Nintendo's newfound relationship with Sega has the arcade powerhouse teaming up with the big N to create two new F-Zero games, one for the arcade, and one for the GameCube. Developed by Amusement Vision, the same folks who brought the two Super Monkey Ball games to the GameCube, the game promised to take everything people loved about F-Zero and make it bigger and better: more machines, more characters, crazier tracks, and even more speed. Because I have been a huge F-Zero fan since the original game first came out (in fact, it's really the only racing series that I enjoy consistently), I was extremely intrigued as to what Sega would do with my beloved racing series. I was pleased to see that the Monkey Ball guys made a game that is at least as much insane fun as those games are, if not more so.
With the transition to the GameCube, Sega took all of these aspects and made them even more intense. The track designs are simply ingenious, going from simple ovals designed to acclimate the beginner, to expert courses like one in the emerald circuit that involves going through a pipe that actually passes through another part of the track. The difficulty does ramp up in a hurry, since there are only twenty main tracks split into four circuits. I personally placed first in the first circuit after only a couple of tries, but spent several hours before I was able to place first in the second circuit. Basically, the tracks are much more intricate than in any previous installment of the F-Zero series, and this means that track memorization is a complete must in order to advance, an aspect that can be extremely frustrating at first.
Speaking of difficulty levels, one new mode to F-Zero GX is Story Mode. Basically, Story Mode is a series of different challenges tied together by a brief storyline that revolves around F-Zero mascot Captain Falcon's adventures in being a racing legend. The challenges do a fairly good job of training the player on certain intricacies of the gameplay, but in that effort, it is more of a ruthless taskmaster than a patient instructor. That is to say that these challenges are extremely difficult; even on normal difficulty, these challenges will severely test the skills of all but the most hardcore F-Zero players. Granted, this is not entirely surprising given the borderline sadistic levels that Amusement Vision was able to devise for the Super Monkey Ball games. However, more levels with a more gradual difficulty curve, as in Super Monkey Ball 2's Story Mode, for instance, might have added to the play value of this feature more than what is presented.
A new feature in F-Zero GX, Garage mode, is easily the most attractive place to spend your tickets. By completing the Grand Prix mode, you can unlock parts with which to build your machine from scratch and then race it in Grand Prix or Versus modes. There are three different types of parts: Body, Booster and Cockpit, which affect the ratings for body, boost and grip respectively. Each part also has a weight, which affects how fast your machine will accelerate and what its top speed will be. Aside from the hoops that you have to jump through to get the tickets to buy the parts, it is quite a bit of fun to tinker with the machine and get it to perform just the way you want it to.
One other interesting feature included in F-Zero GX is the interconnectivity between this game and its arcade sibling F-Zero AX. The game promises to allow the player to transfer their Game Cube machines to the arcade game via the memory card. Additionally, new tracks and characters will be accessible in the Game Cube game once the player has unlocked them in the arcade. It should be noted that this is no substitute for online play but it is an interesting feature for players with access to F-Zero AX machines.
F-Zero's control should be instantly familiar to veterans of the F-Zero series. I remember that executing drift turns and spin attacks was an excruciating experience, but in F-Zero GX they are almost too easy to pull off, which is a good thing. Basically, if the control feels loose, that's a function of the machine you're racing with, not the control scheme itself.
Another thing that Amusement Vision pulled off brilliantly was the feel of speed in the game. The graphics run at a constant 60 frames per second with no perceivable slowdown, and just feels fast. Especially on some of the wilder tracks, the game almost feels like a roller coaster, with drops and spins at blazing speed, and nothing happens to spoil that experience in terms of the graphics. While the environments might not be as detailed as in other games, they move so quickly that the player likely won't even notice. Added effects like lightning shooting out of the back of a machine after a boost, or the inevitable on-course explosions, just add to the ambiance.
The music is basically generic rock guitar tracks that keep the energy level up, but aren't particularly memorable, with the exception of the guitar version of the original F-Zero theme. There is some voice acting in Story Mode, but it's fairly wooden and nothing to write home about. There's nothing really wrong with the sound, but it could be better.
So how does the new F-Zero game hold up to expectations? In all, it stands on its own pretty well. I must admit that few games leave my hands sweaty and clenched around the controller like F-Zero GX does. The difficulty level may scare away some new players (and maybe even some old ones), but it's a fun ride even when you're not winning. While Story Mode is a bit disappointing, and the frustration level might cut the replay value a bit short, everything else about this game is pure gold and completely true to the F-Zero name. If you're a fan of racing games, or even if you're not, F-Zero GX should be in your GameCube collection. After all, if it wasn't hard, it wouldn't be worth playing.