A technological marvel: A 3D racing game for as many as four players, on Game Boy.
As the game specifically designed for use with the 4-Player Adapter, F-1 Race is easily the most impressive racing title we’ve seen yet for Game Boy. Admittedly, a low bar to clear. Given its straightforward name, this may have been intended as a portable follow-up to the 1984 Famicom racer by the same name. We’ve already seen a few cases where Nintendo created portable sequels to console titles, most notably Balloon Kid, and this would seem to continue that trend.
F-1 Race follows the same pattern as those other semi-sequels. It makes use of a similar presentation format (and similar mechanics) to the previous game while adding quite a bit to the mix. F-1 Race for Famicom was pretty bare-bones as a racing game, more or less amounting to a Pole Position clone. And that was fine for 1984, really; it was enough that F-1 Race managed to create 3D graphics with a behind-the-car perspective and a road vanishing into the horizon on a home console. That was more than the Famicom appeared capable of doing right out of the box, and the novelty went a long way. In fact, those visuals were enough of a technical feat that Nintendo wasn’t able to create the game internally; instead, they had to summon the legendary Satoru Iwata to program its immersive point-of-view.
By the time this Game Boy sequel rolled around, the company seemed to have a better handle on the hardware. F-1 Race was created internally at Nintendo R&D1 by a team of plucky youngsters like Masahiko Mashimo and Naotaka Ohnishi. The F-1 Race team’s members haven’t precisely become household names, but they’re all still with Nintendo, and they’ve worked on an impressive array of beloved franchises ranging from Fire Emblem to WarioWare to Paper Mario. This, then, is the work of a core Nintendo team, and the quality shows.
F-1 Race is perhaps most notable (in personnel terms) for being the debut title for composer Kazumi Totaka—the inspiration behind K.K. Slider in Animal Crossing, known for slipping a trademark tune into his games. While that melody doesn’t appear here, F-1 Race does have a rocking soundtrack—one unfortunately drowned out by the constant whine of engines.
Still, you can sense his artful touch in the way this game uses its music. You actually begin each race in silence but for the squeal of tires and hum of engines; it’s only around 15 seconds into each race that the music finally kicks in. This delayed start feels like an unusual way to present the soundtrack to a racing game—a genre where you’re meant to feel like you’re blasting at full speed at all moments—but it works.
This being a Formula One racing title, there’s nothing unusual about F-1 Race’s core mechanics. You go as fast as possible as you jockey against other racers for the pole position. There are no road hazards to worry about, no weapons to dodge, no crazy bursts of speed boosting. It’s just you, a bunch of faceless other racers, and the need to move left and right a lot.
If there’s any surprise to F-1 Race, it’s just how demanding the Grand Prix mode is. Seriously, this game expects absolute perfection from players if they hope to advance: You have to come in first place every single time in order to reach the next track. I guess that’s one way to stretch play time out of a game with only eight tracks, but it feels unusually harsh—you have to play perfectly from the very beginning in order to see anything beyond the that first track. It feels especially punitive given that most racing games allow you to advance so long as you rank in, say, the top three.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible to see the rest of the game’s race tracks if you aren’t determined to do it through the campaign mode. You can hop over to time trial mode and select from any of the game’s eight course, which vary in difficulty from the extremely straightforward opening track to the alarmingly convoluted India course. While you don’t earn any progression for the core single-player game by playing time trials, doing so does at least allow you to check out the sights.
Alternately, if you’re not having any luck against the CPU, you can always play head-to-head against as many as three other people with the use of the 4-Player Adapter. This is where the game truly shines. The multiplayer mode doesn’t sacrifice any of the game’s innate speed in order to accommodate the other racers, which is impressive. (You also still get to enjoy the music, unlike four-player competition in Mario Kart 64. )
Setting up a multiplayer match is surprisingly painless, once you get everyone connected. The game creates a sort of multiplayer lobby that instantly detects when other copies of the game connect to the 4-Player Adapter and enter multiplayer mode. Every racer enters their name and selects their engine type, and player 1 gets to pick the track selection and number of races to complete. It’s simple and to the point, but it works.
While F-1 Race won’t precisely blow anyone’s mind with its mechanics and design, it manages to coax impressive performance out of the Game Boy hardware. Unlike, say, Monster Truck, the racing action feels fast despite the hardware’s innate pokiness, with turns zooming up quickly and demanding quick reflexes. You can choose from two different car options, one with a powerful engine and one with less. The top-speed engine isn’t necessarily the best option here: It’s much harder to keep under control, and has a tendency to drift off the road on sharp turns.
As in Pole Position, the road is lined with billboards that will cause you to spin out if you hit them, so using that beefy engine requires a delicate touch. The smaller engine allows you greater control and makes a spin-out less likely, but you’ll have a harder time pulling into that all-important first place ranking. Each car also has a nitro boost option, without which even the most basic-level single-player race is impossible to win.
All in all, it’s pretty solid. Perhaps not the greatest racer of all time, but perfectly serviceable. That said, it’s arguably somewhat less approachable—and less fun—than Roadster. There’s no debating the fact that it’s a truly remarkable technical feat for the Game Boy platform. Not just for its brisk, 3D visuals, but also for the impressive pack-in it shipped with.
Granted, the 4-Player Adapter ended up going the way of most Nintendo add-on peripherals, which is to say it saw very little use beyond this game, but it sure was a neat addition that proved the Game Boy could keep up with the feature set of the technologically superior competition. Not that I imagine Nintendo was sweating the Atari Lynx all that much. This was more like a coup de grace, a little flourish to say, “Oh, yeah, we can do that too, NBD.”