RetroGrade Review #5: F-Zero: Maximum Velocity (GameBoy Advance — 2001)

F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, the spiritual successor to the original F-Zero, released in 2001 (10 years after the aforementioned original) and was the first F-Zero game to be released on a hand-held console. Because of this, its cool-sounding soundtrack just wasn’t able to muster the same kick as that of the original F-Zero (and even more so F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64). But this is a small blemish on what is otherwise a stunning game that improves on nearly every facet of the original.

The graphics, the vehicle design, the difficulty curve, the amount of vehicles, the amount of courses, the intelligence (and subsequent lack thereof in the easier difficulties) of the AI, records tracking, and, most importantly, multiplayer have all been improved and/or added to this game. Overall, it is a solid, well-rounded experience with only a stark few instances that warrant nit-picking.

The game, especially when condensed to the smaller Gameboy Advance screen, looks gorgeous, with smooth 3D renderings of each vehicle on the selection screen. When blown up onto a television screen via the WiiU virtual console, the subsequent pixilation causes the image to lose that 3D-look, but allows you to see the multiple layers in each course’s background scenery, as well as all the little details in the scenery beneath the courses that were just too small to distinguish on the little handheld screen. But even more impressive than the shiny new graphics are the vehicles themselves, specifically the number and variety of them – pertaining both to physical appearance and how each one handles. Now, it’s certainly not the 30-car-and-pilot ensemble of F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64, but the grand total of 10 vehicles in Maximum Velocity certainly outshines the 4 from the original. And the degree to which each vehicle feels unique is impressive, especially once you start unlocking them, and how much it feels like each vehicle is specifically suited for different courses is both interesting and, occasionally, infuriating. For example, after beating all four circuits on “Master” difficulty (the first two with the well-rounded “Hot Violet,” a good beginner vehicle that had solidly taken me through every circuit on every difficulty up until the last two on “Master,” and the last two with the “Falcon Mk. II,” a beefed-up middle-of-the-road car with faster top speed than the Hot Violet) I unlocked a vehicle called the “Fighting Comet.” The “Fighting Comet” is, according to its stats, not an impressive vehicle. It has poor turning, a low regular speed, and near-abysmal durability. But I ventured into Time Trial with it anyway and, after discovering that it not only boosted faster than any of the other vehicles but maintained that speed for an incredible amount of time afterwards, proceeded to beat my previous course time by almost twenty seconds. So I gleefully entered into the Grand Prix, expecting to wipe the floor with all of the computer opponents – which I did, for the first course that I had just blazed through in the Time Trial. But come the second course, which had more turns, a shorter straightaway, and no jumps for me to play around with, I quickly and painfully watched as all of my spare vehicles dwindled from four down to zero.

As sad of a story as that is, the point remains that there are real and true STRENGTHS to each vehicle, whether it’s speed, turning radius, jump length, boost length, or an uncanny ability to maintain an unreal speed, each vehicle has something GOOD about it, which is a fantastic feeling when compared to the “I’m picking this car because it’s not as painful as the others” feel of the original F-Zero. And playing around with each vehicle, whether in the safe confines of the Time Trial mode or in the jump-in-head-first-and-hope-there’s-water freedom of the Grand Prix, is wickedly fun – especially considering that working through the circuits on the easiest difficulties is not almost impossible.

Nintendo obviously learned from the mistakes of the series’ first iteration by making Maximum Velocity’s “Beginner” difficulty suitable to, well, beginners. From there, the difficulty steps up nicely. The “Standard” and “Expert” difficulties gradually increase, providing a solid challenge on “Standard” followed by an intimidating one on “Expert,” but are still manageable with most-to-all vehicles. The “Master” difficulty brings back the pain-quit-inducing heinousness of the original, where you can either abandon your loyal beginner vehicle in favor of a faster unlockable vehicle or take your chances anyway, subjecting yourself to the torture of having to guide that vehicle in front of your opponents so they inadvertently give you a boost from behind (all while praying to whatever deity you believe in that they don’t “boost” you into a guard rail). This allows Maximum Velocity to have a sense of choice-and-consequence not usually found in most racing games, in which you progressively unlock vehicles that make the higher difficulties a cakewalk. Granted some vehicles make the trek a little less difficult, but by no means do they make any of it “easy.”

With that said regarding the difficulty of the game itself, the difficulty of the courses has, for all intents and purposes, been both buffed and nerfed since the original. Narrow shortcuts filled by barely-visible mines have been removed, as have practically all shortcuts whatsoever. Hairpin turns are in not-as-many numbers, and the tracks are wider, making it easier to avoid those pesky guardrails. More jump ramps, however, reward crafty players with sneaky ways to surpass opponents while bringing over-zealous players to a fiery, crashing halt.

The last, and most significant, addition to Maximum Velocity is the inclusion of multiplayer, both single-pack and multi-pack. In the single-pack mode, players compete with a standard vehicle not playable in the regular game on a course that is also not playable in the regular game. Unfortunately, that is all there is – one vehicle, one course. Still loads of fun, however. In multi-pack, players could choose from any course and vehicle unlocked in the single-player game, and course records would instantly sync between game-packs so players could continue the sense of competition even after the multiplayer session was over. Sadly, in the WiiU Virtual Console port of the game, Nintendo was either unable or unwilling to find a way to patch the multiplayer to a single-console feature, rendering the game a one-player-only endeavor.

F-Zero Maximum Velocity is an incredible game, especially for a series’ first venture into the handheld realm, and translates well into the TV-console world via Virtual Console. With its simple controls, it would be playable on an emulator, however the rapid-tapping required for effective turning would become old quickly. For the best experience, check it out on the WiiU – it’s inexpensive, it’s fun, and the background music sounds much better coming out of TV speakers.

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