• FZero GX Review - Nintendo Gamecube

    When Nintendo announced that several of their key franchises would be handed out to third-party developers for their Gamecube iterations, a large proportion of fans were naturally worried that they would not be able to live up to the standards previously delivered. So far, these fears have not been justified, with Retro Studios producing an impeccable first-person version of Metroid and Namco developing a potentially interesting new take on the Starfox heritage. Lodged firmly between these two comes the next version of F-Zero, developed by Sega's Amusement Vision department, also responsible for the Monkey Ball series of games.
    It is because of previous form in the racing genre that Nintendo felt it wise to leave one of their two premiere racing series in Sega's capable hands. If someone had told you ten years ago that Sega would be programming one of Nintendo's most significant franchises in the future, there probably would have been much disbelief. Now, this scenario has become reality. The question everyone is now asking is whether the faith is justified in the result.

    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.
    Fans of F-Zero X may be disappointed to learn that the Death Race mode has been dropped, although it hasn't disappeared completely. The similarities continue as far that all 30 racers from the previous game have been brought over into the new one, keeping their original stats and performance characteristics, even down to the ability to tweak the ratio between acceleration and top speed. Anyone who spent time on the N64 version will feel right at home and can try out their favourite racer in the brand new racing circuits. Well...almost, as to begin with only the four main "famous" racers (Captain Falcon, Goroh, Pico and Dr. Stewart) are available. The ten AX racers from the arcade version are also included in the game, but it is up to the player to discover how to unlock them.
    The control features available have been copied from the N64 iteration although, thanks to the layout of the Gamecube pad, most of the functions have now been given their own button. A is acceleration, B is the main brake, with L and R as the airbrakes for turning corners more tightly. Pressing both down together increases the tightness of the steering even more for those suicidal 180 degree hairpins. Y is the boost function, so fundamental to the whole F-Zero series. Vehicle attacks are now handled using the X button (for side attack) and Z button (for spin attack). If anything, the tightness of handling has been improved and it is far less likely for vehicles to leave the track due to going too fast. When vehicles do get airborne, the vehicle is not able to float or dive as much as in F-Zero X although, to be fair, it is still possible, and in a couple of circumstances, absolutely vital. Cornering is also smooth with the airbrakes just being a little harsher this time around, much more like the control from the SNES version.
    Story Mode is a new approach for the F-Zero universe. The mode itself opens with an FMV of the Black Shadow crashing and being threatened by a new, unknown racer. Taking the guise of Captain Falcon thereafter, a series of challenges are laid out, where progression is solely based on being able to complete the previous one, and perhaps, by the end, discovering just who this mysterious driver is. To give an example, the first challenge is to guide the Blue Falcon round a track collecting all the pods laid out within 3 laps, whilst competing against a time limit. Once completed on the starting difficulty, the challenge can either be repeated at a higher difficulty or the next chapter in the story can be bought from the shop.
    The second chapter in the story sees Captain Falcon being challenged to a race by Samurai Goroh around a boulder-strewn valley. Each chapter has FMV before and after the race, which helps to explain the story in between the action. On the default difficulty, each challenge is rock-hard and will take many attempts to complete, with the higher levels offering even die-hard racers an incredibly stiff challenge (and potentially broken control pads).
    Customisation Mode is a whole new concept to the world of F-Zero, but it follows many of the same lines and principles laid down in other racing games. It is also a whole new step up over and beyond the simple racer construction option in the 64DD expansion pack. Almost everything successfully completed in the game (be it cups, time trial leaderboard, story mode and so on) brings an allocation of tickets to the player. These tickets can then be used to spend on a variety of different things, the most obvious of these being the other 26 main racers featured in the game and the staff ghosts opened by completing each track under a certain time in Time Trial. Hence the better the player performs, the more tickets will be rewarded which can then be spent on improving and opening up new parts of the game. A familiar aspect to many other games, but one which is new to the F-Zero series, and for the most part, it is a welcome addition. It helps draw the player in as they will want to continually improve, and in doing so, will have access to more racers and better vehicle parts.

    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.

    Score: 9/10
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. VR46's Avatar
      VR46 -
      Great read thanks Mat.
    1. fallenangle's Avatar
      fallenangle -
      I recently sold on my copy of this after years of intermittent play. It is great in almost every way and I had many hours of entertainment from it. However it was also one of the most frustratingly difficult racing games I've ever played.

      I got through to one of the later Story mode tracks and after so many goes that I lost count without being able to complete it successfully I realised I wasn't enjoying it any more. I put it down and never went back to it again.

      Maybe I missed it in the review, it is a long piece, but if there was one criticism I'd make, common to too many racing games, and that is the opponent AI. Often you felt the also rans where just there to block you, slow you down or simply drive you off the track. They weren't interested in winning, just stopping you from winning whilst the AI leaders ran away from you at maximum speed and little similar infererence.

      I'm glad I played it but I just wish I hadn't hit the skill barrier. It blighted my enjoyment and ended up making me more appreciate the quality of the game rather than actually love it.