Colours. Music. The Captain. Speed. Very, very fast speed. Those are the things that race to my mind when anyone mentions "F-Zero". I am also quite certain my eyes widen and sparkle a bit. Is it just a series of games? Not to me. Off to the starting grid…
Knight League: Mode 7 Heaven
The Super Nintendo completely took over my imagination in the early nineties. In an age without Internet or anyway to see upcoming games in motion, I was quite intrigued with the whole Mode 7 concept and had to imagine how F-Zero would look like in motion from the many pictures I found in foreign video gaming magazines.
I was lucky enough to own a Commodore Amiga 500 and thanks to some quick trips to the arcades, for me the racing genre was divided into top view 2D affairs (Micro Machines), single screen isometric racers (Super Off-Road) or sprite scaling based (think the Top Gear trilogy on SNES or Sega's Out Run). The still screens looked amazing, with much more colours than I was used to play with. Then the whole futuristic, hover racing theme was also something quite new and alluring to my young mind. F-Zero was the first game I picked up when the machine was finally released in my country. Sure, the amazing Super Mario World was bundled in the box, but F-Zero was the first cartridge that was inserted into the newly-connected console. No loading times, the TV immediately turned to the main menu, displaying the logo and very catchy music.
However, before I grabbed the joypad and press Start, the text was gone and the CPU-controlled Blue Falcon started racing around Port Town. That moment is unforgettable. Not only Mode 7 managed to shift around the faster and smoother than anything I had played, there were animated lights simulating buildings below the track. It was way more impressive than anything I had imagined and I knew right there that game was going to steal a lot of my free time - in fact, you could often find me sketching the game's vehicles during boring high school classes.
Some people feared that both F-Zero and Pilotwings were going to be little more than tech demos for Mode 7, but this was Nintendo. Each of them are deep, rewarding experiences which at first seem simple to pick up but become harder and harder to master as you keep playing. Not only was I eventually rewarded with "Master" difficulty, but eventually realized that the reason why I was unable to beat the lap records that came printed on magazines was because I was trying to lap NTSC version times on a PAL machine. Ah, innocent days… oh, and I did send my friends into a frenzy when I was finally able to pull this one off.
Queen League: 30 Racers at 60 FPS
A few years later and like most of my friends, the PSX and CD-ROM media was all the rage and had taken over my living room. Amazing games beyond our wildest 16-bit dreams seemed to come out every week. However Nintendo decided to keep cartridge format for their Nintendo 64 home console, skipping straight past the 32-bit architecture. Wise or not, the N64 arrived late and with few games, but it was hard not to eye their weird controller that didn't make any sense until the first time you picked it up and played Super Mario 64. And soon after, an amazing sequel to Star Fox came along with a rumble pack device. Ocarina of Time was repeatedly reviewed as "the greatest game ever" while Mario Kart 64 took all the fun we had on the SNES into proper 3D and made full usage of the console's built in four player support. But guess which game finally made me put my PSX away… that's right, my very first N64 game purchase and also the first going into the cart slot: F-Zero X.
Looking at static screens you might be mistaken into thinking that the graphics are incredibly dull and simplistic, but when you see it in motion it all becomes clear. It runs at a smooth, constant 60 frames per second while shifting around thirty racers at speeds over 2000 km/h. Never mind Mode 7 flat surfaces, the tracks in F-Zero X had loops, tunnels, half pipes… if you could imagine it, Nintendo probably added it in there somewhere… even Rainbow Road! It introduced a risk/reward mechanic with the boost that could now be used on demand after the first lap but it chipped away at your shield energy. The amount of rewards the game threw at you was staggering. There were dozens of new vehicles and their pilots to unlock, Jack, Queen and King League would hide Joker Cup around the corner. Beat that and you unlock the nightmarish X Cup where each time you play it would generate 6 random tracks, most often than not impossible to properly navigate by the CPU opponents (watching 29 racers flying off the track and explode one by one was an impressive fireworks display).
F-Zero X was quite an evolution in the series and it ramped up the difficulty by many times from its original SNES outing but sticking with it delivered an incredibly rewarding experience. The unique "Death Race" mode where you need to take out (as in attack and explode them, another new feature in the series) all other 29 opponents in the fastest possible time was also quite relaxing, for some reason. Truly a sequel worthy of its namesake, if I was a fan before on the SNES, I had surely tuned into a fanatic on Nintendo 64. If only Nintendo had released the 64DD in the West, maybe I would have been able to make my own vehicles and draw my own tracks… but it was not to be.
Pocket League: Tiny G-Diffusers On The Go
Eventually the Nintendo 64 died out, much like the SNES its life cycle was complete and games became few and far between. It was at this time I had a sort of mid-life (mid-youth?) crisis and I was began really missing 2D sprite art games. As such, I hooked up my Super Nintendo, bought a Sega Mega Drive and began picking up ridiculously cheap second hand games wherever I could find them. Since I gave the "next generation" a pass, I was not at the time interested in the Dreamcast, Xbox or PlayStation 2. But I did pick up a "new" console: Nintendo's Game Boy Advance.
Up to this day, it's the closest portable I own that resembles a pocket Super Nintendo. My first GBA game? You guessed it correctly again! The 2001 launch title F-Zero: Maximum Velocity. It was back to the roots here, a game that could pass as a direct sequel to SNES F-Zero (no, those BS F-Zero shenanigans do not count). Thanks to the extra processing power of the GBA, the Mode 7 tracks now have multiple layers, something that helps further the illusion of the race taking place high in the sky. Stick with it long enough and you will eventually unlock the Falcon MKII, which we can assume it is piloted by Captain Falcon's son (because of the game's timeline).
In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, F-Zero became a popular 51 episode anime series both in Japan and the West and that meant tie-in games. Two of them in fact - but sadly only one arrived in America and Europe. F-Zero: GP Legend remains a curious mix of the SNES original with gameplay mechanics from Nintendo 64's F-Zero X - namely the turbo boost and the side attacks. A new story mode added several characters and plots from the anime and was a nice addition from the regular Grand Prix modes. It should not be much of a surprise if I tell you that this cart is usually found on my Game Boy Micro slot. It is just perfect for small play sessions, but still offers a lengthy challenge if you choose to stick with it to the end.
Sadly its sequel F-Zero Climax stubbornly remained in the shores of Japan. It included the one feature I always wanted as a kid playing on my SNES: a top down track editor that would allow you to make the most nightmarish swirly tracks or just plain straights with dash arrows and jump ramps. With over fifty tracks to race on, this third GBA outing is - in my humble opinion - a great import pick up for fans of both the series and the console.
King League: GO FAST!
On January 2nd 2004, I bought my GameCube. I was in college, money wasn't exactly abundant, I already had a PlayStation 2 with a few games including WipEout Fusion but when I first saw the e3 trailer for F-Zero GX, I knew it would become an itch I would never be able to scratch unless I got myself Nintendo hardware. So F-Zero GX was not only my very first GameCube game, it was in fact a game I bought months before I owned the actual console. One of my best friends had a launch day purple GameCube so I bought the game and left it at his house. He became quite a fan of it, so much so he ended up buying me a new copy so he could keep the game. In an unexpected twist of events, I ended up having to buy his Memory Card once we discovered that my save game could not be copied or moved to another (it's one of the few games with protected GameCube save data). That memory card is still hooked up on my original model Wii where it holds the achievements of the entire month of January 2004 in its flash memory.
Super Monkey Ball - that I also picked up at the same time - had to wait; F-Zero GX was inside the GameCube disc tray four weeks in a row. I am unsure I possess the writing skills to transmit to and every one of you exactly how special GX is for me, but I will still try. As a gamer growing in the 16-bit wars, the fact alone that the game was being developed by Sega's Amusement Vision under supervision from Nintendo was outright bizarre! The game engine itself runs on a modified version of Sega's early GameCube hit Super Monkey Ball. I say "runs" but I should have really said "flies", because it is the only game that ever gave me vertigo when diving airborne at 4000 km/h. Locked at a stunning, smooth 60 frames a second the GameCube hardware also meant that there was no longer any graphic / processor limitations like in the N64 and it really shows; you will be flying through both familiar and new tracks so fast you might miss the incredible detail given to each and every one. It still puts most games of this current generation to shame, which is no small feat for a title made twelve years ago.
Story mode is the main new addition to the tried and tested formula, with courageous players taking a seat in the Blue Falcon as our hero Captain Falcon. Each of the nine missions will test your gaming skills to the absolute limit. This is where most people shy away from this game, but for those like me who endure will find out that the game is not impossible, it's not even unfair or broken, it is just incredible layers of challenges that - if you put the time and effort into - you can beat. And when you do, the game rewards you accordingly with extra content that nowadays you would just pay for in DLC packs; new drivers, new machine parts (the vehicle designer from F-Zero X Expansion Kit makes a glorious return here) new tracks and new championships are up for grabs, including the entire content of F-Zero AX, the arcade counterpart that had a GameCube Memory Card slot so you could take your custom machines to and from the cabinet. As you might imagine, I feared the content of the Arcade would be impossible to unlock, but Nintendo and Sega wisely made it possible to access all of it without ever touching the arcade - but you really had to earn it. And earn I did - my save data has everything unlocked yet I keep returning to the game; there is hardly a month this GameCube disc doesn't end up spinning on my Wii, where it runs in its full 16:9, 480p glory using the Wii's superior quality component cable for the very best picture possible.
Why? The simple question is "chaos". It does not matter how good you think you are, how great your customized vehicle stats are and how well you know the upcoming track layout. With 29 other racers on track and each doing their own thing at speeds over a thousand km/h, something, somewhere will go wrong. In the best case scenario, you will end up several places behind on the finishing line and cost you just enough points to ruin your chance at first place overall. Worst case? You will fly so fast off course and explode you won't even have time to react. But the game throws this chaos at you providing such satisfactory visual and audio spectacle that it's really hard to stay mad at it for too long. Speaking of audio, the amount of music in the game is outright insane. Not only is there music for each racing venue, there is also a theme song for each of the forty one drivers, covering a wide genre of both rock and electronic genres with even chiptunes making an appearance. It's curious to consider that there is over two hours and twenty minutes of music in this GameCube mini disc while the Nintendo 64 music tracks had to be turned into mono to fit onto the cartridge. There is nothing I can say about this game except that I love it. It's the reason why I still play video games up to this day. It is by far the best execution of a futuristic racing video game concept.
Ace League: Today and The Forever Tomorrow
E3 is fast creeping up again on us. Every year for the past decade or so, I set myself up for disappointment. I am always paying extra attention to the word F-Zero coming up (imagine my disappointment when Miyamoto began playing Mute City on Wii Music back in 2008). Yet, its DNA is more than present in our everyday Wii U gaming. Mario Kart 8 was a genius way to please both Mario Kart and F-Zero fans, but are they one and the same? Speaking from my personal opinion, they are not. Don't get me wrong, I love Mario Kart as much as the next human being; its weapon-based gameplay is brilliant and even more so in the full HD glory provided by the Wii U. But did you, dear reader, put on a big smile when Nintendo announced Mute City and Big Blue in the DLC packs? Do you race around in the Blue Falcon with your Mii wearing Captain Falcon's outfit? Are you addicted to 200cc?
For many years I believed myself to be alone on this, but in the vastness of the Internet I today know quite a lot of people with similar experiences to mine regarding F-Zero. Miyamoto has publicly stated that he was not satisfied with how the collaborations with Sega on F-Zero GX and Namco on Star Fox Assault turned out and that he would only bring F-Zero back if he could find a new way to improve the game or a new way to play it (Captain Falcon's Twisted Road, anyone?). But is all of this Mario Kart 8 DLC a test to see how the audience reacts to F-Zero-like speeds? Are we being groomed into a new F-Zero? Is this DLC all we will ever see of F-Zero this generation? Will F-Zero come to… mobile smartphones?
I do not know what is happening inside the magic walls of Nintendo's Kyoto headquarters, but I am already counting down the days until E3… to bitter disappointment or the best video gaming news I get all year is yet to be seen. But we should not be mad at Nintendo. The industry changed so fast overnight it is hard to keep up with current trends. I choose to be grateful instead for all the amazing memories I already have, and for the many more I will continue to make with these wonderful racers.