Gamers seem to often have a slight masochistic bend to them. What with the popularity of games like Dark Souls and the like, which sell themselves on the fact that you will die, and you will die a lot. While F-Zero GX didn’t really sell itself on that, it is quite possibly the Dark Souls of racing games.
Created by Amusement Vision and SEGA (who, bizarrely, figured out how to make this super-fast racing game playing and yet have trouble doing the same thing with a blue hedgehog), F-Zero GX is the fourth game in the F-Zero series and the second fully 3D-rendered title. It is a series known for blisteringly high speeds and punishing difficulty. So when it came time to put the power of the Nintendo GameCube to doing that, they decided to go all out.
Make no mistake – this game is fast. Damn fast. And it feels fast too. It’s not some wishy-washy “oh well they’re just using special effects to make it look fast,” oh no. The game says you’re going 2000 kilometres an hour and it damn well feels like it.
Like its predecessor F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64, this game boasts an impressive roster of at least thirty racers, since that’s how many are racing at a time. You’ll have to unlock all but the original SNES F-Zero four, however. It’s got all the returning favourites like Captain Falcon and Dr. Stewart, with some new faces like Deathborn. They all have their own unique machines with unique stats, and between races, their acceleration-to-top-speed ratio can be tweaked a bit to suit the track ahead.
The tracks start out plain enough – standard circuits with a couple gimmicks here and there. It’s not long though before you’re shuttled into tubes, racing on the outside of tubes, racing on the ceiling while racers are on the floor below you, going straight up, shooting straight down, and even getting some air time here and there. This is beside the various boons and hazards like boost strips, jump pads, land mines, and ice (which… how does that work on anti-gravity machines…)
And yeah, winning at first will come pretty easy if you’re playing on the lowest difficulty on the easiest tracks. It’s not too bad. After the first race in a Grand Prix you get a Rival, who was either the guy who beat you or the guy you just beat. They get some boosted stats so that they provide a greater “challenge” which later you’ll find is pretty much just hard-ass cheating.
Oh yes. As you advance through the game’s difficulty levels and move on to more difficult tracks, the game’s AI will quite suddenly decide you don’t get to win races anymore. Opponents that have no business being faster than you will suddenly shoot past you at light speeds, knock you all over the track while suffering minimal damage, pull off impossible turns at preposterous angles, and just generally make your life a living hell.
You’re given a few tools to deal with this. First off, after the first lap, your machine gets to use Boosts. You sacrifice a bit of health in order to temporarily increase your speed at any time. This offers a bit of risk-vs-reward – your machine is now more fragile (and you can use Boost until you’re down to your last hit point), but you can also chain Boosts together to go even faster and faster (though of course, if you touch anything, you’ll not only lose a lot of that speed, but if you’re low on health you could very well just explode).
Secondly, the art of the F-Zero Grand Prix is a physical one. There’s no items like in Mario Kart (so at least you don’t have to worry about Blue Shells), but you do have the ability to shunt or even spin attack your opponents. A well-timed spin attack is pretty much a death warrant to anything you hit – though you’ll have to sacrifice a bit of speed to pull it off, you are rewarded with one less opponent to deal with and a small health boost (usually enough to perform a free Boost). You’re also notified of approaching opponents who are “in check” – if you can keep them behind you, they can ram into you, giving you a slight boost, keeping them back, but at the cost of a little health.
Even with these, you will often feel ill-equipped to deal with the unforgiving computer opponents before you. The game features a nice machine customization system though. There’s a bunch of different parts, you can change the colours of each separately, and even get some cool decals going. It’s not the most in-depth thing, but it’s still pretty cool to build a ridiculous-looking tank of a machine and just murder everyone else on the track. It’s a shame the old Death Race mode from X doesn’t seem to be in this game.
What is in this game, however, is a Story Mode. Following the adventures of Captain Falcon.
You know. This guy.
Oh, he’s much more mellow in this game (he barely even speaks above a low murmur, for one). You’ll not see him solve his problems with a Falcon Punch in this game. No, the troubles of the F-Zero Universe are best solved by driving really fast. Gotta help this old man make some money! Gotta drive fast! Gotta save Jody from an exploding factory! Gotta drive fast! Oh no I’m trapped in the movie Speed! Gotta drive fast!
The Story Mode may be even more unforgiving than the standard races, however. First of all, you have to purchase each mission from the shop as you unlock them – and you don’t necessarily get enough tickets from completing previous missions to buy new ones. Even as early as Mission Two, you’ll have your face stamped in, and it only gets worse from there. It’s worth persevering however – the cutscenes are hilarious to watch (and the soundtracks during them appropriately silly yet endearing) and while Captain Falcon is more subdued than his Smash counterpart, he still talks the talk. The idea of losing to anyone is a foreign one to the Captain – inconceivable, really.
The finale of the game has him challenged by the literal gods of his universe. And even then, he just laughs at them because the idea that anyone can beat him is just so absurd you guys, c’mon. And then you do beat them and he just acts like it’s no big deal, just another day in the life for Captain Falcon, intergalactic badass and slayer of gods.
The visuals of this game are stunning, especially if you compare them to F-Zero X from way back when. With X, the goal was to get the game running at 60 FPS, no matter what. So the game ended up looking like a series of rather crude polygons with fairly bland-looking and conspicuously foggy locations.
In this game? Well, everything’s whizzing by too fast to see but there’s a lot of fine detail in the machines and even the areas you race in, if you bother to stop and look which you shouldn’t that’s dangerous don’t do that while you’re racing. There’s a bunch of neat details, like the pilot mugshots spinning around when they do a spin attack or even chuckling to themselves when they get in first place. It’s a very pretty game.
And oh the soundtrack. Hooooooo boy, that soundtrack. First of all the various race musics are nice – they fit the locales, have some nice remixes of previous games’ sounds, and even have a “third lap” variation when the race is winding down. As I said before, cutscenes in the Story Mode all have their own music and they sound fantastic even if they are gloriously cheesy, straight down to the power ballad to Captain Falcon during the credits no I did not make that up. With a lyric like, “When myopic confusion threatens your lunch, Captain Falcon will be unleashing a Falcon Punch,” it’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard.
But each and every character also has their own theme song. Every single one. And they’re fantastic. From the understated like Blood Falcon’s, to the trance-like Dr. Stewart’s, to the straight up hilarious James McCloud’s (oh yeah, he’s a quasi-cameo from the Star Fox series, he’s based on Fox’s dad but is not himself a fox). There’s something for everyone. And again, Captain Falcon has a fantastic theme. Super cheesy lyrics, bright happy rock sound, oh it’s… it’s perfect.
And you can listen to them at any time by checking out their character biography, which you unlock at the same time you unlock the racer by purchasing them from the in-game shop. The biographies include a surprising amount of backstory for the characters – a lot of them reference a “Great Accident” four years ago in-universe which put a temporary halt on the Grand Prix, and lot of them go into the motivations for why they race.
Overall, while F-Zero GX is not a merciful game, it is an incredibly fun one. It’s just a shame that it was the last true 3D F-Zero to be released – Nintendo seems content to ignore the series.
I mean… I guess Mario Kart 8 is as close as we’ll get to a new one.