The magic of the 16-bit age was kind to a variety of games, but nowhere was the jump more pronounced than in the racing genre. New hardware unleashed a floodgate of improvements while still staying true to what the genre had always been. And one of the first was F-Zero, a simplistic yet standard-setting racer that showed us that while times may change, people don’t.
F-Zero may not have much of a story, but what’s there is an informed little piece of science fiction that does a good job of explaining how things got to where they are. In the future, rapid galactic exploration and the technology that makes it possible have led to an era of infinite new markets and galactic trade agreements. As a result of unlimited wealth and possibilities, the people become bored with their static lives, leading them to look at the old Formula One races of yesteryear as inspiration for a new era of racing. Thus, the F-Zero Grand Prix is born, with the winners awarded with untold riches and status, and the losers often suffering a fiery crash in pursuit of this fame and fortune.
And that’s it! With this interesting premise in mind we are turned loose and introduced to our four heroes of the speedway. Each one has their own craft that is unique in its top speed, acceleration, durability, and handling, so there is a racer for everybody. This diversity also means that there is always an out if you cannot beat a race since the solution could be as simple as changing cars to better fit a track’s qualities.
As for the game itself, F-Zero only asks that you come in 3rd place or higher for each race, making this game more difficult than it would appear to be at first glance. Unlike Mario Kart and other racers that continue to deposit the player back on the track regardless of how bad they mess up, F-Zero has a life bar that can be depleted as you damage your car. Make too many mistakes or hit too many hazards and BOOM, you’re dead!
This is where the challenge factor comes in, as F-Zero offers us three cups across 9 planets, each with its own idiosyncrasies that must be mastered in order to take the top prize. Big Blue offers slippery ice that makes it impossible to control your vehicle. Deathwind puts Mode 7 to great effect by having the wind blow the cars off track (and you can actually see which way it’s blowing based on which way the background sways). Port City has its magnet traps. Each track puts its own unique spin on the race and serves to constantly keep the player on his toes. By the time you get to Firefield and it’s deadly land mines, you’ll be patting yourself on the back!
Luckily there are tools at your disposal that let you make the most of this perilous experience. With the touch of a button or by driving across certain tiles, you can activate a temporary speed boost, enabling you to edge out the competition with good timing and strategy. Powerslides are also available, and mastering them is essential, as you will see in courses such as Whiteland and Silence. And you should always be on the lookout for hidden secret routes or shortcuts. It is an old-school Nintendo game, after all!
While F-Zero lacks a 2-player component, the omission doesn’t really hurt the game all that much since this has always been a series about speed and peril. It would be a strange tradeoff to take a racer where you can actually die and NOT finish the race and instead put you back on the board for two-players sake. F-Zero does offer a time trial mode which gives you a way to compete with friends as well as allowing you to practice some of the more challenging courses. Sadly, this is limited to only about half of the tracks offered and the mode excludes Firefield, a baffling omission since if any course needed to be available for practice and speedruns, that would be it!
Graphically the game is a solid yet simple effort that is best noted for using the system’s Mode 7 abilities to give the player an amazing sense of speed that still holds up to this day. Even when things are going so fast they blur, the levels have a surprising amount of artistic depth. A good example is Mute city, which you will get to see in three different times of day! Silence gives a great feeling of a desolate and lonely world. And who could forget the winter wonderland and canyon-sized jump of White Land?
While the graphics may be “good enough,” the music is the show stealer giving us a fantastic example of an earworm soundtrack that crawls in your head and never lets go. Songs like Big Blue and Mute City really do a good job of pumping the player up, and each track does a wonderful job of setting the mood of the planets, be it the mysterious Whiteland or the dangerous Firefield.
F-Zero stands on its own as a pinnacle racing experience, but also serves as the perfect complement to Super Mario Kart. On one hand you have a fun multiplayer experience that is about people playing together on fun-filled courses. F-Zero offers an unapologetically different attitude, one that amps the throttle up and maxes the danger out. It’s a racing game that can TAKE YOU OUT and often will. And it’s that game you can taunt your friends with and say “See that? See if you can’t do it better!” And while I love Rock And Roll Racing and Top Gear, Nintendo really had all their racing bases covered between their two marquee racers, making the third party efforts just more icing on an already tricked-out cake. F-Zero is a fantastic experience that may not be as flashy as its newer descendants, but it will still manage to put a smile on your face, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about!
Four Out Of Five Stars
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