F-Zero: Maximum Velocity

To be perfectly honest, it’s been years since I’ve even touched an F-Zero game, so in reviewing Maximum Velocity, I find myself at a loss to provide meaningful context. In fact, it’s entirely possible the game is merely iterating on themes and concepts that players would have been familiar with by this point in the series’ history. But this hasn’t been a problem for me. My experiences with Maximum Velocity provided a breath of fresh air, not only because this was the first F-Zero game I’d played in years, but also the downright inspiring vision of the future the game has to offer. Unfortunately, it’s not a vision the game’s entirely able to commit to. Its emphasis on inter-racer conflict presents an alternate perspective on the future: one that runs counter to the otherwise optimistic tone, and one that Maximum Velocity never entirely overcomes.

I’ll admit that my reading of F-Zero as optimistic may contradict the general perception people have of the series. If Mario Kart is seen as Nintendo’s family friendly, low stakes kart racing franchise, then F-Zero can best be likened to space NASCAR: slightly comical in nature, but rough, merciless, and demanding (both mechanically and aesthetically). (In fact, GameTrailers once praised GX as the fourth most difficult video game.) To put it another way: where the former only wants to see its players enjoying themselves, the latter constantly presents its players an imperative to prove their worth. While I won’t deny that those latter elements exists in Maximum Velocity, to reduce the game to those elements would be to ignore what makes F-Zero as distinctive and subversive as it is.

105253-f-zero-maximum-velocity-game-boy-advance-screenshot-the-returnConsider the backdrops. Most of them have strong and conspicuous roots in generic science fiction: the dense technological metropolises are well worn territory, the race tracks hanging just above the clouds are reminiscent of Star Wars’ Cloud City, and the aurora borealis in Ancient Mesa would look right at home on a progressive rock album cover. This is no mistake. The sci-fi legacy that F-Zero draws on (specifically, sci-fi from the 1960s/70s) generally interprets the future through an idealistic lens, and it’s this aspect that Maximum Velocity is most interested in. Its worlds aren’t limited by whatever reality we’re forced to experience. If anything, the game’s happy to flaunt its imaginative prowess. It boldly envisions these fantastic environments and then imbues them with an almost mythical sense of unreality. Granted, it’s pure pulp, but it’s genuine and honest pulp, too. Maximum Velocity doesn’t deny the dystopian possibilities that so many other sci-fi worlds are preoccupied with, but it doesn’t limit itself to those possibilities, either. Where other works may resign themselves to whatever dismal outcomes may be waiting for us around the corner, this game looks with hope toward what the future has to offer us.

Moreover, Maximum Velocity is confident enough in that message to commit to it in every facet of its design. It shows itself in the visual design (obviously); it shows itself in the calm, uplifting melodies; and at least initially, it shows itself in how the game plays. There’s the obvious aesthetic appreciation of movement, for one. Although Maximum Velocity may lack the exhilarating curvature that defines the 3D entries, the game does everything it can to replicate that same feeling in a flat, 2D setting. Tracks are defined by their sharp turns, dangerous hazards (like mines and electric barriers), and shortcuts that only reveal themselves to relatively savvy players. Play, naturally, centers around cutting away all inefficiencies to get the best time, whether that’s by turning a corner such that you lose as little speed as possible or by searching out what scant few shortcuts there are.

In any other context, this would risk coming across as a cold, robotic system that demands ever more perfection from the humans who choose to participate in that system. Yet because of this game’s careful control over its difficulty (it hits a satisfying middle between accessible and challenging), your motivations for playing the game are allowed to remain intrinsic and any potential risk is averted. So what could have been a dismal warning of what the future holds for us now becomes a somewhat inspiring message about pushing yourself to the limits in a bid for self improvement. If this was all there was to the game, I’d be relatively satisfied.

102003-f-zero-maximum-velocity-game-boy-advance-screenshot-if-youUnfortunately, it isn’t. One thing I’ve neglected to mention until now is that most of your time in the game isn’t spent interacting with the track, but with the other racers. While they give the game life and personality, they also compromise the game’s tone. With them in the picture, races become these brutal, Darwinian affairs where each racer looks out only for their own survival. Other competitors will slam you into the electrified barrier if doing so will put them in the lead, and each lap cuts out those at the bottom who simply don’t have what it takes to succeed. They don’t go away, mind you. They’ll still circle around the track to provide you some challenge as you continue to race.

Still, it’s enough to make you reflect on your own position. If the less talented racers are forced to continue racing because doing so provides you entertainment value, then does that also make you an object for some unseen party’s delight? Who am I playing for? Am I playing for myself? Or am I playing because I feel compelled to play by whatever demands the game makes of me? I’m not sure that ignorance is the proper response to these questions, since the answers they lead me to confirm the very sort of dystopic future the game exerts so much effort distancing itself from. The races aren’t games played for the sake of those participating in them, but for the elites who watch from afar in comfort. It’s a situation that’s reminiscent of Roman colosseum races: lavish displays of opulence juxtaposed alongside ferocious spectacle that distracts from whatever problems this world might have. The occasional mention of “colonies” (hence colonialism) certainly doesn’t help matters.

Even putting aside potentially esoteric narrative concerns, these conflicts manifest themselves during play, as well. I use the word “conflict” because at least theoretically, either approach – the intense self-improvement approach or the aggressive NASCAR approach – could work well on its own. But when combined they refuse to cooperate. For one, the emphasis on domination and survival seems to crowd out any aesthetic appreciation of movement. Thus you fall short of Mad Panic Coaster, Billy Hatcher, and other games that aestheticize movement.

102002-f-zero-maximum-velocity-game-boy-advance-screenshot-thereIn addition, because the other racers are an omnipresent force, my motivations for playing the game are drawn out to the surface, projected onto them, and ultimately externalized. This sets a very high bar in terms of rewarding my efforts, and sometimes, that reward can end up being insufficient for the effort I put in even if I’d put in that same amount of effort without the other racers present. The line Maximum Velocity walks is a very fine line. Should it fail to walk that line properly, the exhilaration of racing at high speeds evaporates, leaving behind nothing but stress. It certainly doesn’t help that the AI very clearly boosts ahead of you when they shouldn’t logically be able to, especially on the higher difficulties. Situations like this end up feeling more exploitative than they do liberating.

I guess what I’m saying is that the game succumbs to the Sonic R problem. Whatever aesthetic appreciation one could derive from Maximum Velocity is immediately countered by its desire to create a particular kind of game experience. I’m not sure how much that problem would matter to the average video game player. After all, many of the issues I’ve discussed thus far have been issues of cognition. Suppress that cognition (which is certainly an option with a game like this) and enjoying things like the art of the intense energy levels becomes a more viable option. Yet when I test the game along more rigorous lines – lines that don’t abandon cognition because it proves inconvenient, lines that don’t simply look for the presence of entertainment value – what I find is a rockier foundation. Make of this what you will.

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