The upside to new technology in gaming is that it allows for a much more vivid expression of the designers’ imagination: more expansive worlds, better detailed art, more realistic NPC interaction, the list goes on. The downside is that, as with any new technology, the first few attempts to use it can be hit or miss until people become familiar enough with it to really find practical applications for it. The Super FX chip was unleashed on the world with Star Fox, and its ability to push polygons around at unheard-of speed and clarity made it seem like the Wave of the Future…the only problem was, now that we have this capacity, what do we do with it?
This is where today’s game, Nintendo’s Stunt Race FX, comes in. The Super FX chip, while certainly a giant step forward in gaming tech, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a lot of genres; cranking out 3D polygons at warp speed wouldn’t have made Super Mario World any better, and I doubt anyone was clamoring for a wireframe remake of A Link to the Past, but there was a lot of potential in a high-speed 3D racer, as evidenced by the fact that every platform that had the ability to crank one out did so…with mixed results.
Stunt Race FX has a handful of different game modes: Speed Trax is the meat of the game; you select a series of four races, either Novice, Expert, or eventually MASTER, and battle three other competitors as well as the clock, which gets time added to it either by passing a checkpoint each lap or from leftover time from the previous race. Also, there’s a bonus stage after the second race where you drive a big rig through a series of gates. Each gate adds a second onto the timer, and making a complete lap gives you an extra life in case you don’t win a race or the timer runs out. Your race can also be brought to an early end if you smash up your car too much and fill up a damage bar at the bottom of the screen, or drive off the track into the water, so there’s a serious premium placed not going flat-out all the time and wall slapping.
After that, there’s Stunt Trax, where you drive through a series of monster-truck style arenas, racing against the clock. Along the way, you’ll pick up stars that add to your timer when you drive through a gate at the end of each section, and if you complete all four arenas, you’ll unlock Radio Control, a demolition derby of sorts where you try to smash into the other three cars as quickly as possible. Aside from those, there’s also Battle Trax, your basic split-screen head-to-head mode, and Free Trax, which is basically a practice mode and a good way to get a feel for how each car handles.
Speaking of the vehicles, you start with just three and can unlock a fourth, which sounds kinda lame, but there at least was an effort made to make each one feel different: the 4WD monster truck handles well and can take a beating, whereas the Formula 1-inspired F-Type takes off like a rocket, but is super fragile. There’s the jack-of-all-trades Coupe in between those two extremes, and the secret 2WD motorcycle that has stands up to abuse surprisingly well and ties the F-Type in terms of speed and acceleration, but controlling it, especially on twisty tracks, requires a steadier hand than I. Also, for reasons never quite explained, each car has bug eyes for headlights and a distinctive horn that serves as their voice.
Play control here is simple, but not as tight as you’d expect from a first-party Nintendo game. B accelerates, A brakes, Y triggers boost that can be recharged by driving into blue wireframe shapes a la Star Fox, L and R trigger sharp turns, and X allegedly is a jump button, but all it seems to do is separate your chassis from your wheels and reminds me of the way Canadian characters on South Park have their heads split up when they talk.
The biggest problem you’ll probably have is probably with cornering, as the control pad seems best suited for subtle course changes or gentle curves, and the L and R buttons are meant more for hairpins, but the majority of the turns lie between these two extremes, so it takes a bit of experimentation to figure out how to avoid slamming into walls, and once you’ve smacked into the walls, you tend to stick to the wall, especially in the smaller cars, soaking up damage like a sponge. I also felt there was a small but noticeable delay at times between pushing a button and actually getting a response, but those tended to happen mostly when a lot of objects were on-screen at once.
To that end, yes, this can be a shameless display of the Super FX chip’s graphical power, but there will be moments where it seems like the designers got cocky and felt like they could cram a million billion objects on-screen at once, and everything except the road, pretty much, is a 3D polygon, so there will be some choppiness in the graphics, especially if all the racers are on-screen.
Now, there are some cool effects going on here, like a jumbo jet that flies over the track from three different angles in Night Owl, or the fog that eventually burns away on King’s Forest. The underwater tunnels are a pretty neat touch, especially the splashes you’ll see on the windshield if you enter one in first-person mode (which is the only time I would recommend first-person mode unless you are completely immune to motion sickness), but it can be a bit tricky to tell where the road and the wall meet. Not only that, but some tracks suffer from pop-up that makes it appear that the track is literally being built as you’re driving along it, and the cars themselves rather resemble LEGO blocks that aren’t quite put together properly.
Thankfully, though, sounds are generally excellent here. Your engine noises sound convincing (and they, too, have a cool echo effect when driving through the tunnels), the music is certainly of Nintendo-quality and appropriately cartoony, given the setting, and even picks up the tempo for the final lap. Collisions with the wall sound a little goofy, rather like something from the old Space Cadet pinball game, but nothing in this game really takes itself too seriously, so all the goofiness fits.
At the end of the day, this is a pretty decent little racer, although let’s face it, there’s more than a little Nintendo masturbation going on here. Ironically enough, the game’s reliance on the Super FX chip and the 3D polygonal style seem to be the cause of the game’s graphical hiccups, but this was still leagues better than any other efforts at this kind of racer at the time. There’s enough different modes to keep it entertaining, and the different characteristics of each vehicle provide a bit of extra depth. It’s far from the definitive SNES racer, but it does serve as a major milestone that showed that racers were in for a big step forward from 2D sprites on flat tracks.
Fun little racer with a variety of gameplay variations, probably the best of the early 3D racers.
There’s still some glitchiness graphically, cornering can be iffy to the point of being frustrating.