Nintendo understands gameplay – but you sometimes have to look outside the company’s R&D labs to find developers that understand Nintendo. HAL gave us Super Smash Bros’s unashamedly vibrant celebration of all things Nintendo. Intelligent Systems crafted the wryly self-referental Mario & Luigi twinset. And when Amusement Vision was tasked with updating Shigeru Miyamoto’s futuristic racing franchise for GameCube, the result was F-Zero GX: a game clearly made for fans, by fans.
GX (and its little-seen arcade twin AX) is fiercely loyal to its older brothers. The craft, quaintly reminiscent of the low-poly pastel models born of a previous generation’s technology, handle just as they did on Super Nintendo and N64. For beginners, it’s a nightmare: taking corners too fast sees your craft dragged by its behind into a race-scuppering trackside smash. But with practice it’s possible to forge a tangible bond with your machine – steering in graceful arcs that keep just the right side of skidding catastrophically out of control, boosting out of corners, thundering past competitors with neck-tightening precision.
It’s Scalextric at 1,200kph. No other racing game comes close to evoking such a breathtaking feeling of just barely keeping control of a vehicle that’s going far, far too fast. Tracks aren’t so much driven as dreamed, with brutal 180-degree turns, sudden two-lane splits and cruelly placed speed strips pouring into your eyes that bit faster than it’s possible to consciously process. Over someone’s shoulders, it’s an incredible thing to watch. In the pilot’s seat, it’s frightening.
Having 29 rivals – all expert drivers, all focused on smashing you off-course in anything but the beginner’s Standard Mode – turns F-Zero GX into a thrillingly anarchic motorway war, a proper jostling battle for pole position rather than a four-way fight. Your competitors cheat with magic boosts in traditional F-Zero style, of course, but that’s the secret of the game’s pounding relentlessness. Where every second is a potential overtaking opportunity for your enemies, every race won is a victory for eyes and fingers. And each craft has a unique balance of speed versus acceleration versus barging strength – so no single machine is ever truly odds-on favourite.
The tracks are spectacular. N64’s F-Zero X had scenery restricted to the odd 2D statue to keep the framerate up on the struggling 64bit machine, and couldn’t help but look limp next to its perceived rival – the cooler-than-thou PlayStation offering, Wipeout. In GX, Amusement Vision tweaked its Super Monkey Ball engine to push GameCube harder even than Nintendo itself, and transform F-Zero’s abstract tarmac ribbons into real places. Now, Mute City is a city, all blazing bridges and ghostly glowing billboards. Port Town is a port – with, apropos of nothing, much-maligned NES accessory ROB the robot looming over the ships and hotels. Craft cling treacherously to tube-like tracks looping over lava; Casino Town’s psychedelic neon whips past at 1,500kph; towering ramps send the craft soaring over Aeropolis like a sychronised diving team.
F-Zero GX’s unforgiving difficulty is what won over the hardcore. Extreme Mode is, simply, impossible. The notorious Story Mode is a masochist’s dream: a deceptively short nine-stage challenge where the very first race – a simple cliffside race against Samurai Goroh – is tuned to chew up and spit out even a 99% perfect performance. Victory often only comes in that ‘introductory’ challenge by managing to barge the near-invincible Goroh off the track to his death. But, with Amusement Vision determined to exploit the gift of the F-Zero franchise to the full, GX rewards persistence with a huge goodie bag of fan-focused extras. Pilot themes with lyrics; new ships; hundreds of craft parts for Gran Turismo-style customisation; staff ghosts. Like Super Smash Bros and its reams of trophies and unlockables, F-Zero GX feels more like a present than a product.
Perhaps the strangest – and yet most satisfying – reward is Toshihiro Nagoshi’s curious attempt to contextualise the F-Zero universe for the first time with cutscenes and story. It’s somehow irresistible – eschewing the clumsy start-line posturing of so many other ‘character-based’ racers for glimpses of Captain Falcon wandering neon-lit streets and drinking in seedy bars, doing for F-Zero what the cantina scene did for Star Wars. The bizarre multiple-choice interviews with pilots that come at the end of cups are preposterous – but, just like that mystifying appearance by a ROB the size of a small moon, they somehow speak the language of Nintendo and F-Zero’s most loyal fans.
Best GameCube racing game? Well, which other example on the system lets you time the destruction of your craft to slide over the finish line as a smoking husk? F-Zero GX represents one of those rare moments in gaming history where technical ability, visuals, game design and – yes – unashamed love for Nintendo intertwine to create something that’s extremely difficult to fault.