F-Zero GX, a Twenty Year Reunion
Very few are the games available on a Nintendo platform where everyone, and I do mean everyone, agrees with universal acclaim about it being one of the best titles of all time in its particular genre. Even Ocarina of Time and Super Mario Galaxy are titles where debate occasionally sprouts about them actually being worth the hype or not. F-Zero GX is one of these universally beloved titles. Not everyone has bought it or played it back in the day (or else we wouldn’t be begging for a new F-Zero since the mid 2000s, Nintendo likes making money), but everyone who has will agree with the following: it’s one of the best racing games of all time. And it’s now twenty years old. Feel old yet?
F-Zero has always been more of a proof of concept series in the eschelon of Nintendo’s franchise. Like Star Fox or Pilotwings, it was usually relegated to being a showcase of a console’s power first, series handled with care second. On the SNES, it was made to showcase the power of the Mode 7. On the Nintendo 64, it was made to prove the console could handle 30 simultaneous racers at 60fps. And on the GBA, it was basically the same as the SNES before it, but on a portable. F-Zero GX feels like an outsider in this regard because it wasn’t made with hardware showcases as its main goal. Sure, it’s gorgeous and runs like a dream even for today’s standards, but the game was created with the intention of being the best racing title of its kind. And you have to thank Sega for that, not specifically Nintendo.
Unlike other F-Zero games, F-Zero GX was developed by one of Sega’s internal studios, as part of the Triforce arcade partnership between them, Nintendo and Namco. This is why F-Zero GX eventually got an arcade counterpart, AX, which ran on the aforementioned arcade board based on Gamecube architecture. The game was actually developed by Toshihiro Nagoshi, believe it or not. Yes, the creator of Super Monkey Ball and Yakuza. The guy who looks like he came from the Tojo Clan itself. Before he started making our lives better with Kiryu and Majima, he was crafting the best Nintendo racing game of all time. Sega clearly does what Nintendon’t.
Even though the Gamecube era was marked by Nintendo heavily experimenting on their main franchises (Mario had a water pack, Zelda was cartoonish, Metroid was a first-person shooter, Luigi was stuck in a survival horror setting), F-Zero GX felt like an exception to the rule. It wasn’t trying to innovate with a gimmick. You weren’t exploring an open world Mute City as Captain Falcon (as metal as it would have been). It was everything F-Zero X from the N64 had, but dialed to 11. Faster. Harder. Sexier. Better.
Gameplay-wise, there’s nothing particularly new. The booster is activated on the second lap, antigrav loops are everywhere, there are icy and gravel bits everywhere, and you can attack opponents with a tackle. The only main difference is the fact that there is a dedicated attack button with Z, where you can do a little spin attack, at the cost of a bit of your speed. I’d only recommend doing so if you’re using a heavy ship with some good grip, like the Black Bull. Elsewhere, it’s just pure insanity, where 30 ships are blasting through at nearly 1600 km/h, all while being greeted to some insane hard rock / EDM hybrids. Oddly enough, they do sound quite like the soundtrack from future Yakuza games. The blueprints were all there, back in 2003.
What we’re getting here is just the culmination in terms of level design, music, graphics, pretty much everything we’d want from an F-Zero game. After 20 freaking years, F-Zero GX‘s visuals just plain shock me. The Gamecube was just way too powerful for its time, it’s unbelievable. The game looks good to this very day. Everything is stupidly detailed, full of neon lights, particle effects, all while running at the smoothest of framerates, with no hiccups whatsoever. The loading times were also staggering, taking very little to load all the insanity you see onscreen.
Besides the main cups, there is also a story mode, and boy oh boy, that’s something. This may be the only proper addition when compared to other F-Zero games, being a canonical story of Captain Falcon using his skills as both pilot and policeman to track down baddies during the F-Zero season. The mode is a mixture of actual races and challenging scenarios, such as a homage to the Keanu Reeves movie Speed, where you need to get to the end of the level without ever slowing down to a particular speed.
It’s easier said than done. This mode is hell on earth if you haven’t mastered the game’s mechanics. Some people hate it. Me? Well, I don’t like it as much as the races themselves, but as a bonus diversion after I’m done with the main mode… eh, it’s fine. I don’t think I have ever beat it, nor do I think I ever will, but it doesn’t anger me.
I love F-Zero GX. I loved it back then, and I love it to this day. It has aged like the finest cabernet sauvignon. And because of that, I almost understand why Nintendo has never developed or greenlit a proper follow-up: there is just nothing you can do to topple it. It would be the one instance I’d be totally okay with just re-releasing a remaster, as the final product is just too good, too damn near perfect. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss a new F-Zero. Even though games like Fast RMX and Pacer have managed to scratch the itch, F-Zero GX just hits differently. The best futuristic racing game of all time? Absolutely. The best racing game of all time in general? It’s a plausible discussion. Happy 20th anniversary F-Zero GX. You freaking phenomenal piece of software.