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Staying In | VIDEO GAME REVIEWS

It's fast, furious

September 18, 2003|Pete Metzger | Times Staff Writer

Slam 19 cups of coffee in 20 minutes. Then fall into a deep, sweet coma.

This is what it's like to segue from "F-Zero GX" to "Mario Golf Toadstool Tour," two new releases on Nintendo's GameCube.

Talk about a contrast.

"F-Zero GX" is a futuristic racing game that makes NASCAR look like a bunch of old ladies out for a drive to market. You race in a souped-up jet car against 29 other drivers on one of 20 courses that hark back to those cool little slot cars of days past. Then, you might have had only one loop to navigate, in "F-Zero" you might have 20. And then, you might have been racing against your little sister; now you've got a reptilian alien named Pico breathing down your neck.

The controls are simple enough: There are gas, brake, steering and turbo-boost -- you know, your basic super-powered futuristic jet car fare. There are also different ways to bump your rivals out of the way with different kinds of attacks, as if keeping your car on the track wasn't hard enough at 1,400 kilometers per hour.

But the real strengths of "F-Zero" are the visuals. Tracks are intricately designed and scenery flies past without any loss in detail. It's almost overwhelming, the way your foes look like pesky fireflies as they speed by you, not to mention the celestial backgrounds that distract you from hitting that corner just right. Well, at least on tracks that have corners.

One of my favorites was a track on the Emerald Cup circuit that was called "Fire Field Cylinder Knot." Imagine racing three laps on the outside of a crumpled garden hose with fire shooting by and a sea of red-hot magma below. Think Jeff Gordon has to deal with stuff like that?

Or there is the "Green Plant Intersection" course. In this one, you race against the evil Black Shadow, among others, in giant, bending straws that snake through giant trees. It's kind of like racing in one of those Habitrails for hamsters. At certain levels, some of the turns are missing their guardrails. Such surprises often make you want to take the game out and chuck it across the room. However, "F-Zero" makes you want to continue because you feel like you were so close.

Because the graphics are so detailed, though, you might get a little queasy on some of the serpentine courses.

There also is a story mode where you can play the heroic Captain Falcon as he begins his quest for a second F-Zero Grand Prix title. Like every other game out, you can unlock new cars and parts as you go. You can also build and customize your own jet car, right down to designing the decals that go on the hull, just like our friends in NASCAR. And you can save a car to your memory card and plug it in to the arcade version for bonuses.

If only an air sickness bag were one of them.

Play a round

How about a nice walk through a park with some old friends to calm frayed nerves?

Then let's play a little "Mario Golf Toadstool Tour." But remember the adage: Golf is a good walk spoiled.

In this game, you hit the links as any one of Nintendo's well-known characters, such as Mario, Donkey Kong or Yoshi. Each character has his own strengths and weaknesses and each reacts differently after making a great shot or hitting the water hazard.

The game control is especially thoughtful. If you are a novice and simply want to hit some balls without thinking, there is a one-button, auto-swing function. But if you want to control everything -- down to aspects like the backspin of the ball -- you have a couple of different buttons to pull that off. No pausing and reconfiguring the game settings necessary. The characters are colorful, the courses are pastoral and the play is very relaxing -- at least, until your big ape three-putts on 15.

Unfortunately, the game begins with only a few "serious" courses to play. The quirky, "miniature golf"-type layouts are available only if you win a few tournaments and unlock them. That's where you find traditional Mario Bros. game elements, like warp pipes and giant mushrooms. Why not give people a choice? It spoils the fun of having a 300-pound gorilla on a golf course if there are no Chain Chomps around to add to the shenanigans.

The game also offers more Mario-esque features -- ring attack (send your shots through giant floating rings and make par) and coin attack (see how many floating coins you can collect with your swing).

And best of all, when you're done playing ... you're nice ... and

*

Games

"F-Zero GX"

Good: Stunning visuals, good game play.

Bad: The graphics are so good, you might get a little queasy.

Details: Nintendo GameCube platform; $49.99; rating: teen (comic mischief, mild violence, suggestive themes).

"Mario Golf Toadstool Tour"

Good: Beautiful courses, easy control options.

Bad: All the fun courses have to be unlocked before you can play them.

Details: Nintendo GameCube platform; $49.99; rating: everyone.

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