Remember when futuristic racing video games were popular-ish? If so…
Antigravity’s Grand Ideas
In case you missed them, futuristic/sci-fi/antigravity/extreme racers (we never reached a consensus on what to call them) comprise a reasonably niche sub genre of racing games which enjoyed fleeting prevalence in the back half of the ’90s. At the time, popular culture was steeped in “extreme” everything and our collective optimism could still imagine a future with flying-cars-going-fast as a top-of-mind conceit. In hindsight, our quixotic hovercrafts were as fast as we were naïve, and our dreams of them dissipated in a cynical post-9/11, post-middle class, post-truth haze. Also tragic was the short-lived potential of the kickass video game genre they inspired. Almost as quickly as they rocketed into the gaming landscape, futuristic racers sputtered into obscurity. Ultimately, most had limited mainstream appeal and many were confined to technology that couldn’t fully do them justice.
Not that the genre hasn’t had its share of bright spots in the decades since. In 2003, Nintendo and Sega’s jointly-created F-Zero GX (on GameCube) and AX (in arcades) — developed by Toshihiro Nagoshi’s generationally talented team at Amusement Vision — were definitive contributions to the genre. In fact, they might’ve been too definitive as the mainline F-Zero series has laid dormant ever since. Not to be outdone, Sony’s Studio Liverpool, formerly Psygnosis, released a handful of excellent entries in its venerable Wipeout franchise for the PS3, PSP, and Vita, culminating with their remasters in 2017’s phenomenal Omega Collection. In the interim, Sony shuttered the studio altogether.
Cynicism aside, let’s boost back to 1998 (give or take) when sci-fi racers were still enjoying the closest they’d see to a renaissance. To help set the stage, the world as we knew it was a utopia of future-inspired optimism. That year, the Beastie Boys and their giant space robot saved Tokyo from an octopus kaiju monster. And in a wholesale rebuke of science itself, Bruce Willis drilled a nuclear warhead into an imminent asteroid to stave off Earth’s annihilation. And most ambitiously of all: everything from iMacs to Atomic Purple N64 controllers were encased in vibrant, translucent plastic amid a dominant trend of colorful consumer products.
We were living atop the pinnacle of human ambition.
Warping back to today, I thought it’d be fun to escape to that hopeful, hovercraft-filled future we once dreamed of. Naturally, I dusted off my Nintendo 64 and assembled my small collection of sci-fi racing carts. I planned to indulge in pure anti-grav glee, blistering 900km/h thrills, and maybe a few yuks from their aggressively ’90s UIs. That all happened, of course, but it was only the beginning. In revisiting these games today, I wanted simple fun. What I got was a renewed perspective on — and appreciation for — the genre.
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.”
– Orson Welles (I think)
The thing that fascinates me most about the early 3D era of gaming is the interplay between developers’ growing ambitions for the medium and the limited technology their visions were bound to. Game makers simply couldn’t just do anything (let alone everything) they wanted without enduring constant trade offs. To make their projects work, they needed to navigate a sea of constraints to working memory, processing speeds, polygonal geometry, and the human imagination.
Through this push and pull, early 3D games needed to do a lot with little. They were products of creator intent by way of severe technical limitations, and necessitated interpretive heavy lifting from the player. In some ways, I believe this helped foster a collaborative bond between developer and player, and was requisite for buying into a game’s concepts, aesthetics, setting, atmosphere, mechanics, and other key facets of the experience.
For instance, it was not practical — let alone possible — to render an entire in-game forest, yet Ocarina of Time’s Lost Woods enchanted us through its dense fog, hollowed log passageways, sparse trees, and labyrinthine chambers. Even without an open world, Perfect Dark still entrenched us in Chicago’s neon-drenched streets and alleyways following a separate, high-rise glimpse of the parallelogram towers and flying cars dotting its far-flung 2023 skyline.
Conveying these settings was a two-way street. As players, we suspended our disbelief to infer crucial details and context for these spaces and the worlds they existed in. By imbuing their rough, shorthand approximations with a sense of place and purpose, we were actively invested in meeting developers’ visions half way. In this sense, we became their coauthors, immersing ourselves in enigmatic depictions of the virtual worlds we were invited to inhabit.
For me, futuristic racing games epitomize that dynamic. They’re also rad as hell.
These games are inherently ambitious. They can’t not be. Pushing limits — both technically and creatively — lies at the heart of their identity. As a defining trait of the genre, their focus on sheer speed ignites a domino effect of lofty design demands, starting with expansive spaces to accommodate their breakneck pace. Filling those spaces are masterfully-crafted courses that need to be all at once deliberate, memorable, intense, and explorable. Crucially, they’ll enrich the intended flow and play mechanics, and support adequate balancing for racer AI, multiplayer, and any combat systems. Ideally, these things will then offer enough complexity and nuance for players to feel intrinsically driven to learn, strategize, and refine their approaches though prolonged, repeated play. Additionally, the disparate aesthetic and presentational elements need to support all of the above in creating a cohesive and captivating tone for the game. Finally, everything needs to operate with a competent enough baseline performance to keep it all somehow playable.
In all, I have immense respect for the developers who undertake these projects and all the creative and technical achievements they entail. I can only begin to fathom all the impossibilities they needed to overcome just to make these games function, let alone succeed.
In other words, great futuristic racing games do not exist without grand ideas. I mean, goddamn.
With that, I recently revisited a smattering of futuristic racers, starting with some of the ones I own on the Nintendo 64. My brain has an inseparable association between the genre and the platform. The N64 is unique in that it hosted entries from both the genre’s marquee franchises, Wipeout and F-Zero, and featured a few exclusive titles that each captured the charms and quirks of the genre’s heyday. I’ll also plan to add more games from other platforms as I revisit them going forward. In the meantime, here my thoughts and observations on random things I find interesting about these futuristic/sci-fi racers in retrospect.
Locomotive Co. Ltd. | Ascii Entertainment
As the most obscure game of the bunch, Ascii’s AeroGauge is deeply unconventional, even by niche genre standards. It was a title that the professional game reviewers of 1998 would have deemed a “good rental.” This was a slyly derogatory phrase to suggest the game in no way warranted its $70 retail price — but — if it was 99-cent Tuesday at your local video rental store and you were bored as hell, staring at the dwindling shelf of mostly-empty N64 cases, and it just so happened to be mistakenly tucked behind the box for Aero Fighters Assault…eh…well…
That criticism is certainly deserved. AeroGauge has a jarringly steep learning curve, inflated by some unintuitive and borderline-hostile core mechanics. Its anemic selection of modes, courses, and hovercrafts probably didn’t win over fans of things like “high replay value” and “content” (and for our part, we had yet to wear out the word “content” as meaningless consumerspeak at that point). AeroGauge is a hell of an acquired taste but I eventually found it delectable, though only after building up my palette for it over the years. Kinda like oysters.
AeroGauge’s esoteric approach rests on two central mechanics: verticality (a Y-axis) and a convoluted but mandatory speed boost maneuver. The first — the ability to raise and lower your hovertruck’s pitch in addition to steering left/right — feels awesome and is far more novel for the genre than it ought to be. It’s also well supported by the course layouts, which are charmingly haphazard but adopt a clever mix of wide open areas, confined corridors, contorted tunnels, and shortcuts. AeroGauge then combines and connects its dense spaces in some interesting ways. It’s almost like racing through Blade Runner’s Chinatown in an Arwing but less cool.
Otherwise, AeroGauge wears its difficulty on its sleeve. When you first play it, the unfairly fast AI racers are cheating asshats. What the game doesn’t clearly communicate is that you need to master its unintuitive turbo drift/boost maneuver to have any chance of winning. It’s also pretty awkward to pull off. At full speed, you need to let off the accelerator, hold the drift button while pivoting your oyster craft about 45 degrees, then gun it as you straighten out. This produces a significant burst of speed that’s essential for moving up the pack on even the easiest difficulty level. On top of being tricky to pull off at first, this mechanic poses an intriguing risk/reward dynamic. Mess up the timing or angle on a boost attempt and your craft will stall to a halt. Additionally, there’s a temperature gauge that fills up each time you use the boost technique. Spam the maneuver too many times before it cools and your craft overheats, preventing you from boosting again for most of the lap.
In a weird way, the ascent along AeroGauge’s learning curve feels not unlike a puzzle game. Its dense courses and unorthodox mechanics combine for an experience that was initially frustrating, but eventually grew more rewarding as I grasped their flow. Once I learned to pull off the boost technique more consistently, I was able to strategize where and when to use it, which fed into how I approached the various turns and routes throughout the courses themselves. Higher difficulty levels ratchet up the speed significantly and introduce new wrinkles to their pace and cadence. This has forced me continually adapt and refine my approach to each course, which has been rewarding in itself.
That’s not bad for a good rental.
Probe Entertainment | Acclaim Entertainment
While revisiting the more intense/challenging futuristic racers in this piece, the first thing that struck me about Extreme-G is how relaxing it is to play by comparison. If AeroGauge and F-Zero X thrust players into the deep end of the pool, Extreme-G is a hot tub. Design-wise, it takes plenty of cues from the Wipeout games, including its (optional) weapons-based combat and its penchant for smooth, winding courses through desolate, tranquil environments. Its Tron-like cyberbikes are more obvious departures from the hovercrafts we’re used to, but the true difference is in how all of Extreme-G’s disparate facets collectively and deliberately feed into its laid back vibe.
Seriously, this game is chill as fuck.
Nearly every aspect of Extreme-G’s design and presentation plays into its relaxed, almost hypnotic tone. Although the AI racers provide stiff competition on higher difficulties, the wide and gently twisting courses feature plenty of straightaways for players to indulge in unabashed speed with few strings attached. Walls and barriers are remarkably forgiving — inflicting only minor speed penalties and vehicle damage — and invite players to pinball around them with near impunity. Most of Extreme-G’s courses are set across dilapidated cities, rusted-out desert ruins, and derelict mines in suitably lackadaisical states of disrepair. Pulsing through it all is a suitably chill, almost hypnotic electronic soundtrack that I’m actually listening to as I write this while winding down at 10pm on a worknight.
Extreme-G’s commitment to its relaxed vibe almost betrays the intensity evoked by its namesake. Diverging from the other, more demanding racers of the era, the relative simplicity of Extreme-G appeals to me as a late night palate cleanser that I can effortlessly wind down to. And with that, I’ll cut this entry short and go cruise around the serene forest biodome track for a while.
With Extreme-G’s markedly less chill sequel on tap, I’ll need to be as refreshed as I can get…
Probe Entertainment | Acclaim
Generally speaking, I do not believe video games can be too ambitious. I am infinitely charmed by the ones that take risks and push the boundaries of the medium in service of some novel or grandiose vision, even at the expense of the practicality or coherence of their play. I’ll almost always take a flawed and janky game that tries to do something unique and interesting over a perfectly polished one that plays everything safe. But. For all its ambition, Extreme G-2 (stylized as XG2) frequently tests the limits of that philosophy.
Conceptually, XG2 feels like a natural extension of what Probe had accomplished with the original Extreme-G but it holds little back in its attempts to top it. It dishes up everything the first game did and heaps on gobs more: more speed; more bikes; more courses; more elaborate drops, twists, and set pieces; more weapons-fueled mayhem; more vibrant lighting, lens flair, and other flourishes; snazzier UI and HUD; a more eclectic soundtrack; etc. etc. By and large, XG2 is bigger and shinier and extremier than its predecessor could’ve ever imagined.
It’s also not nearly as fun to play.
Extreme G-2 attempts to do some damn cool stuff — and often succeeds — but it crashes against its own ambition at nearly every turn. Many of its issues are technical. In refusing to sacrifice any of the breadth or depth of its sprawling scope, XG2 strains the N64 hardware in ways its uncompromising vision cannot accommodate but often exacerbates.
Immediately noticeable is XG2’s extremely choppy performance. This game is ludicrously fast but it skips frames like I’d skip through an acquaintance’s roll of vacation photos. Obviously, this can cause major headaches for futuristic racing games which require a base level of stability to remain comprehensible, and where slowdown can severely hamper responsiveness, precision, and any sense of speed. I mean, when my hot pink bike shutters ahead 20 feet per frame, that doesn’t leave much room to react or improvise, let alone awe at its fierce speed. I eventually learned to get by while pummeling through some of the trickier course segments — tapping the e-brake also helps with sharper turns (if I remember to use it) — but I’ve made fast friends with the walls along the way.
Awkward collision physics compound these issues. All too often, the bikes snag on the geometry, clip randomly through floors, and flip around abruptly. Bursts of adrenaline can turn disorienting in seconds, killing any sense of flow XG2 may have briefly achieved. Add hectic weapons combat to the mix and I am often at the mercy of its chaos. The result is a frequently unwieldy racer that is worlds away from the relaxed simplicity of its predecessor.
Still, even while stuttering through XG2 at Mach 1, I’m repeatedly drawn to its complex courses, whether via full-grid weapons races or solitary time trials. What the game lacks in reliable performance, it compels with its creative spatial designs. Its tracks elaborately dip, fold and contort through an eclectic tour of vibrant locales. These raceways are varied and imaginative, spanning old growth canopies, giant mushroom forests, open-ocean cities and arcologies, and other nifty destinations.
The Sensara “Skyline Drop” course is a particular highlight. Set in a derelict city, its downtown lies largely abandoned and nature has reclaimed most of its built environment. The course is enriched by its verticality. At the outset, racers climb up to the summit of a miles-high skyscraper, which crescendos into a peak, before edging abruptly downward, piercing the skyline in a long, sustained drop into the depths of the winding tunnels and streets below. Moments like these also showcase XG2’s excellent sound design where — as you break the sound barrier —the music and engine effects give way to supersonic thunderclaps. The effect absurdly cool and punctuates the track’s eerie “what if The Last of Us but a rollercoaster?” vibe.
Slowed by myriad technical and physics quirks, Extreme-G 2 shows its seams more than any game featured in this piece. Yet even with its issues — and despite being incohesive in its chaos — XG2’s palpable ambition and imaginative course designs have kept me playing far longer than I expected. Overall, XG2 is one of the more deeply flawed representations of the genre on the N64 but it remains surprisingly enjoyable all the same.
Addendum: Late into writing this post, I learned XG2 is also available on Steam so I gave it a brief try. I was hoping it would be at least slightly modernized with a smooth framerate and ironed-out physics. While that’s partially true, the PC version introduces its own issues, including fairly poor controller support and a persistent jerkiness that undermines any strides in performance. I haven’t yet had a chance to see if there are any mods to clean up those quirks but it’d be great to one day play a version of Extreme-G 2 that’s fitting of its own ambition.
Nintendo EAD | Nintendo
As an EAD and Miyamoto production, F-Zero X is a fairly iconic Nintendo 64 game that doesn’t need my help to sell folks on how awesome it is. It’s a goddamn classic. There’s a certain swagger in how the game prioritizes buttery smooth, blistering speed over elaborate visual flourishes or systemic and mechanical complexity. Its minimalist aesthetics and periphery details are explicit tradeoffs, and as far as F-Zero X is concerned: good riddance. It’s a game that knows exactly what it wants to be — and what it doesn’t — and I respect that.
Despite its simplicity, one of the more interesting things about F-Zero X is how quickly I feel my blood pressure rise whenever I play it. Nintendo EAD ostensibly funneled every bit of its focus into making the game as intense as possible. The various design and presentational elements work in tandem to support that singular goal. The fluid speed and scant trackside details lay bare the elaborate gauntlets of twists, tubes, loops, jumps, pipes, and corkscrews we need to negotiate to survive each race. The open ledges on many tracks add a concretely treacherous threat, while the wailing guitar licks help keep our nerves on edge.
In true series fashion, F-Zero X’s energy system serves as the lynchpin for much of the tension. Your hovercraft’s finite energy, represented as a small HUD bar, elicits a risk/reward dynamic between rationing your boost power and minimizing damage from walls and other racers, which both drain it. By design, my energy often holds out just barely long enough before reaching the coveted pink pitlanes where, mercifully, you can replenish your energy. The crowded grid does no favors for this, and often incites a string obscenities at both the track itself and the 29 opponents I share it with.
Luckily, my vehicle’s side and spin attacks are pretty effective at culling their numbers.
F-Zero X’s races are challenging on their own but I’m surprised at how much of the stress is self-induced. I’m usually far too invested in taking down my rivals, often at the expense of winning the race itself. Although it doesn’t explicitly feature weapons-based combat a la Wipeout and Extreme-G, F-Zero X’s basic melee techniques are far more brutal, can be performed at any time, and are something I’m always thinking about while playing.
Although combat isn’t necessarily requisite, or even encouraged, the thought of obliterating my rivals is too enticing to ignore. I also often find myself taking the stupidest, most ill-advised risks to make it happen. Perhaps victory would come easier if I focused more on pure racing, but it’s fun knowing making opponents lose can achieve the same result. So when I have a chance to obliterate Beastman in a fifth consecutive race, I will go out of my way to sideswipe him out of contention at any cost, every goddamn time.
Star Wars Episode 1: Racer
LucasArts | LucasArts
Of the games featured in this piece, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer is the one I’ve spent the most time replaying ad nauseam since its 1999 release. But first, let’s address the semantic Bantha in the room: I know it’s not a futuristic racing game. Given the Star Wars universe was set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” calling it “futuristic” racer is a clear misnomer. Cool. Whatever. Now that we’ve pushed up the bridges of our tightwad glasses…
Well actually, I’m more fascinated by the other ways this game remains rooted in the past. Apart from being a
futuristic sci-fi racer of its time, E1: Racer subscribes to a very specific approach to racing game design seldom seen since the late ’90s. The core of its experience is anchored firmly around exploration. It features a galaxy’s worth of sprawling courses, weaved by tangled webs of dense, intertwining shortcuts — plus shortcuts within shortcuts — where the mere act of discovery shapes the foundation of the experience. It entices players to endlessly revisit its tracks — not necessarily to fine tune skills or perfect racing lines — but to continually discover new paths through its expansive, infinitely-explorable maps. Through this approach, E1: Racer almost shares more of its DNA with games like Beetle Adventure Racing, Hydro Thunder, or the San Francisco Rush series than the other similarly-themed racers in this piece.
In prioritizing a sense of discovery over intense competition or weapons-based combat, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer is a comparatively leisurely sci-fi racing game. At least for the N64 version, one of the most challenging aspects is the toll taken on its performance and stability as a tradeoff for its unwaveringly large environments. These things take an even bigger hit in hi-res mode, where the sharper details make frames even more scarce and render its handling even less precise. Otherwise, LucasArts did a fine job tuning other aspects of play — including sharper pod turning, toned-down damage from collisions, and more forgiving AI opponents — to help compensate for the practical impacts of its performance tradeoffs.
Star Wars Episode 1: Racer remains a unique and remarkably designed take on the genre. Although the N64 version may not be the “best” way to play it, it retains nearly everything that made E1: Racer a classic game in the first place. Obviously, it lacks the fluid feel of the newer Switch/PS4/Xbox console ports, and even the Dreamcast and PC versions for that matter. More importantly, I’ve found the timeless joys of zipping through Baroonda’s swamps, coasts, volcanos and Ando Prime’s frozen lakes and caverns transcend most version differences. E1: Racer remains a great N64 game simply because it’s a great fucking video game.
Psygnosis | Midway
Released in 1995, the original Wipeout (amusingly stylized as WipE’out) showed us how genre would look, feel, and sound in the rave-tinged third dimension. The following year, Wipeout XL — known as Wipeout 2097 in Japan and PAL territories — progressed the formula with its memorable, meticulously-designed, and demanding courses. By 1999, Wipeout 3 sanded the edges, for better or worse, in favor of a fluid, polished veneer that would help characterize the series onward.
The oft-forgotten Wipeout 64 — released between XL and WO3 — never fit cleanly into the series’ progression. Borrowing from XL’s style and tone (albeit with analog controls), WO64 is a decidedly scrappier experience. It feels less structured; more off-the-cuff in its mirrored track layouts; and less calculating in its speed class, AI, and weapons balancing. Compared to its kin, WO64 is a little rough and unpolished. It’s also my favorite Wipeout game this side of Omega Collection VR.
Like other titles in the series, Wipeout 64 is a demanding game but, intrinsically, it rewards me endlessly for the time I put into it. Its tracks are confined and punishing. WO64 demands plenty of patience and practice en route towards tackling its complex courses with confidence, especially on the speediest Phantom class. Fortunately, it helps that the performance is fluid and handling is about as precise as I could have ever hoped for from a Wipeout game of that era. With its free run Time Trial mode, WO64 is a perfect “podcast game” to zone out to while absorbing its various nooks and nuances. Persistence eventually progresses into a steady flow of “perfect laps” and a zen-like connection to the game. Even if I can’t mentally visualize its course layouts in the same way as XL’s more deliberate and sensible designs, WO64 feels all the more rewarding when I return to it after a long while and my muscle memory takes over, barely missing a beat.
Despite its departure from the series in structure and polish, Wipeout 64 exemplifies its charm all the same. It demands patience to learn but continually rewards players for their persistence. The journey is its own reward, as they say, and WO64 exemplifies that at least as well as any futuristic racer ever has.
Redefining the Future
At this point, I’ve written at length about the various ways these niche racers remain worthwhile today. Despite the repeated comparisons I’ve made between them, they each appeal to vastly different sensibilities in their play. Beyond the shared veneer, they remain worth playing for wholly unique reasons that go far deeper than their futuristic settings and speedy racecraft.
In film and other mediums of fiction, we define genres based on the more fundamental emotions they evoke or mindsets with which we consume the work. These go well beyond any subject matter they happen to share, which alone doesn’t describe much. For example, it makes little sense to categorize Space Jam and its loony antics alongside the Basketball Diaries — a film where a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio spirals into heroin addiction as he and his friends’ lives crumble around them — just because they can has basketball. Or Old Yeller and Air Bud because dogs.
It’s a similar dynamic between, say, the blistering intensity of F-Zero X’s corkscrews contrasted with the leisurely treks through Star Wars Episode 1: Racer’s worlds. They both feature super fast antigravity racing but I value and return to them for entirely different reasons. If E1: Racer is a lighthearted adventure romp, then F-Zero X is a white-knuckle thriller. If they were pirate movies, E1: Racer would be the Pirates of the Caribbean to F-Zero X’s Captain Philips.
My point is these futuristic racers are all worth celebrating and they hit in fundamentally different ways beyond the concepts and themes they share at face value. AeroGauge is a slow burn; initially off-putting, it grows more enriching through repeated play. Wipeout 64 is an ongoing endeavor where I can sink into a zen-like state and be continually rewarded with each tenth of a second I shave off of my best times. F-Zero X is instantly gratifying, perpetually challenging, and intense as hell. Star Wars Episode 1: Racer dials down the tension, easing me into a leisurely cruise through expansive biomes at 900km/h. And Extreme-G is the game I can kick back and wind down with at the end of it all. Even its sequel, XG2 for all its faults, exudes a palpable charm in its disjointed, chaotic gusto.
In revisiting these futuristic games of the past in the, erm, present, we’re also distanced from the limited consumer product discourse and the “would’ve/could’ve/should’ve beens” that are better left in the past. Perhaps not everything worked out the way we would’ve wanted for the genre but we can still enjoy these games for what they are, without dwelling on their “fun factor” rankings or whatever-the-fuck ratings, or lamenting that folks didn’t buy enough copies, or that game makers aren’t developing enough of them today. These games were awesome and, from our future vantage, we can more easily enjoy and reflect on their experiences in earnest, with all their ambitions, legacies, hooks, and quirks in tow. Perhaps it’s also easier to appreciate the sheer effort, talent, and creativity that developers poured into bringing their imaginative future-inspired visions to life.
Today I celebrate these futuristic racers for their grand ideas. No matter how over/under-looked or -rated they may have been in the past, there’s no time like the present to enjoy them for everything they continue to be.
So that’s it. Thanks for reading! I’m sure I’ll follow up on additional futuristic racers at some point. There are still a ton of other amazing ones that I could touch on: F-Zero GX, Rush 2049, TrickStyle, and Wipeout: Omega Collection are just a few of my all-time favorites. I also have a soft spot for Outrun 2019 (and its soundtrack), which quite accurately predicted we still wouldn’t be driving flying cars by now.
In the meantime, I’d be curious to know: what are your favorite futuristic/sci-fi racers and what keeps you coming back to them today? Are there any games you’re particularly interested in revisiting or discovering for the first time?
Feel free to reach out here or on Twitter to shoot the shit about old video games.
Until next time, I’ll just leave you with Jeff Goldblum promoting one of the biggest future innovations of 1998…