It’s been twelve years since F-Zero Climax. That’s over a decade that Captain Falcon has been falcon punching and thrusting away—in a less savoury fashion—on the Super Smash Bros. stage without so much as thinking of the Blue Falcon. Although it’s been a joy seeing his (fantastic) legs far more since he traded in the cockpit for beating up Pit, any sane player of video games must ask themselves: what happened to the Captain’s racing aspirations? Indeed, why have sci-fi racers never managed to draw the dedicated fan base of their ultra-realistic real world Grand Prix counterparts, much less so goofy but enjoyable kart racers. Mario has a lot to answer for.
I’m here to give you indisputable 100% objective and not at all opinion based cold hard facts on why sci-fi racing games are the rulers in the kingdom of racers.
1. Plausibility and Immersion
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Hover cars going thousands of miles per hour? Tracks which twist and turn every which way which your vehicle can manage to stay on? A controls system that actually responds to my touch? “How can any of these things suggest plausibility?” I hear you whisper indignantly in my ear. Well my friend, they don’t necessarily create a plausible narrative in our universe, but one of the greatest things about sci-fi racers is that their rules don’t apply to our universe. The coherent stories which can be woven when the laws of nature—or even other video games—are thrown out the window, are limitless.
It’s the consistency a well crafted sci-fi universe offers that makes these games feel so plausible, and therefore, immersive. A narrative of the future, or another planet feels the constant need to justify itself because there’s no point of reference. Do I believe I’m competing in this race because that’s the only way to settle an intergalactic war and save the universe? Hell yes I do. But do I really believe that Mario and Bowser are going to sit together in 1st and 2nd podiums respectively after completing the Mushroom Cup, and all Bowser’s going to do is sulk? No! Of course not! That’s ridiculous and I’m disgusted at Nintendo for trying to perpetuate this farce in the name of sportsmanship. These two are mortal enemies! But to depart from that series, what about real-world based racers? Why the hell am I a rally driver? What’s my motivation?
WipEout has an extensive timeline stretching over 200 years including births, deaths, company takeovers, scientific discoveries, investigations, races, disasters and constructions. Seriously, it’s an immense amount of detail for a racing game. The fictional branding in WipEout similarly builds a wonderfully strong backdrop for us to jet around in, making it just that much easier to become lost in the race. We have a whole mythology that exists solely so we can propel a futuristic vehicle down a racetrack. Now that’s dedication to your cause.
I still remember the eerie and jarring lack of a constant melody in Star Wars Episode I: Racer. In between the races on the track menus, and indeed even on the tracks themselves, there was a sense of actually being there, alone with your thoughts; complete focus only broken by the occasional sound of metal scraping rock, or an opponent’s heckle, all underlined by the sustained hum of your pod-racer’s engine. You feel like you’re there, your heart-rate goes up, you can feel adrenaline pumping through you. You can hear your own heartbeat and you know what you need to do.
2. They are Legitimately Challenging
I like to think I’m quite good at racing games, which I is okay for me to say because I am atrocious at real life driving: the first day I had my license I ran my car off the road and took out a light reflector pole—I had lost concentration while trying to turn up Gwen Stefani on my stereo. But games-wise, well, my older brother used to always eat my pixellated dirt in Forza (his choice of game, not mine) and there were very few kids in my after school care class who could out-kart my Peach - and I vehemently maintain that any who could were tiny cheating bastards. Even in Burnout, I could beat the CPU and rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. But games like Star Wars Episode I: Racer, F-Zero X and WipEout, all sent my ego packing.
I had to really stretch myself to avoid a magma induced death in Fire Field, or an untimely demise from an errant chunk of ore in the anti-gravity sections of Executioner on Oovo IV. The removal of real-world constraints and physics often means that developers are given free reign to make tracks which work against us, which challenge the player through a variety of means.
WipEout Fusion gave players Zone Mode, a mode of play in which rather than having the player control acceleration and braking, took these fundamentals away, making the vehicle get increasingly faster as it progresses through the zones on the track. The idea is that the player must work their way through as many zones as they can—in Fusion this caps at 60—while lasting as long as they can, without destroying their vehicle. Not only is it an exceedingly challenging way to play, but it adds an extra dimension to what is already an excellent game, inciting high score attempts and educating the player about the feel of their vehicle: how to handle it down to the millimetre.
All these difficulties make these games so very enjoyable. In certain racers, the linearity of the races, and the difficulty curve which can only be described as blunt, make it simply a case of progressing to the next track, racking up first places like they’re candy. In a good, solid sci-fi racer, the sense of achievement is incredible; adrenaline is replaced by dopamine, and we’re ready for the next race. The wins in these games feel like true successes.
3. They Look Amazing
F-Zero set the bar high for racers of its era using the SNES’s Mode 7, facilitating the creation of more complex and better looking tracks. Even by today’s standards, the whole series has starkly gorgeous graphics, from the divinely nostalgic pixellated original, to the harsh polygons and loud colours of F-Zero X, to the sleek, shiny, almost dystopian visuals of GX. There is vibrancy and a strong sense of a visual language throughout the series.
Distance is a recently released kickstarter-backed survival racer by Refract Studios. It’s absolutely beautiful, and showcases visuals like someone threw a Delorean into a Dance Dance Revolution station. With speed and grace it dances on the line between dark and light. Neons punctuating darkness, it evokes the uncanny valley of a future not so far from our own. Likewise, the fast-paced mobile game Delta-V Racing has punchy 2D visuals with brilliantly designed backgrounds for the player to hastily traverse, punctuated by some similar clever branding mythology to WipEout. Radial-G is another more recent game that showcases some extraordinary visuals, with an aesthetic that harks back to both F-Zero and Star Wars racers, with just a pinch of Blade Runner.
While graphical improvements have allowed realistic racers to take their real-world environments to their natural extremes, it does beg the question: who wants to see hyper-realistic environments in a racing game? If you want to see nature, you go outside, and probably somewhere a bit more picturesque than the side of a race-track. If I want to see a city, I’ll go downtown, and to be honest there’ll probably be a drag-race I can watch happening down there anyway. The wonderful thing about speeding through the future or on another planet is that anything can happen, and the visuals create a scene which supports the mood and story, rather than just replicating what we know.
Have you ever played Crash Nitro Kart? It’s got its good points, for sure: its quippy little characters, its puns and the ability to make a bit of fun of itself, and of course the colourful and vivid design we’ve come to love and associate with Crash himself. But I’ll be damned if that game doesn’t feel slow as all hell. And I find that with a lot of racing games. Shouldn’t a racing game be all about ridiculous, break-neck speed?
The future, science, and technology, seem to go hand in hand with the notion of speed. They all concern advancement. With the technological input that goes into a racing game, and how deeply rooted many of the concepts of racing are in science, it makes perfect sense for a racer to be played out in a science-fiction setting. The speed! The technology! The advancement! Casting off the shackles of reasonable physics and human anatomy—lucky we have medical advancement, aliens and cyborgs—we are able to shoot across strange exoplanets at disgustingly high speeds.
In this video you can see just how fast some of these players can get in WipEout HD/Fury’s Zone Mode where the zone 60 cap has been removed. The guy who uploaded the video got to 173, which isn’t even his record. Similarly, in this video you can watch the Mute City world record which is absolutely dizzying and mildly terrifying. This guy breaks 3000 km/h more than once. It’s insane. These games are designed to be ridiculously fast-paced, which in essence, is what racing games are all about. It’s not called Need for Speed for nothing, but that phrase becomes laughable compared to these.
5. The Well-Developed Characters
While the other boys at school were enjoying Lara Croft’s strange polygonal chest, Nintendo finally came good and blessed me with the equally impressively-chested Jack Levin: