With today's article, I'm going to be doing the same thing I was doing for most of 1992: telling anyone who'll listen how great F-Zero is. Created by Nintendo and originally released in 1990, it's the high-speed SNES hover-race-em-up and genuine classic F-Zero! I may have given that away earlier in this paragraph.
With it's relatively sedate title screen and a logo that looks as though it was carved from Turkish delight, the opening moments of F-Zero are gentle, almost unassuming, but I can still remember the first time I saw it - visiting a friend who was an only child with a well-off family, a perfect combination of factors that led to him getting a SNES and most of the launch titles within months of it being released. We'd played a bit of Super Mario World, and while we enjoyed it it didn't set our hearts afire or anything. Don't get me wrong, Super Mario World is one of the finest games ever made, but in the EU it was less than a year since Super Mario Bros. 3 had come out and Super Mario World felt like more of the same. Super Soccer and F-Zero, though - they felt like a huge step up from the NES, especially once I'd seen F-Zero in motion and realised that the whole game looked like that, super-smooth and blisteringly fast, and it wasn't just some fancy effects brought in for the intro. I was so enamoured of F-Zero that when I started making fake videogame magazine using an ancient typewriter with an ink ribbon drier than a mummy's arsecrack, the entire first issue was devoted to F-Zero. What I'm saying is that this won't be an impartial, objective review.
On to the actual game, and let's meet the playable characters. Except we won't, because while there are characters in the driving seats of these vehicles, Captain Falcon being the most famous of them, they're never seen in-game. Instead, all you get to see are their F-Zero machines: four in all, with a range of stats, starting with the Blue Falcon. Captain Falcon's racer is an all-round machine average in every regard aside from being piloted by the coolest man in the galaxy. It also has an all-in-one windscreen and sunroof, like a Citroen C4. A good choice for the beginner, this one.
Ah, the Golden Fox, or the Flying Iron as we used to call it as kids. With the highest acceleration but the lowest top speed, the Golden Fox is a craft for the more experienced F-Zero pilot thanks to its tendency to slide around corners like a greased-up cat on a laminate floor. The Golden Fox is piloted by Dr. Stewart, a handsome and fabulously wealthy doctor who is also a race car driver and, one presumes, the hero of a romance novel who has somehow escaped into a different reality.
Next is the Wild Goose, another average craft that is extremely similar to the Blue Falcon only green and unaerodynamic. A little slipperier on corners, maybe. Its pilot is Pico, a vicious alien who lusts for death and carnage. You can tell he's evil, because he named his car after the most evil kind of bird.
Finally there's the Fire Stingray, a great big lump of a machine that sort of looks like a flamboyant fish. My personal favourite craft, it's the complete opposite of the Golden Fox: takes forever to get going but is the fastest once it is going, and it sticks to the corners better than anything else. Those are the qualities that make it my favourite, and not because I feel a kinship with anything fat and pink. The Fire Stingray's driver is Samurai Goroh, a samurai thief who wears the traditional samurai attire of a samurai sleeveless vest and a samurai flying cap. He's Captain Falcon's rival, although I'm not sure Captain Falcon sees it that way.
To get a look at the drivers we can turn to the manual, which famously included a short comic showing Captain Falcon doing his day job of being a bounty hunter before getting ready for the latest F-Zero race. Two things to mention here: one is that Dr. Stewart's name obviously wasn't nailed down at this point because the comic calls him Dr. Stuart, and the other is that everyone know that Pico is a murderer but nobody seems to give a shit.
The comic also shows just how much Captain Falcon looked like Judge Dredd in his first appearance. Giant gold birds all over him, black leather outfit, a face-obscuring helmet that he never takes off - I'd be very careful walking around Mega-City One dressed like that because if Dredd sees you it'll be straight into the iso-cubes for impersonating a Judge.
F-Zero features fifteen tracks split into three leagues of five, so let's begin with the Knight League (the easiest of the three) and its first track, the iconic raceway of Mute City. Unlike many other racing games of the time, there's no secret trick to getting a speed-boost by holding the accelerator at the correct time in F-Zero. If you hold down accelerate too early your vehicle will lurch ahead for a moment but then slow right down, allowing the other racers to breeze past you. However, and this is my top F-Zero advanced driving tip, the computer-controlled cars always start the race by driving forwards in a straight line, so if you're in a craft with lower acceleration (i.e. not the Golden Fox) you can use the momentary speed boost to position yourself right in front of one of the faster racers. They will then ram into your from behind, pushing you up to high speed and causing them to fall back. A bit of a dick move, sure, but Pico has already threatened to murder me so I think some start-line argy-bargy can be considered as close to fair play as F-Zero gets.
Then you're away, hurtling around the track at preposterous speeds and it's just plain good fun. F-Zero's then-unparalleled sense of speed is often mentioned as its main defining feature, and it certainly is a technological achievement that blows anything the NES could produce out of the water, but there's more to it than that. For one thing it's also extremely smooth, both in terms of the scenery flying by without so much as a hiccup and the perfectly implemented and surprisingly delicate controls that allow you to experience the high-speed action without the frustration of not being able to get your craft to go where it's supposed to be going. I think a big part of the control scheme's success is down to the addition of the air-brakes - operated by the L and R buttons, holding them down allows you to not only take corners at much sharper angles than you could otherwise but also to make fine left and right adjustments without having to use the d-pad.
That said, the sense of speed really is the key to F-Zero's success and it's all thanks to the SNES' famous Mode 7 graphical effects that allow the background to be scaled and rotated on the fly. It's sometimes said that F-Zero is nothing more than a tech demo designed to showcase the SNES' graphical grunt, and while I think that's a little harsh - there's a finely-honed gameplay experience under all the sparkles and stardust - it definitely made a powerful statement about just what Nintendo's new console was capable of.
Looking at Mute City, I think there might be something to the whole F-Zero / Judge Dredd connection, you know. As a vast, sprawling metropolis that covers the landscape as far as the eye can see, Mute City certainly shares some similarities with Dredd's home of Mega-City One, and the vehicle designs would fit nicely into the pages of 2000AD, but I suppose we'll never get to see much more of Mute City to look for further similarities because the F-Zero races take place on aerial raceways suspended many miles above the city. That's what all the glowing barriers around the edge of the track are for, they're to make sure you can't fall off.
Except you very much can fall off - mess up a jump after being launched from one of the game's ramps and you can plummet off the track and down to a fiery death in the city below. Good work, Captain Falcon, that's someone's bedroom that you've smashed your rocket-car into. To live in Mute City is to live with the constant terror that a flying racecar is going to fall from the sky and crush everything that you care about, but on the plus side it must keep house prices low.
Captain Falcon claims first place and the SNES seizes the chance to flex it's graphical muscles a little by spinning the camera into a side-on position. Because it looks cool, that's why.
Coming in first is the aim of F-Zero - it is a racing game, after all - but it's not the be-all and end-all because it doesn't use the usual points table of most "grand prix" games. Instead, you have to finish each lap in a certain position or higher, or you're eliminated from the race: fifteenth place or higher in the first lap, then tenth or higher in the second and so on until you reach the final lap where you must cross the finish line in one of the top three positions. It's an unusual system that has its merits and its disadvantages - you can come third in every race and still "win" the league and the extra leeway is helpful (and almost mandatory on the higher difficulties) but it does rather detract from the thrill of winning the race. That said, given that I've already managed to spread Captain Falcon's body over several city blocks once already I imagine most F-Zero pilots are just happy to finish the race with their lives intact.
Track two is Big Blue, a course built above an ocean planet, presumably in response to the protests of those Mute City homeowners who live under the racetrack. The course map in the bottom-left looks a bit like a slouching man with no legs. Don't ask what the protuberance sticking out of the right-hand side is, though.
The grey patches on the track aren't scattered piles of cat litter but spots that slow down you craft if you drive over them, so don't do that. Unless you have a speed boost available, of course: then you can boost across them with no penalty, often finding valuable time-saving paths through the grey sludge. You get one boost per lap, (excluding the first,) represented by the "S" icons at the bottom of the screen. Sadly, unlike in the later iterations of the F-Zero series, there's no overenthusiastic announcer to shout "YOU GOT BOOST POWER!" when you collect one.
Big Blue also features this big patch of slippery, eye-punishing track that makes your car slide around if you try to turn on it. Because Mode 7 can only handle flat objects, F-Zero makes use of many different "painted on" road surfaces that hamper your driving ability in one way or another, from draining your power bar to magnetically pulling you towards them. In the case of this ice(?) patch, you might be tempted to slam on the brakes when trying to negotiate it, but I'm not so sure. Maybe we should ask Captain Falcon for his advice?
Well, that's that sorted, then. It's surprisingly sound advice, too; braking in F-Zero is rarely the best way to negotiate any obstacle, with a combination of using the air-brakes and simply not accelerating usually allowing you to keep more speed through corners. A true story: when I started playing F-Zero for the purposes of this article, I honestly couldn't remember if there even was a brake button, so little is it required. If you find yourself drifting too wide, you can generally get back on course by repeatedly tapping accelerate until your craft is stable again, which is another point in F-Zero's favour - it's a game that's both immediately accessible to anyone who picks it up, but one which also rewards players who master advanced techniques.
From a watery ocean to Sand Ocean for the third track, and here I'm sending the Blue Falcon right into the barriers in an attempt to get a better look at that colossal snail shell in the background. I've always loved that thing, sitting at such a distance that it must be thousands of feet tall to appear so prominently. I love the F-Zero universe, I really do, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't equally interested in the story of a snail the size of Mount Kilimanjaro.
All that dithering around looking at snail shells like some far-future adrenaline junkie reincarnation of David Attenborough meant that I was overtaken... and not just by the other three named racers. Fall far enough down the pack any you'll find yourself being harassed by these anonymous and numerous racers that look like the "space" equivalent of a VW Beetle. They're very little threat on the lower difficulties, but on Expert and the unlockable Master setting they can give you a real run for your money. However, the real members of this interchangeable race team that will cause havoc with your plans for a top-three finish are the the ones that are way down in the pack. There are plenty of them, and they're so slow that you will lap many of them in each race, assuming you can get past them. There are no Formula 1-style rules about moving out of the way of cars trying to lap you in the distant future, and the anonymous craft will bumble about right in front of you, pootling around in your racing line and causing you to crash, their sole reason for entering this high-stakes race with inferior ships that have no chance of winning seemingly being to get right on your goddamn nerves. Well, mission accomplished, you bulbous, dithering pricks. Bravo. Did I mention that some of these machines will be so low on energy that if you touch them they explode, sending your craft bouncing around the course? Because that happens.
One touch I do like is that while they have the same sprite, the anonymous cars are coloured differently depending on whether they're ahead of you in the rankings or are about to get lapped - purple and green for the challengers and orange for the also-rans. It means you can tell them apart at a glance, although it doesn't really matter because either type will try their level best to smear themselves all over your cockpit anyway.
This is Death Wind, and looking at its course map you'd be forgiven for thinking you're in for an easy ride. However, Death Wind - as well as being a set-up for some nicely childish flatulence jokes - has a gimmick, and that gimmick is, erm, wind. A constant wind blows your car to the side as you travel down the long straights, which must be counteracted by either driving into the wind at an angle or using L and R to constantly adjust your position. The third option is to randomly bounce around the track like a rat in a pinball machine, but as that usually results in your craft exploding after all it's power is drained I can't in all good conscience recommend it. Hang on, that means F-Zero is a racing game with a health bar and extra lives. Weird.
The final Knight League track is Silence, and I hope you're a big fan of Pythagorean mathematics because this one's all right angles all the time, apart from the early corner pictured above. This represents F-Zero's first real offer of a shortcut: you can either take the safe but longer path around the gentle curve to the right, or you can head left through a short minefield. Oh, and you have to take a very sharp left at the end of the minefield to make sure you hit the next jump over a patch of slow-down goo. Now, I don't want to get too bossy about this but if you don't take the shortcut every time then you are playing F-Zero wrong. I'm telling you this for your own good: attempting this track on the higher difficulties and not taking the shortcut will almost always lead to you dropping places, so you might as well get some practise in while things are more gentle.
With Silence conquered - "survived" might be a better word - the Knight League is over. Your reward is footage of your craft zooming around the track shot from various angles as your lap times are displayed - and that's it, which leads us to what is probably F-Zero's single biggest flaw: there's just not much of it. There are the fifteen tracks and four racers you start with, and that's your lot. No unlockables besides one extra skill setting, no story or celebratory cutscenes and, worst of all, no multiplayer mode. For whatever reason, F-Zero is a strictly single-player affair, and it's hard not to think that a versus mode would have given it some much-needed extra lifespan for players who , unlike me, weren't obsessed with the game.
Let's get straight into the Queen league, then, and the first track is Mute City II. Yep, we're back in Mute City, where sales of car-proof umbrellas have gone through the roof (much like the Blue Falcon) and the time of day has shifted to a sunset scene. The only major change is that there's a massive roundabout in the middle of the course now. You can go left, you can go right, but they're the same distance and your choice is ultimately meaningless. A harsh life lesson from F-Zero, there.
The second Queen League race takes place in Captain Falcon's birthplace of Port Town, where the track is still apparently under construction. And I thought the residents of Mute City had it bad, but at least their floating death-trap was fully assembled.
Another feature new to Port Town are these magnetic strips that I mentioned earlier. They work like a reverse version of Death Wind's gales but, if you'll allow me to paraphrase from Wayne's World, while the wind blows, these suck, dragging you car towards them and grinding it against the energy-sapping barriers. They're worth the hassle, though, because when you turn a corner near the end of one their magnetic force slingshots you around the bend, and it's a ridiculous amount of fun for something so simple.
Now we've reached Red Canyon. There's not much to say about this one: it's like Sand Ocean visually, but with more jumping and thus more crashing into the arid wastes where if the explosion didn't kill you then the harsh conditions surely will. One thing I can mention is that Red Canyon has a kickin' soundtrack:
It's got a great mix of tense, jabbing horns and a relentless bassline that perfectly fits the nerve-wracking action as you bounce over the desert, and the Red Canyon theme is hardly alone in being great: right out of the gate, Naoto Ishida and Yumiko Kanki created one of the SNES's very best "action" soundtracks, especially if you love those driving basslines.
The Big Blue theme is my favourite. Possibly not just my favourite F-Zero track but my favourite thing. I tried to record it off the TV using a TalkBoy when I was a kid. It didn't work. I never even got to use the TalkBoy to mess with with my sister's date, either, although that might be because I don't have a sister.
This is White Land, where the land is purple and Trading Standards have already been called. Okay, so a lot of the track is white, what with all the fake snow covering it. I assume it's fake snow, anyway. It must be, because the F-Zero racers are hovering so why would snow affect them? Of course, this is clearly some bizarre alien world given over almost entirely to the farming of violets and other purple flowers, so maybe the white stuff is a collection of unearthly crystals that mess with the F-Zero machines' G-Diffuser systems. Oh yeah, the G-Diffuser system is the technology that powers F-Zero machines and also reduces the G-forces felt by the driver, allowing them to scream around the track at five hundred kilometres an hour without their necks snapping like twigs whenever they turn a corner. A piece of Nintendo trivia for you (which I think is fairly widely known now): the G-Diffuser system is also used by the Arwings in the StarFox series. So, F-Zero takes place in the same universe as StarFox, which explains how Fox McCloud's dad pitched up in F-Zero X but not how he turned from an fox into a human.
The last course of the Queen League is White Land II, and yes, it is a little underwhelming to have two tracks with the same setting back-to-back. Nintendo did at least give each track a different variation of the same musical theme, which is pretty cool.
A couple of thing to note about White Land II: one is these blue energy-draining panels that you can save a couple of seconds on by driving straight through them. You lose a bit of energy, but real men don't use brakes and real men don't not drive through roadside obstacles, potentially damaging their vehicles for the sake of a small reduction in lap times.
The other thing is this ruddy great jump over nothingness: my nemesis, my downfall, my thing I swear at more than anything else in F-Zero which is quite an achievement when you remember all those anonymous cars that are driving right in front of you all the time. My problem with it is that it costs me at least one life every time I try the Queen League, because I always forget it's coming up and it's right after a corner so there's no guarantee you'll have enough speed to make the jump. That's fine on the later laps when you have a speed boost available, but for me the first lap of White Land II is usually going smoothly until I remember - too late, always too late - about this whacking great hole in the road. Still, once I've made it past that first lap it's plain sailing and the Queen League is in the bag.
We're in the King League now, and a new league means a new Mute City track. Mute City III takes place at night, and I think it's the best-looking of the three because it's got that neon-hued cyberpunk look to it. You can't have cyberpunk in the daytime, it's like drinking scotch at nine AM - sometimes interesting, but not just right on a basic level. It's nice to see Nintendo taking the colourful, vibrant style that they're known for and applying it to a science fiction setting - their only major sci-fi game before this was Metroid, and that's mostly dark and claustrophobic, quite unlike F-Zero's expansive landscapes.
The tracks are also getting much more challenging now, with some ferocious course designs and an abundance of obstacles that means surviving the race without running out of power is as much of a consideration as coming in first. You see that red circle I'm about to drive over? That's a land mine. Someone put land mines all over the road for the entertainment of the viewers of home. The F-Zero backstory is that the races were put together by a group of fabulously wealthy and extremely bored businessmen, proving that even in the far future you can get away with being an absolute dick if you have enough cash.
Not that I'm complaining about the land mines, mind you, or any of the other obstacles - F-Zero's combination of high-octance racing and precise controls means that weaving through them is never less than exciting, the slickness and pure action creating a racing experience that I don't think was ever bettered on any 16-bit platform.
This is Death Wind II, where the wind is still in full effect but the previously basic loop of the track has sprouted a bulging nightmare section of sharp corners and narrow track. It is a testament to this track's ability to thoroughly wreck your vehicle that it's one of the very few where you're forced to drive through the energy-restoring pit lane.
Third in the King League is Port Town II, and like Death Wind II it takes the first iteration of the course and grafts on a bunch of punishing new additions, like a Frankenstein swapping one of its arms for a boombox that only plays recording of seagulls fighting.
In the screenshot above, I've ended up in a tricky situation because there's no way I'm getting through that kink in the road without either crashing into the Blue Falcon or grinding against the barriers. For all my praise of F-Zero's gameplay - praise that is still fully justified - there is one area where it lets itself down, and that's collisions with other vehicles. The problem is that it's all just a bit random, and when you hit another car you're never sure how your vehicle will react. Sometimes you'll bounce off each other in a relatively sedate manner, sometimes you'll shoot off in a direction completely unrelated to the angle of impact and still other times you'll "stick" to the other car for a short while. If there were only you and the three other "named" racers on the track it wouldn't be so much of a problem, but the swarms of anonymous drivers that are there for no other reason than to get in your face mean that finding a clear driving line, especially on these later, tougher tracks - can sometimes switch from "challenging" to "frustrating."
The penultimate track is Red Canyon II, a relatively sedate affair that is markedly easier than all the other tracks in the King League. "Sedate" seems like and odd word to describe a track in which the most memorable feature is the chance to take a shortcut by jumping off the course and then bouncing back onto it by landing on a giant arrow made of jump pads, but there you go.
The final test of your F-Zero skills is Fire Field, a racetrack built on a planet whose surface is an endless vista of roiling lava. I know the founders of F-Zero were very rich and very bored, but just how rich and bored to you have to be to think this is a good idea? And where did they find a construction company willing to build this thing? Most builders won't show up for work if there's a light drizzle, never mind a relentless tide of all-consuming molten rock.
As you would expect from the last course in the game, Fire Field throws everything at the player in an attempt to make their vehicle explodes. Land mines, magnets, slip zones, you name it, it's here at Fire Field in quantities that make me wonder if this track wasn't created solely as a means of using up all the F-Zero league's leftover bullshit. The real malice of Fire Field, however, is found right at the end of the lap, where the game makes you choose between taking the short route along the final stretch to the finish line or going the long way around... which is where the only energy-restoring patch of track is located. That is just cruel, especially on a course where unless you're an F-Zero master you'll need every scrap of energy you can get lest you explode.
Yeah, like that.
I found that the best strategy was to go for the extra energy on every lap apart from the last, and then hope that whatever you've got left in the tank will see you through the final lap, all the while praying that one of the anonymous cars doesn't slam into you or park itself near the magnet rails.
It all worked out in the end, although it would have been a much easier ride if I wasn't playing as the Golden Fox because Fire Field has more corners than a box full of octagons. With a little perseverance, though, I managed to race to victory. By finishing third. Look, I'll take it.
With that, F-Zero is over, and sadly I mean that there's almost nothing else new to do in the game. As I mentioned, you can unlock the Master difficulty level for each league, but that's not much of a reward because rather than making the CPU racers more intelligent or devious it just makes them faster.
Much, much faster, in fact - in Master mode you can be flying along at top speed in the Fire Stingray (the fastest craft in the game, don't forget) and even the anonymous racers will simply glide past you on the long straights. It's not rewarding to beat or even much fun, it's just annoying. You do get a slightly different ending for finishing a league on Master difficulty... but as it just shows a top-down view of your vehicle and offers some generic congratulatory message, it's not really worth the stress of beating F-Zero at the highest level.
As I look back on F-Zero with a more critical eye (or the cynicism of age) I realise that perhaps it is not quite the flawless masterpiece that a young VGJunk believed it to be. It's very bare-bones, the difficulty curve is cheap rather than challenging and the mysterious whims that control the inter-vehicle collisions can lead to some frustration - but it's still a very good game. A great game, even, a game that stormed into the 16-bit marketplace and screamed "look at this cool shit," a game packed with Nintendo's traditional graphical quality and one of the best soundtracks of the genre and, most importantly, a game that is still fun to play even today. Some games do not age well, but F-Zero's mix of of simple, exciting gameplay and retro charm means that it has aged like a fine wine. It's also like a fine wine in the sense that I enjoy it so much that I gorge on it and then get a headache.