As I’ve said several times in this blog, I prefer that my racing games be of the unrealistic, over-the-top variety. And one of my favorite subsets of the arcade racing genre are the futuristic racing games (sometimes referred to as “anti-gravity racers”). While I have some personal favorites that aren’t as recognized as some of the genre’s bigger titles – with the criminally underrated Star Wars Racer Revenge and what is arguably the sexiest racing game of all-time, Kinetica, leading my list – and other futuristic racing games being popular enough to spawn several sequels – like the solid Extreme-G series – there’s little debating that the genre belongs to two franchises: Nintendo’s F-Zero and Psygnosis/Sony’s Wipeout. So I’ve decided to take a look at the two series and compare them side-by-side in a variety of categories to see which one comes out on top. If there is any question of bias in this particular match-up, for what it’s worth I honestly don’t know for sure which way I swing and I won’t know which categories I’m going to award to which games until I actually do them.
There really isn’t much contest here. While there had been a smattering of racing games with a futuristic bent before F-Zero, when it hit Japan in 1990 it definitely felt like the beginning of an entirely new style of racer. Only super-nitpicky retro gaming scholars will be able to make a strong case against giving F-Zero the distinction of first futuristic racing game. It’s a little bit like pointing out that Wolfenstein 3D isn’t actually the first FPS or Super Mario Bros. isn’t actually the first side-scrolling platform game. Those are technically true statements, but sometimes it’s more important to recognize which game truly put a genre on the map than whatever is the literal first example of it. There still wasn’t a ton of competition when Wipeout finally hit in 1995 – including from F-Zero itself which didn’t have a sequel yet – but coming to the party five years later still makes you a latecomer no matter how dead the party may be.
Like fighting games, racing games are a genre that can sometimes be a bit dull to play solo. Many games don’t do enough to spice up the single-player affair, making the game just be a carbon copy of playing multiplayer only against the AI instead of human competition. That particular complaint has been a gripe about the Wipeout games since the beginning, with the games mostly just being-straight up racing against a field of AI drones when you don’t have any friends to play with. F-Zero has always made its setting and characters a focal point, with series protagonist Captain Falcon being recognizable enough to be a character in Smash Bros. F-Zero GX also introduced a story mode which has you racing through nine different – and brutally difficult – areas, completing missions beyond just “win the race” which make for a unique solo racing game experience. And, as several F-Zero games have appeared on Nintendo’s handhelds, where multiplayer isn’t always an easy proposition, F-Zero has had no choice but to make its single-player racing more compelling since it can’t rely purely on the fun of racing against friends.
For starters, the original F-Zero didn’t even have multiplayer, so that’s a knock against it in this category right off the bat. And as I mentioned above, with about half of the game’s total library existing on handhelds where link cables and multiple carts and systems and all of that nonsense are required just to have a two-player race, not everyone is even able to play this game with their friends, no matter how many they have, if none of them have an additional system to play on. With Wipeout‘s ability to just play multiplayer on a single screen with a single system for the majority of its installments there’s little doubt which game has largely been the better multiplayer experience.
This is a tough one given the variety of systems the two games have been released on. It’s unfair to judge the original F-Zero vs the original Wipeout when one is a 16-bit game fro 1990 and the other is a PlayStation game from 1995. Or when F-Zero has had to do its best with limited hardware like the Game Boy Advance and Wipeout has never been on a system less powerful than the PS1. Still, the fact remains that Wipeout has been a breathtaking game from the beginning and has remained so throughout its history, and not every F-Zero game has featured jaw-dropping visuals which is kind of what futuristic racing games are all about. Sure, it was a deliberate choice to downgrade the visual fidelity in the N64 game in order to keep the framerate fast and steady, but the Wipeout games have generally always moved at a brisk pace while still looking plenty pretty in the process. It’s also not Wipeout‘s fault that Nintendo hasn’t put the series on a system more powerful than the Gamecube yet, and all we can do is imagine how beautiful an HD F-Zero could be when we play the F-Zero tracks in Mario Kart 8. The only fair way to settle this is to put the best-looking F-Zero against the best-looking Wipeout, and even then the choice is pretty obvious – especially given that the F-Zero series has yet to make the jump to HD.
The music from the original F-Zero sounded a bit too much like a bad 80’s action movie for my taste – blasphemy, I know – and despite how much praise F-Zero GX gets as a game, I was not a fan of its soundtrack at all (especially all the singing). Electronica and drum-and-bass music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I just have to give Wipeout the clear edge here. I know a lot of purists are going to cry foul because F-Zero is full of original compositions whereas Wipeout is almost exclusively licensed tracks, but you have to remember that in the mid 90’s licensed music hadn’t become something to roll your eyes at yet. To hear a song like “Firestarter” by Prodigy in a video game was pretty damn cool for its time. And the Wipeout games get a lot of credit for introducing gamers to a lot of new bands and DJs they weren’t familiar with and making them new fans of electronic music, and I for one always say that it’s a good thing when something like a video game forces you to hear new types of music and then go out and listen to it on your own. And not to beat a dead horse, but some of those F-Zero soundtracks had to settle for the weak soundchips of the N64 and the GBA, whereas Wipeout has had access to crystal-clear redbook audio from the get go.
PLAY CONTROL / HANDLING
Wipeout has faced criticism from the beginning of being a bit too floaty, and the weapons often being far too debilitating. The F-Zero games have always had a learning curve, but the responsiveness of the vehicles has always felt tighter and more responsive especially once you did learn the controls. You just seem to do far less wildly careening around the twisting tracks of F-Zero than you do in Wipeout, and the drift mechanic has always been far more effective. The Wipeout games seem to try way too hard to hammer home the idea that you are hovering, and it often comes at the expensive of responsiveness.
Like any Nintendo property up to this point – we’ll see how that changes once they finally “go mobile,” whatever that means – you need a Nintendo system to play a Nintendo game (ill-advised detour into CD-i notwithstanding). Sure, millions upon millions of people own Nintendo consoles, so there’s a good chance that most gamers have access to a platform that they can play an F-Zero game on. But the Wipeout series is on a higher overall number of consoles, and in addition, it is now available on a variety of mobile devices. Being able to download a classic F-Zero game on your 3DS isn’t quite as accessible as simply pulling up Wipeout on your phone. There are also simply more Wipeout games, and because they aren’t made by Nintendo you can get the older ones for dirt cheap. Feel free to overpay for the N64 version of F-Zero if you really want to – or you can probably get the entire PS1 and PS2 lineup of the Wipeout series for the same price.
NINTENDO 64 APPEARANCE
I thought I’d include this one since the N64 is the only system that has been home to both an F-Zero and a Wipeout game, so that makes it the only fair game-to-game matchup you can really do. Wipeout 64 is the better looking game on a purely superficial level, because again F-Zero X was designed to have a lower poly count and less detailed textures in order to make the game run steady even with four-player splitscreen. However, Wipeout 64 had speed and framerate issues that were uncharacteristic for the series and definitely cast the whole game in a bad light. W64 was also a step back from Wipeout XL (aka 2049), the second game in the series, despite the fact that that game was two years old at that point. Overall, F-Zero X is just a better game, with more variety, more tracks, better multiplayer, and a better overall feel. Maybe this one smacks as a gimme to the F-Zero camp, but that’s Wipeout‘s fault for trying to come onto Nintendo’s turf and beat it at its own game.
CHARM / CHARACTER
Wipeout was definitely the very definition of “cool” when it launched in 1995 and continuing throughout the decade. And it seemed to make the F-Zero series, with its kitschy retro-future sci-fi aesthetic, feel a bit like your parents’ idea of “the future” as seen on the TV shows of their youth rather than the more immediate and believable future feel of Wipeout. However, Wipeout‘s cold, sterile aesthetic wore thin over the subsequent decade or so, suddenly feeling more like a relic of the 90’s than a vision of the future. Meanwhile, F-Zero, with its fleshed-out world and characters and more unique vibe, remained interesting due to its more timeless approach to “future cool.” Maybe you don’t need your racing games to have charm and character, but it does help to set F-Zero apart from its peers. The more interesting games in the genre always have something unique to set them apart – Kinetica‘s half-naked-people-with-wheels-for-hands conceit, the Star Wars racing games’ established universe, Rock n’ Roll Racing‘s heavy metal vibe, Rollcage‘s physics system, and so on – and after awhile, Wipeout just began to feel generic and exactly like the dozens of other games that had since gone on to borrow that same vibe and design aesthetic.
It was a close one, but it was fitting that the tiebreaker ended up being the category that is probably most important to F-Zero‘s triumph: it just has more character than Wipeout. The “cool” menus and vibe that made Wipeout such a standout game in the 90’s is exactly what made it start to feel dull in later years, whereas F-Zero has always had a stronger identity and one that wasn’t so of a very particular time, place and attitude like Wipeout. Unfortunately, neither series has been especially prolific in recent years save for e-shop ports and HD remakes, and that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. But the fact remains that even if futuristic racing games are largely a thing of the past, we had a good 15 years that saw a few dozen fantastic games both within and outside of the genre’s two biggest franchises, and it somehow seems fitting that we have to settle for the games of the past to play experiences that were meant to be of the future.
What other futuristic racing games did you love that I didn’t mention in this article? Let us know in the comments!