The moment it was all over, for F1 and F-Zero

F-Zero Climax (2004)

I know every F1 fan has their own idea of when the sport went into terminal decline. I know I do, and still I tune in every week. But when classic circuits start getting chopped up, or chopped from the calendar altogether, in favour of armpits like Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, then the writing’s on the wall – and with their human rights records, that message may be written in blood.

If you haven’t seen what they did to the Hockenheim Circuit in Germany, then this is your trigger warning. In the good old days, racing circuits were abandoned old airfields where you could almost hear and smell the bombs bouncing off the Jerries. Or they were in glamourous cities, where health and safety didn’t apply, and if anything was erect it certainly wasn’t safety catchment fences.

Or finally, the races took place on broken-up roads in forests, and in the near inevitable event of a driver fatality it’d take days to find his smouldering remains in a bush. That’s what classic F1 circuits were like, none of those gauche NASCAR ovals. Those circuits are where legends were forged, where the best of the best laid down rubber.

It’s all too professional and safe now, of course. F1, under the invincible Bernie Ecclestone’s watch, sold its ass as we came into the professional era. This meant that even the circuit administrators at iconic locations like Silverstone, Spa and Monza had to stump up tens of millions to renew their contract every few years, and they’ve sometimes struggled to do it.

Step forward the nouveau riche countries, the hellholes built on the broken backs of indigenous workers, set up to appeal to women’s consumerisms (if not their desire to vote and drive) which lures them over, leading the men behind them to fall in place. I believe Tinder uses the exact same strategy to get guys onboard.

Anyway, it’s beyond parody at this stage. They even have a race in Saudi Arabia now, for probably the next 400 years, where the F1 management really tried to sell their clever new slogan “We Race As One”, as well as Black Lives Matters and Pride flags up the wazoo. So, bit of a deliberate one there then, eh? Bit of a dissonance? How does any of that make sense?

Whatever about the human rights abuses and sportswashing – I’m too jaded and too used to that in F1 by now – my real qualm is with the newer circuit designs. And this is where I have to call out Herman Tilke, the creatively bankrupt blagger who somehow managed to bag himself that handy gig of sole track designer in F1.

God I hate him. Actually, I don’t really hate anybody, but he reminds me of those extras you see in pubs in films, drinking as much free alcohol as he likes and not having to spend a copper coin. How can you not hate someone who’s landed the plum gig you’ve always wanted?

I already know I’m a better race track designer than Tilkey, because I have much more practice. I’ll have you know that in my youth, I filled jotter after jotter with race tracks, which unlike Tilke’s designs had wonderfully unique features.

His tracks were characterised by being counter-clockwise, having 50km long straights smashing into 90 degree turns (specifically designed to hide that unfortunate unadvertisable fact – that F1 cars can’t overtake each other), being about 15 turns too long, a ridiculous pit entry/exit, and usually being situated in a place full of resident Instagram influencers (otherwise known as the dregs) whom you could hardly mourn were a set of phosphorous bombs to rain onto the track and grandstands.

Pretty grim stuff all round, and it’s not looking good for Tilkey. Here’s the coup-de-race then – my tracks were defined by turns sharp enough to slash your tyres, 5 minute laptimes, speeds that’ll almost certainly cause a fatality if two drivers crashed, generally no tyre barriers or safety measures. And jumps, plenty of jumps. A few alternative routes around the course wouldn’t be unheard of either. And there’s nowhere for the crowd to sit either, because my tracks are situated thousands of feet in the air.

Alright, alright, maybe I should cut Herman a bit of slack here. Perhaps it’s really not that easy to design a track and all the thoroughfare around it. But I’ve got a trump card up my sleeve – a way for me to test out my “avant-garde” designs. It’s F-Zero Climax, the Japanese-only 2004 GBA denouement to the F-Zero anime’s “story” and the latest game to rev its engine in the flatlining F-Zero series.

My God, my gentle Jesus, I’ll take a breath but do you know how long I’ve been waiting for an official F-Zero track editor?! F-Zero X had a great Japanese only expansion with the Track Designer kit, which I’d have loved, but the bloodthirsty X Cup was often enough for me. 

But Climax struck me with its unique selling point, right out of the stable. I spent more time in that track editor than anywhere else in the game, possibly because the rest of the game was entirely Japanese, apart from an English-speaking track announcer.

Language doesn’t matter much in racing games, true, though there are lots of vignettes and story cards in this game, all in Japanese, which would have been nice to understand. We’re joining the story at a crucial time too, because as the name would suggest this game takes place towards the tail-end of the F-Zero anime, which barely got off the starting blocks in either territory.

I also regret to inform you that Captain Falcon’s famous, mercurial Falcon Punch that he used to sacrifice himself and send Black Shadow to, I don’t know, the Shadow Realm, that moment hasn’t made it into this game. I suppose you couldn’t have a scene like that in two different entertainment mediums; there would have been complaints from parents that their children’s eyes had exploded not once, but twice.

Apart from all that though, this game is a vast improvement on the vanilla, Plain Jane F-Zero GP Legend. That one was sterile, not at all dangerous, a Tilkedrome in Sochi or Shanghai. F-Zero Climax is the days of cigarette sponsorship and playboy acceptance, voracious sexual appetites, classic Zolder or Monza. It’s got a Master difficulty mode, it’s got loads more tracks, including track and cup variations, it’s mighty difficult to unlock all the machines, the art is a lot better, and when you race the opposition AI, they’re bunches more aggressive.

Better music, better track design, a more sensibly chosen 3-lap race length, which almost becomes too short considering the mega high speeds you can attain in this game, so much so that the whole screen starts shaking. And when all that’s said and done, you can head on back to the beautiful Track Editor where you can even share and input other people’s designs. Mind you, I say ‘share’, but it’s a manual as all hell input of numbers and codes. But it works, and that’s all that matters.

Really, the GameCube’s F-Zero GX is my lasting memory of this beloved series of mine, nearly 20 years laid up in the garage by this stage, rusting away. But I urge you to “acquire” F-Zero Climax as soon as you can, and head on into the Track Editor for infinite 2D racing F-Zero fun. Just make sure you knock out some better autodromes than Tilkey-boy, eh?

1 November 2022

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