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Old 08-24-2011, 09:52 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 2: F-Zero

In the early days of gaming, racing titles were certainly a lot different than they are now. Franchises like Gran Turismo have brought a whole new level of realism and depth to the racing genre, and are able to render real-life vehicles in 3D with stunning fidelity; in decades prior, developers were hard-pressed just to get the perspective to feel right. Early racing games fell into one of three categories: top-down racers like Codemaster's Micro Machines, isometric racers like R. C. Pro-AM, or behind-the-vehicle racers like Pole Position. The top-down view often lead to unrealistically straight race tracks, and an isometric perspective could have unwanted side-effects on the control scheme, since left would mean right if the car was facing towards the player. The behind-the-vehicle perspective required all manner of trickery to render convincingly, as each type of twist and turn in a track was programmed with separate graphics; not only was this tedious, but it limited the possibilities of what kinds of track layouts where possible.



When F-Zero was first released, nothing like it had existed on consoles before. Thanks to the wonders of Mode-7 graphics, the entire track could be stored on a background layer, and as the player's car moved, the track would scale and rotate in accordingly. This technology, in addition to the futuristic aesthetic of the game, allowed for some other interesting design elements in the track layouts - not to mention that nifty swooping effect at the start of each race - making for a more exciting racing game than most of what had come before. To a modern player, though, the original F-Zero will probably feel a bit weird - not necessarily because of the Mode-7 perspective, but because of the way basic gameplay elements like score and rank are handled. Some of these break the illusion of a persistent racing arena just as quickly as the graphics create it, but we'll get to all that in a minute...



Before a Grand Prix begins, you're given a choice of four vehicles; this may seem like a small number to a modern gamer, but keep in mind that many early racing games didn't even allow the player to choose a car in the first place. Each car has a slightly different acceleration, top speed, weight, and endurance, making for notable differences in the way they handle. The Blue Falcon is the most balanced, and a good starting vehicle; the Golden Fox can hit its top speed more quickly, but is slower on the straightaways and can't take as much punishment. The Wild Goose is somewhat heavier than both of them, with a higher top speed at the expense of a lower acceleration; the Fire Stingray emphasizes these strengths and weaknesses further, making it a capable vehicle in the hands of an expert. Working through the vehicles in succession is a good way to ease into the tougher tracks, but for the best times, you'll want to go with the Fire Stingray - once you're experienced enough to use it effectively, of course.

There are three Grand Prix total - Knight, King, and Queen - each of which has five races, making for a total of fifteen tracks. Each Grand Prix can initially be played on one of three difficulty settings, which determines the speed and ability of your opponents. Strangely enough, your goal is not actually to win the Grand Prix, but to get at least third place in each race. There's no real reward or incentive for coming in first, as the only record the game saves of your victories is your top ten best times for each track, independent of difficulty setting.



Each race has five laps, and at the end of each lap, your rank is calculated. If you meet the rank requirements for that lap, you receive a certain number of points (depending on your rank) and are allowed to continue on, but if you don't, you're automatically disqualified from the race, and you lose a life. You earn an extra life for every 10,000 points you gain, and getting to the end is all that matters. You're also given a turbo boost after each lap, which you can use at any time to get a huge burst of speed.



To keep things interesting, various obstacles, hazards, and other elements were added, giving each track a distinct feel. Some of them are standard fare for non-realistic racers - speed arrows, jump spots, "off-road" sections to slow you down - but there were also several hazards that would have been uncommon in racers of the time, if not entirely unique to this game. One track has magnet rails that pull you towards one edge of the track, and another has land mines peppered across one of the short cuts. Of particular note is the appropriately named "Death Wind"; although it appears at first glance to be a boring cruise around a giant oval, an unsuspecting first-time player will quickly find themselves buffeted by a strong gust from the left, wondering why they can't keep straight or hit any of the speed arrows right in front of them.



Every area also has a patch of "healing" track, which causes a beam to come down and restore your car's energy meter. This is handy if you've collided with a few walls or slammed into an opponent by mistake, and in the later levels, it's practically essential for all but the most experienced players. Running out of energy isn't an issue early on, but as the levels get tougher, your chances of crashing will get higher and higher; if you have one of the heavier vehicles, it's easier to take a lot of punishment, but trying to send the Golden Fox through the Fire Field is practically a death wish.

The tracks may feel flat - and I mean that in the most literal sense - by today's standards, but the action is still pretty tight and fun on the easier difficulties. On the higher difficulties, though, the game starts to bare its flaws more visibly, as the computer will start to behave cheaply and find ways to make your life a living nightmare. I can't testify for certain whether or not the computer opponents are ever truly guilty of "rubber-banding" - that is, pulling ahead of you at an artificially high speed simply because you're winning - but it doesn't take much to lose the lead on Expert mode, especially if you're using a vehicle with low acceleration.



To make matters worse, you'll still have to contend with enemy cars even when you're in the lead. Aside from you and your three primary opponents, every single car on the track is a generic looking orange-yellow something-or-other - or a palette-swapped version thereof, if a low-ranked racer manages to pass you - and you'll be lapping them constantly if you manage to keep ahead of the pack. None of them are actually ranked in the race, though; the computer just generates them in an attempt to keep things interesting. This is fine and well, I suppose, but when you're going through a narrow stretch of track in the Fire Stingray and you've got some yellow idiot blocking an other wise perfect turn, you're left with no choice but to either decelerate - giving Captain Falcon a chance to pass you in a matter of seconds - or to crash into the stupid thing, sending you veering off course and back into sixth place. Perhaps veterans of this game would tell me otherwise, but I can't embrace that sort of design decision - not to mention the presence of an infinite number of clone cars kind of kills the illusion of a persistent racing arena.



Granted, this "infinite mook car syndrome" was not uncommon in earlier racing games; I'm sure there are tons of other examples, but the first one that comes to mind is the racing level from the NES game Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. It's a bit of an extreme case, but the game doesn't even keep track of your rank; it just throws a lot of cars on the track at random as you plow towards the finish in a straight line, only worrying about getting there before time runs out. F-Zero was light-years ahead of this, of course, but it's hard not to compare it to later racers; even if you discount Grand Turismo and its progeny, there's still Super Mario Kart, which ditched the generic opponents and added a two-player mode - a feature the original F-Zero sorely lacked (although its sequels would remedy this).

For a patient gamer, though, there are rewards for beating the game on higher difficulties. A successful playthrough of Expert mode on any Grand Prix summons the credits roll and unlocks the final difficulty level, Master Mode. Beating that gives you a special message from Captain Falcon, apparently telling you how awesome you are for becoming the ultimate F-Zero champion. Or at least surviving through all of the races without dying too many times...

There's one other feature that deserves mention: the Practice Mode, which is helpful for a starting player, if somewhat weirdly implemented. You can practice races, time-trial style, with or without an opponent, giving you a chance to do better when you take on the Grand Prix again. Not every race is available, however; you can only practice about half of the available tracks, and if you manage to beat one of your Grand Prix records, your time still gets shown in the top ten for that track. The game makes no differentiation between practice records and Grand Prix records - a bit of a strange decision given how much difference the presence of other cars can make, but then again, the "rules" behind how time trial modes are "supposed to work" probably hadn't been established yet.

Despite the gameplay issues, the soundtrack still comes through as a strong effort, showing off the capabilities of the SNES sound chip effectively. In stark contrast to the muted background tunes of Pilotwings, the music of F-Zero is upbeat and fast-paced, in keeping with the general tempo of the gameplay. The trumpet parts throughout several of the tracks are notable for actually sounding like trumpets; sure, a real instrument couldn't effortlessly slide up an octave, but it was certainly more convincing than what most home computers and game systems could produce at that time.



F-Zero is a pretty spiffy game, and would've been a great choice at the time of the SNES's launch. Nevertheless, the residues of an earlier era taint its high-octane gameplay somewhat, and even retro-gaming enthusiasts should perhaps be advised to look elsewhere for the best possible racing fix. The later F-Zero games did improve on the original's weaknesses, however; I for one have a soft spot for F-Zero X, which not only had a "combat" mode and a random track generator, but might be the only N64 game in existence not to suffer from chronic slowdown. But we'll get to all of that another day...



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  Great article, very informative.
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Old 08-24-2011, 10:33 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 2: F-Zero

F-Zero Super Nintendo
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Old 08-28-2011, 03:12 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 2: F-Zero

Good work, Robot.
I have fond memories of F - Zero, it was one of my favorite SNES titles.
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Old 08-28-2011, 01:24 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 2: F-Zero

I still like this game, though I wish they let you practice on all 15 tracks instead of only 7 tracks.

Also, did you know it is impossible to beat Master difficulty with certain machines?
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Old 08-28-2011, 06:34 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 2: F-Zero

How is it impossible? I know the Golden Fox sucks, but I'm sure it could be done. You only have to finish third.
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Old 08-28-2011, 10:37 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 2: F-Zero

From what I hear, The Golden Fox does not go fast enough to take 3rd. Even with savestates, it would be impossible.
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Old 08-28-2011, 10:51 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 2: F-Zero

Not even with boosts?
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Old 08-28-2011, 11:30 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: Super NES Launch Title Retrospective, Part 2: F-Zero

It is impossible because the computer cheats. Its machines are faster and have better acceleration on higher difficulties. The computer can also catch up when it should be impossible.
I love this game regardless, I should get out my SNES and play it one of these days.
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