Posted on

Wipeout 64

Well this was certainly unexpected.  Psygnosis were the jewel in Sony’s development cap and the key to gaining them respectability as a console manufacturer.  Let’s be honest, Sony Imagesoft sure as hell were not the ones you looked to for quality gaming.  Sometime around 1996 for a brief period Psygnosis regained some of their autonomy and began to develop for the Saturn and N64.  Their version of Wipeout for Sega was pretty astounding considering the gap in both machine’s technical performance.  But it was Wipeout 64 that brought a number of features to the series that would later be iterated on in further installments and managed to stand out as an excellent racer among a sea of mediocre titles.

Though set a year after Wipeout XL this is not a wholly original title.  In truth you could almost even call it Wipeout Remix.  Of the seven tracks available only one is truly original.  The rest are reversed and altered versions of tracks from the first game and its sequel.  For those that truly put hours into both games there might be a sense of familiarity at times but for the most part I can safely say that they largely feel brand new.

Wipeout differentiated itself from F-Zero through its weapons and insane course design, two elements that really stand out in contrast to F-Zero X, its competition at the time.  Making it to the end of each track is about much more than smooth driving skills, you also have to survive to the end against stiff competition and their vicious weapons.  All of the weapons from prior games return with a few changes.  The mines, triple rockets, electro shock (which causes a ship to stall) and the awesome quake disruptor which undulates the track in its path all look spectacular and are highly effective.   Now however each team has an upgraded version of one particular weapon uniquely their own.

The biggest innovation Wipeout 64 brings to the table is analog control.  The dual shock was introduced after the release of Wipeout XL so it couldn’t benefit from the increased finesse the analog stick brought to the table.  Next to the jump to 3d adapting analog controls was the biggest improvement racing games made and Wipeout 64 demonstrates that beautifully.  Leaning into corners and making sharp turns is more precise than grinding your thumb on the horrible PlayStation D-pad.  It’s actually possible to manage without using the air brakes although mastering a combination of the two yields the best results.  The game is exceedingly fast, more so than most other games in the genre but always remains playable; take that Extreme G2.

Glide64_Wipeout_64_45

The game’s single player campaign eschews the traditional Grand Prix in favor of multiple different Challenge modes.  Each series of challenges comes with specific conditions necessary to win. Race is the closest the game comes to a normal grand prix with the condition that you at least place in the top three before moving on.  Time Trial is self-explanatory while the weapon challenges are the most interesting.  These will give you certain tasks such as eliminating a certain number of competitors or destroying the race leader before the final lap.

In spite of the better control setup Wipeout still has a bit of a steep learning curve.  It’s not as brutal as the first game but definitely harder than the far easier XL.  The checkpoints are pretty tight and even though you can graze walls and the sides of the tracks without coming to a complete stop it still takes a toll by draining your energy bar.  The AI cars are not shy about using weapons so don’t be surprised if you die before completing the first lap a few times.  It really puts the challenge in Challenge mode.

Completing the challenges is the only way to earn access to the different teams and their cars, the final track and the super weapons.  It’s in this area that Wipeout 64 comes up short when compared to F-Zero X.  The 4 teams each have their own unique cars with individual strengths and weaknesses for a lot of variety.  However F-Zero has 30 to choose from.  There are only seven tracks total which is miniscule considering F-Zero X has close to 30 and a random track generator.  Of course the tracks in that game have nothing on the complex layouts Psygnosis has created here.  There’s something to be said about quality over quantity.

Glide64_Wipeout_64_37 Glide64_Wipeout_64_22 Glide64_Wipeout_64_02 Glide64_Wipeout_64_14

Wipeout 64 compare favorably to the amazing Wipeout XL and betters it in a few categories.  Thanks to the N64s strengths it produces a cleaner image free of pixelization and the texture warping prevalent in so many PlayStation games.  The lighting effects aren’t as pronounced as a tradeoff and are sorely missed.  There’s still some pop-up but the tracks are designed so that it hides it a good portion of the time.  The framerate holds up pretty well except for four player races where it takes a hit.  The awesome techno soundtrack that the series pioneered has been brought over successfully; obviously it doesn’t sound as good as CD audio but the tunes are better than they have any right to be considering the hardware’s deficiencies in that area.

Wipeout 64 turned out better than even the staunchest critics could have imagined and remains one of the better racing games available for the N64; no small feat considering there are close to 50 of the bastards in its library.  Fans of the series get another strong entry in a fantastic franchise while racing game fans are treated to an excellent game.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Hyper Zone

Remember how over used Mode 7 was at the beginning of the SNES life?  Dear god most developers showed little restraint shoving it in their games!   Did we really need the gratuitous map zoom in Actraiser?  Personally I didn’t really care if Master Higgins was swallowed by a giant scaling whale but whatever.  For every game that grossly misused it there were others like Pilotwings and F-Zero where it was integral to gameplay.  Lost in the shuffle among those two classic was Hyper Zone, equal parts ambitious gameplay and tech demo.

There’s a very flimsy plot that provides a bit of context to the rest of the game.  In the distant future the leaders of the world make a push to colonize the rest of the Solar System, including the regions beyond our borders.  Aliens from beyond our galaxy decide they are comfortable with humans sticking to their little box and now it’s up to you to clear them out for the sake of humanity.

The best way to describe Hyper Zone is a three way cross between F-Zero, Space Harrier, and Star Fox.  Like Space Harrier you control a character, in this case a ship, with full 8-way movement around the screen.  The F-Zero DNA comes in the form of the overall presentation and the design of the “track”.  But rather than a racing game this is a shooter like Star Fox minus the polygons.  It’s an interesting mix of games that doesn’t quite gel as well as it should have but it remains an interesting technical show piece nonetheless.

The easiest summary of the game play is keep moving and don’t stop.  And I mean that literally.  Although Hyper Zone is a shooter it still has many elements conducive to racing games.  The levels are on a set track which splits into multiple pathways at numerous points.  Straying beyond the borders of the track will result in damage and a loss of speed, which you do not want.  Dipping below 225 miles per hour will incur damage.  There are familiar light strips on the ground which will restore life; another idea lifted from F-Zero.

Although there aren’t any power-ups in the game scoring high enough on each stage will reward you with a new ship and earn extra lives which are important.  Each ship looks different but controls the same with the only difference in how your charge shot is affected.  The charge time and the shape of the blast changes with each ship, making it easier to kill enemies in clusters for more points.

Surviving to the end of each level is the main objective, a task that proves much harder than the actual bosses that book end each one.  Enemies never attack alone and swarm in groups from all sides.  Sometimes they even come from behind, the tricky bastards.  Dodging enemy fire becomes a lot trickier when the track is only a narrow path, forcing you to go off the rails a bit for the greater good.  The stage hazards such as rising fire and dead end paths increase in frequency the deeper you get, which makes every level intense.  The one major disappointment would be the bosses, who are lacking in interesting design and fight mechanics.

Ultimately though Hyper Zone is a shallow game.  The lack of any weapons aside from the charge shot sucks, there’s no other way to put it.  The new ships could have been a lot more exciting, such as granting extra defense or more speed.  Although you have the freedom to move about the screen freely this mobility is restricted by the track design.  You’ll spend long segments moving along a straight narrow path.

And the game is unfair.  Because of the viewpoint it’s very hard to determine how close or far enemies are, with the same applying to projectiles.  When enemies attack from behind there’s no warning and you’ll frequently have little room to maneuver.  The pit stops to refill life almost seem like death traps as there are usually a score of enemies ready to pelt you repeatedly, defeating the purpose of having them in the first place.  Extra lives are awarded every 30,000 points, a number that isn’t hard to reach frequently but it doesn’t make up for the lack of continues.  It’s incredibly easy to die in a hail of fire repeatedly and pit stops don’t make up for it.  There are only 8 levels but it really sucks having to start from the beginning so often.

Hyper Zone resembles F-Zero so closely that it’s easy to mistake the two.  Beyond the use of Mode 7 the track itself looks identical; same with the track side detail.  Whereas F-Zero is wide and open the floor is mirrored on the surface in Hyper Zone and the effect is striking.  Each level has a theme with suitable enemies to match and the scaling is pretty much flawless.  Despite the flat ground the art direction does an adequate job of convincing you that you’re really flying over grass, water, or a city.  The music is techno influenced and very similar to F-Zero’s although not as well orchestrated.  The sound effects are virtually identical between the two.

While Hyper Zone doesn’t maintain the peaks set in the early parts of the game due to its simplicity it is still enjoyable.  Less tech demo and more interesting gameplay would have done wonders to back up the (for the time) stellar production values but some games just aren’t destined to have it all.

Posted on

Tube Slider

NEC came back to the US gaming scene initially with the weird Dreamcast game Industrial Spy: Operation Espionage in 2000, ending a 7-year publishing hiatus.  While they had disappeared after the failure of the Turbo Grafx-16 in Japan they were a prolific publisher, supporting nearly every console overseas.  With their resurgence it was thought that maybe some of their more popular franchises would come to the US, such as Black Matrix but instead we were gifted with Tube Slider, an interesting futuristic racer with interesting ideas that suffers in execution.

The similarities to F-Zero and Wipeout are there and can’t be denied.  Like both games Tube Slider takes place at an indeterminate point in the future.  All 3 games put behind the wheel of a hovercraft in a mad bid to finish first.  But Tube Slider differs in that all races take place in tube shaped courses that allow you to drive on all sides any time you want.  While F-Zero X flirted with this mechanic Tube Slider is completed based around it, for better or worse.

The tubular design is not the only unique aspect of Tube Slider however.  Prior to every race you have the option to choose between Turbo and Boost, different speed increases that have their benefits.  Turbo is a continuous boost that offers less speed but lasts as long as the meter lasts.  The other benefit is that it can be activated after a short charge time.  Boost is an instant shot of nitro that is faster but has its limitations.  You can only hold 3 charges at once and each needs to be filled before activation.

While it’s obvious that everyone will have their favorites it does pay to learn the ins and outs of each course and pick accordingly.  Longer straight tracks will favor boosting while the curvier tracks turbo clearer takes the lead.  The shorter bursts of speed are more favorable since you won’t get the full benefit of boost.  The most important mechanic of the game that is crucial to success is the ability to tailgate opponents and steal their boost, significantly increasing your own at their expense.  Mastering this mechanic can quickly change your fortunes if applied correctly, but the same can also apply to you.

That mastery will take far longer than necessary however as Tube Slider has one of the steepest learning curves of any racing games I’ve experienced.  The initial circuit is exceedingly easy, to the point you won’t need to bother with almost any of the game’s features.  Once the second class of tracks opens up the game becomes so hard you’ll wonder if you were ever playing the game “right” to begin with.  Computer racers are viciously aggressive and it seems they are always faster than you no matter what.  No matter how perfectly you manage to steal boost from the computer and manage it they will always be on your tail.  The rubber band AI is bad; not Mario Kart 64 level but still noticeable.

While the Tube tracks make for some interesting track design they do present problems of their own.  It’s exhilarating to cruise the walls to blow past the AI opponents the sudden turns and changes in elevation have a habit of completely turning you around or worse causing a near dead stop, at which point a last place finish is assured.  There are a number of track elements that don’t make sense such as rows of arrows on the walls and ceilings that give the impression of a speed boost a la most racing games.  Rather these indicate the best routes but in most cases the tracks will suddenly change and make you spin out and lose speed.

Speaking of speed, there is very little sense of it.  In F-Zero it’s immediately palpable when you’re approaching max speed.  Outside of boosting the regular pace of the game feels agonizingly slow.  It picks up slightly as you unlock more cars but it never approaches anything resembling fast.  Racing games live or die by their speed; it is a race after all and unfortunately Tube Slider has a tendency to feel like an evening stroll.

Graphically Tube Slider is uneven.  The game runs at a smooth 60 fps which is immediately noticeable.  The tracks are very interesting and well designed with a large number of themes they are based around.  Even the familiar themes such as forests and industrial zones are unique.  While the tracks are mainly confined to tubes the walls are frequently transparent or wide open to give you a view of the backgrounds which are routinely beautiful.

It is obvious where shortcuts were taken to achieve the visual splendor.  There’s a distinct lack of any advanced lighting effects and shadowing which does produce a slightly flat look.  The hovercraft, while well designed, are comprised of a minimal amount of polygons.  It’s a sacrifice that was well worth it in my opinion because at the end of the day the feel of the game is right.

At the end of the day Tube Slider is an above average game that could have used a month of tweaking to make all of its elements gel together.  Once you’ve taken your licks and gotten used to the brutal computer opponents it is a satisfying experience to win.  It’s just a matter of whether or not you have the fortitude to stick around that long.

Posted on

F-Zero X

I remember the racing games of the 32-bit era pretty well.  Most were a stuttering mess that could barely keep a decent framerate and even when they did it was in the low 20s at best.  Sure we had our Gran Turismos and Ridge Racers but those were the exception, not the rule.  The N64 saw far too many racing games and admittedly a nice chunk of them were decent.  But one game stands apart from the rest for its technical achievement and content, and that is F-Zero X.

Released in 1998 worldwide many of the series staples were introduced in this game.  The F-Zero Grand Prix is brought back after a hiatus (clever) with new rules and regulations but the name of the game is the same; place first to win.  Noted for its rock steady 60 fps performance and abundance of content F-Zero X was an anomaly for racing games of the time.  Most racing games back then only had 3 tracks and maybe 5 or 6 cars which when is pretty fucking pathetic considering these were CD games.  But leave it to Nintendo and cartridges to pack the game with relevant content that helps the game stand out as one of the best of that generation.

The majority of the characters fans would come to know and love in the series were introduced here.  The number of competitors is increased to 30, including the 4 from the original game.  The differing characteristics between each vehicle are greatly enhanced and have a notable impact on gameplay.  You still have the option of adjusting the balance between top speed and acceleration to offset your chosen racers weaknesses.  New to the series is the ability to hit other vehicles with a spin attack and side attack, which when timed right can create awesome pileups and the opportunity to steal first place.  While the basic race mechanics were given an overhaul the track design saw the biggest changes.

With the move to 3d came the opportunity to create wicked courses that twist and bend in ways not possible in 2d.  The addition of hills, loops and tunnels really changes how you approach the finish line.  Most courses have corkscrews and pipes that allow you to drive on all sides, completely bypassing head on confrontations with fellow drivers or creating opportunities to ambush them and completely knock them off the track.  The same applies to you as well so you need to stay on your toes.  The two attacks at your disposal definitely do a good job of livening up the staid race to the finish without changing the feel of the game into Wipeout or Mario Kart.

Aiding in this are the perfect controls and physics.  Maneuvering around each track is a breeze and almost becomes “zen” when you’re in the zone and completely focused. The learning curve is a bit steep and I can guarantee you’ll be making the most of the adjustable difficulty settings.  But its worth it put in the time and learn the games quirks because there is a wealth of content to keep you occupied.

Broken down into Jack, Queen, and King Cups, each with 6 tracks you won’t see everything in an afternoon.  But on top of that are two hidden cups you have to earn.  The first, Joker cup is considered Expert level difficulty and the tracks bear that out.  The computer AI is vicious but if you persevere you gain access to X-Cup, which is, get this, a random track generator.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Although they are a bit simple the game will pump out an infinite number to keep you entertained for as long as you like.  The standard Vs and Practice modes are joined by Death Race, with the object being to eliminate the other 29 competitors in a set time limit.  You see all that?  That’s how you make a racing game.  None of those bullshit 3 tracks and 3 more flipped and mirrored.

While the graphics occasionally has its moments its nothing to write home about.  But that sense of speed man!

Once you start the game the sense of speed is immediate.  F-Zero X was like nothing else on the market with its blistering pace.  Even with all 30 cars on screen and bombs going off the framerate never dips below 60 and this applies to split screen multiplayer as well.  To achieve this though Nintendo sacrificed detail and effects but it works in this case.  There are some subtle lighting effects here and there but nothing spectacular.  But when you’re twisting around a pipe at 1500 mph and smacking AI cars around with butt rock in your ear it won’t matter.  Speaking of the soundtrack, I’m not the biggest fan of the music but it does seem appropriate for the tone of the game.  There are some remixes of the SNES music but overall I prefer the orchestral sound of its predecessor.

Nintendo had a specific goal in mind for F-Zero X and they delivered.  With blazing fast graphics, a smooth frame rate and tons of content there’s no reason to skip this installment in the series.  It will definitely whet your appetite for the masterpiece that is F-Zero GX.

 

Posted on

F-Zero

The early months of the SNES’s launch saw a slew of developers shoehorn Mode 7 effects into their games for no discernable reason.  Seriously, how many games in the first year did the “zoom into the map” effect?  Not that I blame them, it was an easy effect used to dazzle tween minds across the world, and I was one of them.  But in this sea of gratuity there were two games that made legitimate use of it; one was Pilotwings, the other was F-Zero.

F-Zero was released at the SNES’s launch in every territory and with good reason. In terms of sheer wow factor it oozed it in spades.  You have your choice of 4 pilots, each with their own unique craft as you participate in the F-Zero Tournament.  This was one of the first futuristic racing games and is largely credited with creating the subgenre.

Each pilot has their own stats with the most obvious being max speed and acceleration curve.  One less obvious facet is the weight of each hovercar; lighter cars replenish life slower while heavy cars are the opposite.  The 3 racing leagues, Knight, Queen, and King correspond to the game’s difficulty levels, each with their own unique courses.  There are no powerups or items to collect, the action is clearly focused on the racing itself.  Every course has at least one pit area that can be used to recover life because trust me, you’ll need it.  The tracks are littered with hazards, such as mines and magnets to drive you into the sides of the road and lose life.  After every lap you receive one boost and determining the best time to use it can change the outcome of a race significantly.

The main aspect of F-Zero that still stands out today is its intensity.  Every course is 5 laps and maintaining your composure as the final lap gets closer is harrowing.  The computer can be brutal at times, willing to bump into you and knock you around the track and exploit any screw ups on your part immediately.  The difficulty curve is pretty steep, even in the Knight League, and I’ll wager most will use  their continues by the end of the Queen league.  The track design is incredibly clever with many tight hairpin turns and long stretches of hazards that are extremely rewarding to master.  Thankfully there is a practice mode to hone your skills without any outside interference.  The only thing F-Zero is missing is multiplayer, likely a victim of a launch crunch.

The SNES Mode 7 was able to for the first time bring the same level of scaling and rotation seen in many arcade games to home consoles.  The pseudo 3d courses twist and turn in unbelievable ways thanks to Mode 7, and even today the effect is impressive.  The courses span a wide range of settings and even the multiple iterations of the same theme, such as Mute City are all unique and sometimes take place at different times of day.  The soundtrack is also phenomenal; every track has its own theme and there are as many as 2-3 remixes that are unique.

Still fun and just as groundbreaking as it was in 1991 F-Zero is a fun and challenging trip down memory lane.  It’s a shame the US and Europe never received the updates released through the Satellaview but that’s understandable.  If they would have included a multiplayer option this would have been the complete package.  That’s a minor issue though, as the sequels more than made up for that.

[nggallery id=111]