HEAT ONE: THE WORLD'S FASTEST HEAT
If your eyes are big and strong as a bodybuilder's muscles, you might be able to make out a sign during your first lap around the first track in Sega Amusement Vision / Nintendo's F-Zero GX. The sign stretches the width of the track. It's pseudo-holographic, and it's giving you an order.
My eyes are flabby and weak. Zipping by aboard alien murder-hunter Pico's green and yellow Wild Goose hovercraft -- I had the settings tweaked for high speed over acceleration, because I'm dangerous like that -- I wasn't paying attention to any ambient details. I had my eyes on the road. I was sliding in and out of perfect cornering lines, ramming other cars into the rails when necessary, and preparing to line up with the pit field. When I dipped under the track-spanning holo-sign, my eyes caught only about a quarter of a glimpse of it. At first, I could have sworn it was telling me to "GO EAST." It wasn't. Two laps later, and only a minute into the game, I had figured out my personal strategy: hit the boost button over and over again, depleting your energy; arrive at the pit field each lap with the smallest sliver of life remaining, and you shall always win.
I was more in the zone by the time my third lap rolled around. I had relaxed my eyes. I could see and read the sign for what it was saying:GO FAST
I saw this, and hit the boost button again. I won the race. Talk about in-game hints.
This is the fastest game I've ever played. Later tracks go so far as to frustrate the weak with their speed. The Lightning Field: Half Pipe course blazes by at 1500 kilometers per hour; occasionally, its half pipe splits open, exposing bottomless pits beneath. Either shift your vehicle left or right, or fly off the track, and instantly lose.
HEAT TWO: THE BEAUTIFUL HEAT
People without the alien reflexes of Pico might not be able to appreciate the thick richness of F-Zero GX's graphics. In truth, it comes up at times like a big, high-stacked sandwich that has been put together with wit and grace. Each sliver of lettuce and each pickle have been put in its perfect place. Each slice of whatever lunch meat thrills you has been folded into its optimum shape. The hungry appreciates both none of this and all of this when he sinks in his teeth.
The Casino tracks in F-Zero GX are all aglow with backgrounds of fully three-dimensional neon. Futuristic buildings are built up and around one another in a cluttered jumble of glossy science-fiction. The "Lightning" tracks come to life with beautifully superfluous nighttime rain. It's not until you watch someone else play for the first time that you see this rain for how perfect it is. In your own playing, you concentrate only on the road ahead of you. Sometimes, in courses like the Fire Field Cylinder, you're able to remark on the snake-scale-like texture of the track. Sometimes, Red Canyon's pavement strikes you as vocally "realistic."
It's not until many, many hours into your being made into a wo/man by F-Zero GX that you're able to enter Big Blue Ordeal (a five-star difficulty track) in practice mode against 29 other cars, rise to first place, hold that lead, and race along at top speed, remarking on the marine-inspired architectures of individual buildings.
Appreciation for the game's beauty is one of the many things the game has to teach you.
HEAT THREE: THE REMIXED HEAT
Kids' parents might call F-Zero GX's music "noise." They might be right. Most parents call music "noise" because their kids are listening to it in their bedrooms. All the parents can hear is the part of the music that survives the trip through the bedroom walls or floorboards: the bass. A wall removes treble and individual nuances from music.
That is to say, then, that though F-Zero GX is best played with a Nintendo Wavebird wireless controller, the radio waves of which can penetrate brick from thirty feet away, you're not going to want a wall between yourself and the television. And not just because you wouldn't survive a minute without being able to see the screen.
F-Zero GX's music is fast. It sounds like what the abstract concept of speed must sound like. Hearing it makes you want to move quickly. Before you pirates download mp3s and burn CDs and crank the tunes up loud in your Toyotas, however, realize: this music is at once both more and less than a part of the game -- it is perhaps best described as a piece of the game. It is a transparent fragment of soul slipped into the game's fleshy side.
Kids say parents can't appreciate their "noisy" music because they're old. A cultural optimist would say the parents can't appreciate the music because of the sound-dampening nature of the walls. I would say it's a combination of both.
In the case of F-Zero GX, the music can not truly be appreciated without the game, and vice versa.
(Unless you're one of those people who sits around at home on a Saturday morning listening to Europop and/or watching stock car racing.)
The pumping bass and the techno guitar riffs of the "Mute City" track are far more than remixes of earlier nostalgia -- they become as essential to the experience of the play as the explosion sounds of rival machines and the whining drone of your jet engine. You tweak and drift your ship by their rhythms. You pass the leader just as that glossy speed guitar solo glides over the experience. Sooner or later, you're blinking on break beats only. When the controller is out of your hands and you're sitting down to enjoy noodles and drinks with a friend, you may recall specific bits of Big Blue's melody, just as you may recall pushing Samurai Goroh's Fire Stingray off the track at a crucial point. You cannot, however, recall the entire experience. To do that requires booting the game up, and racing again.
HEAT FOUR: THE MANIPULATED HEAT
F-Zero GX is the most twitch racing game ever made. The GameCube controller's big, green, round A button works the accelerator, the most important device is obeying the game's command to "GO FAST."
The analog shoulder buttons initiate what the instruction manual calls your ships magnetic-something-system, meaning your vehicle is pulled to one side of the track or the other. This is useful is making slide turns of varying analog degrees. Press both shoulder buttons at once to drift. When tracks sometimes involve multiple-right-angle S-curves, a master of drifting can and will drop friends' jaws in awe.
Steering is strictly analog. Go ahead and try to use a joystick, and you'll end up in a car with a gas pedal and no steering wheel.
Now, the Nintendo GameCube's controller's stick is designed so that each of eight directions has somewhere around 81 degrees of articulation with regard to pressure. No game has ever used all 81 degrees, and I don't imagine any game truly ever will. Even Sunshine's Super Mario has, at the most, four or five walking speeds between tiptoe and sprint.
Playing F-Zero GX with an analog stick makes me wonder if analog really is the future; remember how simply and beautifully we could make Mario jump higher by "holding down" the A button? The A button is a switch, like a light switch, like binary numbers: its positions are on and off. This much, we've always known. Super Mario, though, taught us the difference between on, off, and on for a long time.
I think it's because of more than just the old-schooler deep within me that, in F-Zero GX, I work the Control Stick like a light switch. I click it on, I click it off. I click it up to dive down from a jump. I click it down to catch air. I click it right to shift my machine around to the side of my rival. I click it left -- and hoooooooold it -- while drifting through a hairpin turn and catching split-second awe.
Remarked a friend: "You can tell how comfortable someone is with this game based on how loud the Control Stick clicks."
Playing this game digitally, then, is comfort.
Boosting induces queasiness and anxiety. The original F-Zero for Super Nintendo awards you with one speed boost after the first lap is finished. Use that speed boost to zip magically ahead of your opponents. Use it once, and it's gone. Finish another lap, and score another boost. The boosts accumulate if you don't use them. By the end of the final lap, using stocked boosts can pull you out into the lead despite whatever shoddy driving you'd employed until that point.
F-Zero GX rewrites this. At the end of the first lap, you are awarded "boost power." You can use this boost whenever you want, by pressing the X button. Using the boost, however, depletes your machine's health meter. If the health meter reaches zero, you explode, and it's game over. Other things that decrease the health meter include crashing into opponents or hitting walls. Each track has at least one pit zone, usually positioned just outside an optimum cornering line; driving through it replenishes your energy. As I have lain out above, my strategy involves boosting until I'm nearly dead, and then refilling in the pit zone.
There are, no doubt, at least 81 points of articulation between using no boost and using my method.
What can I say -- I'm extreme. Before you can insinuate that my reckless, nose-against-the-grindstone driving gets me killed at key moments, I'll tell you: I never die.
Well, no, I do. Sometimes. It's usually someone else's fault. And when I die, all I have to do is navigate a few menus, and start the race again. Lord knows I'm dying to.
HEAT FIVE: THE LEGENDARY HEAT
When you place first in a grand prix, you see a perhaps-humorous little scene involving the F-Zero race announcer interviewing your character. In the case of Pico, the announcer is shaking, terrified at Pico's terrifying stature. The interviewer asks if he can ask a few questions, and then you choose what question the interviewer asks. If you ask Pico why he races in the F-Zero cup, he'll explain in a high, whiny voice that "Only the F-Zero can quench my thirst for blooood!"
I think this is overkill. It's overkill in two distinctly different ways. First of all, it points out that the in-game graphics, with their sink-your-teeth-in glossy sheen, are more appetizing than the airbrushed full-motion-videos. Second of all, we don't need the characters to be so explicitly vocal, when the challenges in the "Story Mode" teach us as much as we need to know to keep playing, to learn from that playing, to enjoy that playing, and to grow within the experience of playing.
To wit: I learned my driving style from Samurai Goroh. Samurai Goroh is a bounty hunter and part-time criminal who makes his home on the planet (?) of Red Canyon. His ship is the stout Fire Stingray, which boasts the highest top speed of all vehicles in the F-Zero circuit.
I met Samurai Goroh while playing as Captain Falcon in chapter two of F-Zero GX's "Story Mode." Voiced full-motion-video showed me that Falcon was "chasing a bounty" on Red Canyon, and came across Goroh and his band of thieves. They told Captain Falcon he was going to have to race, and if he lost, he was going to have to forfeit his machine. Captain Falcon agreed to race without a word. And so the race began.
The goal is to reach a checkpoint at the end of a canyon. Boost power is given at the beginning of the race. The snaking path through the canyon is made more dangerous by way of falling boulders. Touching the boulders saps half your machine's strength. Touching two is certain death. A few times I tried, and failed, to navigate the boulders with care, staying back and watching where they fell. My first time through, I reached the end of the course a full thirty seconds after Samurai Goroh. My fourth time, I boosted a few times, keeping Goroh in sight for the first ten seconds of the race, before I plummeted off the mountainside, and to my death. Those ten seconds were crucial, however: during them, I could see that Goroh was boosting so much that the tip of his machine was mere inches from the falling boulders.
At first, the console gamer in me suspected the computer opponent of cheating. Then, on my next attempt, I realized there was no cheating at work here. It really, truly is possible to push the analog stick of F-Zero GX so that it clicks.
That is to say, the game's story mode taught me something. Perhaps ingeniously, the character of Samurai Goroh is brought to life in the behavior of his machine on this course. That's the kind of guy Goroh is. If he were the subject of a photograph, he'd be facing the edge of the frame, perhaps screaming at someone or something. We don't need to see what he's looking and screaming it. All we need to know is that his anger is his own thing.
With this kind of simple, digital (as opposed to analog) brush, F-Zero GX paints its characters through its story mode. When we earn money and begin buying new machines in the shop mode, it's our digital prejudices that make us buy the Space Angler, piloted by a superhero-looking wolf-man named Leon, over the Great Star, piloted by a mustached fat-guy-in-a-spacesuit named "Mr. EAD." I don't always think, "This guy's car is better than his." Rather, I think, "This guy looks cool." How cool the pilot looks means nothing on the race track, yet the game is charming enough to influence our character-buying order with that coolness.
Almost always, I buy a new character, take him out onto the race track in practice mode, and bang out a few laps before switching back to Pico and running another grand prix.
HEAT SIX: THE BONUS HEAT
Using money -- "tickets" -- earned through various challenges, you can buy parts and make your own racing machines. In the perhaps-too-deep customization mode, you can place icons ranging from simple stars to classic Super Mario Bros. 1up mushrooms onto any part of the ship. You can even rotate and scale the icons to whatever size configuration you see fit. You can change the colors of individual parts of the ship with RGB sliders. You can then save your custom ship onto a memory card, and take it to the arcade, and race with it there.
I like this option, even if I don't really use it. I toyed around with a custom ship for a little bit in the beginning, and then dove into the game proper.
As you race more, and earn more money, you can purchase more parts to build better custom ships, more icons to make those ships prettier, and even remixed music to race in more style. This means the game rewards you for playing a lot, and for playing well.
If the game rewarded the play for practicing, I'd probably have the sweetest custom ship right about now. Grand prix is alright -- me, though, I prefer to get intimate with the track. I like to put on practice mode with thirty opponents, and just loop around the track for tens and tens of laps. If I die, I respawn, so it's no big deal.
I burned up four hours in the practice mode alone on my first night with the game.
This is to point at something simple: in the dead center F-Zero GX is a deep, dark well of content, from which you can draw out individual elements with which to construct your own in-game personality and style. My personal style just happens to involve playing for the sake of playing, lapping courses again and again, perhaps uselessly, in the practice mode. As my mother would tell you, my personal favorite John Lennon song is "Wheels." As in, "I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round."
Unfortunately, not one of the game's many options allows you to tweak the volume of the screen displays. The number telling me what place I'm in -- I wish I could get rid of it. Though I appreciate the existence of the other opponents more than I'll have you know, I don't feel as at ease knowing numerically where I stand among them. Nor do I, really, want a map. Because my machine begins to smoke and shake as it takes damage, I don't really need a life bar, either. All I need is the car, the track, my brothers at arms, the pumping music, my twitch reflexes, and the option to race again and again.
HEAT SEVEN: THE DESIGNED HEAT
I race again and again because the elements of the game are best aligned when the game is played. F-Zero GX is a triumph of execution. The game is many things that it also at the same time isn't. It is both inspired and uninspired at the same time -- and it is both in a good way.
There are some people who write about games, who will tell you that Shigeru Miyamoto is a genius. I happen to think this, too. The vast majority of these people, however, would probably tell you that Super Mario 64 is a great work of genius because of its concept. This is not the case for me. To assume that no one would have ever made a (quality) three-dimensional platform adventure if Super Mario 64 had not appeared is foolish. Super Mario 64 took its conceptual inspiration from viewing life itself, perhaps from looking out the window of an office building, locking on to one person in the passing crowd, and watching him cross the street. Anyone could have come up with Mario 64's concept -- and furthermore, the times and the technology were demanding that someone do just that. It just so happened that Miyamoto got there first, and got there first in virtuoso fashion.
It is the concept of Super Mario Bros., however, in which we find the true genius vision of Miyamoto. Miyamoto, wishing to convey something of how he viewed life, was forced to work within the limitations of technology when he created the side-scrolling 2D adventure. Working with similar vision toward different conceptual goals, game designers of the future came up with racing games like F-Zero; inspired by F-Zero's original capturing of that concept, people made games like Wipeout and even F-Zero X.
All signs point to Nintendo's F-Zero X's having taken its inspiration from F-Zero. F-Zero X is an evolution of F-Zero in terms of concept. It takes the idea of a fast racing game involving hovercrafts in the future, and it evolves it. F-Zero's courses are remarkably flat. F-Zero X adds the third dimension of depth. Courses dip, wind, and loop around themselves, turning the game into a kind of controllable rollercoaster.
Courses do the same thing in F-Zero GX. Yet, to call the game "inspired by" F-Zero X is wrong. While the game retains many of F-Zero X's characters -- and even features like the spin-attack -- it is boldly more inspired by the original F-Zero than by its sequel.
A look at F-Zero GX reveals these superficial similarities to F-Zero X, and this is fitting: Sega's Amusement Vision have no doubt looked at F-Zero X. A deep study of F-Zero GX, however, reveals what a different game it is in terms of execution. Like F-Zero X, it takes its inspiration from the mere concept of hovercrafts racing on floating tracks in space, and it runs with it. It happens to run in a very different direction than F-Zero X does, however, and it ends up at a different place. This is to say that, yes, had Miyamoto retired after Super Mario World, someone else could have made Super Mario 64, and it could have been a good videogame.
F-Zero X, to me, doesn't always feel like a videogame. It feels like a theme park ride, or like that Sega Jurassic Park arcade game where players sit inside a jeep-shaped cabinet and aim light guns at dinosaurs until their quarters run out. F-Zero X's speed is visible most in the backwards-ish-flow of textures on race track surfaces and whizzing-by of crashed racers. On a straightaway, going 1000 kilometers per hour, in practice mode, the long tracks of F-Zero X feel relaxed and lonely, like an aquarium where no fish are moving. I felt more speed in Ridge Racer IV at a hundred and six miles per hour in the oval track, and this was because of tightness, both of graphics, and of gameplay, and of the track itself.
F-Zero GX exudes this tightness in every instant of its playing. The designers at Sega, a company also responsible for blessing a certain Mario "clone" with "speed," have once again executed a game around the concept of a feeling. That feeling is speed -- a popular one, yes -- and the resulting thrill. We can feel that speed always in F-Zero GX. We can feel it in a turn -- of course -- and we can even feel it in a straightaway, alone, through the blazing backgrounds. More than this, we can feel speed in the start of the race, before all the cars begin moving, when the 3-2-1 timer hits "2," and we hit the accelerator, and our car's underside begins to glow, and the camera shifts up and back with a little shake. Through this small camera movement before the race begins in all its blinding speed -- seeing all the cars shake and rumble to life before truly living, before our eyes become transfixed on the ocean of blurring, whirling taillights as we overcome them -- we can feel the concept of speed in this game even when it's not moving.
Except, of course, in the menus. We can't feel speed in the menus. And not just because of the load times. Really, now, menus are menus. It's hard to make them "thrilling" without also being "pretentious."
So yes, back to the subject: the tracks are the true heroes of F-Zero GX. The vehicles are merely the tools for carrying the player through the tracks. The tracks are the true tests of the players' might. The vehicles are the players' . . . writing instruments.
Apart from being beautiful and artistic, the tracks are designed. Shortcuts and obstacles are placed with taste, hardly becoming something you'd see advertised on the back of the box. No, Nintendo's PR doesn't need to alert the masses to F-Zero GX's "insane shortcuts" and "explosive obstacles" any more than this review needs to tell players that ROB the robot prominently figures into one of the stage backgrounds. It's more important to tell you clever things like this: one of the tracks is a Mobius strip, marking the first time a racing game has featured a non-oriented surface as a track. I long for an option to watch a replay zoomed way, way out, almost more than I long for my very own F-Zero AX arcade machine.
The goal of the gameplay is to go fast. In the context of a track during grand prix, the gameplay goal is to go fast better than everyone else is going fast. This makes it, on the one hand, a racing game. On the other hand -- the hand that holds "execution" -- it makes it a racing game that plays like a Sega product, abandoning a certain threshold of reason to dive all-out into conveying a feeling, and at the same time, a racing game that plays like a shooter.
HEAT EIGHT: THE MOST DANGEROUS HEAT
I remember the first time I played Gradius. Someone introduced the game to me as being "Hard."
"You touch the wall just once, and you die. You touch any enemy, and you die."
I played so many shooters that I stopped dying in them. Arguments began to rage during the later years of 16-bit that "games are getting easier." I, for one, knew this wasn't the case. Games weren't getting easier. We were getting better.
Technology, these days, is a tool that inspires most game designers to want to tell stories with their games. As we're able to make more and more realistic graphics, game designers want to tell stories with those graphics. When a story becomes important in a game, the game's difficulty becomes an issue. If the game's too hard, people won't be able to appreciate the story, and the writer won't like that. If the game's too easy -- well, what does it matter?
Difficulty is thusly tied to the game's ambition. If your game aspires to say something, if its ambition is to make the audience better, more educated people than they were before they picked up the controller, and if you'd like anyone to be able to play that game, and to take in that message, you need to make that game not frustratingly difficult.
Despite the clashing personalities of desert-bandit samurai and their superhero arch-rivals, F-Zero GX doesn't tell much of a story. It's not trying to, for the most part, and it succeeds admirably at not trying to. Free of the duty to say something "important" to the player, the game is also free to be ridiculously, blindingly, smack-in-the-back-of-the-neck difficult.
It is sometimes cruel. Bastardly cruel, even. Sometimes, you might even call it "sick," or "morbid," or even "disgusting."
I remember someone calling Ikaruga "disgusting," once. F-Zero GX, on Master mode, might cause that same someone to lose a lunch, and over more than motion-sickness.
This difficulty makes me, personally, want to master the game. As I master the game, my playing becomes something like performance art. It also makes me feel better about myself, and magically increases my love for the game.
The flow goes something like this:
The game is hard :: you lose a lot :: you hate losing :: you hate the game's difficulty :: you begin to hate the game :: you play a lot :: you get better :: you start winning a lot :: you love winning :: you begin to love the game :: you begin to love the game's difficulty.
Notice that, symmetry-wise, "you begin to love the game's difficulty" corresponds to "you begin to hate the game," and "you hate the game's difficulty" corresponds to "you begin to love the game." In a perfect world, and in a perfect game, "you begin to hate the game" would be on an even level with "you begin to love the game." Not so, in this case, in this game recklessly focused on evoking a feeling.
So it is that F-Zero GX puts off people who can't play it well. Some people are born without the ability to put their feet behind their head, some people are born unable to bend a harmonica, and some people are born without the reflexes to play F-Zero GX well. The game's response to this is cruel laughter. This cruel laughter makes people like me pleased to stand behind the guffawing, arms-akimbo F-Zero GX, and snicker at the fallen weaklings. It does not, however, make the game perfect.
Its love for those in the groove is equally cruel. This game loves you when you think of hating it, and it hates you whenever you think of not loving it.
Forgive me, then, while I head off to love it some more.
CONCEPT: A 3D futuristic hovercraft racing game. The goal is to "GO FAST." Not groundbreaking -- yet noble.
CONTENT: Twenty tracks, thirty racing machines, hundreds of thousands of possibilities for customizing the experience, plenty of character(s), a story mode that's neither boring nor hammy, options to import custom machines to the arcade version.
EXECUTION: Amusement Vision have focused this entire game on one feeling: the thrill of speed. Thrill is nothing without danger, and the game's extreme difficulty is indeed dangerous. The controls are near-perfect. The graphics are a feast; the music as present and necessary as bullets in a shooter.
F-Zero GX is twitchtastic fun. Old-school gameplay ethics on 23rd-century smooth-graphical, pumping-techno-Europop-blissful steroids! A collision of collisions and walls and wacky weather, where superhero-bounty-hunters and alien escaped convicts and samurai race machines for the title of who's going to rule the future world (or worlds -- it takes place in space, you know). Interspersed with thrilling full-motion-videos that juicily walk the line between Japanese manga-style storytelling and billion-dollar-budget testosterone-dripping Hollywood blockbuster motion picture visuals, F-Zero GX is a title you'll play over and over in a state of proprioception-lacking Zen-snap meditation, eyes glued open, fingers pressing buttons, sometimes hungry, sometimes thirsty, always satisfied. insert credit gives it a 103 out of 108.