track design again.

Great tracks are all well and good, but no racing game would be complete without a varied selection of modes, luckily Amusement Vision saw fit to furnish the player with a full suite of options. You can choose from Grand Prix, Story, Time Trial, VS Battle, Practice and a Customise mode.

The main bulk of the game will be found in Grand Prix mode; here you can challenge three cups (Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald) with another to unlock. Each cup contains five races and you are awarded points depending on which position you finish in; the pilot with the most points at the end is declared the overall winner. A Grand Prix win awards you with tickets that can be used to buy new pilots, custom parts and chapters for the Story mode.

Story mode follows the exploits of Captain Falcon across nine challenging chapters book-ended by animated cutscenes. Each chapter basically takes the form of a driving challenge, often adding a wrinkle to the F-Zero formula; for instance, one chapter has you dodging boulders while drag racing. The new gameplay elements keep things feeling fresh, but it’s a shame the same can’t be said for the cutscenes. While graphically impressive, the nonsensical plot, hammy voice acting and music that seems borrowed from the 1980’s often leaves you feeling like you’re watching a particularly bad episode of Power Rangers (one where they don’t even use the Megazord). In a rather considerate move from Amusement Vision cutscenes can be skipped, and considering the amount of time you’ll spend retrying challenges you’ll be thankful for this feature.

F-Zero GX is not an easy game, not by a long shot. It can be incredibly frustrating and even seems impossible at times, but you’ll always go back for more. You’ll lose, you’ll throw your controller down in frustration, but then creep over and pick it back up like the good little masochist you are. Perseverance is the key to success in F-Zero, and players who put the work into mastering it will be rewarded with the greatest feeling of triumph.

The default control scheme is solid, with steering on the analogue stick, A as the accelerator, Y activating speed boosts and Z performing a spinning attack. With races faster than greased lightning the controls are quite demanding on the old fingers, and longer play sessions may leave your hands feeling as if you’ve tried to grease lightning with them.

The overall presentation of the game is great throughout. The music can only be described as ‘futuristic’; evidently nobody in the future plays a nice bit of piano anymore. A blend of heavy guitar riffs, synth and pulsing bass lines forms the majority of the score, and whilst it’s functional you’ll often find you tune it out whilst concentrating on the race. The standout musical moments would definitely be the hilarious Stan Bush-ish songs scattered throughout Story Mode.

Graphically, the game is pleasing on the eye and everything zips along at a nice pace, but players who slow down and take the time to admire the environments will really see the effort Sega have gone to. Compared to the empty backgrounds of F-Zero X on the N64, the courses in GX are positively brimming with things to see, including oceans, lava plumes and giant sand eels, and the tracks feel integrated into an overall larger planet, rather than strips of tarmac floating in nothingness. The newfound complexity in the environments is welcome, however on some tracks it has made it difficult to distinguish the edges of the track from the background. Not that this is really an issue once you learn the layout, and you’ll most certainly have plenty of time to do just that.

F-Zero’s list of challenges is near endless. With four difficulty settings, a host of custom parts with which to build new machines in Customise mode, addictive four-player split-screen multiplayer and a Time Trial mode that encourages you to keep shaving seconds off your time, it easily takes upwards of 20 hours to see everything there is to see in F-Zero GX. It is difficult to give a solid figure for the quantity of hours it will take, because to put it quite simply, a lot of people won’t finish it.

Conclusion

With an unparalleled sense of speed, rewarding progression and addictive gameplay, F-Zero GX is by far and away the number one racer for the GameCube. Sega’s Amusement Vision studio really pushed the boat out in terms of crafting a finely tuned experience; the brutal difficulty may put off more casual players, but those with the skill and the stones to stick with it will find a deceptively deep game with near endless replay value. F-Zero has come a long way since its Mode 7-powered inception on the SNES and F-Zero GX is the pinnacle of the series. When it was released back in 2003 it was the fastest game around and all these years later other racing games are still playing catch up.

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