Time Ex­tend

Sega and Nin­tendo’s de­but col­lab­o­ra­tion was a master­piece built on thrilling speed


A re­turn to F-Zero GX, the fu­tur­is­tic racer that brought Sega and Nin­tendo to­gether at last

Buried in F-Zero GX’s de­bug menu is an un­used sound ef­fect in which the game’s com­men­ta­tor shouts “Hurry up!” It was left out of the fi­nal build pre­sum­ably be­cause there is no other way to be but hur­ry­ing in Nin­tendo’s fu­tur­is­tic racer. On th­ese ver­tig­i­nous tracks, which loop-the-loop through the stars, pirou­ette be­tween as­ter­oids, and corkscrew through alien forests, you’re ei­ther rush­ing or ‘re­tired’, the game’s eu­phemistic term for the mo­ment that your ship ex­plodes into a bar­rier, or ca­reens from the track’s edge be­fore fad­ing off into obliv­ion. Th­ese hov­er­ing ships – all 30 of them, which hus­tle for space and the rac­ing line on a track of­ten too nar­row to ac­com­mo­date their com­bined bulk – go from nought to 1,000kph in less than a sec­ond. Then they idle there, ap­par­ently un­trou­bled by the ef­fort. Nin­tendo took the name from For­mula One rac­ing; here, the de­vel­op­ers sug­gest, is a new, fu­tur­is­tic cat­e­gory of speed class, For­mula Zero. With all that power un­der the hood, the di­rec­tion to “Hurry up!” is su­per­flu­ous. A more apro­pos sug­ges­tion might be to hold tight.

F-Zero was al­ways quick. The se­ries’ de­but was the first ti­tle to show off the 16bit SNES’s Mode 7 graph­ics ca­pa­bil­i­ties, cre­at­ing a 3D ef­fect to pro­vide the sen­sa­tion of div­ing into the screen as scenery flits by. Not that there was much scenery around to flit by in 1990. By tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tion, Nin­tendo EAD cleared the hori­zon of all clut­ter so that you merely had to sight-read the track’s curves at prestis­simo pace. The com­bined ef­fect of the Mode 7 tech and the bar­ren land­scapes was the im­pres­sion of ve­loc­ity; even by to­day’s stan­dards, the first

F-Zero re­mains no­tably fast. GameCube in­car­na­tion F-Zero GX, how­ever, set a new record that, in feel at least, is yet to be beaten. The mas­tery was per­haps in the mar­riage of its mak­ers. On one side was Shigeru Miyamoto, with his vi­sion of fu­tur­is­tic speed­ways on which ve­hi­cles were no longer teth­ered to the damp­en­ing laws of physics and grav­ity. On the other, a new and un­ex­pected part­ner, that thor­ough­bred of the ar­cade racer, Sega.

Not just any part of Sega; Amuse­ment Vi­sion – led by Toshi­hiro Nagoshi, who as part of AM2 worked on mo­tor­sport clas­sics

Vir­tua Rac­ing and Day­tona USA – was the team that as­sem­bled F-Zero GX, and its mo­ments older, ar­cade-ex­clu­sive twin,

F-Zero AX (best ex­pe­ri­enced in its hulk­ing hy­draulic cabi­net, which flings its player around as if in or­bit). For the first time, erst­while ri­vals Sega and Nin­tendo worked in col­lab­o­ra­tion rather than com­pe­ti­tion. It was the ideal project for the pair­ing, a game that could com­bine Nin­tendo’s sin­gu­lar char­ac­ter and de­sign savvy with Sega’s tal­ent for speed and joy­ous be­wil­der­ment.

While the sur­round­ing ar­ti­fice may have dated – the huge cast of su­per­hero knock-offs who pi­lot the ships, in­clud­ing such Marvel-es­que re­jects as Dr Ste­wart, Oc­toman, Baba, Jack Levine and The Skull; the awk­ward post-cham­pi­onship cutscenes in which your char­ac­ter an­swers vac­u­ous ques­tions posed by a TV in­ter­viewer for the cam­eras – GX still daz­zles where it mat­ters: out on the track. Wipe­out might have had the style, but F-Zero has the feel, an en­dur­ing sugar rush that’s un­for­get­table as much for its sense of un­fold­ing drama as for its un­ri­valled pace.

That drama is en­cour­aged by F-Zero’s mas­ter­stroke de­sign, im­ple­mented like an of­fi­cial rule that gov­erns this fu­tur­is­tic mo­tor­sport. Each stan­dard race lasts for three laps. Dur­ing the first cir­cuit, you are only al­lowed to use your en­gine to gen­er­ate speed and power. But when that first lap is com­plete, your boost­ers are un­locked and you are free to trig­ger screen-smear­ing bursts of ac­cel­er­a­tion in or­der to move ahead of the jostling pack. A lesser de­sign team would have limited th­ese speed boosts to a gauge that au­to­mat­i­cally re­plen­ished over time, or that could be re­filled by col­lect­ing fuel packs dot­ted about the track. Nin­tendo’s al­ter­na­tive, as laid down in the SNES orig­i­nal but seen in full bloom here, is more el­e­gant, and in­tro­duces a risk/re­ward me­chanic to boost­ing.

Each time you use your boost, you also use up some of your ship’s shields. Th­ese shields are de­signed to pro­tect you when you bump into some part of the scenery or crash into a ri­val. Dur­ing the sec­ond and third laps, you are free to greed­ily con­sume your ship’s shields as you boost down a straight or around a lin­ger­ing cor­ner. But

do­ing so can leave your ship per­ilously un­guarded – in­deed, a warn­ing siren sounds to in­form you of the dan­ger you’re in when you’ve used up three quar­ters of the shield gauge. Un­til you are able skit­ter across one of the pur­ple, shield-re­plen­ish­ing stretches of tar­mac – and there is at least one of th­ese sec­tions baked into ev­ery track in the game – you risk pre­ma­ture re­tire­ment. More­over, ri­val rac­ers will seek to ex­ploit your hubris on any­thing above the novice dif­fi­culty, at­tempt­ing to scrape and smack into your weak­ened ship at ev­ery turn.

As well as know­ing when to ex­er­cise re­straint in us­ing up your shields, you must also learn when to con­sume them with aban­don. Each track has its op­ti­mum mo­ments, its stretches that of­fer the best re­turn on your risky in­vest­ment. Be­fore you’ve learned the lay­outs, you’ll of­ten find your­self wheez­ing over the fin­ish line hav­ing mis­man­aged your re­sources. In time, how­ever, you learn where to place your bets dur­ing each so­journ, en­sur­ing that you ac­cel­er­ate into the fin­ish line, of­ten mov­ing from the mid­dle of the pack to its lead in the fi­nal sec­onds of the race.

This em­pha­sis moves F-Zero GX closer to horse rac­ing than mo­tor­sport, per­haps. The first two-and-a-half laps of­fer few clues as to the fi­nal rank­ings. In­stead this is where the mind games take place, the men­ac­ing shuf­fle of the pack, un­til that fi­nal half lap, when ev­ery­one plays their hand and the fi­nal or­der is de­cided.

This isn’t a game of chance, how­ever. Both tac­tics and strat­egy play their part in any victory. Be­fore each race you are able to fine-tune your ship. In keep­ing with the ar­cade style, this is sim­ple but mean­ing­ful: do you ad­just your ve­hi­cle’s bal­ance for max­i­mum ac­cel­er­a­tion or for max­i­mum top speed? Your choice will be af­fected by ex­pe­ri­ence – the fewer times you’re likely to hit into the slow­ing bar­ri­ers, the less you need to em­pha­sise ac­cel­er­a­tion – but also the par­tic­u­lar track on which you’re due to race. Some of the tougher ex­am­ples have awk­ward kinks and dog­leg bends too sharp to steer around at full pelt. So you’ll need to use a com­bi­na­tion of timely brak­ing and your craft’s un­usual abil­ity to ‘side­step’ left or right – a de­sign idea re­cy­cled by Bungie for its Spar­rows in Des­tiny. Un­til you’ve mas­tered the tech­nique, it can be use­ful to em­pha­sise ac­cel­er­a­tion over top speed, even if it’s harder to achieve and main­tain a lead.

On the track, too, there is a keen need for strat­egy. Some of the cour­ses have op­tional grav­ity jumps, which hurl your ship into the air, pos­si­bly over a trou­ble­some sec­tion of track. It’s an invit­ing short­cut, but if you fail to land the jump, there’s no equiv­a­lent to Mario Kart’s ea­ger Lak­itu wait­ing to re­turn you to the track safely. No, spin off here and you must restart from the be­gin­ning, a cruel penalty that en­sures you must weigh ev­ery risk be­fore it’s taken. Be­yond the jumps, there’s a mul­ti­tude of other ob­sta­cles and risks: col­umns that


in­ter­rupt the track, scat­tered mines that con­sume your shields, gravel sec­tions that slow your craft down – de­spite the fact it has the ca­pa­bil­ity to hover.

Away from the races, this is an un­usu­ally gen­er­ous game. Grand Prize mode has four cups of five dis­crete tracks: Ruby, Sap­phire, Emer­ald, and the ter­ri­fy­ing cour­ses of Di­a­mond, where the bar­ri­ers fre­quently fall away and you meet the cru­elty of Sand Ocean and the treach­ery of Phantom Road. Each of th­ese boasts nu­mer­ous dif­fi­culty lev­els. The un­lock­able AX cup presents six tracks from the ar­cade game – there’s even a now-re­dun­dant op­tion to save data onto a mem­ory card at home and take this with you into the ar­cade. Time Attack al­lows you to com­pete for the best pos­si­ble time on each course, sav­ing up to five ghost runs to com­pete against. Then there’s the un­ex­pected Story mode, whose chap­ters must be pur­chased in the shop, and which adds a wel­come if cu­ri­ous nar­ra­tive over­lay to the races. Here you play as the pi­lot Cap­tain Fal­con, fol­low­ing his story across nine chap­ters from his emer­gence as a green novice through to fame and mas­tery (and a der­ring-do cli­mac­tic es­cape).

Just as its el­dest an­ces­tor had in­spired many to im­port SNES units early just to play the game, so F-Zero GX helped sell GameCubes, though not enough to greatly ex­pand the ma­chine’s small share of the mar­ket. And aside from a nos­tal­gic ad­don track for Mario Kart 8, which bor­rows F-Zero’s props but not its essence, Nin­tendo hasn’t re­turned to Mute City, Ve­gas Palace, Cosmo Ter­mi­nal or any of its other mem­o­rable lo­cales since 2003. Why? Nin­tendo is not a com­pany to shy away from iter­at­ing on its best-loved ti­tles. But it is a com­pany that prefers to do so only when it has some­thing new to of­fer to the tem­plate. Surely there is more? At very least, while F-Zero GX had a four­player splitscreen mode (which re­moved track scenery in or­der to main­tain that cru­cial speed), a post- MK8 on­line in­car­na­tion would be timely. Or maybe Nagoshi and his friends at Nin­tendo said ev­ery­thing they needed to with F-Zero GX and its 60fps grasp at per­fec­tion. Ei­ther way, the best ad­vice might be to hold tight.

The shoul­der but­tons al­low you to side­step left and right, an es­sen­tial tech­nique for ne­go­ti­at­ing the game’s more de­mand­ing bends

You can change your ship’s colour, although nei­ther you nor your ri­vals has much spare fo­cus to ad­mire it

Four­player races can be daz­zling du­els of crack­ling boost and tac­ti­cal skill, though the scenery qual­ity has to take a hit to main­tain the sense of raw ve­loc­ity

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