If even at the time of its release the gap that existed between it and other racing titles for the Super Nintendo was wide, the fact time has made the divide bigger ends up turning Stunt Race FX into a curiosity that is decent, but not worthy of anything more than a brief shot
Although it is not a product that has aged all too well, the original Star Fox, released for the Super Nintendo, was the result of a cutting-edge project that bore excellent fruits for Nintendo: the creation of a brand new franchise to add to their expanding portfolio, strong critical acclaim, and impressive sales. Powered by a revolutionary chip, dubbed Super FX, that was packed inside the cartridge and allowed the console to output polygonal shapes that formed full-blown tridimensional spaces, the game was – for the time – a technical marvel whose development was both challenging and expensive; however, given the title had gotten a very positive response from fans and media alike, who were excited over its gameplay as well as its otherworldly visuals, the studio decided to go ahead and green-light more projects using the technology.
Therefore, following the completion of Star Fox, Nintendo and the company responsible for the implementation of the chip, Argonaut Software, split their forces into various camps that would go on to experiment with the technology and hopefully construct some new games that took advantage of it. One of those efforts transformed into a sequel to the intergalactic quest of Fox, Falco, Slippy, and Peppy; a product whose release would end up being canceled when it was close to completion and that would only be made available to the general public more than twenty years after that fact. Meanwhile, another group would toy with the racing genre and build a title that would make it to the market under the name of Stunt Race FX.
By the time it came out, Nintendo was not a stranger to the niche. After all, in the previous years, the company had published a couple of great titles of the kind that marked the inception of franchises that would become staples of the industry: Super Mario Kart and F-Zero. Nonetheless, quite smartly, Stunt Race FX does not really overlap with any of those classics, and not just because it boasts 3-D models. While it does feature vehicles with eyes, a trace that gives them a degree of personality, and one or two tracks with absurd features, the game shuns the extravagant and highly fictional racing format of those popular series for a more grounded style of racing; standing, as such, much closer to traditional takes on motorsports.
Yet, Nintendo rarely – if ever – takes a straightforward approach to the building of games that receive their brand; and Stunt Race FX is, obviously, not an exception to the norm. Borrowing from F-Zero, the title has players especially focused on two meters: one that displays the amount of damage the vehicle has absorbed, and that once full will cause the machine to explode; and another that reveals how much they can boost, since the use of that extra speed is very much necessary for gamers to walk out of the race as victors. In both cases, gems, placed in predetermined positions around the tracks, can be collected in order to reset the indicators; and given that on tougher courses that relief is often the difference between winning and losing, remembering those locations is a very good strategy.
Stunt Race FX also takes a shot at twisting the format of the races themselves. Its central mode, named Speed Trax, offers three distinct classes – with the final one being unlockable – that get increasingly more difficult as players progress; and each one of them is made up of four different courses. Essentially, the competition involves four vehicles. Gamers will succeed and advance to the next track if they manage to cross the finish line in any position that is not the last one. It is a goal that sounds like a piece of cake, and for the most part it indeed is, but Stunt Race FX remains a relatively hard game because it throws another hurdle at its audience: the clock. And it is right there that lies the main challenge of the experience.
All tracks contain two checkpoints that restore the timer: the finish line itself and a gate generally located towards the midway section of the course. On the first class in particular, completing three laps around the circuits without allowing the counter to reach the dreaded zero is not too hard; consequently, losing all lives, which also go up in smoke every time the vehicle is wrecked, and having to restart the competition from ground zero is not too big of a risk. That is not true, however, for the two other existing classes.
In those cases, a pair of notable features found in Stunt Race FX will come heavily into play. The first is the fact that the time left on the clock in one race will be carried over to the next; it is a mechanic that is not only helpful because it will allow players to accumulate some fat on the easiest tracks of the class so that the hardest ones can be managed more easily, but also essential due to how the final courses are – quite devilishly – nigh impossible to be cleared with the raw timer that was set to them.
The second, meanwhile, is an optional bonus mini-game – which is triggered between the second and third tracks of the championships – that has players controlling a truck on a special course so they can collect both extra seconds, with one being achieved for every set of slalom poles they drive through, and additional lives, which are earned for each lap that is completed.
That time-related twist makes the format that was chosen for Stunt Race FX be truly exciting, for it will have gamers worrying about the clock constantly and pushing hard from the get go so they can get to the final races with more time to burn. Still, even if the repeated tries and thrill that the setup generates add good value to the game, they fail to mask an issue that connects the effort with another Nintendo racing product of the time, F-Zero: the fact that the title is a bit thin on content.
For starters, Stunt Race FX only has four available vehicles to choose from. Set apart by the strength of their body as well as their acceleration and speed, the game offers a large monster truck, an open-wheel car whose design resembles a somewhat modern Formula One machine, a charming Coupé, and a motorcycle, which is sadly only unlocked after the final class is beaten. To add insult to injury, even if the courses that make up the Speed Trax mode are well-designed and the title gives incentive for players to tackle the championships repeatedly by saving the best times achieved in each circuit and in the whole sequences of tracks, the bottom line is that there are just twelve levels and three classes, which is just not a whole lot.
Truth be told, the game does try to make up for that problem by offering a free racing option, which doubles as an opportunity to do some time trials, and a multiplayer duel. The former, however, is rather basic, while the latter is harmed by how the four tracks it contains, which are exclusive to the mode probably thanks to how the Speed Trax circuits are impossible to be reproduced graphically with two human players in action, are terribly lackluster in design. One mode, though, does bring some interesting gameplay to the table: Stunt Trax.
Much more free flowing in structure thanks to how they are located within indoors arenas, the four levels of Stunt Trax serve a different type of challenge. In them, the goal is to gather as many of the forty stars scattered around the stage as possible and make it to the goal before the clock runs out.
These courses are broken up into four sections separated by gates that restore the timer according to how many collectibles players have amassed, and both getting to the finish line and sweeping the place clean are considerable challenges. Filled with ramps, jumps, obstacles, tunnels, and other weird assets, all deployed in tight spaces, navigating through them with enough precision to reach all stars demands a lot of skill, practice, and patience; more than the races themselves. It is a characteristic that will turn some players away; still, those who get into the quirkiness will only have one lament: the small number of arenas.
From a technical standpoint, it is possible to say Stunt Race FX makes good use of the unique chip that powers it; perhaps even more so than the original Star Fox. Its visuals have held up much better than those seen in the debut quest of the mercenary crew. The scenarios of the tracks are both colorful and appealing, featuring beautiful backdrops like underwater tunnels, ramps in the sky, curved courses that rush through urban landscapes at night, and wild mountain rides. Furthermore, models and assets are visibly smoother and more developed than those of the first effort produced with the Super FX processor.
Additionally, in relation to its generational racing peers, Super Mario Kart and F-Zero, the game features a very important advance: the vertical variation of its courses. Where those two titles were made up of tracks that were totally flat, Stunt Race FX brings slopes into the fray, and it uses them quite intensely. Its circuits and arenas go up and down constantly, finding ways to challenge players not just via tight turns that demand effective braking and drifting, but also by matching those up with climbs and drops that are worthy of roller-coasters.
Sadly, while it does squeeze a lot of good out of the advanced technology that powers it, the good traits of Stunt Race FX are somewhat obscured by how it falters in a few points that ought to be familiar to anyone who has gone through Star Fox, making the chip that gives the game its name be both a blessing and a curse for the overall quality of the experience. Even if its visuals showcase a more matured handle on the design of 3-D models, one cannot escape from how its graphics are bad to modern eyes; although, at the time, they were certainly at the cutting-edge, nowadays the rough nature of their tridimensional presentation makes them be far less appealing than the simpler, yet still pleasant, looks seen in Super Mario Kart and F-Zero.
Certainly more grave, though, are the gameplay-related problems that it seems to have also inherited from Star Fox. Firstly, there is how the title’s frame rate is simply irregular, especially during moments that involve either collisions or a lot of fast action; and considering the racing genre has a lot of the former and is extremely dependent on the latter, the mixture does not bode well for Stunt Race FX. Secondly, the physics are too floaty; as a consequence, the controls feel unresponsive, because there is a clear delay between pressing the button and seeing the vehicle react. The combination of those behaviors creates some very frustrating situations, which are quite notable when players are trying to get the machine back under control after hitting a wall or accelerating too much over a slope.
Issues related to content and controls, then, keep Stunt Race FX from being a very good effort. There is, for sure, a degree of value and excitement to be found in its races against the clock and in some of its wilder tracks; besides, its visuals – despite being undeniably aged – broadcast a handle on tridimensional design that is superior to the one that is seen in Star Fox. Still, when elements that are so central to a game experience are treated less than ideally, it is hard to throw too much praise at the product. And if even at the time of its release the gap that existed between it and other racing titles for the Super Nintendo was wide, the fact time has made the divide bigger ends up turning Stunt Race FX into a curiosity that is decent, but not worthy of anything more than a brief shot.