The original F-Zero was released shortly after the SNES hit retail stores, and it sent ripples throughout the video game industry with its pseudo 3D graphics and excellent sense of speed. As the original hovercraft racing game, F-Zero changed what players would expect from the racing genre for years to come. Now a decade and one polygonal version of F-Zero later, Nintendo's flagship racing series is one of its premiere titles for the launch of its next-generation handheld, the Game Boy Advance. Essentially an enhanced port of the SNES original, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity proves that solid gameplay is timeless.
Set 25 years after the original F-Zero, Maximum Velocity perpetuates the same simplistic yet deep control scheme that made it so fun to play years ago. The A button acts as the accelerator, and the B button is the brake. The directional pad makes your hovercraft skirt from one side of the track to the other, and pressing either shoulder button will give your craft some extra grip around the turns. After each completed lap, you are awarded with a boost that can be ignited by simultaneously pressing both shoulder buttons. Playing Maximum Velocity can be frustrating until you realize that the best way to take turns is to tap the accelerator. The sharper the turn, the faster the tap. Once the technique is mastered, the brake is only required for especially abrupt hairpin turns, and drifting using the shoulder buttons is no longer a necessity. There are four initial hovercraft to choose from, and six more that are unlocked as you progress through the single-player mode. Each craft is rated on boost strength, boost time, maximum speed, and turning performance. A craft's attributes weigh heavily into its performance on the track, and different driving styles must be adopted depending upon its capabilities.
Maximum Velocity includes four gameplay modes, with the grand prix mode representing the primary single-player experience. The grand prix is broken up into several series that are named for chess pieces. When you initially start up the game, only the pawn, knight, and bishop series are available. When you complete all three on all of the game's initial three difficulty settings, the queen series is unlocked for play. To complete each series, you must best 14 other drivers over a circuit of five races. To advance to the next circuit, you must come in first overall. Each race consists of five laps, and with 15 vehicles on the track at once there are plenty of close calls and collisions. Each hovercraft has a power meter that gradually dissipates as it takes damage, and when the meter expires the race is over. Races will also come to an abrupt halt if your hovercraft flies off the track or if you're too far behind late in the race. As you complete each series on the expert difficulty setting, a confounding master difficulty setting is opened. With dozens of events and multiple difficulty settings, there's a great deal of gameplay to be gleaned just from Maximum Velocity's grand prix mode.
The practice mode lets you race on any of the game's tracks and lets you try to cut into your best time. A computer-controlled vehicle can be added to the time trial to give you some motivation if your best time being displayed isn't enough. There are two separate multiplayer modes included in F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, depending upon the number of cartridges available. If you have just one cartridge between four GBAs, then just one track and hovercraft are available, and music is played only through the host GBA. The loading time for each multiplayer race when using one cartridge easily eclipses 10 seconds, as data is transferred from the host GBA to the other three units. If all the GBAs in the daisy chain have cartridges, then all the tracks, vehicles, and audio options are available to each player. While the lack of options in the four-player linkup with one cartridge is disappointing, the number of tracks and vehicles available in the other gameplay modes greatly ease the pain.
While it isn't be most visually astonishing Game Boy Advance launch game, Maximum Velocity's visuals improves upon the SNES version in almost every respect. The hovercraft are now animated so that their flaps that break and steer can be seen adjusting on the fly. The backgrounds that scroll side to side as you jettison around corners feature a nice variety of colors, but the offtrack environments are stark and barren with only a few discreet animations like blinking lights and shorting circuits. The ramp-infested track surfaces have been upgraded from the flat colors of the original F-Zero but still repeat fairly often. Mode 7 scaling and rotation is used to simulate 3D, and the effect is quite convincing. You can see far enough ahead in the track to prepare for wickedly sharp turns--making the already impressive sense of speed all the more titillating. While not the cream of the Game Boy Advance crop, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity's visuals have enough oomph to make you instinctively jerk the GBA around while playing.
An F-Zero game without wailing Japanese guitar rock just wouldn't be worthy of the name, and Maximum Velocity does not disappoint in this regard. The few songs included sound a bit tinny through the Game Boy Advance's tiny speaker and aren't all that great to begin with. Playing through headphones enhances the aural experience considerably. During the short cinemas that occur at the end of each race, the sounds of passing hovercraft will accurately track from one side of the headphones to the other, and during races you can hear which side a rival hovercraft is trying to pass on. While the music can be annoying at times, it can be muted in the options menu, and the location-specific sound effects pick up a bit of the slack.
While not revolutionary in any regard, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity is a challenging yet addictive racer with speed to spare. With plenty of tracks to unlock, vehicles to master, and multiplayer modes to explore, it won't be headed for trade-in anytime soon. Anyone who has disliked the mechanics of previous F-Zero games won't be converted by Maximum Velocity, but this pocket-sized nitro boost will more than satisfy players who can appreciate its simple elegance.