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By Thomas Levett
November 21st will mark a notable milestone, even though many people may not immediately realise it. That day will be the 25th anniversary of the release of game considered to be a major turning point in the world of racing video games – F-Zero, on the SNES.
Some of you younger gamers may not know very much about this series, save for what you’ve gleaned from Captain Falcon’s appearances in the Super Smash Bros series. However, the impact of the original game should not be ignored, nor should the achievements of the titles which follow.
Admittedly, many people would probably say they preferred Mario Kart when it comes to racing series on Nintendo consoles. People have tended to see F-Zero as more of a ‘hardcore’ racing title, that it’s not as accessible to newcomers. This might be true, but when you look a lot closer, a different scenario unfolds.
At anything above 50cc, Mario Kart can swiftly become an exercise in futility and frustration. The items in the game appear to exist solely to screw over human players, and the AI will get significantly smarter and more obnoxious when you’re in first, or trying to get into first – or if you’re just existing somewhere on the track on the highest difficulties. Once the AI gets a solid lead, however, expect to see the computer do barely enough to hold its places in the race, and mysteriously lose access to all those items which bombarded you back into last place.
And may the heavens have mercy upon you if you’re playing Mario Kart Wii or Mario Kart 8, because you have 12 drivers in a race instead of 8. That means 4 more people solely focused on demolishing any foolish hopes you had of victory. The AI does not care if it loses, so long as you don’t win. And it will do everything in its power to ensure that.
F-Zero stands as a contrast to the luck-based chaos of Mario Kart. Like pretty much all racing games, its first two incarnations did tend to have rubber band AI. But that’s a sin common to any such game, designed to make them challenging – although I don’t recall seeing Rubens Barichello and the like pop up in Michael Schumacher’s rear vision mirror five seconds after he left them in his dust again.
There is nothing in F-Zero but you, the track (and any obstacles thereon), and your opponents. It may seem like a ‘hardcore’ game, but in truth it comes across as a more pure racing experience. The speed does not increase with the difficulty, only the skill of the AI, so you have plenty of time to get used to your chosen vehicle and the speeds it can reach. If you can make your way around the track with ease on the lower difficulties, you can do so on the higher difficulties. And while the first game does have its flaws – certain races are literally impossible to complete in first on Master when using the Golden Fox, for one – it nonetheless paved the way for countless other racing games due to its technological precision.
The use of the Mode 7 system to create pseudo-3D environments was leaps ahead of other racers at the time, allowing F-Zero to scale environments as the race went on in order to give a proper feeling of speeding along a track in all sorts of futuristic surrounds. The racing action was accompanied by a well-designed and memorable soundtrack – the Mute City and Big Blue themes have remained part of the series, and its crossover appearances.
Despite this game ensuring the racing world changed forever, there was something of a hiatus for the series until the late 90s, when F-Zero X hit the Nintendo 64. This title showcased even more intense and crazier tracks, with the added bonus of being able to defy gravity and race upside-down in certain sections. Add to these the X Cup’s random track generator, which would occasionally generate tracks with savage turns the AI couldn’t quite handle – leading to the hilarious spectacle of almost all the field flinging itself to its doom and leaving perhaps four or five racers on the track – and there was plenty of replay value, especially when the new for the series multiplayer mode was added in.
The greatest triumph of F-Zero X, however, was its technical ability. While the NTSC version offered higher vehicle speeds than the PAL version, due to differing processing power between the versions, nonetheless the game was very smooth and refined regardless of which version you played. Sure, the vehicles looked a tad blocky, but that turned out to be a necessary sacrifice to get a high-speed experience, with all 30 racers on the track, delivered smoothly and efficiently. Yes, you had to put up with rubber-band AI, but there were ways to circumvent that.
Unlike in Mario Kart 64, which made hitting enemies kind of useless since they recovered immediately if something hit them while they were off-screen (save for lightning bolts), enemies in F-Zero could be damaged or defeated by ramming them into the sides of the track or off the edge – which could create some incredible carnage if done right. It could also backfire, but that was a risk you took in exchange for being able to eliminate that one rival who always bothered you.
An additional crucial difference, in this writer’s opinion, was the fact F-Zero vehicles possessed something Mario Kart vehicles wouldn’t up until roughly the fifth game – competent handling. Some F-Zero vehicles grip the track better than others, but honestly, handling issues in this series come about because you’re piloting high-speed vehicles which use anti-gravity. Mario Kart’s vehicles are relatively stable, four-wheeled vehicles travelling at maybe 40-odd miles an hour, depending on difficulty, and yet up until Mario Kart DS, where an actual handling stat was introduced, they possessed either colossal oversteer or colossal understeer, and would change between that depending on which one would punt you off the track or into a hazard. Even then, the handling is still painfully unreliable for no good reason, probably to force you to use the drift mechanic.
After the solid, but sadly unmemorable, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity on the GBA – which introduced ten new racers and gave an interesting glimpse of a possible future story arc for the series – the masterpiece of the series was released in 2003. F-Zero GX is still regarded as one of the finest racing games to date. Offering gorgeous graphics, a well-designed soundtrack, and a broad array of tracks across a wide range of racing environments, all of which would be a sight to behold at the game’s truly stunning race speeds, F-Zero GX pretty much had it all. It could even be connected with the F-Zero AX arcade cabinets for special unlocks – though only in the US version, the international version saw the AX tracks and cup become unlockable through the hair-pullingly difficult Story Mode.
In spite of the punishing difficulty of Story Mode, GX became hailed as a masterpiece of racing. Everything about it was far superior to the already good F-Zero X, and given the sheer speeds at which the vehicles could travel, they tended to handle the twists, turns and anti-gravity sections impressively well (unless your vehicle went too fast into a turn, or had a really bad grip rating… then you might be in strife). The vehicles looked fantastic, and eleven brand-new ones were added. The race areas were so well-designed, it was almost a shame to blast through them at supersonic pace.
And then… everything came to a halt.
The series featured two more games – F-Zero GP Legend and F-Zero Climax – which had a basis in the continuity of the anime series. Most people would know only of the anime’s finale, which has been made famous due to the appearance of Captain Falcon’s signature technique in the Smash Bros games, the Falcon Punch. GP Legend and Climax do not get a great deal of focus in Nintendo’s history, which has left the F-Zero series in limbo. While GX is definitely a hard act to follow, the fact the series is a far better ‘pure racing’ experience than Mario Kart (and also features much, much less vindictive AI) does play in its favour, in this writer’s opinion. The public seems to have disagreed, overall, and Mario Kart continues to be the racer of choice. Just either play multiplayer or stay at 50cc. You’ll regret it otherwise, seriously.
It is apparent to everyone that F-Zero still lives in some way. Captain Falcon is a popular character in Super Smash Bros – one merely has to look at his performance in Robin and Lucina’s trailer, ‘By Book, Blade and Crest of Flame’, which led to a common belief that he punched Chrom so hard the latter fell out of the roster – and DLC based on F-Zero has appeared in Mario Kart 8. With the anti-gravity sections in that game, and the high-speed rush of 200cc, coupled with said DLC, could it be that Captain Falcon and his fellow racers have another game somewhere in development? We can only hope, as the days of the N64 and Gamecube showed that both games can have a place in the Nintendo lineup – the casual chaos of Mario Kart has a perfect foil in the high-speed precision of F-Zero. Only time will tell.
For now, to honour this criminally neglected series, do yourself a favour and either get out your old F-Zero games, or pick some up second-hand and go on a nostalgia trip. Sharpen your skills and you won’t regret it.
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