The year is 2560. Earth has joined the intergalactic community, with aliens interacting with humans and technology rocketing off towards great new heights. In this crazy new future of amazing possibilities… a few rich blokes got bored and decided to create an intense racing tournament they call F-Zero.
Not that the game will tell you any of this story, nor will it tell you about the four racers who you can play as in the game. F-Zero is a futuristic racer where you get to take control of one of four machines for the three leagues that make up the F-Zero Grand Prix. Naturally, the four hovering race cars all have different stats, but you will find that they’re pretty equal in that you can definitely win even the hardest races with them so long as you understand how to get the most out of your vehicle. Depending on which one you pick though, you can always count on a computer racer getting a pretty good lead if you’re not at the head of the pack. You can count on either the Blue Falcon or Golden Fox blazing ahead in first or nipping at your heels in second depending on which one you didn’t pick, although you’ll have to deal with both speedy machines if you go for the Fire Stingray or Wild Goose.
There are three Grand Prix leagues in F-Zero: The Knight League, the Queen League, and the King League. Each league contains five races each that consist of five laps per course, and if you’re getting Super Mario Kart flashbacks, you’re not the only one. It should be noted that F-Zero came first though, but that also means it has the dubious honor of being the one to feel out the features that would later be added to the more casual kart racer. F-Zero’s racing is meant to give you a feeling of speed, the speedometer usually reading at around 400 km/hr, but this doesn’t really seem to make navigating turns too difficult. Cut the engines or grind on the ground and you can usually take corners without losing too much speed, and the tracks themselves are a bit too long and featureless to really give you that feeling that you’re achieving that level of speed, especially on the straightaways. The game isn’t very imaginative in trying to limit your speed either. Sharp turns and the other vehicles will be the main reasons you need to watch how fast you’re going, but they’re probably the best obstacles the game came up with. Despite being in vehicles that hover above the ground, most of the impediments to your driving will be things like bumpy roads, rough or icy terrain, and land mines. There are some magnet walls that will pull you towards them to try and force a crash, but it’s a bit odd that this game about driving hover cars relies so heavily on ground hazards, and not particularly interesting ones at that.
Despite going at high speeds nominally, a crash won’t instantly wreck your machine. Instead, you have a power meter that diminishes as you hit into things. Every track will have an area where you can replenish your power, but if you get hit too much, your car will explode, forcing you to restart the race provided you have enough lives left. Just like Super Mario Kart, the Grand Prix mode will give you a few lives to let you retry a race you did poorly on, but if you place below third place in a course you will be required to start it again. On the flip side of that coin, F-Zero is surprisingly permissive when it comes to victory conditions. Rather than requiring you to do sufficiently well on every course in the league, you need only place third or higher in a race to continue onward, with no penalty being given for potentially getting third in every race. On Beginner and Standard difficulties this isn’t felt too much, but on Expert and the unlockable Master mode it can be an incredibly useful tool, as the difficulty settings basically just determine how fast the computer players are willing to go. If getting third place sounds too easy to you in a field of four, then you shouldn’t be surprised the game found a way to make it more difficult. Besides yourself and the three racers you didn’t choose, the game has multiple cars that don’t show on the track until you are doing sufficiently poorly, essentially serving as a means of contextualizing how bad you’re doing in the race. These vehicles don’t appear unless you start falling behind enough, but strangely enough, other cars DO appear on the track… they just aren’t racers.
I mentioned earlier the game uses the other vehicles as means of impeding your progress, and while hitting into other racers feels fair enough, the game scatters random meaningless vehicles across every track as moving obstacles. Some of them are completely solid and will bump you around, but the flashing ones are bombs, exploding on contact and taking out a decent chunk of your power meter. The main issue with these other vehicles is it makes it difficult to differentiate which vehicles are actual racers and which ones are just these obstacle cars. Most of the important vehicles look distinct enough to not be mistaken, but if you’re racing the Golden Fox you’ll find the obstacle cars have the same coloration as it, and if you fall too far behind you’ll see the fill-in racers are the same design of the obstacle cars as well. The obstacle cars also contribute to some of the issues in track design. F-Zero’s courses all have a decent length to them, each level usually trying to do something unique to make it stand out despite the fact many levels are cut from the same cloth. The hard twists and turns will require you to get a feel for turning without losing your speed, and many levels add in jumps that can get you to shortcuts or over hazardous terrain… or might potentially send you flying off course to an instant death if you aren’t careful. The odd thing is that many of these courses are pretty thin at points, sometimes limiting things to single file line that all the vehicles will need to take. These close quarters moments make it impossible to overtake the computer controlled opponents and mostly serve as a means of getting you to crash into other vehicles to lose all your speed. Don’t worry, the AI is very good at maintaining speed even after getting hit, and even if you’re in first place, obstacle cars will be driving ahead of you to try and screw you over at these tight stretches of track.
Overtaking other racers isn’t just hard due to track design putting vehicles too close together at times. The AI has a pretty consistent speed even as it encounters the same obstacles as you, and if there aren’t obvious points like jumps or turns to get an edge over them, you will mostly have to hope your boosts will save your bacon. After finishing a lap, you’ll get a single speed boost you can use at any time so long as you don’t try to hold more than three in reserve. The boosts aren’t really necessary on easier difficulties, but on harder ones they’ll end up being not that helpful either. They can’t really help you make up for a fatal mistake that put you far back, so they mostly serve as little advantages to take when things were already pretty close. It’s hard to get too upset about the AI getting faster on the higher difficulties though because the game doesn’t require too much of you. Having third place being perfectly acceptable does allow for sloppier play and doesn’t really encourage you to push yourself too hard. Getting that high does get harder with the higher difficulties, but it strips away some of the thrill of taking first place when doing worse is just as good.
F-Zero might have been able to make up for the issues with its Grand Prix with its other modes… but it doesn’t really have much else to it. Bafflingly, this game has no form of multiplayer, meaning the only other mode is the Practice mode where you can try and set best times on individual courses. Speaking of course times, the five lap structure seems a bit much compared to Super Mario Kart. Mario Kart had shorter tracks that it needed to lengthen with the extra laps, but F-Zero’s courses feel like they’re sufficiently challenging as they are and are decently long. Making them five laps means the feeling of speed is gone as you are made to do the same track five times, and on the limited selection of fifteen, getting too used to a track means it loses its luster far quicker. Five laps essentially just means the game gives you more chances to slip up since by lap two you’ll know everything there is to a level and simply have to execute it a few more times to end things.
THE VERDICT: F-Zero isn’t a bad racing game by any means. The course design is a bit simple and sort of stands against the game’s premise, but it makes for a thrilling experience on its own. Unfortunately, the game tosses in a few aspects that make each course more challenging than it should be, and not in a good way. The obstacle cars are random and can clog the tighter spots of the race track, and coupled with the more intelligent AI racers who will hit you on purpose and suffer hardly any penalties themselves, you’ve got a formula that ruins the actual challenge of trying to race in the only mode really worth playing. When you can get a good feel for a track and aren’t screwed over, F-Zero makes for a decent experience, it’s just a shame there aren’t more courses so the game has to drag out the ones it has instead.
And so, I give F-Zero for the Super Nintendo…
An AVERAGE rating. F-Zero’s racing controls are spot on and would serve it well in later installments of the series, but the start to the series is a bit flawed. The spartan presentation means the world has little character outside what you can get in the manual, and then the racing is sabotaged by the developer’s inability to come up with compelling obstacles to your progress. Beginner and Standard are more enjoyable experiences for allowing you to come back more easily from mistakes, but when Expert and Master start punishing you for things outside your control, F-Zero wears out its welcome a bit.
Unlike Super Mario Kart, a trip back to the original F-Zero isn’t really worth the time, but you can still get a bit of fun out of it so long as you know the obstacle cars and AI racers will be playing by their own rules. It was certainly a bumpy start for what would become the futuristic racing genre, which is still quite strange, as you’d think hover vehicles wouldn’t be bothered by any bumps on the road.