In Depth Review: F-Zero X [N64]
F-Zero X is the sequel to the Super Nintendo classic, F-Zero. Meaning, this racer is a futuristic speed demon that concentrates very little on realism (a la Gran Turismo 3) and much more on insane, arcade, boost-happy racing (a la WipeOut and Extreme G3 series). It deviates from the old formula of flat mode 7 tracks with devious twists and turns however, using the N64's polygon pushing hardware to give us tracks that dip, climb, loop, and even turn into tubes. This is what makes F-Zero X that much more fun than the original F-Zero and F-Zero Advance (though the latter was hardly anything to shout about).
True to F-Zero form (and racing games in general), you start out with a few cars to pick from. Each car is rated using letter grades in three categories: boost, grip and body. Higher boost means that your boost power will push your car faster, higher grip translates into better handling, and higher body means you can take more hits before you explode like a long-trapped fart. There are three different leagues (Jack, Queen, King) to choose from at the outset, with more to be unlocked. Each league consists of 6 tracks. You are given 4 spare vehicles to complete each league, meaning if you bite the dust 5 times, forget about kissin' that trophy. Here's the kicker though -- you have to beat out 29 other cars to get first place. Yearp, you read that right, there are THIRTY cars racing on the track at a time! As in F-Zero, your basic controls are to accelerate, boost, lean left and right, with a slight addition being the ability to ram into other vehicles by double-tapping either lean button. Points are tallied in typical Grand Prix form -- the higher your position, the more points you get (for a maximum of 100 points per race). This means that if you've come in second place for five out of the six races, you can still win the gold if your point total manages to edge out whoever's in first place, again similar to F-Zero.
Each race consists of 3 laps. The first lap has you starting out in the position opposite to that which you ended the previous race in -- meaning if you came in first for race one, you'll be in 30th foor the next race. After the first lap is completed, your boost power is activated, and the real fun begins. This is another difference from F-Zero and F-Zero Advance, where you are given a set amount of "turbos" for every lap you complete. In F-Zero X, your energy bar is depleted every time you step on the boost. The boost lasts you a couple of seconds before you decelerate. So you'll find that mashing on the boost button will have you almost dead in no time, and you'll be begging for a shield recharge strip (identical in function to previous F-Zeros). Used in the right places (i.e. coupled with boost-pads located on the track), however, and you'll achieve the ultimate Speed Nirvana, reaching upwards of 1300 km/h (stupid metric system).
That's not the half of it, however, as you'll be subjected to beautifully designed tracks. One track has you running over consecutive boost pads up an extremely tightening path only to be launched high into the air, forcing you to aim your vehicle to land on the track (or totally missing and crashing into the chaos below -- your choice). Another track has you hopping off the flat section and onto a tubular track, as alluded to before, where you'll struggle to keep your machine racing on the surface area of the tube. Crazy nausea can be attained by doing spirals and such. Yet another track has you on the *inside* of a large tube, and still another has you trying to stay within a halfpipe. No Tony-Hawking here unless you've got super skills.
These tracks aren't just designed to be flashy, however; they demand a new strategic approach to them, rather than just knowing where the turns and boost pads are, as is the case with F-Zero and F-Zero Advance. When you're racing frantically up a hill, pulling down on the analog stick (meaning pulling the nose of your car up) and boosting will send you flying above the track, something you might not want to be doing should you miss a beat and fall off the track altogether. Pushing up on the analog stick (pushing the nose down), like in Extreme G3, helps you accelerate. Tracks can also have little bumps and waves in them, where again you'll have to take care not to accelerate off an incline and fly into the air.
This, coupled with the game's intense sensation of speed, is what makes F-Zero's simple gameplay (accelerate, lean, boost...) so fun and so addictive. If you immerse yourself in the game enough, you can imagine the gusts of wind blowing by your face as you grit your teeth and plow through a track at ungodly speeds, doing loop-de-loops and making massive jumps. This could not be achieved without the great work Nintendo did in making the graphics move at an unwavering 60 frames per second. The sacrifice they made here is to make everything bland -- all the vehicles have nothing more than Goraud-Shading, and there is very little, if any, environment to stare at -- mostly just a blank skyline or repeating bitmap. The thing is, that 60 fps is definitely worth sacrificing the details. I just popped in WipeOut 3 for my PSX and it just didn't feel the same, even at top speeds. Once you actually play the game, there's a very good chance you'll come to appreciate the lack of detail when you see your little racer cruising along at a speed and smoothness you've never seen in the 32-bit era. Most importantly, the smoothness along with the analog control allows for superb control over your vehicle. Nothing makes me madder than playing a choppy game where my character or car doesn't respond to my gamepad.
The electric guitars help get you into the game with cool retro tunes that manage to not be that cheesy. My only gripe with the sound is that the announcer sounds awfully peculiar, but at least it makes way for the AnTiPoDe's trademark bellow at the end of every first lap.
When you think you've had it racing the same tracks over and over again, here's the solution: get some skillz, and complete each league. You can subsequently unlock cars until your total is over 20, and open up two more leagues good for twelve more tracks. The last league you open, the X Circuit, generates totally random tracks comprised of pieces of existing tracks. It's a blast, and really adds to the game's replay value.
It's a shame that the N64 didn't come out with fun games like this more often. F-Zero X is old, not detailed, and not very deep -- but it can be enjoyed by anyone. This is an incredibly fun game that you need to at least give a try if you haven't already. You can find it used for $13 (or less if you're good), and for you Nintendo haters out there who never wanted to own an N64, a used N64 at Software Etc. costs $30 (again, probably less on Ebay). Considering the prices, trust me - it's worth it for this one game.