In 1990, Nintendo essentially created the futuristic racing genre with the release of its high-speed racing game for the Super Nintendo, F-Zero. Since then, especially once the 3D era of gaming took hold, we've seen a lot of different developers do a lot of different things with the genre. For example, while F-Zero was always about pure speed and racing, with a limited focus on smashing up your opponents, the Wipeout series came up and made a more combat-focused racing game. But regardless of the approach, the one thing that has always been key to making a good futuristic racer is the game's sense of speed. Over the years, the various entries in the F-Zero series have done a nice job with that fast feeling. The latest entry in the series, F-Zero GX, delivers on the promise shown by the last console entry, F-Zero X, by offering an unmatched sense of speed while still keeping the same basic gameplay elements--track memorization and a couple of combat maneuvers--completely intact. The result is a great and challenging racing game that runs perfectly smoothly for up to four players.
While the game has a handful of customization options and a story mode, F-Zero GX's main mode is the grand prix mode. Here, you'll eventually be able to choose from more than 30 different vehicles, though only four are available at the outset. Each of the game's rides has its own statistics, so each one handles differently than the next. A vehicle's body strength comes into consideration, as do rankings for boost power and grip. The game is broken up into cups, and each F-Zero cup tournament is a five-race event. Points are totaled up as you race, and the points leader at the end of the series is the champion. Three cups are available right away, at three different difficulty levels. But you'll unlock more options as you play. You'll also earn tickets that can be spent in a shop.
Beyond the grand prix, the game also has the standard practice and time trial options that you'd expect from a racing game. You can save your replays to a memory card and race against ghost racers for the fastest time. You can customize your racing machine with unlockable parts and your own decals and emblems. The game also features a nicely done four-player split-screen versus mode that maintains the game's high level of speed pretty well. F-Zero GX also contains a story mode that gives you some unique challenges while taking you through a cutscene-filled romp starring F-Zero poster boy Captain Falcon. The mode gets almost unfairly difficult at a few spots, but the delightfully campy cutscenes keep you wanting more.
The story mode isn't the only spot where the game gets difficult. The AI is a pushover at the easy and normal settings, but it eventually gets pretty tricky. But the real opponents in F-Zero GX are the tracks themselves. The high speeds you'll race at don't give you a lot of time to look ahead to see what turns are coming up, and some of the game's camera views take away even more of your view of the horizon. Because of these things, you essentially have to memorize each track to truly master the game. Considering that some tracks have open sides, and that spilling off the track forces you to forfeit the race and try again, you'll have to be a quick learner. Some players will find the game's difficulty exciting and will happily rise to the challenge, but in the end, it does limit the game's appeal a bit.
The game has support for steering peripherals, such as the Logitech Speed Force. The wheel works reasonably well, but you get more-refined control from the standard GameCube controller. So the steering wheel is fun up to a point, but if you're playing seriously, F-Zero GX is at its best with a regular controller.
The gameplay in F-Zero GX is simple in design, but it gives you a lot of control over your craft. Aside from the obvious ability to turn left and right, you can use the shoulders to bank your craft for sharper turns. Hitting both triggers will enable you to drift around corners, which is key for cornering without losing speed. You can also make your machine jerk over to the side quickly, which is a good attack move for knocking unsuspecting foes off the edge of the track or into the barriers on the sides of most tracks. You also have a spin attack, which is a good option as you approach your foes. Additionally, the game lets you activate turbo boosts once you've cleared the first lap, but you have to use these with caution, as they deplete your energy. This same energy reservoir is used for your shields, but you can replenish your energy reserves at various energy strips found on each track.
With a maximum of 30 racers in each race (except for four-player races, which are limited to the four players), there's a lot going on in F-Zero GX. The game does a fantastic job of showing a lot of action while maintaining its sense of speed and its smooth frame rate. Of course, the trade-off is that the machines and tracks aren't as detailed as they probably could have been, but since you never really have time to see things at a standstill, this isn't a problem. The trackside decor is done well, and you'll notice cool little details in the prerace track intro, such as a large version of ROB, Nintendo's NES robot accessory. Though multiple races take place in each environment, each track has a noticeably different feel. Some of them even let you race inside enclosed tubes or on the outside of a large, twisting cylinder. Owners of upscale television sets will be pleased with the game's widescreen and progressive-scan support.
In the sound department, F-Zero GX delivers what you'd expect from a futuristic racing game. You'll hear the whine of your jet propulsion system, the smashes and crashes of the racers bumping around the course, and the whoosh of your turbo boosts kicking in. The soundtrack also does a really great job of enhancing the onscreen action. It brings a fast-paced, upbeat set of tracks to the races, most of them mixing electronic sounds with guitar riffs and solos. On top of all that, the music in the story mode cutscenes and on the racer profile screen is a random mix of theme songs for the different racers. It's not all that noticeable, but it's a great little addition.
Speaking of additions, F-Zero GX ties in with F-Zero AX, the arcade version of the game. There are racers and tracks that are, at first, available only in AX. But by bringing your memory card to the arcade and playing, you can then unlock these additions for purchase in the F-Zero shop. F-Zero AX isn't due to hit wide distribution until next month, and with the sad state of arcades these days, it may be hard to find an AX machine. Thankfully, there appears to be a way to unlock the AX items without going to the arcade, but the barrier for entry looks pretty steep, so only the best of the best will unlock everything GX has to offer.
Bottom line, the extreme increase in difficulty will surely turn some people away before they've seen the 20 tracks and unlocked all the story mode chapters. But if you want a light-speed racer that looks and plays sharply while simultaneously offering some dramatic challenges, F-Zero GX is exactly what you're looking for.