It’s not easy being the best portable racer around

F-Zero Maximum Velocity

F-Zero: Maximum Velocity (2001)

Can you claim to be the best in the world at any game out there? It’s tougher than you’d think. You probably reckon that you’re the only one that’s played Super Formation Soccer ‘96 for Super Famicom, but you’re crazy if you think you’ll even get to the last 64 of a tournament for that game in a Japanese tournament. I know what it’s like to be a failed athlete because, despite having played GoldenEye 007 in my childhood for more hours than God was sending, I was still nowhere near the top. Not even top 50,000. And this means that I never got to join the pro-circuit, the GoldenEye circus, travelling the world with the other pros and playing each other in thrilling deathmatches for megamoney.

No, I never did get to achieve game fame and take home bundles of cash for making the pixels work for me. I came close though, with F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, a launch title for Game Boy Advance. I’m going to go into full boast mode now and proudly tell you that, according to my best lap times, I was once the best player in Ireland at this game. I expect to see some royalties and prize money for this any day now, to say nothing of fame and a screaming posse of girls.

I came from adversity as well, like a lot of great athletes. Mike Tyson lost his family at a young age. Diego Maradona came from a shanty-town. Lewis Hamilton was born in Stevenage. It’s all against-the-odds stuff. My disadvantage was the GBA screen, or whatever you could see of it.

Honestly, it’s no wonder my eyesight’s gone to pot. To get an idea, try putting your phone or PC monitor to its lowest brightness setting, go out in the thick fog, place it on an 8-foot wall, and then catch the next space-shuttle to Jupiter. Look back at your wall now and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse similar to what I experienced trying to see where my F-Zero machine was pointing. Nintendo did bring out a backlit Game Boy Advance SP, but the damage was done by then, wasn’t it?

I was often to be found out and about with my childhood pals, playing with them, except not really because more often I’d be throwing F-Zero machines at top speed around 21 tracks, and all on a portable basis. That’s what portable gaming is about, right? Bringing the game outside? Lots of people lament the Irish weather – I never did because it meant that I could see what I was doing outdoors.

I used to just ignore my pals talking to me and trying to include me in their games of wrestling, tip the can, IRA (yes, IRA) and all that other nonsense. That might sound pretty heartbreaking and sad to you, but you must understand – I needed to shave those milliseconds off. I was this close to joining the international tourney rosters, you know.

I wasn’t always that good, though. I may have cut my teeth on the immortal F-Zero for SNES, the starting point of the series and a game that’s probably better than Chrono Trigger, if I’m honest. On Maximum Velocity, I couldn’t turn the corners, I kept flying off into the abyss below the tracks, and generally I found myself trundling around the track with the economy of movement of a fed-up rhino in Fred Flintstone’s car.

It turns out that I needed to invoke the use of a new manoeuvre called Blast Turns, a name that I love. It just means that you tap the accelerator a million times around each corner in order to retain traction and not encounter oversteer or understeer. I don’t know how you can suffer from either steering phenomenon, considering there’s no tyres and probably no steering rack on an F-Zero machine, but once you’ve learned the mechanic then it quickly becomes second nature.

I loved it, personally. I used to try Blast Turns in my old Polo, in an effort to counter the traction control system. I’m joking of course, traction control was a pipe dream for that old beast – but I did learn that stamping the gas pedal in the middle of a turn gives “unpredictable” results, adding to the driving pleasure. That taxi driver excitedly shook his fist at me and the van driver behind him seemed to be shouting impassioned words of encouragement at me, so I took their feedback onboard and added it as a permanent part of my driving repertoire.

I had competition in the murky world of F-Zero, though. Stern competition. In my search for Maximum Velocity’s best man to humiliate and destroy, I encountered web forums in the first time, in the shape of GameFAQs. This being the year 2001, and me being a silly billy, I signed up for the message board with my own full name and proceeded to get “flamed” (an early form of “trolled”) by all and sundry. They were just embittered rivals, of course, sent reeling by my intimidating swagger, and I was above them. My lap times proved it, I just wished it didn’t include that asterisk saying ‘In Ireland’.

But my learning wasn’t over. I studied the user-created MS Paints of the course maps, I even unlocked new vehicles and a new cup, which knocked me sideways. F-Zero SNES had almost nothing to unlock, yet here I was now with 10 vehicles to choose from. The soundtrack was fabulous, even with the usual limited GBA instrumentation – I particularly enjoyed the funky Credits theme. And you’ll have to be good to listen to that theme, because the tougher difficulties of F-Zero, as is series tradition, definitely don’t let up.

I love this game, and I love how it took the wonderfully simple, fast and clean F-Zero SNES formula and expanded on it in the best possible way. It’s just a real shame that it seems to have passed into obscurity, and I mean obscure by F-Zero’s standards. Still, for those in the know, there’s a huge amount of fun to be had here. And even after I was done with the computer AI, and done beating the very best that Ireland had to offer, I could still play the game with pals over a link cable, using just a single cartridge – pals who I haven’t seen for a very long time.

05 July 2019

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