For those who choose not to handle such a thrilling test, the gaming market has plenty of other alternatives; for those who like their fun to come with some challenge and brutality, F-Zero GX is hard to beat
As the existence of gladiators reveals, blood and entertainment have been linked for quite a while. It seems there is a dark part of human nature that is pleased whenever it witnesses a spectacle in which its participants fight to the death or put their lives at risk. And even though that connection is often confronted nowadays, as humanity likes to believe it has evolved past those questionable feelings, the F-Zero franchise – set in 2560 – indicates that despite the passing of various centuries that kind of morally ambiguous satisfaction will never go away. In its universe, the rich and powerful have come together to finance a series of races that, displaying the most advanced technology of the time, boasts hovering vehicles that reach overwhelming speeds. But, even if it is an integral part of its definition, astounding velocity alone does not make F-Zero, for its most alluring traits lie elsewhere. They are in the fact that although at well over 900 km/h pretty much anything goes, from mercilessly hitting rivals to trying to throw them off the track and towards their certain death; and they are in how rather than setting these competitions on courses that strive for safety, the promoters of the Grand Prix make an extra effort to build tracks that are gigantic meat grinders.
F-Zero gives no quarter. It replaces gladiators with pilots, weapons with speedy technological marvels, and circular arenas with obscene courses dreamed up by demented architects and constructed by engineers that like to defy gravity and common sense. However, it is – in the end – not too different from those despicable Roman combats. It is entertainment based on blood, brutality, and violence. The biggest distinction between both is probably how participation in F-Zero is not forced; as such, it is not surprising the glory, fame, fortune, and risks involved in the races attract some of the most deranged members of the galaxy’s species. Sure, one can find, in the grid, some generally decent people: Captain Falcon is a bounty hunter that tends to fight for justice; and Jody Summer, who works for the Galactic Space Federation, races to honor her father’s memory. Yet, the thickest portion of the participants are borderline psychotic, including leaders of criminal gangs, aliens so violent they will tear the limbs off their peers, and even a couple of drivers who have been resurrected as twisted creatures whose sole focus is racing.
It is absolutely mad, it is certainly over-the-top, and it is all brought to life exquisitely well by F-Zero GX, the GameCube installment of the franchise. Working alongside Sega, Nintendo captures the essence of the competition and blasts it on the screen with some of the system’s best visuals. The game presents races with thirty vehicles bursting by scenarios of such ridiculous grandeur they fall somewhere between the surrealistic and psychedelic. And it does so while keeping the sense of speed intact, the fluidity of the gameplay steady to an impossible degree, and the beautiful sharpness of machines, visual assets, and landscapes fully preserved. It is hard to find a game of its generation that makes the pieces of the scenery go by so naturally and smoothly, and F-Zero GX pairs that up with a high-energy soundtrack that alternates between catchy futuristic electronic beats that suit its environments quite well and brief appearances of ripping guitars.
The effectiveness with which the game portrays its twisted universe can be attributed to many factors, from its spectacular presentation to the fact it is possible to find detailed profiles of all its racers in one of its menu options; however, the central reason behind that particular victory is unquestionably its difficulty. F-Zero GX is hard, and not just a little; this is a game where, often, the gap between those that come out on top and those who fight for the last positions is not bigger than five seconds. One poorly negotiated corner during the final stretch of the race, the missing of a series of boost pads (which are generally plentiful), or one moment of distraction can be the difference between placing inside the top five and close to the bottom of the barrel. The game’s main mode features four cups, each with five races, and all of them can be played at any of four levels of difficulty; with that, F-Zero GX tries to embrace a wide audience. Nonetheless, even at its easiest configuration, winning is by no means a walk in the park, especially when it comes to the final two cups.
The game’s overall brutal difficulty has multiple origins. The CPU-controlled competitors are smart and will not make considerable mistakes; their speed will grow quite a bit when jumping between levels, but their capacity to navigate through the courses is always very good. And that is a powerful tool in their arsenal, because the tracks of F-Zero GX get both murderous and tricky pretty fast. While Ruby Cup, the first of the four, has setups that are overall friendly, with plenty of wide spaces, soft turns, and a focus on sheer velocity, by the end of the next set of tracks, Emerald Cup, the benevolence will have run out. Tight bends will become common, and these will force players to press the shoulder buttons to make the machines slide, because that is the only way they can be tackled effectively; as such, the mastering of such a move is critical for success in later levels. Moreover, as players advance further into the stunning collection of courses, guardrails disappear; hazards such as icy stretches, dirt, and bombs start showing up, even if not with the same prominence as they did in the Super Nintendo game; narrow portions of road that have racers squeezing in tight packs surface; and jumps that require precision and fast reactions come up.
F-Zero GX pairs up that vicious spirit in track design with the ludicrous engineering of its era to make utterly remarkable courses. Their scenarios (which include urban settings like Mute City and Port Town, organic backgrounds like the ocean of Big Blue and the integration between technology and nature of Green Plant, and absolutely outlandish locations like Cosmo Terminal and Phantom Road) are sometimes reused, as nearly all of them appear twice, but the circuits they contain are impressive and original. Vehicles travel through loops, corkscrews, vertical ascensions, impossible drops, intersecting paths, and all sorts of gravitational trickery while having their integrity challenged. Serial Gaps, in Mute City, features breathtaking jumps; Cylinder Knot has, during the majority of its length, racers attached to a snaking cylinder that floats above lava; Trident lacks guardrails whatsoever and its track is broken into three intertwining pieces that, as the course’s name reveals, have one-third of the usual track width; Ordeal has tight underwater tunnels; Undulation goes up and down so suddenly it often threatens to launch those that go too fast out into the fire; and Half Pipe dares pilots to speed without escaping over one of its edges.
While trying to ride those fierce beasts, players will be faced with a competition format that amplifies the game’s challenge and thrill. Taking place over three laps, the races of F-Zero GX are quite unique thanks to a series of characteristics. The Y button can be used to activate a temporary boost. However, such a technique is only available once the first lap is complete, making the races have two clear portions: the first one being a relatively calm trip around the track that can be used for survey; and the second one being two laps in which drivers pour their guts into the track and challenge the limits of their vehicles, the courses, and themselves while trying to go as fast as possible. The boosting is, in fact, the key component of F-Zero GX; it is by large its defining trait. And that is due to the fact the energy bar that represents the ship’s health – which can be recovered by driving over pink pit areas that are part of the courses – is the same one that is consumed whenever the boost is activated.
As such, drivers are put on a tense tightrope that will have them balancing the risk of running out of health (which will make them explode if the guardrail is touched or if a rival hits them) with the reward of going faster and gaining a handful of positions. And the game’s hardest difficulty levels put such a strain over that relationship, as using a lot of boosting is an absolute must to achieve good results, that sweaty palms and pumping hearts are common symptoms of playing F-Zero GX. And just like rivals can sometimes be aggressive and try to take players out of the race by slowly denting their ship, it is possible to – by pressing the Z button – damage other vehicles via a spinning attack, and the game rewards that action by recovering a portion of the ship’s health when one adversary is eliminated and giving players an extra life if five of them are taken down during the same race.
It is inside that carnage that F-Zero GX lives. Nevertheless, even if the sum of the parts of the experience may seem like too much to some, those that like a good challenge will be vastly pleased. Sure, the game is brutal and track memorization is almost imperative to the winning of the cups in the hardest two difficulties. However, other than looking and sounding great, F-Zero GX controls so spectacularly well and its races are so exciting that tackling it is a lot of fun. Given the races are brief, rarely lasting for over three minutes, cups are equally short and retrying them does not feel like a chore at all. Additionally, a Practice Mode that lets players freely simulate full-fledged races on any of the tracks (with plenty of configuration options, such as AI level and number of laps) is available and lets gamers hone their skills on courses or specific segments that are giving them trouble. Finally, the championships themselves offer room for error. Firstly because, according to the difficulty level, players start the competition with a certain number of lives, a cushion that allows them to fall off tracks, burst into flames, or simply restart a race that is not going very well at least a couple of times. Secondly, because the rival that is currently fighting with players for the crown – always clearly highlighted by an icon hanging over their vehicle – is not immune to ranking low, as results achieved by the CPUs during the course of the five races display organic variations; as such, it is possible to win some cups by always placing in the top five or even ranking badly once or twice.
To approach that challenge, players are given a satisfying amount of tools, and these come in the form of not just a very wide roster of racers but also in a deep customization option. The thirty pilots who are brave enough to enter the F-Zero Grand Prix have vehicles with original designs and varied capabilities, as all of them are graded – from A to E – in three different categories: grip, body, and boost. The garage, meanwhile, offers a myriad of parts (body, cockpit, and booster) which are purchased by using tickets acquired upon participating in the cups; these, then, can be put together to create completely new vehicles that can, additionally, be covered with a customized layer of paint. Consequently, F-Zero GX is a game that carries more options than one can possibly try out, and it will certainly hold a ship that will suit the style of any player. As a final touch, and one that was already present in the game’s Nintendo 64 successor, before all races, players can adjust the balance between acceleration and max speed of their ship (as reducing one causes the other to go up), which allows pilots to fine tune their ride so that it is better suited for the track that is ahead.
Given their difficulty, the four cups of F-Zero GX alone are bound to take a big amount of hours to be cleared. Still, there is more to the game than winning those sixteen trophies. As expected, the title comes packed with time trials and multiplayer; the latter, though, is slightly disappointing because all races are limited to four vehicles at most, a shortcoming that is sad, but at the same time understandable since the game takes the system’s hardware to its limit. The biggest highlight of that side content, however, is a surprisingly full-fledged story mode. Divided into ten chapters, each with introductory and closing cutscenes of high visual production values as well as a race, the mode puts players in the shoes of Captain Falcon as he deals with the scum of the F-Zero circuit. The mode is an appealing look at what goes on behind the scenes of the competition, as the hero bumps into many of his competitors outside the tracks, and given they are related to what goes on in the story, the races have fun unique goals, such as destroying the car of a gang’s leader, driving through a snaking course without going below a certain speed, or winning a one-on-one race in a canyon as rocks fall from the cliffs. The problem with the story mode, other than voice acting that is weirdly recorded and awkwardly delivered, is that even on the easiest of its three difficulties, advancing through the chapters is very hard.
All in all, even if the lowest difficulty setup of the cups of F-Zero GX is relatively accessible, the game is certainly not for everyone, because everything about it builds up to a hardcore racing experience unlike any other. Its races are not brutal just because players’ rivals are quite skilled, but also due to how an aspect of survival permeates the whole competition: the tracks themselves, the other pilots, and even a racing system that is built on a thin line between risk and reward are all out for murder. And if one is to come out on top of this mixture of blood, savagery, and entertainment, they will have to master absolutely insane courses that must be efficiently navigated at blinding speeds while twenty-nine other pilots with no regard whatsoever for anything other than sweet victory also take their lives and machines to the limit. For those who choose not to handle such a thrilling test, the gaming market has plenty of alternatives in the form of friendly easy-to-play racing titles. For those who like their fun to come sprinkled with hard-to-chew but rewarding-to-swallow morsels of challenge, F-Zero GX is nearly unparalleled on almost every front.