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
SPIN OFF HERE AND YOU MUST RESTART, A CRUEL PENALTY THAT ENSURES YOU WEIGH EVERY RISK BEFORE IT’S TAKEN
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