"Practically flawless from a technical standpoint, the biggest thing missing from F-Zero X is that it lacks a soul." -James Mielke, videogames.com

Wow. Very profound, but isn't it expecting a bit too much of Nintendo? I mean, since the dawn of recorded history our best philosophers, theologians and scientists have been struggling to even DEFINE a soul, let alone replicate it, and the critics are expecting one to be included with every copy of a mass-produced video game? No wonder these people are so cranky.

This is not a collage. This is an actual screenshot. So there.
Descent into Hell. Well, not really.
The Super Piranha catches some air. A twitch too far to the left or right and the race is over.
Crowding is rarely a good thing in F-Zero X.
Watch yourself in the tunnels. Come out too fast at the wrong angle and you'll become one with the background.

F-Zero X

Remember when racing games sucked? C'mon, think back. Before Gran Turismo, before Wipeout, even before Virtua Racing; think of days bygone, people arguing over whether the SNES would ever catch up to the Genesis in American sales. Remember the racing games available then? Pretty pathetic, huh? Sure, Sega had some pretty cool arcade racers out, but those were years away from accurate home translations.

Times sure have changed, haven't they? With the rise of 3D graphics, companies have realized that, along with fighting games, driving games do the best job of showing off new hardware. This is why every new system is launched with a first-party racing game and fighting game, but I digress. Racers look great, and the better ones play pretty damn well too. With people becoming increasingly sick of fighting games on both sides of the ocean, they're close to dominating the arcades.

This brings us to Nintendo's F-Zero X, the sequel to a SNES launch title, a bright spot at a time when racers, as mentioned before, sucked. It used never-before-seen scaling and zooming effects to create an intensely realistic (for the time) feeling of speed. That was all that was realistic about it, though; it went for a sci-fi feel. The game was simple and fun to play between marathon sessions of Super Mario World.

The stakes are a little higher now. In the time between games, Psygnosis released what many consider to be their Citizen Kane, an anti-gravity racer called Wipeout. Comparisons to F-Zero were made, but none of them were really valid; Wipeout provided realistic physics (at least we THINK they were realistic; there's no way to test them unti we develop anti-gravity technology), complete with vertical controls and air brakes. Good news for F-Zero fans and bad news for Wipeout devotees: F-Zero X doesn't try to be Wipeout. One element has been "borrowed" from it, the Dash Plate (points on the track that provide a quick burst of speed), but the rest is either taken from the prequel or new.

Still shots do a poor job showing this game's graphics, so take my word for it. It's fast. Very. The game's technical claim to fame is the 4-way split screen, each running at 60 fps, with no slowdown. Sadly, the single player mode isn't nearly as impressive (am I the only one who doesn't think much of multiplayer racers?), as each car has a fairly low polygon count and the backgrounds are pretty sparse; these sacrifices were made to keep up speed, and they certainly do. The game NEVER slows down, and pop-up is very rare, never interfering with the gameplay. The sound is exactly what you'd expect from a racing game, no more, no less, but the music is above average (rare for the N64).

Now, the big question: gameplay. A bigger question than usual, because nowhere in the 33-page manual do they discuss what the various buttons do, and there's no "set controls" option to check. Don't worry, they're easy to figure out (A to accelerate, B to boost, Down-C to brake, Z or R to lean, double-tap Z or R to ram), but the omission is curious, to say the least. Mysterious as they are, they're intuitive and responsive, as you'd expect from Nintendo. You begin the game with 6 cars (4 from the original game), and gradually work your way up to a group of 30 bounty hunters, thrillseekers, superheroes and the prerequisite malevolent warlord. What is it with malevolent warlords and tournament-style contests? Anyway, the vehicles are all surprisingly balanced, and they're not just clones of each other; each one is noticeable different from the next, and if there are any "throwaway" cars put in solely to increase the number, I haven't found them.

So, that's F-Zero. 30 tiny but hi-res hovercars skittering about at literally supersonic speeds on some of the coolest tracks ever designed. Not the killer app everyone seemed to assume it would be when it was announced over two years ago, but an addictive little monkey of a game that's worth at least a rental. If nothing else, it'll provide some solace when you're stuck in Zelda.

Peter the Malcontent

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