At their very core, futuristic racing games should have visual flair, and there was already an early history of this sub-genre before F-Zero released – including Nintendo's Mach Rider on NES in 1985, Powerdrome on 16-bit computers, and Atari's arcade S.T.U.N. Runner in 1989. Following these games, late 1990 became an exciting time for futuristic racers, partly as SEGA's A.B. Cop coin-op released a month after the launch of F-Zero on the shiny new Super Famicom, but predominantly because Nintendo's console game was striking as it sped around in style.
As one of the earliest Super Famicom launch titles – released in Japan on November 21st, 1990 alongside the less graphically flamboyant (but equally beloved) Super Mario World – it's fundamental in analysing the first F-Zero to highlight the impact of Mode 7. To illustrate this point, during an interview on Nintendo.com commemorating the release of F-Zero as part of the SNES Classic Edition, F-Zero's game director Kazunobu Shimizu explained in regards to Mode 7 that, "I thought if we used that to make a racing game, it would shock everyone!" It turned out that Shimizu-san's thinking was entirely accurate.
Early in the SNES's lifespan in June 1991, Rich Leadbetter reviewed F-Zero in Issue 9 of the UK magazine Mean Machines, and predicted in a 90% scoring review that, "there’ll never, ever be anything to touch this graphically on the Amiga or Mega Drive." Even amongst the 20 SNES titles initially available to Nintendo Switch Online members in September 2019, the smoothness of F-Zero's Mode 7 still stands out. It's a party trick that will have sold many people on the console, and it still has an impact even after all this time.
Although 16-bit consoles adopted the sprite scaling effect for roads similar to SEGA's arcade Super Scaler graphics, F-Zero's swooping camera after winning a Grand Prix was only possible due to Mode 7's rotation ability. Mode 7 was simply a jaw-dropping pseudo-3D marvel to experience in 1990, in the context of console capabilities at that time. The game is eye-blisteringly bright as if Nintendo intended to showcase the SNES's colour palette superiority over the Mega Drive through bold colouring from the outset.
The longevity of F-Zero's visual design is prevalent in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's stages – including Big Blue and Port Town, while the sights and sounds of the iconic Mute City stage are directly based on the SNES game's graphics – and all three originated in the SNES original. Choosing from four futuristic racing hovercar vehicles (Blue Falcon, Golden Fox, Wild Goose and Fire Stingray) – differentiated by max power, max speed and weight, as well as a curve graph that displays acceleration ratings – you take part in a Grand Prix, or learn track layouts in Practice mode. The tension builds as you must achieve a set rank within each lap.
If you jump from Beginner to Normal, and then to Expert Class you can feel the exhilaration and frustration increase with more aggressive opponents – unfortunately through cheap, rubber-banding AI on harder difficulties. You develop skills from mastering the smooth handling system, including using the shoulder buttons to corner more effectively, and the strategy to search for boost arrows, or shortcuts. It's with experience that you learn the best course positions to time where to use the three speed boosts in each race, and discover intricacies like longer hang-time on jumps being faster than regular driving. Fast reflexes are essential for avoiding hazards such as explosive mines, bumping opponents, disruptive gales and rough roads, as well as steering into skids on slippery track coating – plus avoiding magnetic rails that drag you towards them to wear down your Power meter.
Course design throughout the 15 tracks is excellent, as during the first Grand Prix's Knight League Silence circuit the game empathises the importance of skillfully navigating hairpins and sharp turns. However, the final Fire Field course does feel like a difficulty spike, and if you ever hope to unlock the fierce challenge of Master Class, firstly attempting to beat Expert Class is not an easy task. The main disappointing part of F-Zero's gameplay, which affects its lastability, is that it doesn’t spark pangs of nostalgia in the way that Super Mario Kart ignited memories of competitive play, because it's a single-player only game.
However, a large amount of nostalgia is triggered by Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida's F-Zero soundtrack, and just hearing the futuristic bleeps of the title music will rekindle memories of first owning cutting edge technology in the early 1990s. The music for Mute City, Big Blue and Silence is all unforgettable, but special mention must go to Yumko Kanki for writing one of the most killer basslines on the SNES in the tune for Death Wind. The bass in Death Wind is amongst the most awesome, funky tunes crafted using the SNES's S-SMP audio chip, alongside the 'Bust up the Railway' music in Final Fight 2, and the Banglar final boss bass in The Ninja Warriors Again.
F-Zero achieved 11th place in Issue 119 of Retro Gamer's readers vote on the 'Top 25 SNES Games', although some gamers may be surprised that Pilotwings was awarded a higher position. However, this was not the case in Nintendo Life's 'Guide: The 20 SNES Games On Nintendo Switch Online, Ranked By Us', where F-Zero zoomed ahead to ninth place. That speaks volumes.
F-Zero's game director Kazunobu Shimizu stated that he thought the Mode 7 effects in a racing game "would shock everyone", and he was correct, because during the November 1990 launch of the Super Famicom gamers' jaws dropped at the colourful visual's track rotation, and impressive scaling effects. Combined with a fantastic Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida soundtrack that grooved along with bass-heavy rhythms, and melodic futuristic bleeps, F-Zero's presentation was cutting edge in the early 16-bit era. With smooth handling, tight track design for 15 circuits, and accessibly addictive Grand Prix gameplay, F-Zero is a game to repeatedly revisit, no matter which format you choose to play it on – even if it is only a single-player title. Despite the infuriatingly confrontational opponents on harder difficulties, it's predominantly retro fun whooshing through tracks in this futuristic racer.