Stunt Race FX — or Wild Trax, as it was known in Japan — is not a game that gets talked about nearly as much as many of its contemporaries.
There are a number of reasons for this, chief among which was that it released in 1994, when excitement for Sony’s PlayStation — originally intended to be a CD-ROM-based add-on for the Super NES, lest we forget — was reaching a fever pitch; the 32-bit system would release later that very year, wowing everyone with its smooth, texture-mapped polygonal graphics, high-quality audio and impressive arcade ports.
As with many things that got overshadowed at their time of original release, however, Stunt Race FX remains a fascinating piece of Nintendo history that remains worth exploring.
Stunt Race FX was the second game to make use of the Super FX coprocessor in its cartridge and, like its predecessor Star Fox, was noteworthy at the time of its original release for being a 3D polygonal game on a home console rather than a home computer.
Polygonal console games had been seen a few times previously, of course, to varying degrees of success, but Star Fox and Stunt Race FX’s use of the custom processor was supposed to make them considerably more impressive than anything else on the market at the time thanks to the use of texture mapping, the combining of 2D and 3D visuals and complex polygonal objects.
After Star Fox had proven the Super FX was well-suited to powering fast-action arcadey shoot ’em ups, investigating its possibilities for driving games was a natural progression — though back in 1994 the truly three-dimensional driving game was still a genre that was trying to define itself after many years of “vanishing point” racers. Sure, they’d been a thing on home computers for a while at that point and had even been seen in arcades thanks to Atari’s Hard Drivin’ and Sega’s Virtua Racing… but on home consoles there were still certain conventions still to be established with regard to game structure, handling and overall “feel”.
One thing about early ’90s polygonal 3D that was a little at odds with the image Nintendo had cultivated for itself up until that point was that the low level of detail made it quite difficult to give the graphics a sense of “personality”.
The company got around this with the babbling audio and pixel-art portraits of the Star Fox team in their eponymous adventure, and in Stunt Race FX they took a remarkably simple but effective approach: they put big googly sprite-based eyes on all the cars and decided that all the cars were sentient. This was a good 12 years before the first Cars movie… though Herbie had been doing the “sentient car” thing after a fashion since 1968, albeit without googly eyes.
(Fun fact: all the cars are male, unless you’re playing the Japanese version, in which case the Coupé is canonically female. This does not matter in the slightest, of course, but you can guarantee someone out there is picky about their Stunt Race FX lore.)
Anyway. The game itself is split into several discrete components: Speed Trax, Stunt Trax, Battle Trax and Free Trax.
Let’s get the simple ones out of the way first: Battle Trax is a split-screen two-player mode, and Free Trax is a time trial mode where any of the courses you have unlocked in Speed Trax can be practised against the clock. There’s also a unique motorcycle-style “2WD” vehicle that can initially only be used in Free Trax mode, but which can subsequently be unlocked for use in other styles of play.
The meat of the single-player game is spread across the Speed Trax and Stunt Trax modes, each of which offer a distinct way of playing the game.
Speed Trax tasks you with completing conventional races on three sets of four tracks, with each set increasing markedly in difficulty and the third set only unlocking after the first two have been beaten. After two of the four tracks in a set, there’s a bonus round in which you have to drive an extremely cumbersome truck around a fairly simple track in order to either complete laps to earn bonus retries, or pass through slalom-style gates to earn bonus time for subsequent events.
Each race places you in a pack of four cars which can be freely selected (along with your own) from the three that are initially available to use. There’s a 4WD which has a low top speed but good acceleration and strong armour; there’s the aforementioned Coupé, which is thoroughly average in all regards; and there’s the F-type, a dinky little racer that is very weak and slow to accelerate, but which has the highest top speed of the lot.
The actual racing in Stunt Race FX is kept relatively uncomplicated — a sensible decision at the time, since racing in polygonal environments would have still been new to many players. There are no weapons to worry about and the only pickups on the track either restore your boost power or repair your car; the only thing slightly out of the ordinary is that you have the questionably useful ability to jump and honk your horn at the same time.
Actually, that’s not quite true; one of the most unusual things about Stunt Race FX when compared to both its contemporaries and the things we take for granted in racing games today is its steering control system. Rather than simply using a digital control scheme as in most home console racers we’d seen up until that point, Stunt Race FX features steering with three different degrees of severity.
Push the D-pad left or right and you’ll make a fairly gentle turn; slow down a bit before a corner and this will be a bit tighter. Use the shoulder buttons and you’ll make a tighter turn, but might skid in the process. And use both and you’ll make a very tight turn that allows you to really power around corners, but which can sometimes be tricky to recover from.
In the initial Novice races, you can get away with using nothing but the D-pad for the most part — indeed, I didn’t even know that the shoulder buttons did anything until I actually looked up the game’s questionably translated manual after my first win — but once you progress onto Expert and beyond, you’ll need to start using the different methods effectively.
This setup is interesting from a modern perspective because it’s an acknowledgement that a game like this would really benefit from an analogue control scheme, and also an attempt to implement something along those lines without requiring players to invest in new hardware. Once you get your head around it, it actually works quite well — in practice, it’s somewhat similar to F-Zero’s use of directional air brakes and Super Mario Kart’s power-slide function, both of which used the shoulder buttons — but it’s definitely something that takes a bit of adjusting to.
This raises quite an interesting point, actually; Stunt Race FX feels like a brave and experimental game. Nintendo perhaps felt emboldened by the fact it was releasing so late in the Super NES’ lifespan and decided to try a bunch of new things — and indeed, if you look at Nintendo’s subsequent racers in both the F-Zero and Mario Kart series in particular, you can trace quite a lot of ideas back to Stunt Race FX. Things like uneven, bumpy tracks; incorporating large jumps into course design; unconventional three-dimensional road styles such as half-pipes; and moving through different environments over the course of a complete track.
Oh yes, the tracks; considering the relatively limited hardware we’re dealing with here, Stunt Race FX’s tracks are actually rather impressive and full of character. Each has its own distinct atmosphere created through a combination of colour palette, music and environmental elements, and there are a lot of impressive touches along the way that hadn’t really been seen in many racers before — especially not those with polygonal visuals.
Most notably, many tracks incorporate elements of dynamic scenery. The opening “Easy Ride” track, for example, features a large truck screaming across your path towards the end of your first lap, while the “Night Owl” track that closes out the Novice championship features passenger jets flying perilously low over the city streets you’re racing on.
Several tracks also incorporate shifts between “outdoor” and “indoor” (well, tunnel) areas, too, though these are handled a little less elegantly than we might be accustomed to in modern games. Rather than a seamless transition, passing from outside to inside (or vice versa) involves driving through a completely opaque black “wall”, after which you’ll be in the new area. This is presumably to minimise the amount of depth clipping the 3D engine would have to do, since this was still a somewhat intensive task that not many developers had mastered; indeed, there are several points in Stunt Race FX where you can see other objects “through” the scenery — you might be able to see a tree “through” a hill you’re ascending, for example — because the depth priority is either wrong or simply not calculated!
Technical issues aside, those indoor areas are cool, though, particularly in the “Aqua Tunnel” track, which sees you racing through an undersea glass tunnel with marine life floating around the periphery of your vision. Other tracks feature more mundane features like road tunnels, but even these bother to shift the colour palette to simulate the glow of fluorescent orange lighting in contrast to the bright primary colours of daylight.
Meanwhile, the Stunt Trax provide a markedly different, more low-speed experience with the feel of racing in an arena. Here, you’re challenged to complete a lap against the clock while attempting to collect as many stars as possible.
The Stunt Trax are a distinct experience from the Speed Trax in that they’re much more abstract in their design. Objects are placed around just to present you with a variety of driving challenges rather than in an attempt to create some sort of vaguely realistic environment, and on your initial attempts you’ll find it difficult to balance keeping your speed up and being able to tag the stars.
They’re a rewarding experience, though, and this side of the game is arguably where Stunt Race FX really distinguishes itself from other arcade racers that have come before — and indeed, many arcade racers that followed. Rather than a simple flat-out run to the finish, these courses demand genuine skill and experimentation to make progress in. In some respects, they feel less like an attempt to build on classic 3D-style racers and more like an evolution of the technical, side-on stunt racing games we saw on 8-bit platforms: games like Kikstart for the Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64 and Spectrum, or even Nintendo’s own Excitebike.
On paper, Stunt Race FX might not sound like it offers all that much — twelve Speed Trax, a bonus round and four Stunt Trax — but this is a game that will keep you busy for a surprisingly long time. It’s tough.
At least part of its difficulty is down to having to get used to the unconventional control system, but track design also plays a part, as does the increasing aggressiveness of your opponents with each of the three championships. There’s a strong “arcade” feel to the game as a whole; a real sense that this is a game that keeps its amount of content deliberately limited and expects you to practice, practice, practice in an attempt to obtain mastery.
That’s no bad thing from a modern perspective, particularly as these days your average racing game features a career mode on par with an RPG in terms of length; it’s quite refreshing to fire up Stunt Race FX and know that playing through a complete championship is going to take maybe ten to fifteen minutes, tops. Ideal for the modern attention-deficit gamer — but there’s also depth and challenge to discover for those willing to put the time in.
And, surprisingly, the game actually performs reasonably well. Okay, it’s no 60fps masterpiece and the readout on the speedometer feels unreasonably high for what you’re actually seeing… but it’s still perfectly playable; at no point did I ever feel like I was crashing into walls or opponents as a result of a low frame rate. Again, it’s one of those things you might have to adjust to if you’re more used to modern titles — but you might be surprised how easy it is to get on board with what this game has to offer.
With all these things in mind, Stunt Race FX is well worth giving a shot for yourself today. It may not be Nintendo’s finest hour by any means, but it’s an interesting, bold, experimental title whose development doubtless played a key role in creating many of the company’s most beloved subsequent racers. And thus it deserves your respect.
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