It’s never easy being the first. Being the first generation of any new technology, be it a smartphone or a gaming console, means that not everything released will be perfect. Developers come up against unique problems they have never encountered before. Solving them becomes necessary to keep consumers interested in both current and future projects. Sometimes this problem-solving can lead to strange solutions. One of the strangest yet is available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
This phenomenon is certainly the case with several Nintendo 64 games, but nowhere is it more readily apparent than 1998’s F-Zero X. It's a fun racing game, to be sure, but one look at it shows how Nintendo was still trying to figure out this whole three-dimension thing. If you’re interested in seeing a high-speed experiment in late-90s technology, it’s available right now if you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.
For F-Zero X producer Shigeru Miyamoto, the name of the game was frame rate, on how often the images on the screen are refreshed by the game to produce new images and simulate movement. One of the biggest differences between a low frame rate and a high frame rate is the smoothness of the animation. Do the game’s avatars look smooth or choppy when they’re moving around?
It’s an issue that is at the forefront of today’s first-person shooters but is just as crucial for racing games like F-Zero X. The series had developed a reputation during the SNES era for not only its hair-trigger turns and ludicrous speeds, but also its deep beauty. Utilizing what was known as Mode 7, the original F-Zero games were able to create the illusion of three dimensions while showcasing breathtaking background art, rich designs of futuristic cities which grounded the quick-moving game firmly in the future. Even if a player only saw slight glimpses of Mute City, it left an impact.
When developing F-Zero X, Miyamoto and the rest of the development team had a choice: try to recreate the aesthetic experience of the original games or the racing experience. They chose the latter. Speaking to IGN at the time of the game’s release, he said the game was “utilizing a framerate of 60 frames per second” and noted how “it's not possible to measure how fast your car can go in that game, but it's possibly about 1,000 kilometers per hour — possibly the fastest racing game ever for a home system.”
Playing today on the Switch, the game’s racing holds up.
After choosing one of the five initial cars and customizing a bit to determine if you’d rather play with speed or acceleration, the game throws you into a race with twenty-nine other futuristic speedsters, all of them bumping and racing against each other seamlessly. Zero-gravity tunnels toss your race round and round, long jumps send your car flying over the abyss.
The core gameplay, faster and more aggressive than Mario Kart, is a lot of fun. But as IGN noted at the game’s debut, “Nintendo has chosen to keep a blistering frame rate at a cost.” That cost is everything else in the game. The once-rich backgrounds are reduced to vast empty spaces shrouded in fog.
The tracks themselves, compared to the lively and interactive elements found in Mario Kart 64, can feel a bit lifeless. This isn’t always the case — the cylinders in Big Blue offer some exhilaration, like racing up a giant high-tech version of a Dune sandworm. Playing Big Blue, a player can feel developers starting to understand the real benefits of this new technology. But more than not, the tracks are interchangeable.
Rare is the game made which requires no trade-offs on the part of their developers. The trade-offs made in F-Zero X are large enough that the game will always be an outlier in the series — the next entry, the Gamecube’s F-Zero GX, would feature a much richer design. So while X isn’t reason enough alone to get the Expansion Pack, it offers a fascinating glimpse into video game history. And once you’re not staring at the backgrounds, it’s a really fun racing game.