F-Zero was one of my favourite games as a kid. Up until F-Zero the only way you could experience this kind of graphics, speed and music were in the arcades – and I spent many a weekend on seaside piers pumping money into Daytona or Virtua Racing. With F-Zero, I could now experience this fast-paced racing game in the comfort of my own living room. The following is a look at the history of F-Zero.
For those who don’t know F-Zero is a futuristic racing game originally developed by Nintendo for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). The game was released in Japan on November 21, 1990, in North America in August 1991, and in Europe in 1992. It’s the first game in the F-Zero series, and arguably the most popular and iconic.
It was a launch game alongside the SNES, and I got my hands on it in 1992 and was blown away. There were 3 launch games – Super Mario World, Pilotwings and F-Zero. Super Mario World blew me away, but there was something about the speed and music in F-Zero that was something I hadn’t really seen before on a home console. Super Mario World was a fantastic iteration on Super Mario 3, a formula we’d seen for some time. F-Zero felt new, fresh and something much closer to the games we could play in the arcade.
Back in 1992, there was a gulf between what you could play at home and what you could play in the arcades. This seems like a funny thought now – as kids, we used to go to arcades and pay money for a few lives or a time-boxed ‘go’ on an arcade machine. The graphics and performance were much better in the arcades with Sega, Konami, Capcom and Neo Geo classics like Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Daytona, X-men etc. At home, we could only have 8-bit with the NES or Master System.
Getting back to F-Zero, as I mentioned before it’s set in the future. It’s set in the year 2560 where a bunch of rich people have created a new sport based on Formula One called F-Zero. There are 4 characters in the game, and each one has their own futuristic hovercar. We have Captain Falcon, Dr. Stewart, Pico & Samurai Goroh. The player can race against computer-controlled characters in fifteen tracks divided into three leagues.
In terms of development, as mentioned before it was a launch title for SNES and took Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development 15 months to complete. F-Zero did have a sequel planned for SNES but it was cancelled but was released unfinished through the Satellaview peripheral under the name “BS F-Zero Grand Prix”. Takaya Imamura, who worked directly on F-Zero throughout its different incarnations, said in 2003 “hav[ing] worked on the F-Zero series, and seeing the results of the collaboration with Sega, I found myself at something of a loss as to how we can take the franchise further past F-Zero GX and AX.”
It’s interesting to know here that Nintendo collaborated with Sega on F-Zero and they’d later work together on F-Zero GX. At the time of the F-Zero release, Nintendo and Sega were portrayed as bitter rivals in the console wars. F-Zero was one of the first games to show off the “Mode 7” graphics. This graphics-rendering technique was an innovative technological achievement at the time that made racing games more realistic, the first of which was F-Zero.
F-Zero didn’t really recapture the excitement and audience it had for the SNES version. Zero Racers (G-Zero) was a cancelled game for the Virtual Boy. After a seven-year hiatus outside Japan, the series made the transition to 3D with the third instalment, F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64. The game introduces twenty-six new vehicles, while also including the four from the original F-Zero game.
The hardware limitations of the N64 resulted in the game running at 60 frames per second with thirty machines on screen at the same time, but with the little processor, power left for graphical detail and music. A Nintendo 64DD expansion, F-Zero X Expansion Kit, was released in Japan as the last 64DD add-on disk for the system. The Expansion Kit added a course editor, a vehicle editor, two new cups, three new machines, and new music. The course editor was the main attraction of this expansion and was praised for its depth, as it was virtually the same program the game’s designers used to make the courses.
F-Zero GX was released for the GameCube and developed by Sega’s Amusement Vision team, and is the first F-Zero game to feature a story mode. The game was initially titled “F-Zero GC”. The arcade counterpart of GX was called F-Zero AX, which was released alongside its Nintendo GameCube counterpart in mid-2003. The game had three types of arcade cabinets; standard, the “Monster Ride”, and the deluxe (which resembled an F-Zero vehicle). F-Zero AX had six original courses and ten original characters. However, by certain difficult means, the six courses and ten characters could be unlocked in F-Zero GX.
There were also iterations of F-Zero on Gameboy Advance with F-Zero: Maximum Velocity which was also a launch title and went back to the mode 7 style gameplay of the SNES. F-Zero: GP Legend is the second handheld game released for the Game Boy Advance and the second instalment featuring a story mode; however, this one is based on the anime series of the same name, introducing a new character named Ryu Suzaku/Rick Wheeler.
The final F-Zero game was F-Zero Climax was released in Japan for the Game Boy Advance on October 21, 2004. Like its handheld predecessor, F-Zero: GP Legend, Climax was published by Nintendo and developed by both them and Suzak. This is the first F-Zero game to have a built-in track editor without the need for an expansion or add-on.
Critics agreed that F-Zero was one of the best racing games of its the generation and also set the standard for the futuristic subgenre. You can certainly see a lot of F-Zero inspiration in Wipeout for the original PlayStation. The one drawback critics tend to agree on when looking back is that it really could have done with a multiplayer mode. The fact that players could only play against the computer AI it really limited the lifespan of the game.
Looking a bit closer at the feedback from critics F-Zero was widely lauded by game critics for its graphical realism, and has been called the fastest and most fluid pseudo-3D racing game of its time. Jeremy Parish of Electronic Gaming Monthly wrote that the game’s use of Mode 7 created the “most convincing racetracks that had ever been seen on a home console” that gave “console gamers an experience even more visceral than could be found in the arcades.” 1UP.com editor Ravi Hiranand agreed, arguing F-Zero’s combination of fast-paced racing and free-range of motion were superior compared to that of previous home console games. IGN’s Peer Schneider assured readers F-Zero was one of the few 16-bit era video games to “perfectly combine presentation and functionality to create a completely new gaming experience”.
If you want to check out F-Zero these days, it’s really easy to do so through the Super Nintendo Entertainment System Online for Nintendo Switch or on the SNES Classic. If you are a Switch Online subscriber then you’ll have it for free, and it’s well worth checking out.