F-Zero X & Expansion Kit Review

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When it comes to deciding what I’m going to play next, it all depends on my mood, what phase I’m in. Sometimes I go through a first-person shooter phase, other times it’s platformers, maybe open world games, and on those rare occasions, racing games. The idea of driving around a track repeatedly doesn’t exactly excite me and I’m not really into cars but every now and then I get a hankering to race at high speeds. It’s very rare I want to play a racing simulator or a game that offers a somewhat realistic driving experience. The Need for Speed series appeals to me because of police chases. Burnout appeals to me because of destruction. The Mario Kart series is just pure fun. And F-Zero is all about anti-gravity racing at crazy fast speeds. Developed and published by Nintendo, F-Zero X was released for the Nintendo 64 in November, 1998. It’s the sequel to the original F-Zero and brought the series into 3D. In this review I’ll also be taking a look at the F-Zero X Expansion Kit which includes new cups, a course editor, and even a machine editor. The Expansion Kit was only released for the Nintendo 64DD, a peripheral we never saw here in America, but I was able to get it running on an emulator. Specifically, the Project64 emulator. And because the Expansion Kit is primarily in Japanese, I downloaded a cartridge port hack which translates the text to English.

F-Zero X doesn’t have any form of story mode and I also don’t have the manual but from what I’ve researched there is somewhat of a plot here or at least a backstory. Apparently the game takes place seven years after the suspension of Grand Prix races due to some Horrific Grand Finale that involved fourteen drivers getting killed. But that didn’t stop people since they would compete in underground racing competitions and hone their skills. That’s really all I know. I have no idea as to the source of this information but that’s what I read. The game includes a crazy roster of characters and somehow the series mascot became Captain Falcon, a bounty hunter. I personally like Bio Rex. He looks like some kind of humanoid dinosaur. I just think he looks cool and he drives the Big Fang machine. I really know nothing about the character, or most of these characters for that matter, but I do know one of the machines is driven by someone named James McCloud which is a nice nod to Star Fox. There is no real voice acting other than an announcer shouting stuff during a race but you can read brief comments from the racers when you win a cup on any difficulty other than Novice.

The game does include several modes to play including Grand Prix, Time Attack, Death Race, VS battle which is the multiplayer mode, and Practice. Grand Prix is the real meat of the game where you race to win cups and unlock things like a new difficulty mode, new cups, new machines, and even new menu backgrounds. Death Race requires you to destroy all of the opponents as fast as possible and Practice lets you practice racing on any track. When you first start playing there’s three difficulty modes – Novice, Standard, and Expert. You unlock Master after winning the first four cups on the three lower difficulty modes. There’s only three cups to start with – Jack, King, and Queen but you can unlock two more. The Joker cup is unlocked after winning the first three on the Standard difficulty and the X cup is unlocked after winning the Joker cup on the Expert difficulty. Each cup consists of six tracks and the X Cup is the most unique because every track is randomly generated. The Expansion Kit includes three new cups – DD-1, DD-2, and the Edit Cup. The Edit Cup is where you can race on six tracks that you created.

In F-Zero X, you’re not really driving cars. The game refers to the vehicles as “machines”. You only start with six and must unlock the rest. To unlock more you need to win a specific amount of cups across all difficulties. With that said, each machine has its own unique name and appearance, they hover above tracks and move at high speeds. The machines are driven by racers of all kinds – men, women, a humanoid dinosaur, some kind of humanoid octopus, and other wacky characters. I think F-Zero is some kind of intergalactic racing competition so I guess they all come from different galaxies and planets. It’s a shame this series isn’t more fleshed out because I would love to know more about the universe and its characters. Before starting a race, you must choose your machine. Each machine has different stats in body, boost, and grip represented by a letter ranking – A being the best and E being the worst. The grip ranking determines how well the machine can grip onto the track which affects turning. I believe body has to do with how much damage the machine can endure before exploding. And the boost ranking determines how fast, or how efficient, the machine’s boost power is. You can also view each machine’s weight and change their color. Furthermore, you can decide if you want the machine to have a higher max speed or better acceleration by adjusting a slider. There’s plenty of machines to choose from, each one has its ups and downs, and finding the one that works best for you is all part of the fun. The Expansion Kit includes super machines which are variants of existing ones. The super vehicles are presets that cannot be edited. They must be loaded in the Create Machine mode and will replace specific machines in the roster. For example, the Super Falcon replaces the Blue Falcon. The Super Stingray replaced the Fire Stingray. And the Super Cat replaces the White Cat machine. These machines do have better stats than their standard counterparts. One of the coolest things added in the Expansion Kit is the Create Machine mode. This is where you can design custom machines for racing. You can choose from a predefined list of parts that make up the front, rear, and wing, all of which will affect your machine’s weight. You can also change the line design, the marking or emblem, and, of course, the colors. You must set the body, boost, and grip stats, however, the game will not let you max each of these out. They must be balanced. Once you’re finished creating your machine you can then save it and in order to race with it, you must replace an already existing machine in the roster. It is pretty cool that you can essentially create your own set of machines to race with but I do wish there was more customization options available. Then again, for its time, this was pretty goddamn great, if you ask me.

Grand Prix is probably where you’ll spend most of your time. This is the mode where you can unlock everything but you may want to race in Practice mode first to get a feel for the controls and how the handling of the machines works. Many say the F-Zero series has a steep learning curve. I don’t know if “steep” is the right word for this entry but there is somewhat of a learning curve. The basic core elements of racing are here. Each track consists of three laps and you want to complete them as fast as possible, hoping to win. However, there’s more than just acceleration, max speed, braking, and turning. You can ram into other opponents, perform a spin attack, you’ll need to lean around sharp turns, and after the first lap in Grand Prix, you can boost at any time but at the cost of draining energy. Each machine has an energy meter, or health bar, and when this meter is depleted, the machine explodes, and you die. You also need to be mindful of your surroundings because falling off the track is an immediate death. In Grand Prix, if your machine explodes, you lose a life. Lose all of your lives and it’s game over and then you must restart the entire cup. If you decide to retry a race during the Grand Prix that, too, will cost you a life. How many lives you have is dictated by the difficulty mode. Each race always consists of thirty machines so it can get pretty intense when everyone is bunched up together on specific parts of the track, slamming into each other, and bouncing off of barriers. You’ll see opponents go flying off the track, machines bouncing and exploding in front of you, while you weave in and out of the high-speed traffic. Managing your energy, using boosts at the right time, knowing when to lean so you don’t slam into anything or drive off the track, and even knowing when to brake are essential to winning races and surviving. The game is very fast-paced and the tracks, themselves, are actually quite short so each race feels like a tight fast-paced experience. You may want to play in the Death Race mode once or twice to practice ramming and spinning but using these offensive moves was the least of my worries during the Grand Prix races. I was focusing more on avoiding damage, trying to survive, and winning, especially on the higher difficulty modes. After some time it won’t be hard to dominate most tracks easily on the Novice and Standard difficulty modes but the Expert and Master difficulties will put your skills to the test. I found it very difficult to make it to the top three positions on Master but every now and then I was able to get ahead for a brief time, even take the lead. You really need to master the game’s mechanics to win on Master. You earn points for finishing races and the amount of points is determined by your position. So if you’re in first you’ll earn the most points. The racer with the most amount of points after the final race wins the cup.

If you start racing in the Jack cup, the tracks will become more intricate, or at least more challenging, the further you progress through the rest. All of the tracks are set in fictional locations like Mute City, Port Town, Big Blue, and several others. I’m assuming all of these tracks are located high up in the sky somewhere and are just kind of floating there. F-Zero X even includes a Rainbow Road track which I believe is taken directly from Mario Kart 64. The tracks consist of more than just miles of basic road. You’ll race through tunnels, half-pipes, along cylinder sections, parts of the track may be wide and then become narrow, there’s windy roads, sharp turns and twists which is where leaning and braking becomes the most important. The tracks consist of boost arrows and when you drive over them, you’re provided a boost and these boosts do not drain your energy meter. Some tracks contain jumps and you can even control your machine in the air. A few tracks contain mines that will drain your energy and cause your machine to hop but they also provide a tiny boost of speed so they may be worth driving over if you have enough energy to spare. Dirt zones will slow your machine down, ice or slip zones will cause your machine to slide, stripping away most of your control, and then there’s the Refill zones which refill your energy meter. Refill zones are usually located right before or after the finish line. The earlier tracks usually contain a lot of wide open roads but as you progress they become more death defying, like having no barriers on the sides of specific parts of the tracks, making it easy to drive off to your death if you’re not careful. There’s also loops, boost arrows located on the top of tunnels, ramps, and you’ll sometimes need to react quickly to the constant changes and hazards offered throughout the tracks. Track memorization is helpful but I think if you master the controls, memorization won’t always be necessary as long as you stay alert. And it’s impossible to memorize the X cup tracks since they’re all randomly generated, making this my favorite cup in the game. Each time you race through it, it’s like a different experience.

The new cups included in The Expansion kit are definitely more challenging than anything seen in the base game. There’s more jumps that are not so forgivable, outside loops that can cause your machine to fly off if you’re not careful, and I would say there’s a difficulty spike coming from the base game cups to the new cups on offer here. While the difficulty of the tracks in the base game gradually increases as you progress through each cup, they never feel cheap or impossible to master. I’m not saying the Expansion Kit tracks are impossible but they’re certainly more death defying and require much more trial and error. Now I spent a good amount of time in the Course Edit mode, and if you take the time to learn how it works, you can create some really cool tracks. You start by placing points on a grid which will connect to form the basic blueprint of a track. You can then transform the track, add new points, set road styles, change the width of specific parts of the track, add loops, set the background, even the background music, and you can test drive your track at any time within the editor. You can add tunnels, half-pipes, cylinder sections, structures or buildings to the backgrounds, and you can even add traps, different zones, jumps, and basically create your dream track. It took me a little while to get used to the interface but once I got the hang of it, I discovered it’s not really that hard to use and understand. The interface feels archaic by today’s standards but, ultimately, it’s easy to use if you invest a few minutes learning how it works. Like the Machine Editor, the options on offer here are limited but you’re given plenty of freedom when it comes to the actual design and feel of your track. Once you finish designing it, you can then save it and have the option to set it as one of the six custom tracks for the Edit Cup. So you can basically create your own custom cup which is pretty cool. It’s a shame we never officially saw the Expansion Kit in America because the customizable aspects really give the game a ton of replay value.

I didn’t get a chance to try VS Battle but it does require two or three players and I think it’s just your standard local multiplayer racing mode. The Practice mode lets you pick any track within the cups and race infinitely around it until you decide to call it quits. This mode allows you to Practice, just like the name implies, and hone your skills on a specific track if you’re having a tough time. Time Attack is just like a Time Trial mode in almost any other racing game. You race around any track of your choosing as fast as possible, trying to achieve the best time. You can save your ghost and race against it if you want but the downer is that you can only save one ghost total. If you manage to achieve a specific time on a track, you’ll unlock the ability to race against that track’s staff ghost. Time Attack is my least favorite mode but that’s usually the case with these types of modes in any other racing game ever. But if you enjoy setting records and racing ghosts then you will not be disappointed. Now the Death Race mode sounds more exciting than it actually is. You choose a machine and race on what feels like a straight track endlessly until you destroy all of your opponents or die. It contains loops and a Refill Zone but you’re basically driving straight the entire time. The idea is to destroy all of the opponents as fast as possible and that’s it, there’s not much more to it. This mode really feels rushed and completely unnecessary considering you can destroy opponents in the Practice mode if you really want to and can choose from any of the tracks within the cups. Death Race only includes one track which becomes very boring, very fast and the entire mode feels more like it was designed to emphasize the ramming and spinning mechanics than actually offering an interesting new way to play. Outside of practicing these offensive moves, I see no other reason to play Death Race unless you love setting record times. And why the word “Race” is in the title is beyond me because it’s not even a race. It doesn’t end unless you destroy all of the opponents, die, or quit. I just feel like this mode could have been something more. I do wish there was some kind of VS mode where you get to pick any track, choose the opponents, or at least how many, and even how many laps. Unfortunately, there is nothing like that here.

To clarify, I played F-Zero X on an actual Nintendo 64 console, connected to an upscaler using a SCART cable, outputting to 1080p. I played the Expansion Kit using the Project64 emulator on my PC. And I should mention I was playing it with a Nintendo 64 controller connected to my PC via USB adapter. With that said, F-Zero X wasn’t exactly eye-catching back when it released and it just looks very dated now. If I didn’t know any better, I would think it was a launch game just from the visuals alone. The textures and track backgrounds lack detail, the machine models look a bit basic, you’ll frequently see parts of the track popping in ahead of you, machines lose detail as they get further away from the screen, and it’s just a bland looking game at times. But it does have style. It includes plenty of color, I like the comic book style menu backgrounds, and, ultimately, I think visuals may have been sacrificed in favor of performance and if that’s the case, then I applaud that decision. As blurry as the backgrounds are, they do help give each track their own unique look and feel. Many of the backgrounds represent what I guess are dense cities, a fiery inferno, forests, with a few buildings and structures that rise up, above the clouds, to where the track is. Because I was running the Expansion Kit using an emulator, everything looks clear, sharp, and crisp due to the emulation but I can’t really speak on the visuals in the Expansion Kit since I didn’t play it on the actual hardware. As for the audio, I’ve heard people say the music is sub-par. Those people are clearly delusional. The soundtrack is full of metal tracks, I would say a mix of heavy and speed metal and there’s some really excellent tunes here. I think some are remixes of songs heard in the original game, but excellent remixes at that. I don’t care what anyone says about Nintendo, whether you like them or not, a lot of their games offer phenomenal music, some of the best music in the gaming medium in my opinion, and F-Zero X is no exception. The songs are catchy and managed to stick in my head long after I stopped playing. The sound effects are made up of what I would expect for a futuristic racer like this. They’re nothing too special. You’ll often hear a lot of boosting and the sounds of machines approaching and whizzing past you. You’ll hear thumps and thuds when machines ram or spin into each other, or slam into barriers. And you’ll hear machines crashing and exploding when they’re energy is completely drained. As for the performance, the game runs fast and smooth for the most part. I did notice the frame rate dip for a second or two here and there but it wasn’t often and that was only when the screen got really hectic. I do think it’s impressive how the game handles all thirty machines racing on a track without any significant performance issues. Like I stated before, I think the visuals were sacrificed so the game can run as fast and as smoothly as it does which is definitely for the better.

When I play a racing game, I normally stop after an hour. Even if I’m in a racing game phase, it doesn’t last long and I end up moving onto something else after maybe a day or two. I need excitement in my racing games in order for them to hold my interest and, ultimately, F-Zero delivers on that front. You’re not driving traditional vehicles, you’re driving futuristic high speed anti-gravity machines. You’re not racing on traditional roads and tracks, you’re racing on small confined tracks with twists, turns, loops, tunnels, cylinders, hazards, jumps, and boosts, all located far beyond civilization across what I’m assuming are multiple planets. You and twenty nine other opponents are racing at high speeds not only trying to win but also trying to survive. One wrong turn or jump in the wrong direction can send your machine plummeting to the surface below. Take enough damage from slamming into things or from other machines slamming into you and you explode. You only have three options – win, lose, or die. I had a lot of fun with F-Zero X and the racing, itself, becomes quite addictive. It’s addictive trying to remain in the lead, it’s addictive trying to make the perfect turn around a sharp bend, and it’s addictive trying for the next unlock whether it be a new cup or a set of new machines. The X cup is amazing and gives the game a ton of replay value thanks to the random track generation. The Expansion Kit’s added cups are a nice addition but it’s the Course Edit and Create Machine modes that are the highlights. These modes essentially let you create your own F-Zero experience and, in the end, I think more racing games need these kind of customizable options.

I would highly recommend F-Zero X to anyone, even if the racing genre is not for you. This is not a traditional racing game. The races are fast-paced and somewhat action packed and the game has a bit of a learning curve when it comes to controls and mechanics. F-Zero X may look a bit bland and dated but it controls well, it runs smoothly, and the soundtrack is kickass. There’s a good amount of machines to choose from, piloted by a crazy roster of characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The tracks on offer are varied, tight, and fun. And, if you’re a Nintendo fan, there’s a few nods to other Nintendo titles that you may appreciate. The original F-Zero is known for basically starting the anti-gravity racing genre and for its sense of speed considering the technology available at the time. But I think F-Zero X is where the series, or at least the gameplay, really started to take shape. I would definitely recommend trying the Expansion Kit if you enjoy the base game but if you prefer to play it on the original hardware then good luck. Not only was the disk drive peripheral Japan exclusive, but finding one that works now is another story. And you’re going to pay a hefty price if you find one. Plus, you would need to acquire the Expansion Kit as well, and that, too, will cost you. Expansion Kit or not, F-Zero X is a fantastic game and is one of the best racing games on the Nintendo 64.

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1 Comment

  1. January 29, 2019    

    Star Fox/Starwing was not only the very first SNES game we ever got, but it was the first ever video game I ever played. And even though it looks dated now, I still enjoy playing it now and again. And I also play Super Mario World too.

    What? No Super Star Wars, Super The Empire Strikes Back, Super Return of the Jedi, Mario Paint or The Mask? Not even as honourable mentions?

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