Racing games on the Nintendo 64 were common and ranged from all types but undoubtedly arcade future racer F-Zero X, sequel to the original F Zero on the SNES, was one of the most exhilarating.
Developed and published in 1998 by Nintendo’s EAD department the game was only a partial success for the console (likely as it was released in the same year as some of the other massive Nintendo published titles such as The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Rare's Banjo Kazooie). But speak to any fan of the series and you will only hear fervant passion.
But does it still play well nearly twenty years later? Having recently repurchased a Nintendo 64 and grabbing a copy of the game, I was delighted to dive back in and experience those high-octane thrills once more and re-evaluate the game from a modern sensibility.
Firstly, I love the concept of the series. It's fantastically ridiculous. Far in the future the wealthy elite of Earth have set up a new racing sport which allows all manner of intergalactic superheroes, super villains, bounty hunters, space merchants, humans, aliens, robots, the undead, mutants and even biomechanical dinosaurs to race for money in hovercars which have evolved from Formula One. The winner will receive plenty of cash and prestige and the losers will be left humiliated and bankrupt. Or dead.
One of the first things that struck me immediately on playing the game was the music. Specifically, the menu music on booting up the game is an energetic midi twang of electric guitar. The soundtrack also features remixed versions of the tunes from the original game and they have been produced with an edgier sound – in fact, between all the squealing guitars for a moment you would be forgiven for assuming someone had fired up a Metallica album. The mode/character select music in particular feels like the game is waiting for you to start head-banging and overall adds to the ‘90s attitude.
Now a futuristic racing game would find itself trudging along in last place if it didn’t have a great sense of speed and in this regard Nintendo’s game has no issue. On its release, its lead developer Shigeru Myamoto was even quoted as saying some of the speeds reached would be up to 1,000 kilometres an hour (not bad).
However, the developers admitted that to meet such a near sensory overload without any lag or severe drops in frame rate, the graphics had to be set to a low poly count. This was one of the main flaws which the game was noted for in critics reviews back in its day as the visuals are pretty sub standard, bordering on ugly. This was an unusual feature for a Nintendo property as consumers had come to expect a certain ‘seal of quality’ with their games. As a result, the ship models are plain looking, the track environments are uninspired and the backgrounds appear foggy presumably to conceal any graphical anomalies. It’s such a shame too as otherwise the game is fantastic. But given the choice, I think they made the right one. Speed is key.
So, let’s start with the basics. The game sees you choose a racer from a potential thirty unique characters and compete in championships of six progressively harder races in which points can be accumulated with the goal of winning the Gold Cup at the end. There are three championships available at the beginning with a couple to be unlocked later after beating the initial three Cups and races can be won by simply beating the competition fairly or by destroying their machines each race (much harder to do but very satisfying when successful).
The game will also highlight your main points rival throughout the race to make it easier to target them if required.
The difficulty settings range from Novice, Standard, Expert and Master and the curve is relatively steep. On initially racing on Novice you will find the game so easy you will think the AI opponents had sludge stuck in their exhausts but on notching it up to Expert your rival racer will be the reason you have to fork out another tenner for a new controller. I haven’t even attempted the Master difficulty.
The three cups you can compete in are the Jack, Queen and King cups (with an unlockable Joker cup and the X Cup which is a completely original track randomiser which can throw up all hell of weird and awful contortions). Sometimes a common failure of a racing game can be a lack of variety in circuits or poor track design. If a course is too frustrating or boring chances are you aren’t going to persevere long enough to beat it. Thankfully, F-Zero X tracks are full of great design and each has their own quirks, such as loops, half-pipes, narrow lanes and massive jumps. Returning from the original game are names like Silence, Port Town, Mute City, Big Blue and White Lands and some of these have two or even three variations which tend to increase in difficulty.
The original game in the series was bereft of content in that you could only control one of four racers (their names not even provided in-game but only known via character profiles in the instruction booklet). Captain Falcon was the main obvious hero character and would go on to become the mascot of the series. Dr. Stewart, Pico and Samurai Goroh were also established from the first game. However, the creators of F-Zero X were tasked with creating another 26 new racers and judging from the astounding character profile artwork it looks like Nintendo EAD had a fun time coming up with the designs and back-stories for each of the characters. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were ripped out of a Marvel comic strip (Beastman, Black Shadow or Aquaman all spring to mind.) Some have much less interesting names such as Billy, Leon or Kate Alen but then have really outlandish cartoony visuals which add to the sense that there is a deeper lore to the series.
I love this aspect of the game as it makes me want to read into any fiction that could have been set during the timeline of the races. There’s even a suspiciously named James McCloud who happens to wear similar garb to the other Nintendo character from the Starfox series, Fox McCloud, whose back-story involved his father, James. The F-Zero X character’s ship even resembles an Arwing from Starfox. Fun easter eggs.
On mentioning the ships actually, there is some depth too. Each ship has a weight to it and a set of parameters graded from A to E in terms of durability, grip and boost however on selecting your racer you also tweak the amount of down force on your ship to either have more top speed or better acceleration but lower top speed. This adds some strategy to the choice of racer and which really depends on the circuit or championship event in play as choosing a racer with a high top speed on a ‘twisty-turny’ track could be pretty disastrous as there wouldn’t be many opportunities to utilise the top speed. Likewise, on a fast track with little cornering you would struggle to pass anyone if you opt for better acceleration over top speed. On top of that you need to factor in the weight of the ship as I find on narrow tracks it is advantageous to choose the big heavy machines, hoping to take out my opposition by smashing into them. The more experienced with the game I became I started to really tweak the balance of the ship depending on each circuit and really appreciated this extra level of depth.
Features wise, aside from the main Grand Prix championship mode, multiplayer with two, three or four players and the standard Time Attack and Practice modes is the Death Race feature. This was unique to the series at the time and was a never-ending race which involved you as the player selecting a character to then try and eliminate the other 29 remaining racers in the fastest time possible. The track layout wouldn’t change from essentially a straight road but trying to beat your own time is pretty addictive and challenging.
All in all, I had a great time coming back to this and can appreciate the impact this game had in particular to the futuristic racing genre. It’s definitely not a great looking game as the visuals are disappointingly jaggy and lacking in detail but ultimately the choice to keep frame rate up was the right one as the game never stutters even when 30 racers are on-screen battling it out. It’s a high point in the series and fans of the genre should not miss out.