Dear Nintendo, I’ve got some rather nicer things to say about your product…

f zero gx

F-Zero GX (2003)

Hate to demoralise you so early in the week, but I’m here to tell you that you might as well not bother making an effort in life. You gotta work things out ahead of time – on a sliding scale of hours spent, versus the probability that your hard work will be recognised and rewarded, where do you stand? And having worked this out, surely the best course of action is to find that sweetspot where you can get the most reward for the least amount of effort. Ever a man to put my theories into practice, and in one of my shrewder moves, I took this approach to writing my disseration in my final year of college.

In truth, this was just the natural conclusion to the approach that I and 99% of other college students took towards essays, projects, assignments, even end of year exams. Once we figured out that we could get a passing grade by starting work the day before, what was the point in putting bundles of effort in?

Of course, if you wanted to properly excel, you’d need to put weeks into the damned assignment to get it spot on. But even that’s not a guarantee, because then you’re up against an impersonal marking scheme that might conspire against you, and there’s nowt you can do about it.

I’ve had poor grades from modules that I actually gave a teensy bit of effort to, but in the very same round of results I’d get decent-ish grades (and I’m always happy with decent-ish) from exams where I hadn’t darkened the lecture hall’s door a single time that term. Where’s the consistency there? The key takeaway – don’t bother.

My radical new hypothesis here of hard work not being rewarded is what empowers me to tell you the reason why a new F-Zero game hasn’t been released since F-Zero GX. Well, there was the GBA, Japan-only F-Zero Climax (maybe the title is a giveaway here). But I’m talking about console juice, because handheld games are never statements of intent. Simply put, F-Zero GX had so much effort put into it, for comparatively little return in terms of sales, that neither Nintendo nor a third party will ever be able to top it in a way that brings in piles of profit.

You might agree with me when I say that Nintendo will have a hell of a time topping Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros Ultimate in particular – but at least those two are evergreen. They’ve already released Mario Kart 8 twice, they could do it a third time on their next console and still get a zillion sales. If they re-released F-Zero GX tomorrow, me and the other hardcores would love it, but it’s not going to get anywhere near the, ah, traction, that anyone would have hoped.

But God, the effort that Sega and Amusement Visions put into this game and what they delivered is staggering. I’m going to blind you with numbers here, boring and non-relevant stats really, a lot like that dissertation of mine. But here goes: F-Zero GX has 26 separate tracks plus a few extras in the 1-Player Story Mode, which itself has nine chapters across three difficulty levels. Every chapter has story scenes with full voice acting and animation, both of which are patently ridiculous. But the CGI cutscenes were a real Sega trademark from around that turn-of-the-century era, and I’m grateful to have them.

It doesn’t stop there – there’s 41 unique ships as well, and when I say unique I do mean it. Each ship has its own pilot (sometimes more than one), each of them their own distinct character with a biography, their own theme song, and even a Tekken-style ending movie. The ships all have their own distinct look as well, something already established in F-Zero X of course, but now they’ve got their own bios (unseen in the final game), part numbers, a named designer, they even have their own individual booster sounds for God’s sake.

Every one of those pilots gets voice acting as well, of delightfully awful standard – but that campiness, mixed with insane difficulty, is what F-Zero GX is all about. You’ll only get the chance to get a single damn interview question out of each pilot any time you finish a cup, plus whatever other voicework is done in the ridiculously hammy story. But look up a compilation video of driver interviews and feel the nostalgia-cringe.

And the reward for all the developers’ hard work? Disappointing sales, not much of a return on investment and a Nintendo series that’s been dormant for longer than it’s been active. I could never contemplate the idea that F-Zero is completely dead. I don’t even have any expectations of it anymore when I watch Nintendo Directs, sure, but who ever thought the Duck Hunt Dog would come back? That’s the kind of blind optimism I’m talking about.

I think the main talking point about this game is its legendary difficulty. There’s an online rant about one of the Story Mode’s chapters that probably sums up the feeling of F-Zero GX far better than anything I can accomplish here, but I’ll just say that even the difficulty levels they let you choose from are badass – it’s Normal, Hard or Very Hard.

No ‘Easy’ or ‘Amateur’ here, no weak ‘I just want to experience the story’ rubbish or anything like that. It’s either perform like a god or you’re not getting to unlock dream machines like the Silver Rat and the Rolling Turtle, and your vehicle select screen will look a right state.

I’m thrilled to tell you that I’ve done all this, and in fact I’ve completed this game 100%, which is probably my proudest gaming achievement. That one definitely took hard work and toil, although what pleases me is that this is one of the very few games that don’t allow you to copy completed files over from other memory cards or from online or anything like that – it’s do it yourself or naff off, and that’s the way it should be.

There was also an arcade version of this game, F-Zero AX, which you’ll have never seen before. There’s never been any in Ireland, I can put it to you that way. This will be ignorant statement of the year, but the arcade was already dead as Dillinger in 2003, and even if it still had some life then the price-gouging was getting ridiculous. I’ve played the Mario Kart Arcade machine twice, and even after you’ve won the race they actually have the temerity to ask you for another quid. Was Pac-Man really that expensive to bring in?

Going back to life at 2000 km/h for a moment, F-Zero GX has incredible speed, although time trialling wags online have had to make a non-Snaking section for their best times. It’s funny that there was a physics exploit in F-Zero and Mario Kart DS that let you snake your way to incredible top speeds, at the cost of early onset arthritis in your hands. The techno soundtrack is boss as well, although some days I prefer the pig wailing guitars of F-Zero X. The music, the sound effects, the graphics, the campiness, the speed, it’s all here in GX, and it’s all quintessentially F-Zero.

That disseratation of mine, by the way, with its rubbish premise, probably not accurate word count and lack of any coherent argument, may very well be sat rotting on a shelf somewhere, never to be perused again, which is just the way I prefer it. You compare that to F-Zero GX, a game that never collects dust, a strong piece of work that the creators can be proud of. That’s because they put their heart and soul into it, and the end result is glorious. Maybe, like the majority of my disser, my theory is a complete crock after all – hard work doesn’t pay off all the time, but it can always be appreciated.

23 June 2020

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