"Magnetised car racing was never so unattractive."

First impressions are important. If your taste in games is hard-to-please, and demands quality (as it should do), then a game that makes a bad impression on you, or fails to make one above that of being mediocre, is going to have a harder time pleasing you, no matter how open-minded you try to be. As first impressions go, that given by F-Zero X is most inadequate. The design of the game's title and main menu screens is exceedingly ugly, composed of blurry static pictures (styled after dull comic strips) and uninspiring sub-WordArt titles. Subsequent menus display a similar lack of verve; about the liveliest things to be seen are the miniature rotating car models on the vehicle selection screen, and all else is limited to flashing text, and nothing more animated than that. The annoying repetitive music is ill-thought-out, and grates quickly. Uninspiring as the front-end and menu system are, though, F-Zero X could easily be forgiven their shortcomings if the in-game graphics were at least adequately presented. Unfortunately, the appearance of the game as it is running, is definitely not one that befits a first-party Nintendo product released in the middle of the N64's lifespan.

When the power is first turned on, the game swiftly moves away from the title screen - not that I blame it - and onto a demo of the game in motion. While the action is admittedly very much smoother than pretty much any game of its time, bar arcade and some PC titles, the damage that has been done to the N64's graphics rendering capabilities in order to achieve this is considerable. The rocket-ship vehicles you pilot are made up of a precious few flat-shaded polygons each, and the vividly coloured tracks are without detail beyond slightly rough surfaces that allow for cursory motion-blurring effects. There are no objects on the tracks other than the cars, and there are no roadside details at all besides occasional tall ''buildings'' - cuboids with oddly distorted appearances, and flat window textures overlaid upon them. The road ahead of you can be seen appearing out of thin air on occasion - this is not terribly frequent, but the fact that it happens at all is really rather amazing considering how little there is to decorate it. The background to your racing is in the form of a wallpaper sky texture that wraps around the entire course, and an equally uninteresting ground surface which is only visible should you manage to drive your car over the side (causing instant failure, and a restart of the race). Overall, the visual design of the racing environment is pig-ugly, and far less impressive than much of what you can see on technically inferior consoles of the time (i.e. the original PlayStation and its Wipeout games).

F-Zero X is set in the far future, and one of the main design features of its tracks is that they are suspended in mid-air, high above the ground; thus the third dimension can be fully implemented into course design, allowing for tracks which rise and fall, twist and swerve all around the sky. In addition to this, the brief game introduction in the manual explains that the cars are held close to the surface of the road due to magnetism, which provides an excuse for the courses to contort themselves through all angles - sideways, vertically down or up, and upside down. Cylindrical track sections occasionally make an appearance too - sometimes these are in the form of tunnels, sometimes in the form of pipes on which you drive along the outside. These parts of the track allow full 360-degree movement at any time, so you can move your vehicle all the way around if you wish as you zip along, inside or outside. With such a variety of ways to devise interesting tracks, comes a remit to excite a player and engage his interest - both of which F-Zero X completely fails to do. Thanks to the total lack of any roadside detail, the (really quite frequent) contortions of the track are unremarkable. Alterations in the orientation of the roadway are barely noticeable; the only really striking track features are those cylindrical sections, and occasional jumps (which, to be fair, can be spectacular). One course consists of a flat roadway which is mirrored by another, upside down roadway above; in three laps of this circuit, I couldn't notice any change in the orientation of my car.

The soundtrack during play is not much better than that in the menu screens: heavily synthesised rock music featuring far too many wailing guitar sections. This seems to me to vary little between courses, although in truth there are probably about six or seven distinct tracks. The music should have been chosen with more respect to the setting - something more exciting is needed for super-fast, high-tech racing than sub-par generic rock. Sound effects are fairly poor as well, consisting of weak collision sounds coupled with the unintelligible (and repetitive) drone of a robot announcer. (His only incidental soundbite is ''You're way out in front!'', which he'll say at least once in every race in which you are doing well.) Deficiencies in the audio side of things can of course be alleviated by turning the volume down and putting a CD on instead, though. It's harder to ignore the austere ugliness of the game's graphics. Having roundly criticised the dire presentation of the game, though, it's something that you will eventually acclimatise to. The smoothness of the game is a bonus, albeit one that was not worth the compromise in graphical power.

Control of your car is very good thanks to the way the game is optimised for high responsiveness, and your choice of car - out of thirty, all graded on their speed, robustness and control, and with different masses - does seem to make a pleasing difference to the way you can move. Another inclusion is the ability to weight your car before the race, either towards maximum speed or fast acceleration, granting you rudimentary tactical options. The structure of a race is simple - the cars begin laid out on a Formula One style grid with thirty places, and are then released. After the first of three laps has been completed, drivers are able to use speed boosts at any time, but at a cost to their energy bar; this is also reduced by collisions, and if you take damage when you have no energy left, your car explodes. Energy is regained by driving over brightly coloured strips on the track surface. You have two attacks that may be unleashed upon opponents to lower their energy, both of them close range. The first is a drifting attack that uses your momentum to knock cars out of the way; the second is a violent spinning attack which sends enemy cars flying, particularly when they are in a pack together. Use of these attacks is helpful in the later stages of a Grand Prix cup, as the computer helpfully labels your nearest rivals in points with large (and irritatingly gaudy) overhead arrows. Using attacks to put them out of the running is an acquired skill, but one of the most satisfying aspects to playing the Grand Prix mode.

Unfortunately, no other methods of offensive driving are offered by the game. It would have been a great idea to at least have the option to include missiles, droppable mines, timed shields and the like, perhaps as pickups on the road, but this is something that Nintendo presumably felt did not square with the design of the game. Why, though? If they had been included, more of a battle mode might have been feasible, giving the game something of a longer life. Yes, a battle race is included - you drive around an extremely short track with twenty-nine other cars, and have to knock them all out against the clock. This is only one-player, though, and there is no provision for allowing four players to battle each other in such a manner. The multiplayer provisions are overall quite limited, although they do stay interesting for a while. You can race with three friends on any of the game's courses; if there aren't that many people playing, you can draft computer-controlled cars in to make up the full compliment of four, but you aren't allowed to increase the total beyond that. It should surely be permissible to have a cut-down two-player Grand Prix race with fewer than thirty cars, but this mode too is out of bounds to all but the single player.

The Grand Prix mode includes five cups, which can be attempted at varying difficulty, the highest difficulty level being very challenging indeed. Each of the first four cups has six courses for you to play through in sequence. The fifth cup is played over six tracks that are randomly generated each time - this is a novel addition, although the random courses are usually pretty boring. A set of competent drivers, consistent throughout the Grand Prix, is fielded against you by the computer, so that you have to compete against proper rivals in each race. The game demands skill on the higher levels, and will occupy you for a while if you try to finish it completely. On the single player side, there's also a time attack mode allowing you to set records for the best times on each course; I don't find this mode at all interesting, but it's there if you want it. While initially one of the most repulsive games on its format, F-Zero X does offer a challenge to suit those who take an interest in arcade racing in all its variations. I'm sure the ardent ''gameplay-over-graphics'' advocates are by now fuming over my according so much importance to the appearance of the game, but the truth is that the gameplay is nothing exceptional either. Play for a while, then move on, if you can get past the tedium of the inadvisably basic presentation.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 05/26/02, Updated 01/01/03

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