Virtual Console: Peak speed

Another Nintendo 64 release for Wii U Virtual Console this week: F-Zero X. This is getting to be a trend!

I admit it feels kind of weird to be writing about Wii U when we're just a few hours from Nintendo's Switch debut stream. But hey, lame ducks need love, too.

Nintendo seems to recognize it, too — more than a third of the Nintendo 64 games available on Wii U Virtual Console have been published within the past two months. Gotta get ’em out while there's still a chance, I suppose; we don't know much about Switch quite yet, but it definitely looks as though we shouldn't expect any kind of continuity of software from Wii U to Switch. What that means for Virtual Console is anyone's guess... but I'll be pretty annoyed if they expect me to pony up full price for these games again.

Anyway, if this must be Wii U's final burst of life we're experiencing, at least it's going out well. While I could take or leave some of the recent N64 titles to have shown up of late (Mario Party 2, I'm looking at you), I can't really take issue with F-Zero X. It's arguably the pinnacle of the series. And even if you don't agree with that claim, at least we can recognize that it feels like the first proper realization of the F-Zero concept.

The original Super NES game was fun, for sure, and it made an impressive demonstration of the console's shiny new tech. But it only offered a single-player experience against a handful of clone racers, and there was only so much those flat Mode 7 backgrounds could do to replicate a sprawling futuristic race track. The game's designers pulled off some impressive fakery, but ultimately elements like the parts where you had to "jump" over "gaps" in the track fell short of the designers' goals... much the same way that I always seem to fall short of the goal whenever I get to those track gaps.

By going full-polygonal, F-Zero X could present players with even more challenging tracks in a far more convincing fashion. Racing has always been one of the few genres to truly, objectively, universally benefit from advancements in hardware technology, and F-Zero X offers a perfect demonstration of that principle in action. F-Zero was fast, but it felt shallow and somewhat unconvincing; F-Zero X was even faster, while at the same time being far more immersive than its predecessor.

I won't lie; I've never made it very far in F-Zero X. The racing action moves at an insanely fast clip, and unusually a for a first-party Nintendo production, it offers no apologies for its bracing difficulty level. I sometimes wonder if that's why F-Zero has vanished from the map these past 10 years or so. "Unrepentantly challenging" is something Nintendo doesn't really do any more, preferring instead a more accessible and forgiving approach to game design; yet challenge defines F-Zero at the genetic level. Perhaps the contradiction there accounts for why we haven't seen an F-Zero since the advent of the kinder, gentler Wii and DS age of Nintendo... and, who knows? Maybe today's Virtual Console release presages something to be announced tonight.

(I kinda doubt it, though.)

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