For as much as I like racing games I will admit that most of the 8-bit titles in the genre did nothing for me. There were valiant attempts that were fun like R.C. Pro Am and Micro Machines but the tech simply wasn’t there to create anything truly advanced. All that changed with the 16-bit consoles. Now the big impressive arcade games like Outrun could be convincingly reproduced at home and the results were spectacular. When the SNES launched Super Mario World was the flagship title. But F-Zero was the game that really showed off the system’s prowess and established a whole new genre.
F-Zero’s release at the Super Nintendo launch was notable for a number of reasons. Next to Pilotwings it really sold just how much more powerful the SNES was than the competition. But more than that it used the system’s Mode 7 to create a new experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. Not only was it an awesome racing game, it basically created the futuristic racing genre as we know it.
You can’t talk about F-Zero without mentioning its graphics. To those of us weaned on the NES it was nothing short of revolutionary. The faux 3d landscape provided by the system’s mode 7 was a step ahead of most racing games of its time. Combined with its art direction and many varied alien worlds it really sold its vision of the future. Looking back on it now you can see the limitations; roadside detail is nonexistent as everything is on a flat plain. But that was of little consequence back in 1991. Add to that its jazzy soundtrack and you can see why everyone had to own an SNES at launch.
There are only four cars to choose from, each differing in terms of max speed, acceleration, and vehicle weight. Weight affects multiple aspects; the tightness of your handling, the distance you fly when hitting a bumper and also the speed you recover power in pit areas. Lighter cars replenish power slower while the heavier beasts are faster. Despite the small selection there is one vehicle that should match everyone’s preferences.
The gameplay in F-Zero is pretty straightforward. The 3 leagues (Knight, Queen, King) are comprised of five tracks each. Each race is a grueling five laps long, giving plenty of opportunity to jockey for first place. Despite its appearance this is not a combat racing game; there are no weapons and you can’t attack the opposing cars. The only power-up is a boost received after each lap. In most games a boost would be an immediate boon. Here however you absolutely need to learn the best time to deploy it as the extra speed can easily send you out of control.
The course design and gameplay are the immediate standouts. Mode 7 allowed for twists and turns not possible on the NES and it was thrilling. The shoulder buttons further innovated by allowing even greater control when steering. Once mastered even the sharpest curves and conditions could be navigated with ease. Further spicing up each track are numerous environmental hazards. Mines sap power and cause loss of control, magnets pull you toward track borders, and dirt slows you down. Some tracks feature slippery ice or fields that pull you from a well-timed jump. Aside from the four main competitors there are drones that mainly get in your way at the worst times. Even though you might break away from the pack it still remains lively.
Contending with these elements as well as exploding drone cars while still coming in first is still quite a task. This is not an easy game by any stretch and the difficulty curve is sharp. Five laps per race is an endurance test and excessive in my opinion. As early as Death Wind and Port City the layouts begin to feature sharp curves that require mastery of cornering. Despite the multiple difficulty levels the slightest mistake is costly, even on beginner. The rubber banding is just right; you can build a comfortable lead but are still always a step away from losing your place. I could have done without the useless drone cars but they at least add life to each race.
F-Zero’s only serious flaw is the lack of multiplayer. There is no getting around it; its absence sucks. There are a large number of courses and with its steep difficulty you’ll get some mileage out of it. But the lack of any competitive options is a huge blow to the game’s longevity. I imagine it was a technical reason keeping it out as it wasn’t until Super Mario Kart almost two years later that we would see split screen multiplayer in Mode 7.
The lack of multiplayer hurts but it only keeps the game from being truly special. F-Zero is still a great game even today and makes the lack of a new title in the series hurt that much more.