Keen to promote a sense of continuity, many of the immediate features and options from F-Zero X have been transported over into the new game. Grand Prix is the ubiquitous option to race over a number of tracks in series, in one of a number of cups, these initially being Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald. Once again though, games manufacturers have decided not to allow this option in anything apart from one-player mode. Time Trial and Practice fall mainly under the same banner: the option to race round a circuit without any restraints and try to decrease all the time records, whereas the Vs Battle is the proper multiplayer choice to see who really is the best racer in the room.
The vehicle parts are then used in an aspect new to most people: building your own machine. All the individual components such as body, engine and cockpit must be bought and bolted on together. Custom racers can be used in any option, even the Grand Prix, so there is no excuse for not tinkering about to produce that killer vehicle. Each part contributes one aspect towards the three point grading system in F-Zero (grip, body, boost) and overall they combine to produce a unique name for each craft, such as Super Wolf-Z. A custom craft is graded on four individual ratings, displayed on a radar graph: cornering, body, boost and acceleration. As each item is selected individually, the radar graph adjusts real-time to reflect the new overall performance of the machine. In general, the better the piece of equipment is, the heavier it weighs, and acceleration is a key consideration here as it tends to reduce when the vehicle gets heavier.
Whilst it may be possible to build a machine with an A rating in all categories, it is quite likely to weigh about 3 tons and be slower off the line than a lead brick. Heavier machines also tend to have far wider turning arcs. Therefore, a balance must be struck between performance and weight, which means that a vehicle can't be the best in all categories and expect to win. There's no way to produce a vehicle similar to some existing craft with the parts given, but certainly the only limitations are with the player's skill and understanding of the nuances on how each rating affects how a vehicle handles. Also available along customisation lines is the ability to RGB colour code each individual section, and daub the proclaimed mean machine in tags and designs. Emblems can be applied to both existing and player-built machines. A range of graphic designs is included with the game but there is also a very comprehensive Photoshop-like tool available to design your own icons.
It is hard to believe that the game is running off the same graphical engine as Super Monkey Ball, but that is what it is doing. Whether or not AV have tinkered with the code to allow the supersonic speeds on display or it was that well-oiled to begin with is unknown, needless to say that it is powerful enough to shift everything at 60fps constantly. There is no frame dropping, no stuttering, nothing but silky smooth scrolling even at 2000 kph.
This game really can shift the necessary visuals about, of that there is no doubt. With that essential component out of the way, there is also enough processing power left to add a wealth of incredibly beautiful course graphics and effects. Giant worms leap out of the ground on Sand Ocean, giant roulette wheels rotate on Vegas Palace, staggering weather effects on Lightning; the graphics team really have excelled themselves in making the game look the complete package.
Needless to say, it is probably the best-looking Gamecube game so far. Sadly, players will not get to appreciate such niceties, as they are furiously concentrating on making sure their little craft doesn't get mashed to pieces. Most of the background effort is dropped during multiplayer mode to keep things ticking along at 60fps, but that isn't likely to be noticed much.
All the vehicles that are known and loved from F-Zero X are faithfully recreated within the boundaries of the engine. Most of the colour schemes have been retained, the textures are smooth even when viewed close-up, and there are even realistic wear and tear markings on most craft. The custom parts that can be purchased have a wide range of designs, and there should be something aesthetic to please everyone in there.
The first sounds heard upon loading the game set the tone for the pace and excitement about to ensue. The title piece of music, one that featured in some of the demo videos released, is a frantic raucous piece of techno guitar playing with plenty of beat behind it. Sega have gone on a different slant to before in-game; for most part gone are the driving, guitar based heavy tracks that urged the player to keep going faster, instead replaced by more electronic and techno slanted performances similar to that on the title screen. Anyone hoping for remixes of old F-Zero themes will be disappointed as Mute City is the only track to have any trace of its original piece lurking within. However, there are a couple of tracks within Story Mode that appear to have old influences as well.
That isn't to say many of them don't fit in with the theme of the tracks. For instance, Cosmo Terminal is a winding, spiralling, corkscrew of a track at times and the music is very trance-like, partially hypnotic, as the player seems to be zooming down a winding tunnel with oblivion close to hand on both sides. Guitar freaks do have at least one piece to console themselves with, namely Fire Field, and what a piece of hard driving music this turns out to be.
A racing game lives and dies by the quality of the circuits available to speed around, and F-Zero GX is no exception. A couple of the early circuits, whilst well-constructed in their own right, are not that exhilarating to race around. The wonder and excitement expected and not delivered in full immediately from the off may cause some to question if Sega were the right choice for the project. Has expection and hype dulled the realisation one may wonder? Not in the slightest. It is a potential slow burner of a game, that will gradually draw the player in to fully realise and appreciate its depth. And the potential depth has definitely been one of the main factors of the success of the F-Zero series. This game can, and probably will, last players for a very long time.
Faith in the game over time proves fruitful, in that later tracks are much more in the vein that F-Zero drivers are used to and demand. Fire Field II and Phantom Road truly prove that Sega must have extensively analysed the previous game, and there are plenty of nods to old tracks. Vegas Palace I is pretty much a Silence clone from the N64 version, and Mute City II with its copious gaps, boosts and opportunities for death has more than a passing resemblance to the old White Land tracks from the original SNES game. There is a lot of subtle ingenuity involved in a lot of the track design and they are both challenging and highly enjoyable to race around. Some of this does not manifest itself until tracks are raced in Time Trial mode, then the challenge is to beat the genius Sega have used in constructing the things.
Until players reach the final normal cup, one of the main noticeable differences between this and our old friend F-Zero X is just how wide the tracks are in general now. There is far more room for manoeuvring and escaping trouble, and with it brings a different set of driving tactics to what was used in F-Zero X. With the wider spaces, the spin attack has less prominence, but is still a killer move at certain circumstances. Sega have chosen to redefine the side attack with F-Zero GX and given it new life. Upon getting alongside another vehicle, activating the attack with the right timing gives not only the distinct possibility of seriously damaging the target, but sending it flying into the abyss off the track, giving them zero points in the overall rankings.
The other noticeable difference is just how hard Sega have made the game in general. It almost feels at times that F-Zero X was merely the appetiser or warm-up to the main course that is F-Zero GX. Even when the courses have been learnt to a good degree of familiarity, they are still challenging due to the ferocious nature of the competitive traffic. At Master level, a perfect run and nobbling the opposition is almost de rigueur. Hats off to Sega for truly delivering a game that will test the very depth, soul and zone of the gamesplayers of the world. And that is not going to go down well with some people. Have gamesplayers gotten soft over time since the heady hardcore days of the 80s? Sega have made many aspects of the game harsh but fair, frustrating but not overly so, and it is not the program that can be faulted; it is the player who must improve themselves to match the standards demanded. Practice, practice, practice is the ethic most suited to the nature of the game.
Story mode takes things up to a whole new level after that. There will be a lot of hours wasted and much midnight oil burned even trying to complete most of the tasks on the default difficulty. After that, Grand Prix mode might even seem a welcome break from the perfection demanded at times because it isn't as demanding. Who said Japanese games were easy? Time trial mode, in conjuction with the customisation of craft will always be an option to return to, as there are some 8,000 different combinations to try out in the search for the perfect race time. Investigation, analysis and trial of the balance between acceleration and top speed are what will determine if a vehicle can break and beat the Staff Ghost times.
At the same time as being hard, the game is incredibly fun and addictive to play. If it was truly unfair then there wouldn't be such the urge to keep the control pad in your hand and not want to let go. Just the thrill of zooming along at speeds in excess of 2000kph is enjoyable in itself, but the competition against the CPU drivers and other humans is what always makes the F-Zero games rewarding. The urge to push the limits of speed on the tracks, to go just that little bit faster, and in an instant sidesmack your rival off the track is indescribly satisfying. Any fan of F-Zero X is going to fall in love with this new version, and whilst newcomers to the series may possibly be overwhelmed to begin with by the range of options available, they will soon be racing along and occasionally smacking the sides of the track like everyone else at breakneck speed.
Is there anything to fault the game on at all? There are but minor niggles, and they do not detract from the overall experience of playing something truly special. Sega's realisation of a much loved franchise has taken it in a completely new direction, and whilst Nintendo's previous iteration debatably may still be regarded by some as just on top, this version should be rightly deemed as the definitive racing game of this generation, and one of the best ever made.