Updated: Dec 13, 2021
The grand-daddy of the ‘future racing’ genre gets another spin on the tarmac (air?)
Nintendo’s much beloved future racing F-Zero franchise raised the chequered flag straight away with the first title in the series when it debuted as a launch Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) game, and never looked back.
It’s hard to review a game that is over thirty years old and is considered by many to be one of the most influential games of all time. Do you try and imagine what it was like in 1990 (or ’91 in US or ’92 in Europe) and the impact it had, given what games were at that time? Or do you purely rate it for the experience of playing it now, marking it down against modern game standards? The answer, I suppose, is always somewhere in the middle.
Developed by Nintendo EAD and released as one of only two launch titles for the company’s new shiny Super Famicom, F-Zero was no slouch next to the eagerly anticipated Super Mario World. Essentially a way to demonstrate the new graphics ‘Mode 7’ (a clever way to simulate three dimensional perspective by rotating and scaling the background), the game is now credited as the first ever ‘future racer’, with many developers citing it as influence for the later Wipeout series and many others.
But, playing it now for this review, I was admittedly worried that it would be so dated that it wouldn’t hold my attention. I have played it before - first on the Wii Virtual Console and again on the SNES Mini Classic - but not for long stretches or with a review in mind. It wasn’t one of the games I owned on my original SNES and so I can confidently say that there is no biased nostalgia at play - I have really enjoyed my time with it.
First off, the music is incredible – the up-tempo jazzy-sounding 16-bit tunes from Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida are stupendously catchy that I have been listening to them outside of the game. The main Mute City theme alone is fantastic and when driving to it in-game, it can really help the feeling of being on the edge. The sound design is also great, with the subtle whine of your engine revving as you reach top speed or the shockingly loud explosion sound as you crash out which always catches me off-guard.
The art style is also suitably colourful and vibrant, with each course getting a distinctive colour palette. The four characters you can choose from have their own unique vehicle and these also stand out so there is no mistaking who you are racing against.
The game itself doesn’t really explain anything other than you can extrapolate that the hover vehicles are not of this time, or the heavily pixelated cities underneath the tracks suggest we are possibly not on Earth. The instruction manual – ah, remember them? – goes into much more detail and explains that the time period is 2560 and society has reached a point where multi-billionaires have set up a new racing sport based on Earth’s Formula 1 series, but with more advanced flying vehicles and seriously reduced safety. It’s an interesting concept, and apparently the manual even had a comic book dedicated to the game’s main mascot character, the bounty hunter Captain Falcon, which detailed one of his missions.
As far as options go, the game is fairly light. There is a Practice Mode which – as the name suggests – lets you practice on several of the tracks before heading into the main competitive mode; the Grand Prix mode. This has three different cups to choose from (Knight, Queen and King) with five tracks to race and each cup sees an escalation in track difficulty. Although there are 15 circuits in total, there are only really eight map types as some are reused art assets but with changed track layouts. However, variety in track layouts is the key as some will have wide open areas and multiple routes while others have narrow zigzagging sections to test your dexterity, coupled with landmines to avoid or large gaps to jump.
The goal is to earn the most points against the other three computer simulation racers which will require you to usually finish in the top two of each race. There is also an elimination element as you will need to be in a certain position by the end of each lap or you are ‘ranked out’. Confusingly, after the first lap of each race there will be obstacle cars to avoid and these seem to represent back-makers that are not actually competing with you for position but will seemingly do everything in their power to be a hindrance. These guys can be the difference between a pleasant Sunday drive and a smashed controller.
This is where I should address the incredibly steep difficulty curve of this game. Although there are four difficulties (Beginner, Standard, Expert and Master) I even found some of the tracks on the Beginner setting to be a tense experience. For each race your vehicle has a life bar which is depleted whenever you are knocked into by a fellow driver or smack the sides of the circuit and can be replenished driving through ‘the pits’ which is a strip of a short distance that is usually found near the Start/Finish line. The problem is, that you will be knocked fairly regularly (especially on the harder difficulty settings or tougher tracks) that your health gauge can dramatically disappear within seconds and BANG! That loud crash sound startles you and it’s time to retry with one less Continue remaining.
This will happen a lot on first attempts at each circuit, especially on the Queen and King Cups. F-Zero is not designed to be beaten on the first few tries; it requires patience and to be mastered. As a single-player game (no multiplayer, this is a setback) it needs to have a reason for you to keep coming back and the desire to master each track against the opponent CPU characters and beating your time is that reason (times are saved and can be handily viewed in the Records menu).
And when your confidence is there you will find yourself entering a ‘flow state’ with every twitch and button press timed perfectly to dart round corners, avoiding obstacles, that it feels second nature. It’s an amazing sensation and coupled with the jaunty soundtrack, this is where this game reaches a nirvana. It arguably takes a little too long to get there and many will likely not have the patience, but persevere and this becomes an exhilarating experience (which isn’t bad for a title produced from a staff of nine people).
Of course, the lack of multiplayer is a huge disappointment. When you think of the spiritual sequel to this (from a Mode 7 perspective, at least), Super Mario Kart was not only a fantastic solo experience but an even better two-player and you can imagine that if they had been able to work in a multiplayer component for this it would have been incredible.
Verdict - Overall, F-Zero is undoubtedly a significant game of its time and its clear the impact it made with a new genre of racing game. Its music and art still hold up and the tracks are varied enough to keep things interesting. Mastering the circuits can be equally addictive yet soul crushing as the difficulty curve is slightly steeper than desired. Coupled with the lack of multiplayer, it really does hold it back from being an essential play in current times. But for a SNES launch game in 1990, this is still an incredible achievement.