Playing F-Zero makes it easy to understand why the game is mentioned as an inspiration to all titles involving high-speed races that defy the laws of gravity and common sense
In the year of 2560, the human race, thanks to centuries of technological advances, has made contact and built a strong network with a myriad of alien species scattered around the universe. As it is usually the case, some have taken advantage of those developments to engage in trade and become so filthy rich they have acquired more money than they know what to do with.
Despite the fact humanity has gone through big changes, though, it has not lost its admiration for entertainment; more specifically, it still has a strong taste for finding enjoyment in watching others engage in absolutely brutal, dangerous, and ultimately life-threatening activities. Aware of that, the top layer of the universe’s population opts to build a series of racing events that are as hazardous as they are fast and, as drivers blast through tracks at speeds of up to 500km/h, the world rejoices in the madness of the F-Zero Grand Prix while the circuit’s stars put everything at risk for the glory of becoming the champion, even if that means having to send a rival towards their death.
There is quite a bit of that background, which serves as the context in which Super Nintendo’s F-Zero takes place, that does not quite translate to the screen. Players do not get to see all assortments of creatures packing the stands to watch these extremely popular races, and neither are they able to look at the faces of the drivers that control F-Zero’s wild machines; likewise, there is absolutely no in-game piece of text that mentions multimillionaires or interstellar exploration. As it is the case with many titles of the era, there is a whole lot left to the imagination of gamers and to the paragraphs found inside instruction booklets.
None of those absences, however, harm the original F-Zero one tiny bit, because out of all elements that surround the imaginary races it portrays the game succeeds in translating what is most important about its world: the speed and the brutality. And it is upon those two pillars that F-Zero achieves a victory so considerable that it ended up ushering in a big enough amount of other futuristic racers for it to be pointed out as the originator of the subgenre.
The first one of these assets, the speed, comes as a courtesy of a special graphical mode, dubbed Mode 7, embedded into the Super Nintendo. Through a lot of technical trickery, the system was able to present the game’s backgrounds as a horizontal plane that could be scaled and rotated, hence allowing the rendering of visuals that gave the impression of a tridimensional environment, a feature that was ideal for racing games, which relied on rotating the scenario when turns are performed and changing its scale as drivers burst through long straights.
As one of the system’s launch titles, F-Zero was a magnificent display for such technology, and although Mode 7 would be used more effectively down the line, what the game is able to do with it is undeniably incredible, because the speed with which the horizontal layer that makes up the scenario of F-Zero’s tracks flies by and spins around is pretty eye-popping even nowadays.
Meanwhile, the brutality of the races, which does walk – to a certain point – hand in hand with the speed, stems from many places. Firstly, there is how the tracks of F-Zero are designed for murder. Along the edges of the road, electrical railings await, meaning that any vehicle that fails to make a turn properly will bump into them and, as a consequence, lose a chunk of its power bar, which is displayed on the top-right of the screen and that, once it empties out, causes the machine to blow up into a pile of ashes that is unlikely to contain any living life forms.
Furthermore, most of the circuits – including those that appear early in the game – are not built with width in mind: straights vary from not being wide enough for comfort to being able to contain, at best, two vehicles standing side-by-side; at the same time, turns can have a snake-like format that requires high attention and precision, or be so sharp they will test anyone’s breaking skills.
Secondly, and as if the combination of high speeds and tight twisty tracks were not enough to generate tension and demand the utmost focus, tracks are adorned with all sorts of deadly traps and some helpful items. In the former category, there is sand, to slow drivers down; ice, to make them skid; land mines, to cause a considerable amount of damage; magnetic railings, to pull the machines towards the electrical barriers; and even randomly generated vehicles, serving as traffic that needs to be dealt with and that will make a big effort to hit players (if they are flashing and about to explode) or simply get in the way (if they are not).
On the latter, and more positive side, there are shiny arrows, which give drivers a temporary boost; jump plates, which can be used, depending on their location, as shortcuts, as a way to fly over hazards, or as an absolutely necessary aid to go over gaps; and regeneration zones, which all circuits posses and that allow players to recover from some of the damage they have taken.
Joined, all these ingredients make up for quite an experience, one that is tense, engaging, and that will have most gamers – regardless of age and background – with their eyes glued to the screen as they try to navigate the game’s tracks as well as possible by memorizing every turn, hazard, and aid. It is a necessary task because, with four different difficulty levels (Beginner, Intermediate, Expert, and Master), F-Zero starts out with races that are relatively manageable, but by the time players move on from Beginner to Intermediate, mistakes become much harder to recover from and reaching the lead demands a whole lot of precision. Truth is, much of that challenge comes from rubber-banding AI, which is always right behind gamers no matter how fast they are going. Regardless of how that difficulty is achieved, though, becoming the champion in even the easiest of the game’s three cups in Master difficulty is an achievement not many can claim to have under their belts.
F-Zero augments the excitement found in its velocity and track design by bringing them together under a racing system that is rather unique. All races are contested in five laps, and at the end of each one players must be at or above a certain position: P15 on the first; P10 on the second; P7 on the third; P5 on the fourth; and P3 on the fifth. Failing to meet that requirement will cause the loss of a life and the need to restart that race; losing three lives, which can also happen by falling out of the track or exploding due to crashing, will force gamers to start the championship from scratch. By replacing a format in which drivers accumulate points throughout all stages to see who comes out on top with one that relies upon the slow elimination of part of the field, F-Zero puts a focus on surviving, an underlying theme that becomes more prominent as the game advances in difficulty.
As stakes become higher and races get tougher, players will be tested to their limits and will be forced to take risks. As such, trying to go faster may mean taking more damage, which will make the regeneration zones of each lap a very welcome sight; facing better rivals will cause gamers to have to master the trickiest of all F-Zero techniques, drifting on corners, which is done by pressing the shoulder buttons; and the extra boost that is gained with each passing lap, a mostly disposable award in the Beginner difficulty, will turn into an absolute must in Intermediate, as racers will have to learn the tracks well enough to figure out the best moment in which the A button can be pressed so the use of the added speed can lead to maximum benefits.
In spite of not using points to determine the winner of its championships, F-Zero does not totally do away with a punctuation system. Although the game never dives into its inner workings, points are given to players both according to how they are positioned at the end of every lap and to how they finish the race, the latter of which accounting to what is – by far – the biggest slice of the points. For every 10,000 points that are accumulated, racers get one life to add to their total, which will certainly be a nice relief to those who opt to tackle the highest difficulty levels as, in those situations, getting another shot at clearing a race may be the difference between making it to the end of a championship and having to start from the beginning.
All the qualities of F-Zero, as praiseworthy as they may be, come, unfortunately, underlined by a caveat: the shallowness of its content. The undeniable thrill of its races and the magnitude of the technological achievement it represents are dented by how there is just not much to the game. The absence of a multiplayer mode, an often discussed omission that is certainly a major issue, may have technical roots. After all, since both the Super Nintendo and Mode 7 were far from being mastered and explored to their fullest by their release, that may have been a huge roadblock to the implementation of two-player action. However, even though the game does keep track of players’ best lap and total times for each course, there is no excuse for the no-show of actual time trials that take place in courses free of other vehicles, an addition that would have brought a lot of value to the experience.
Moreover, and perhaps coming as an even graver issue than the fact F-Zero only has one mode (discounting Practice Mode, which shockingly does not feature all of the game’s circuits), there is a shortage of vehicles and tracks. The machines one can choose from are greatly varied and offer very distinct driving styles, significantly differing in maximum speed, acceleration, resistance, and weight, with the last coming in handy when bumping into other racers. However, they are only four. Meanwhile, the tracks, despite all the excitement and exuberance they provide, are not only just fifteen, but also, sometimes, circuits that take place on the same planet will reuse features or parts that have appeared on their previous installments, with Mute City I and Mute City III being almost identical.
Additionally, even though F-Zero absolutely excels in its soundtrack – which gave birth to a series of classic tunes that go from exciting to gorgeous – and sound effects, the variety of its visuals leaves a lot to be desired even if the game looks good enough to have had graphically held up even many years after its release. There is, basically, one natural scenario and one urban setting, and the differences between planets that share the same characteristics (such as the ocean of Big Blue and the desert of Sand Ocean, or the cities of Mute City and Port Town) comes down to altering the color of the textures that makes up the horizontal plane that involves the tracks and changing the sprites that are used for the assets that are employed on the tracks’ horizon, which is a tad disappointing given the interesting universe in which the game resides.
Yet, even when carrying such thin content, F-Zero is still greatly enjoyable. It is obvious that, thanks to 3-D gaming as well as consoles with increased power, the franchise has – since its inception – grown far beyond the completely flat tracks and fifteen-car races that its Super Nintendo version provides. Nonetheless, the title is worth a revisit for far more reasons than the fact it was the start of one of Nintendo’s greatest series. It is a fast, exciting, and challenging racing game that entertains with excellence while it lasts.
Given there is not much to it, the time one will spend with F-Zero will strongly depend on how willing they are to take on the game’s highest difficulty settings; therefore, the decision of whether to acquire it or not heavily relies on that variable. Those who do decide to dive into the game, though, will quickly understand why F-Zero is mentioned as a major inspiration to all titles that involve high-speed futuristic races through circuits that defy the laws of gravity and star a level of brutality that challenges common sense.