Twenty-five years ago today, F-Zero X, the sequel to the classic SNES launch title F-Zero, dropped on the N64. The game still enjoys a good reputation because the hardware capabilities of the 3D system allowed it to deliver on the promise of the original formula.
The basic gameplay of F-Zero X (I guess Nintendo got tired of the "64" naming convention) is almost identical to F-Zero. You race hovercraft around futuristic tracks at incredible speeds. The speedometer can crack 1000 kph, and the game does a great job making it feel real.
Your vehicle has an energy meter. You can spend some for a turbo boost, though not on the first lap of each race. When you bump into walls or other vehicles, of which there are 29, you'll lose some energy as well. If you run out, your car explodes, ending the race. Energy can be refilled by driving over pink strips.
To win races, avoid collisions with walls and vehicles, especially while cornering. Use the Z and R triggers to take corners more tightly. Z is used instead of L for left turns since the control stick rather than the d-pad is used for steering—and the N64 controller uses a layout that would be better suited to three-handed beings! You can also make wide drifting turns (like in Mario Kart) by holding down the opposite trigger. My brain can't handle such a backwards, counter-intuitive maneuver: it's like trying to perform fast manual movements while looking in a mirror!
There are three main improvements over the original SNES game. The first is the 3D tracks. They involve loops, ramps, half-pipes, and full pipes, as well as driving around a narrow cylinder. All this fits the game's futuristic feel. There are many tracks where your vehicle flies into the air and you have to be sure to land on the track. There are also segments without walls, which are dangerous when crowded with other racers. Falling off the track costs a life (you get six) and forces you to restart the race.
Another improvement is you can attack. There are two attacks: side and spin. To perform a side attack, tap Z or R twice. The side attack speeds the vehicle up, so advanced players can use it to help them take turns. The spin attack causes the vehicle to do a complete 360. To perform it, hold down one trigger, then tap the other (the craft will spin in the direction of the tapped trigger). The move feels erratic to me, and it slows you down, so I don't use it.
The third improvement is multiplayer! F-Zero was held back by the fact that it was a single-player racing game. With F-Zero X, up to four players can play head-to-head. The game also features a time attack mode, in which you try to set a record by yourself on a single track. The five fastest times are saved with your initials and "ghost data" for racing against the best record (as in Mario Kart). There's also an endurance mode, called Death Race, in which you keep racing on a straight track until only one player is left. It's a good way to practice attacking. Finally, there's a practice mode, in which you race on a course indefinitely. Weird.
There are ten racers/vehicles to choose from, and ten more are unlocked by getting first place in all three circuits (Jack, Queen, and King). If you do that a second time, you get access to all 30 racers and vehicles. Each racer has graded proficiencies in body, boost, and grip. The stronger the body, the more hits your vehicle can take and the more energy it drains from vehicles it hits. The better the boost, the more powerful your turbo boosts are. Grip refers to how well the craft stays on the track while cornering. With poor grip, it may slide out of control. New players may want more grip at the expense of the other two (such as the White Cat piloted by Jody Summer). Interestingly, you can also adjust a sliding top-speed/acceleration scale before each race. Sliding it all the way to the left maxes out your acceleration but at the expense of top speed (and vice versa).
Each circuit contains six courses. If you get first place on all three circuits on standard difficulty, you unlock the bonus Joker circuit, which contains a version of Rainbow Road from Mario Kart 64! All but one of the locations from the original game (Death Wind) appear in F-Zero X: Mute City, Sand Ocean, Big Blue, White Land, Red Canyon, Port Town, and Fire Field. The fact that the game has 24 courses is a big step up from the original's fifteen. I'm told that, if you can ace the Joker circuit, an X circuit appears, which uses randomly-generated tracks! More weird!
Graphically, F-Zero X looks like your typical N64 game. At release, reviewers dinged it for looking rather plain. It definitely looks primitive today. Your enjoyment of the graphics will depend on how nostalgic you are for the late 90's. The music is fast, as one would expect, and enjoyable. On the menu, a rock-and-roll track plays that reminds me of Rock 'n Roll Racing! I think I prefer the music from F-Zero, because it was a bit mellower.
F-Zero X is F-Zero but better in every way: 3D, more racers, more tracks, a way to attack, and multiplayer. But F-Zero came out in 1991, and the standards for video games had risen a lot by 1998. For its time, F-Zero was more impressive. As a result, F-Zero X is not as iconic. Still, there's more fun to be had playing the sequel.
"With 30 racing craft and 24 exciting tracks, there's a lot of fun to be had with F-Zero X. The visuals can look a bit basic at times, but the smooth frame rate and the speed at which you're hurtling around the tracks help to make up for this."
— Dave Frear, Nintendo Life, 9/10