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Forums - Nintendo Discussion - Defying gravity: Remembering F-Zero 10 years on

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Ten years ago this month, Nintendo released the last game in the F-Zero franchise, F-Zero Climax. Since 2004 the Japanese company has been curiously reluctant to revive the series which, when it first appeared, did much to popularise the futuristic racing genre and paved the way for numerous rivals and clones. These days, F-Zero and its cast of eclectic speed demons have been reduced to walk-on parts and cameos in the likes of Nintendo Land, Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 8, the latter of which has even cheekily stolen the game's anti-gravity theme. But as anyone who was there back in 1990 when the SNES original blazed an unforgettable trail through the gaming landscape will tell you, it deserves so much more.

Set in a future where bored millionaires entertain themselves by engaging in high-risk racing events, F-Zero is a series which is packed to bursting point with sleek vehicles, winding circuits and a menagerie of truly bizarre pilots, the vast majority of whom are distinctly alien in appearance.

At a time when console racers were somewhat pedestrian and content to root themselves firmly on two-to-four wheels, the SNES original delivered blinding pace and incredible visual effects thanks to the use of "Mode 7", a graphics mode which allowed the SNES to smoothly rotate and manipulate background layers.

In the case of F-Zero, the background layer in question was the track beneath your ship, and the effect gave a real impression of moving through 3D space. Throughout its lifespan a great many other SNES titles would use Mode 7, including fellow launch title Pilotwings and Super Mario Kart, but F-Zero was the game which best introduced this visual advancement to millions of players worldwide.

"F-Zero is really something special to me," says French developer Aurelien Regard, who co-founded Arkedo Studio in 2006 and has recently left to make games on his own. His first solo project is The Next Penelope, a top-down racing title which owes a huge debt to F-Zero, not just in visual terms, but in how it plays, too. "I remember how F-Zero on Super Nintendo scared me at first. I wouldn't dare play it on the demo pods in stores because it looked so different, so fast! It's hard to imagine any modern racer giving the same kind of feeling today; it just looked so impressive and 3D-like back then."

Regard isn't the only developer who holds the series, and its 16-bit debut, in high esteem. "I'll always have very fond memories of the SNES version, because that's the one I played the most," says Nick Burcombe, one of the minds behind the wildly successful Wipeout series. Given the similarity of their subject matter, you'd imagine that F-Zero was the single biggest influence on Wipeout, but Burcombe explains his creation borrowed elements from both F-Zero and its SNES sibling, Super Mario Kart. "I think the thing I loved about F-Zero was the speed, that definitely influenced Wipeout. It was great fun to play and that's always the most important thing. I'd say F-Zero was an influence on Wipeout because of the speed and Mario Kart was an influence on weapons and game structure, but after that, Wipeout took on a life of its own."

Burcombe, who now runs indie studio Playrise Digital, which recently released the Micro Machines-style Table Top Racing on smartphones and the PS Vita, feels that while such Mode 7 classics provided the inspiration, the introduction of powerful polygon-pushing tech like the Sony PlayStation allowed games such as Wipeout to really build on what had gone before.

"I think another thing that we had a chance to change with Wipeout as we brought our own brand of future racing to PSOne was real use of the Y-Axis or the vertical space, so to speak, which you can do with polygonal 3D of course," he explains. "Due to the limitations of Mode 7 on the SNES, both F-Zero and Mario Karts circuit designs had to be kept flat."

Nintendo's series would eventually catch up, however. While Wipeout was able to boast vast, undulating tracks in 1995, three years later F-Zero performed the same feat, but with a unique twist which set it apart from its rivals. F-Zero X on the N64 really did take things to the next level; tracks were not only portrayed in three dimensions this time around, but also featured circular sections where it was possible to drive around in a full 360 degrees, like Sonic’s loop the loops but in 3D. It also boasted an incredible 30 vehicles on the track at once, and a sense of speed which was enough to make your nose bleed. To many, it remains the definitive version of F-Zero.

"F-Zero 'clicked' for me first time on N64," says Manfred Linzner, the founder of Shin'en Multimedia, a German studio which is currently creating Fast Racing Neo for the Wii U. "The feeling of speed was simply beyond anything I played before. The music and the smooth graphics left a big impression for years."

One of the biggest additions to the game was the ability to put your craft into a spin and damage other racers, but Nintendo never went as far as to put weapons into the game, as Burcombe and his team at Psygnosis had so famously done with the iconic Wipeout. Because of this, F-Zero X retains its all-important focus on speed and pure racing, something which has set it apart from similar titles over the years.

Thanks to its incredible playability and excellent multiplayer mode, F-Zero X kept fans busy for many years, which was a good thing as it wouldn't be until 2003 that another home console offering in the series would exit the garage. However, this time around Nintendo adopted a very different approach; not only was F-Zero GX released as a home edition and an arcade version – dubbed F-Zero AX – it was developed in conjunction with former rival Sega and its talented Amusement Vision team. This near-simultaneous release was possible because the arcade version used the Triforce board, a collaborative project between Sega, Nintendo and Namco which was based heavily on the GameCube hardware. An almost identical port was therefore possible, and the F-Zero AX arcade cabinet even featured GameCube memory card slots, allowing players to build up progress even when they were away from home.

To Linzner, F-Zero GX represents the very pinnacle of the series, not just for the on-track action, but for the sheer scope of the title. "It was simply amazing how much excellent content there was in the game," he says. "Just look at all these racers and their signature songs. Some of these songs are among the best I ever heard in any game. I also loved the arcade feeling of the game, the varied courses and of course the dazzling speed."

Whether or not GX is better than its N64 predecessor remains a hotly-debated topic amongst F-Zero fans, with its critics pointing out that the game's arcade heritage is obvious due to the punishing difficulty level, which requires players to accurately memorise vast portions of each circuit. This much is certain, however – GX is one of the finest titles on the GameCube, and one of the best racers of the generation.

F-Zero hasn't always been confined to the home and arcade, though. When Nintendo launched the Game Boy Advance handheld in 2001 it made sure a portable F-Zero outing was ready for launch. F-Zero: Maximum Velocity used the same Mode 7 rotation effect as the SNES original, and marked a solid debut for the franchise on mobile formats. Sadly, its winning streak was a relatively short one, as its GBA sequels, 2003's GP Legend and 2004's Climax, were rather disappointing in comparison. F-Zero: Climax is the last game in the series, and ranks as a very underwhelming swansong, should Nintendo refuse to resurrect Captain Falcon and company for another trip around the track.

F-Zero may be gone, but it’s not entirely forgotten. The series was the subject of an entire mini-game in the Wii U launch release Nintendo Land, and the legendary Blue Falcon ship is coming to Mario Kart 8 as a downloadable option. One might assume that Nintendo is merely testing the water with such offerings, and there will be many Wii U owners out there who dearly wish to see a revival on their console. However, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto has stated in the past that he feels he has done all he can with the concept, and Linzner isn't so sure that the franchise will be back anytime soon. "I somehow feel the series peaked with the GameCube entry," he says. "Without something drastic and new it would feel just more of the same. That would be maybe fine for many fans but i'm sure it's not what Nintendo would strive for."

In the absence of a new F-Zero, fans may find themselves contemplating the many titles coming to market which have in one way or another been directly inspired by Nintendo's game. For Wii U owners, that could well be Shin'en's Fast Racing Neo. "We certainly tried to have a similar feel of speed and immersion, just because no game before or after ever felt that intense, in our opinion," explains Linzner. "And we are quite happy that we got to that special point in development where simply everything snapped together and became bigger than its parts. We are really looking forward to seeing how gamers will react to our game." Fast Racing Neo has been in development since 2013, and should be hitting the track soon."

The Next Penelope is another title which is headed to the Wii U, and creator Regard is quick to point out that one of the game's main mechanics was inspired by F-Zero. "I mainly keep in mind how clever the energy trade mechanic in F-Zero is," he says. "You're able to boost at will, but this acceleration costs bits of your life gauge. I used this as a start for the Penelope game design, and tried to push it on a ridiculous level. You boost, you shoot, you drop a mine, your teleport yourself, you cancel projectiles, all of this causes you to burn some vital energy.

"The whole point is to be very powerful: you don't pick items on track, instead you can use and combine all your abilities at any time, but you'll always be close to exploding at the same time. That's a lot of pressure for the player, but that freedom and this high difficulty level is very rewarding. From the playtests I'm doing right now, it sounds like some gamers were really in need of this kind of challenge."

Another potential option is Tammeka Games' Radial-G: Racing Evolved, a title which could take the concept of anti-grav racing into a new dimension thanks to its use of Virtual Reality.

"My fondest memories of the F-Zero series, apart from it being the original futuristic arcade racer essentially kicking off the genre, is the sense of speed and twitch controls," says Sam Watts, producer at Tammeka. "This resulted in that real energy rush of accomplishment when you're racing against a full pack and pull it across the line at the last minute."

Dubbed the spiritual successor to F-Zero by some, this is one title that is well worth keeping an eye on in lieu of a fresh speedfest from Nintendo itself. "The tubular track aspects of F-Zero X and GX influenced our decision to make tracks for Radial-G: Racing Revolved that you could rotate around 360º," Watts continues. "These added a new dimension to the gameplay and racing that other, flatter racers just couldn't offer. The other inspirations are the number of players and the essence of fine, responsive controls that we have as well."

It's heartening to see so many developers who are keen to keep the memory of F-Zero alive through their own efforts, but irrespective of how accomplished these will be, hardcore fans won't be satisfied until Nintendo creates a legitimate sequel. 2004 feels like a lifetime ago, but the attempts to keep the brand alive in titles like Nintendo Land and Mario Kart 8 could suggest that Nintendo is testing the water; F-Zero is still considered a big enough draw to be given a starring role in other titles, so surely it stands to reason that a new outing would be viable? With Star Fox getting its long-awaited revival in 2015, we could well see Nintendo return to its glory days by dusting off some of its biggest franchises in order to steer the struggling Wii U console into less choppy commercial waters.

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I still remember the way I felt when I saw people playing this game on video stores. My humble NES looked so weak then...

My grammar errors are justified by the fact that I am a brazilian living in Brazil. I am also very stupid.

RolStoppable said:
But Nintendo needs to make new IPs!

But, Nintendo has the most IPs that I've seen from a game company and so many of them are successes. You can't pull $20 out of $10, they are only one company.

Star Fox, that's the game I would like to see.

I'd love a new fzero... Or 1080 snowboarding... Or stunt racer fx... or excite bike/truck. But yes, a new Fzero would be my pick.

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mZuzek said:
Vasto said:
Star Fox, that's the game I would like to see.

You do realize it's coming, right?



Thats great then. I will be looking out for it.

They should remake the GCN one for 3DS, then make new one for Wii U.

Played this game for hours. What a great game.

Yup, would love a new one. Would also love a new Wipeout and especially a new Rollcage. All are great series that have been forgotten (wipeout lasted for a long while but with studio liverpool closed its future is uncertain).

Give us back our futuristic racers. :(

We need futuristic racers to come back!

F-Zero, Star Wars Ep1 Racer, Extreme G, and Wipeout were all superb! It's too bad we may never see a new game from any of these franchises...

"Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience."

-Samuel Clemens