F-Zero GX is nuts. Any game that can inspire the kind of blind obsession that has you glued to the gamepad for five straight hours playing the same track, heart rate at 140, pupils dilated, quit/restart technique perfected, is alright by us. Not since F-Zero: Maximum Velocity in the summer of 2001 has this kind of obsessive-compulsive madness prevailed, and frankly, I want to get this review in the bag as quickly as possible in order to get back on it. A sign of a very good game indeed.
In keeping with the series, the concept remains as utterly simple (and predictable) as ever. Set in an unspecified point in the future (isn't the future great? We can make all sorts of shit up!), pilots get to dress up in hilarious homoerotic costumes, pull Village People poses before climbing aboard unfeasibly fast antigravity units known as G-Diffuser Systems, and then drive at insane face melting speeds around colossal F-Zero circuits set on the outskirts of cities "situated high in planet atmospheres". So now you know.
A big prize
At its core, the game structure remains almost identical to the SNES original, with the Grand Prix mode offering three cups to enter, each comprised of five progressively difficult races of three laps each. In addition, four pilots are available (before you eventually unlock the other 26), each with craft graded from A to E in their grip, boost and body/armour capabilities. After that you're given the further option to tweak your ship's acceleration/top speed by sliding the graph pointer between the two. Once you've made your choice, the game then offers up three classes to race in (Novice, Standard or Expert) and it's then a case of scoring enough points to win that cup. With an insane 30 riders per race, you score points related to your position, with 100 for finishing first, right down to 15 for finishing last.
As ever, you're also given five lives, allowing you a crucial second chance should you fall off track or end up losing all your energy. Again, boost and jump pads litter the track to enable you to cut corners and gain extra speed, while multicoloured shield recharge strips allow you to repair any damage you may have encountered along the way. After the first lap, you're then allowed to use the ship's energy to manually boost yourself, although it's often a risky trade off when the going gets tough, with the need to gain that tiny bit of extra speed always tempered by the need to actually stay alive.
Piloting the craft is straightforward enough, although can take an age to properly master. Just steering with the left stick might get you around the first few one star difficulty tracks, but very quickly you'll realise that mastering cornering techniques is the key to success. Hitting the appropriate shoulder button as you go into a corner allows you to pull off a useful slide turn, but negotiating the hairpins requires both shoulder buttons pressed down simultaneously. Without a basic mastery of these moves and an intimate knowledge of each course you'll be toast in no time. One of the hardest aspects of reviewing this game is the fact that it will take you literally weeks before you're good enough to unlock all there is to see - but that's a good thing, right?
No futuristic racer would be complete without its attacking moves, and F-Zero GX has two dirty tricks up its sleeve if you feel like playing rough. The Spin Attack lets you bump your rivals off course by hitting the Z button and the direction of your nudge, although you lose speed so accuracy is advised. Meanwhile, the Side Attack requires the use of the X button and the direction, although both are fraught with danger, and in a game where you can lose by thousandths of a second, you'd better be sure it comes off. Winning is everything, and if you do happen to bag any of the cups you're rewarded with tokens to spend in unlocking a staggering array of ships, parts and modes.
It's the bewildering array of modes and options that demonstrate the effort that has gone into the package should have long term fans in raptures. An almost unbelievably hard Story mode is available to the brave who fancy spending some of their hard earned tokens on one of these one-off challenges, and each comes with an amusingly badly voice-acted sequence that will have those looking for an irony fix giggling long into the night. Elsewhere there's the usual Time Attack, Practice and Versus mode (for up to four player split screen) to sharpen up your skills for the real battles ahead, while the Customise mode lets you create your own unique ships, change existing ones, buy the body parts and even has a design tool to create your own logos and images to slap on the craft. For those who fancy creating the ultimate ship, it's an excellent addition and will serve to extend the lifespan of the game for ages once you really get into it.
Whether you do take to F-Zero GX depends on how much you've appreciated the series to date. Initially it can feel a little too hardcore, and much of the first ten hours with the game might be drenched in pain and frustration as you slowly tap into the control mechanics and commit every twist and turn to memory. But it's one of those games that reward persistence, and the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it.
As a visual feast, it's hard to imagine how Amusement Vision could have done a better job. Slightly dodgy pseudo super hero character models and amusing cut-scenes aside, the game pushes the Cube further than almost any other, with a rip roaring selection of varied tracks that are packed with detail and complemented by excellent camera work and a pleasing array of particle effects.
No matter how much is going on at any given time, the frame rate is a rock solid 60, and for a game as fast as this that's a godsend. Passers by will gasp at the chaotic scenes on screen and scarcely believe how you're managing to control the damn thing, never mind win, pausing to dramatically wince in pain of you happen to slip up and explode in a hail of metal shards and fire. For a ludicrously fast racing experience, only Burnout 2 stands comparable in recent years, although Criterion's classic was arguably ten times more accessible for the masses than this hardcore digital crack will ever be. In its genre it tops Quantum Redshift on the Xbox, but only just. If you're lucky enough to have a US copy of the game, Freeloader and a TV with progressive scan support, the visuals really come into their own. It's a shame that most PAL gamers won't get to see the game as Amusement Vision intended, but even on normal equipment it's one hell of a spectacle.
Getting back to it...
If you're unfortunate enough to be jaded by futuristic racers such as this, then the chances are F-Zero GX probably isn't going to change your mind. All the customisation modes and corny storylines in the world doesn't change the fact that you're racing around a track, largely playing by the same rules you did all those years ago, albeit with a shinier backdrop. On the other hand, if you're a racing game fan who's a newcomer to the series, then we'd advise you to do everything you can to get this game; even if that means splashing out for a Cube to do so. You too can then find out what it truly means to be hooked. Time to get my next fix...