F-Zero was released in North America in August 1991 as one of five launch titles for the brand-new Super Nintendo Entertainment System, alongside other titles – Pilotwings, Gradius III, SimCity, and Super Mario World. With the release of F-Zero, Nintendo reinvigorated the racing game genre and created a franchise whose presence(or absence) can still be felt, though not always recognized. This is also the first appearance of bounty hunter Captain Falcon who became the signature character of the series.
F-Zero is set in the year 2560 as a group of billionaires with an overabundance of both time and money(clearly) have become dissatisfied with their lavish lifestyles and create F-Zero, a very fast and very dangerous racing league patterned after what we currently know as Formula 1 racing. Each contestant pilots a craft that hovers above the track at speeds upwards of 400 kilometers per hour as the races take place over a number of different locations such as Mute City, Big Blue, Death Wind or Port Town.
The races are separated into three circuits – Knight, Queen, and King, with each circuit consisting of five tracks. You are required to finish in the top three in order to advance to the next race. F-Zero deviates slightly from the normal racing game formula in you have a power meter for your machine as you begin the race, for every collision with the guard rail or hazards scattered about the course your power is reduced and will result in your machine exploding when depleted. Each course has a Pit Zone, which will replenish your machine’s power when driven through. You also start out with a number of spare machines which act as extra lives. If you run out of spare machines while making your way through a given circuit, you will be required to restart from the first race.
The strengths of F-Zero lie in its style and setting, it possesses a sense of high-speed danger that has been felt in later arcade-style racing titles like Wipeout, Hydro Thunder, or even Star Wars: Episode I Racer. The track locations are unique and memorable, though Mute City and Big Blue being represented as levels in Super Smash Bros. clearly aided in this, and the graphics were nothing short of impressive when first released nearly thirty years ago. Despite the game not featuring much depth as it pertains to game modes(Grand Prix and Practice) and no multiplayer option, it still provides enough of a challenge for those with quick enough reflexes and willingness to learn the courses and their hazards(years before George Lucas gave us podracing). The in-game music is great and perfectly captures the feelings of speeding around the track, a mere foot off the ground. Despite being more successful and typically more revered among gamers, I would venture to say I enjoy playing F-Zero a bit more than the inaugural Mario Kart as I find it a bit difficult to return to after so many improvements in subsequent releases. Undoubtedly, an important aspect of what made Mario Kart vastly more popular than F-Zero is the former’s multiplayer options, of which the latter has exactly (F-)zero. Ironically, Mario Kart as well as Super Smash Bros. have served as a significant source of exposure for the now-dormant F-Zero series. Later Mario Kart entries have featured Mute City and Big Blue as playable courses and Captain Falcon has been a popular character since the first Super Smash Bros.
F-Zero still plays very well considering it was released thirty years ago, with my biggest complaints about the game boiling down to two areas: its difficulty(specifically A.I. competitors) and aspects of the game’s physics. F-Zero as a series is known for being anything but easy; opposing A.I.
are assholes go out of their way to make your lap around the track as miserable as possible. To further add to the high-speed tension and frustration, the in-game physics upon any contact with an opponent or on-track obstacles and hazards will cause an exaggerated collision very much resembling the infamous knock-back damage of games such as Ninja Gaiden or Mega Man. It can get very frustrating, very quickly when an enemy driver will bump into your machine and cause you to bounce off the opponent’s machine straight into the guard rail and back again, all while causing damage to your vehicle. There were quite a few races that I was bounced between a couple of opponents and the guard rails in rapid succession before my racer’s energy was depleted and explodes. This often makes races seem more along the lines of a bumper cars ride than an exciting high-speed, high-stakes race of the distant future, the Mode 7 backgrounds in F-Zero also make for a greater feeling of everything spinning around you when dealing with obstacles and hazards.
Outside of my frustration at times with the game’s bumper car physics and the occasional motion sickness caused by the implementation of Mode 7 backgrounds, I do really enjoy F-Zero on the SNES. Would I recommend the game to those that have never played an F-Zero game? Yes, though perhaps in small doses as the pseudo-3D backgrounds of some of the older SNES games such as F-Zero or Mario Kart were nothing short of impressive at the time, they’ve also not aged particularly well as it’s very hard NOT to feel like you’re simply rotating the screen around your 16-bit sprite. Many have since dismissed games like F-Zero and Pilotwings as being nothing more than a tech demo for the Super Nintendo and to display what may be possible through the newest home gaming console. Though it may not have aged gracefully, one can still appreciate a game for its accomplishments at the time and significance in gaming history.
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