Looking at it today, it’s genuinely hard to believe that F-Zero was a SNES launch title. For a game that is now over two decades old, it remains remarkably impressive from a purely visual standpoint. The Mode 7 rotational and scaling effects — which were relatively new to console players back in 1990 — still look striking, and it’s almost impossible to see how the bold and colourful graphics could be realistically improved upon — in 2D terms, at least.
Of course, F-Zero has not become such a beloved classic based purely on its aesthetics; beneath the smoothly rotating track there lies an incredibly playable racer which effectively lays down the blueprint for Super Mario Kart, which would emerge from Nintendo’s labs just under two years later. As the title suggests, this is the futuristic equivalent of modern Formula One racing, with powerful racing machines gliding above — rather than driving directly on — the track.
Although the N64 sequel would add more racers and the ability to use a spin attack on your rivals, the SNES original keeps things surprisingly pure. The aim is simply to finish first on each course. Each race is divided into five laps, and speed boosts are earned for each successful lap, with a maximum of three being stored at any one time. Damage is taken whenever you collide with a rival driver or make contact with the electrified barrier which surrounds most of the track; you can replenish your ship's shield by heading to the pit lane, which is found near the start/finish line.
Although there’s a host of vehicles participating in each race, you can only select from four — all the remaining craft look identical. This is possibly the only shortcoming of F-Zero’s presentation, and is something that would be remedied by the aforementioned sequel, which featured a massive roster of flamboyant drivers and equally unusual ships.
All in all, there are fifteen tracks split between three different leagues, and four different difficulty levels to master — although only three are accessible initially, with the fourth becoming available once you’ve completed all the leagues on beginner, standard and expert. Totally completing the game is not a task which can be taken lightly, and even when you’ve done so, there’s always the allure of beating your best time on any given circuit. The same could be said of any racing game of course, but F-Zero’s tracks are so well designed that they practically beg for repeat play.
As mentioned previously, F-Zero can be considered something of a forerunner to the SNES version of Mario Kart. The controls are very similar, with the L and R shoulder buttons being used to bank your craft in the desired direction and thereby add emphasis to sharp turns. This move can be seen as a very early example of the power slide in Super Mario Kart, and adds a massive amount of depth to the game — clever use of this banking technique can shave seconds off your final time.
We’ve spoken about the attractive visuals at length but F-Zero’s aural experience is just as worthy of praise. From the perfect sound effects to the fantastic music, this game certainly doesn’t disappoint. Notable tunes include the rousing title screen track to Mute City’s urgent accompaniment. Another personal favourite in the Nintendo Life office is the haunting Port Town music — it’s bathed in a melancholy that has no right to exist in a game about racing at speeds in excess of 500 km/h, but it seems to suit the action perfectly nonetheless.
If you wanted to be really picky you could point out that the lack of a two-player competitive mode robs F-Zero of longevity; it’s a difficult argument to refute when you consider how popular Super Mario Kart’s split-screen multiplayer portion was (and still is). However, this is almost the only real criticism you can level at the game — it doesn’t put a foot wrong anywhere else.
This Wii U edition features wonderfully up-scaled visuals which look absolutely pin-sharp over a high definition HDMI connection. Even if you’ve played the game on a SNES with a crystal-clear RGB SCART output, you’ll be massively impressed with the results on offer here. Save states also make the cut, allowing players with busy social lives to get through each league without having to do it all in a single sitting. Most important of all — to European gamers, at least — is 60Hz support. This means that PAL players get to enjoy the same experience as everyone else. It’s also worth noting that like the other Wii U Virtual Console title to date, you can play entirely on the GamePad’s screen.
F-Zero might lack the embellishments of its N64 successor and could really benefit from a two-player mode, but that doesn’t detract from the overall experience. This is a classic racer which has a level of purity and playability that rival titles have been struggling to emulate ever since. From the tight controls to the impeccable course design and timeless presentation, F-Zero is a joy to behold — and it pleases us immensely to report that the Wii U Virtual Console edition is the best one yet.