Review: F-Zero Maximum Velocity (3DS eShop / GBA)

Gotta go fast

F-Zero has always been Nintendo’s way of flaunting how on the cutting-edge of technology it can be when it so chooses. Like a bat out of Hell, the original F-Zero launched alongside the Super NES to draw a clear distinction between where 16-bit Nintendid and SEGagged. Later on N64, F-Zero X boasted 30 on-screen polygonal racers and brought both multiplayer and combat manoeuvres into the fold, and GameCube sequel F-Zero GX (ironically, developed by SEGA) arguably perfected the futuristic racer with its white-knuckle difficulty, beautiful scenery and vehicle creation.

Given the franchise's history of bloodied edges, it’s easy to see why Nintendo chose to launch with F-Zero: Maximum Velocity when the 32-bit Game Boy Advance rolled in to town in 2001. Nintendo’s first stab at portable Formula 0 racing played it pretty close to the SNES mould from which it was crafted but smoothed out the rough edges of what was by then a 10-year-old game, helping to pioneer the GBA’s expanded link cable capabilities like single-cart multiplayer in the process and showing off just what the hardware could do to earn its "Advance" designation.

The 20+ tracks expertly ramp up the difficulty in an almost tutorial way through slow introduction of help and hazards, letting you get comfortable with boost strips and slow-down patches only to throw a curveball by aiming one at the other. Course design of later cups feels almost scientifically designed to give you a heart attack unless you have tamed your chosen new ship. Maximum Velocity is a game with a no-joke name, demanding quick reflexes and intelligent use of boosters as your vehicle careens around bends and over jumps to avoid a euphemistic early retirement. It’s a game unafraid of ridiculous speed and challenge going largely unmatched on Nintendo portables since.

It also requires mastery of control, which can take some getting used to even for F-Zero vets. To avoid slamming into walls and depleting ship energy, leaning into turns using the shoulder buttons and tapping the accelerator become key strategies. Controls are tight and adapt well to the Circle Pad once you clear the sensitivity learning curve. Like the SNES game, boosts are doled out at a rate of one per lap instead of being tied to your ship’s energy meter and there’s no spin attack or other offensive move to take out opponents, leaving you with pure racing ability as your weapon. Sharp reflexes and a cool head are a must if you’re to have any hope of unlocking the hidden tracks and vehicles.

As with all Virtual Console titles on 3DS, link cable support has vanished and along with it some of the game’s best features. Single- and multi-card racing are out as well as rank comparisons, which originally let you swap records with another cart for a cumulative high-score table. However, you can still export times in code form that was once used for national tournaments organised by Nintendo, but with nowhere to send them they're no longer of use. Considering the Synobazz championship track was all but built for time trials, it’s a shame that record sharing is no longer an option.

Conclusion

Even without any of the link cable modes, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity holds up remarkably well as a single-player screamer 10 years on and barely shows any sign of age. It might get a little lonely out in Synobazz after you've conquered the CPU over and over, but the package is substantial enough to keep flying solo thrilling long after you pass the last finish line.