If you were a Nintendo 64 owner who enjoyed racing games, you were basically sticking a quarter in the proverbial slot machine in terms of what you were getting. You had the light-hearted fun (Mario Kart and Diddy Kong Racing), the straight arcade style (the Cruis’n’ series), the sim/arcade hybrid (Top Gear Rally), and the just plain bizarre (S.C.A.R.S. and Star Wars Episode 1 Racer), and finally, you have the pure simulator, best represented by today’s game, F-1 World Grand Prix by Video Systems and Paradigm.
Now there’s a pretty good chance that you never played this game, and a better-than-average chance that you never even heard of it until now. It wasn’t made by a powerhouse developer, I don’t remember seeing a single TV commercial or print ad in a gaming magazine, and Formula One isn’t exactly a hugely popular sport in the U.S. In fact, had it not been for a small feature in Nintendo Power combined with the fact that my local video store had no copies of WCW-nWo Revenge on a Saturday morning fifteen years ago, I would be amongst that group, which is a shame, because if you can get into this game, there’s a lot to appreciate about it.
I add that qualifier because I want to make something abundantly, overwhelmingly clear from the jump: This is 100% SIMULATION. There is nary an iota of arcadeishness to be found here. You will not be powersliding around corners, you will not be bumping and ramming your way through the field to get to the front, and you will not be taking shortcuts without damage or penalty. Instead, you’ll be learning when and when not to attempt a pass, when the right time to make a pit stop is, and you’ll begin to feel a legit sense of achievement at taking a lap just a few tenths of a second faster than before. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I understand. It takes a lot of getting used to after playing the Mario Karts of the world.
F1WGP’s main feature is the Grand Prix mode, which takes you through the 1997 Formula 1 season (which actually happens to be quite good timing, as the ’97 season was one of the most exciting and hotly contested seasons ever), and features most of the big-name drivers from the era: the Schumacher brothers, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, and so on, with the notable exception of Jacques Villeneuve, who, for reasons I’m too lazy to look up but the Force For Good guys probably remember, is replaced by the generic “Driver Williams”, although you can go ahead and rename him properly…or, you can name him Jean Girard. We don’t judge.
Each stop along the campaign is given its own week, with two practice sessions, a qualifying session, and a final warm-up before the actual race. Make no mistake, I would STRONGLY advise you to take advantage of those practice sessions to learn the intricacies of the track before qualifying. You will need a VERY good time to start anywhere near the front of the pack, and if you chose to run very short races, it becomes even more important, because 8 or 12 laps is hardly enough time to meander your way from 22nd to 1st. In a lot of ways, each race becomes a lot like taking a test in college; you cram as much information about the subject material as humanly possible right before the test, you take the test, and you forget everything you learned immediately afterwards.
Before you hit the track, you can also tweak your car’s performance using the paddock computer, altering things like suspension type, your gear ratios, and steering sensitivity. If you’re like me and know sod-all about cars, each track also has a preset configuration you can select. Aside from the Grand Prix mode, the other big draw is the Challenge Mode, where you’re given a real-life scenario from the ’97 season, ranging from simple tasks, like gaining as many positions as possible while other drivers make an unscheduled pit stop, to the freakishly difficult, like losing a wheel in mid-lap and having to drive your three-wheeled car back to the pits without falling too far behind (and how in the blue hell that guy didn’t crap himself in real life when it happened is beyond me).
Presentation-wise, F1WGP does very well. There’s no in-race commentary, so the only voices you’ll hear are your crew chief over the radio, which helps add to the immersion. The cars are sharp, and even the sponsor decals look solid, although the giant Marlboro ads on the Team Ferrari cars have been axed by Nintendo, and perhaps a couple others. Weather effects are well-implemented, and the sky can go smoothly from sunny to cloudy to light rain to complete downpour, and it should be noted that if you elect to run a half or full-length race, it will seemingly end up raining every time. Altogether, if you showed this side-by-side with say, the early Gran Turismo games, it would hold its own very well, regardless of being a cartridge game.
In the end, where you’ll stand on F1WGP is largely dependent on how excited you are about an unapologetic F1 simulator. I myself would rank it as my second-favorite racer on the N64, just ahead of Diddy Kong Racing and behind only Episode 1 Racer. It seems to have covered just about every angle an F1 fan would want, and some hardcore fans continue to post times against each other today on internet boards. Even if you’re not a racing aficionado, it’s worth a least a look, just to see how well put-together the whole package was. Just be aware what you’re getting into, and remember, your mileage may vary (no pun intended).
The best racing simulator on the Nintendo 64. Deep, detailed, and takes every possible step to be as realistic as was possible…
…Whether or not all that is a good thing is up to you.