F-Zero GX is a game that only my father could love. No, the man has never played a videogame in his life (except for one extremely brief and humiliating game of Ms. Pac-man in the entrance to a K-mart many years ago), but F-Zero GX would probably appeal to him nonetheless. With his meticulously combed hair and creased blue jeans, dad was, and still is, the consummate perfectionist. "Mr. Perfect"—that's literally what he calls himself to this day, without a trace of irony—set an impossibly high standard for my brother and me to live up to. F-Zero GX, like my dad, also sets impossibly high standards and demands absolute perfection. Anything less than absolute perfection—in my father's world and in the F-Zero GX world—is severely punished, and in my opinion, often unfairly so.
Punishment. That's basically what it feels like when I barely graze a wall around the final turn of a hard-fought race only to see the other 29 racers literally blow by me. There are only so many times I can click on "Retry," only so many times I can finish dead last, and only so many times I can be punished for the smallest of errors before my videogaming spirit is broken, the controller is thrown to the floor in frustration, and my GameCube is powered down for the night. F-Zero GX is one of the most unforgiving videogames I have ever played. Don't be fooled by the game's colorful, cartoonish exterior, because I'm telling you, beneath that bright, buoyant surface beats a cold, sadistic heart.
It's a shame too, since F-Zero GX shows so much promise. The entire production, everything from the opening cinema to the final "Thanks for playing!" screen, literally sparkles with polish and Nintendo-caliber quality. The game also has a fine sense of speed and style, two essential ingredients in any futuristic racing game. The visuals are so vivid and clear that I actually felt like I was wearing newer, more powerful eyeglasses. The characters and ships are rich and varied—my favorite is Jack Levin and his speedy ship, Astro Boy—but the true stars of the game are the wildly inventive tracks. Some are suspended miles above cities, while others are half-submerged in the bluest oceans. The tracks are beautiful and terrible at once, and each one has a brief introductory cinema showcasing details like the turning fans in Big Blue and the neon Pokémon-like animals in Mute City, all details that I'd otherwise never see during the 1700 km/hr races. A few of the tracks feature the de rigueur stomach-turning pipes, but Fire Field actually had me racing on the outside of a pipe, something I've never seen before in a racing game. And those monstrous, atmospheric tracks all load up in a flash—there's nary a load screen—creating a virtually seamless gaming experience.
But just as quickly as F-Zero GX pulls me into its orbit, it pushes me right back out again with its brutal difficulty. And when I say brutal, I mean brutal. Plan on racing the latter races hundreds of times. I'm not kidding.
The ratcheted-up difficulty angered me. It's a gross violation of one of the basic laws of the unspoken, unwritten contract that exists between game and gamer. The law states that the game shall challenge me in an entirely reasonable and logical way, and that I shall derive pleasure by rising to that challenge. When I can't rise to the challenge, when I start to feel that the game is challenging me in an unreasonable way, and that the deck is stacked against me, I get frustrated. Feeling frustrated is part of being a gamer; I've felt it before, and I'll most certainly feel it again. But F-Zero GX had me feeling something beyond frustration, something I haven't felt before in a videogame: despair. I'd lose a race and restart, feeling hopeful that this time I'd do it, this time I'd win. But with each successive loss, it became harder and harder to feel hopeful. Finally, after all the hope was drained away, I began to despair. A voice at the back of my mind whispered, You can't do this. It's impossible. I invest time and effort into a game and expect the game to reward me. This isn't the case F-Zero GX; all the time and effort in the world is no guarantee that the game will ever give me anything in return.
Frankly, I don't play videogames to lose. I feel like a loser in my day to day life, squeezing into the crowded subway each morning, or getting yelled at by my boss for arriving late to the office. I turn to games to feel like a winner, to feel empowered, to feel like a hero, to feel like I transcend my own skin, my own limited existence, if only for a few short hours. F-Zero GX wouldn't do that for me; the game wouldn't give me that, at least not in the doses I'm accustomed to, and as a result, the game wound up making me feel like a loser—exactly what I was hoping not to feel.
There's something stubborn about F-Zero GX. What should have been a fast, flashy, light-hearted affair is somehow grim and joyless. There's wonderful content here, but unfortunately most gamers won't ever see most of it because it's locked away behind a series of near-impossible challenges. Even the Story mode, which should have logically been the most accessible part of the game, turns hardcore after the first two chapters. My favorite gaming moments historically have been moments when I've screwed up, when the chips are down and my back is to the wall because of some error I've made; then I somehow manage to turn things around and stage a dramatic comeback, correcting my mistakes, righting all my wrongs. The best games allow me to make a mess of things, then give me half a chance to find my way out of the mess. To make mistakes—in games and in life—seems entirely human to me, and asking me to behave perfectly only leads to bitterness and resentment. Believe me, I know—"Mr. Perfect" himself taught me this valuable lesson many years ago.