Saturday, July 24, 2010

F-Zero GX: Broke Down in the Fast Lane

When I first saw it in action at an Electronics Boutique demo booth in 2003, F-Zero GX for the GameCube was the first game in years to make me smile. Warm memories of hours spent with the 1991 SNES classic washed over me as I gladly plunked down 50 bucks for the just-released sequel. With the immortal theme of the Mute City level buzzing in my head, I popped that sucker into my ‘Cube expecting greatness, but as it turns out, my $50 would have been better spent on 10 bottles of aspirin: F-Zero GX is enough to make even the hardiest gamer’s head throb with aggravation.

In this unholy collaboration between Nintendo and Sega, the player assumes the role of one of more than 30 pilots, each vying for a chance to win the F-Zero grand prix. Your other main option is the story mode, which focuses on Mr. Falcon Punch himself, Captain Falcon. Either way, you’ll be popping those pain pills and cursing your GameCube in no time!

On the plus side, the visuals are very good for their time, with crisp backgrounds and some decent looking vehicles. The player races in a futuristic, Blade Runner meets Star Wars sort of environment. The tracks are suspended high in the air, and the “cars,” for lack of a better term, hover a few inches above them. Some cars are a pleasure to watch in action, like James McCloud’s Little Wyvern, and others make you want to close your eyes and never open them again, like Michael Chain’s Wild Boar, the only vehicle in the universe to sport a mohawk. The scenery is bright and flashy, and the backgrounds range from cities to deserts. The graphics take a hit during the cut scenes in story mode, however: Captain Falcon and his intellectually challenged rival, Black Shadow, look like a cross between Power Rangers and Michael Jackson circa his “Thriller” video. Pico looks like he’s on speed, because he’s constantly jittering, and Draq, well… let’s just say it required hours of therapy for me to finally be able to sleep again.

I hope you like random techno and rock songs with nauseating lyrics, because that’s about all F-Zero GX’s audio has to offer. Most songs lack the intense, feverish vibe found in the original F-Zero’s soundtrack, and the ones that don’t are still forgettable. The sound effects are decent, but it looks like Nintendo tried to save a little cash by recycling the voice cast of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The same psycho nine-year-old who designed the characters apparently wrote the script for the story mode, because it’s entirely incoherent. One minute, Captain Falcon is flying along collecting coins or something, and the next, he’s racing Samurai Goroh in the desert, and then he’s being attacked by an old man in a bar, while some reptile dude gets drunk in the background. Come to think of it, that all sounds like great fun, but so does becoming a crash test dummy until you actually do it. At least decent controls allow you to navigate through all of this craziness without too much frustration.

But everything – even ol' Draq – could have been forgiven if the game were entertaining. And the first few races are, until the nostalgia high wears off; then you have the awful realization that you just blew your cash on yet another substandard racer. The inconsistent AI is sometimes vicious, blasting ahead of you or running you off the road, only to seconds later become as threatening as Betty White in a bunny costume. But no matter what, winning almost always comes down to using your turbo boost as much as you can in the last ten seconds of the race. Who needs skill when you’ve got turbo?

I think Nintendo and Sega just stopped programming levels in the story mode after a certain point because they knew that no one would ever reach them. You might as well ram your face into a rock repeatedly than play the super-impossible story mode, because at least then you’d be able to enjoy some sort of progress based on how much vision you lose. Difficult, frustrating and just plain boring, story mode is not worth your time.

At least in a normal grad prix race, the player is allowed to use a pilot other than Captain Falcon. However, only four pilots are available at the start; the rest must be unlocked. The game uses a ticket system for this: When one finishes a grand prix or a level in story mode, he or she earns tickets, which can be used to purchase a variety of content such as another level in story mode or a new car. However, the player is given a miniscule amount of tickets for each win, and pilots and story mode chapters cost so much, you’ll be lucky if you ever see even half the new vehicles.

Painful character designs, craptastic music, frustrating tracks, and schizophrenic AI all lead to a gaming experience I’d rather skip. To quote a friend, “The more I play F-Zero GX, the more I hate it.” Unfortunately for fans of the original and newcomers alike, this poor iteration of the classic racing game runs out of gas long before crossing the finish line.

Rating: 5/10

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