21st Century Racer
Although F-Zero X on the N64 was a tremendous game, most people's memories of F-Zero lie with the Super Nintendo. Almost ten years ago, the original F-Zero trotted out onto the starting line and sold consoles like hotcakes with slick presentation and speed unmatched in rival racers on Sega's Mega Drive/Genesis. Partly because of technological limitations, and partly to cater to the homesick school kid in all of us, Nintendo's Game Boy Advance version of F-Zero is almost a carbon copy of the Super Nintendo version. Developed by second-party NDCube, a company nine years younger than the game they have so lovingly restored, it does almost the same job its predecessor did for the SNES, and forms the keystone in Nintendo's top tier launch line-up. Don't be surprised if you have trouble getting hold of this one, it's selling faster than umbrellas in monsoon season. If you've never played F-Zero, don't be afraid of all this brooding nostalgia; it's immediately accessible. You're a competitor in a hi-octane race series set in the near future. Each race is five laps long and you have to finish in a certain position in the field of eight to continue racing. To make matters slightly more interesting, the barriers on each side of the racecourse are electrified, and if you stray onto them you lose speed and your power bar gradually drains until you die. On larger tracks with narrow causeways, things become quite tricky as a result. Part of F-Zero's charm is that you have to try and stay alive while maintaining a reasonable enough speed that your pursuers can't overtake you.
Along the way there are acceleration pads, jumps and obstacles, and with each lap you gain a special time-limited speed boost, of which three can be stored up. These are particularly useful on those long straights when you're lagging behind a bit. Another useful item on the start|finish strip is the pit stop-like recharge line. As you come roaring through, you should make a point of swerving onto the flashing green strip to one side of the track. Hovering over this recharges your power bar, making you less likely to come to harm on the electrified rails. The problem on larger tracks is that you often have to slow down in order to stay on the recharge strip for long enough to reach full capacity. This can be a problem if you're in a particularly tight race… F-Zero: Maximum Velocity's greatest trick is convincing gamers that it's the same as the Super Nintendo version. The thing that most attracts me to F-Zero though, apart from the carefully balanced race strategies and sense of speed though, is the tremendous visuals. For the Super Nintendo, this abundance of Mode 7 was unheard of, and NDCube's Game Boy Advance version mimics this setup perfectly. Newcomers will appreciate the visuals' depth, and old hands will kid themselves that it was there before - actually this illusion of depth is a trick NDCube tacked on top of the Mode 7. Other changes that SNES owners will imagine that they recognise include a revamped control system that relies on tapping the accelerator into corners so as not to fly into the opposite wall, and leaning on the shoulder buttons to get a better angle.
Out-and-out additions that fans will have difficulty remembering include mines on the tracks which explode on contact and whirlwinds that whip your vehicle into a fatal spin. Between these obstacles, the race strategy and the oft-exasperating track design, F-Zero is a very challenging game. There are some 20 tracks to learn and overcome, and four difficulty levels. On the higher difficulty levels it's equivalent to an F1 Grand Prix - one tiny mistake can throw an entire race. Give it a little too much juice out of that turn on lap four and those mines you forgot about will come back to haunt you. The reward structure is suitably player-friendly though. As you work your way through the various races you earn cars with improved vital stats that make races less of an ordeal, and with so many tracks to play you're unlikely to get bored of it. Working out how to use that speed boost/jump combo to skip an entire section of track is like realising your call in life. As if F-Zero's single player game weren't enough, there's even a download link version for 1-4 players. You only get one track and no choice of vehicle, but playing F-Zero against four friends is a religious experience. F-Zero: Maximum Velocity is an awesome achievement from NDCube, and definitely another killer app to add to the large collection of them already available for Game Boy Advance. It's no Gran Turismo 3, but there's nothing else that comes close in terms of sheer racing action.