The early months of the SNES’s launch saw a slew of developers shoehorn Mode 7 effects into their games for no discernable reason. Seriously, how many games in the first year did the “zoom into the map” effect? Not that I blame them, it was an easy effect used to dazzle tween minds across the world, and I was one of them. But in this sea of gratuity there were two games that made legitimate use of it; one was Pilotwings, the other was F-Zero.
F-Zero was released at the SNES’s launch in every territory and with good reason. In terms of sheer wow factor it oozed it in spades. You have your choice of 4 pilots, each with their own unique craft as you participate in the F-Zero Tournament. This was one of the first futuristic racing games and is largely credited with creating the subgenre.
Each pilot has their own stats with the most obvious being max speed and acceleration curve. One less obvious facet is the weight of each hovercar; lighter cars replenish life slower while heavy cars are the opposite. The 3 racing leagues, Knight, Queen, and King correspond to the game’s difficulty levels, each with their own unique courses. There are no powerups or items to collect, the action is clearly focused on the racing itself. Every course has at least one pit area that can be used to recover life because trust me, you’ll need it. The tracks are littered with hazards, such as mines and magnets to drive you into the sides of the road and lose life. After every lap you receive one boost and determining the best time to use it can change the outcome of a race significantly.
The main aspect of F-Zero that still stands out today is its intensity. Every course is 5 laps and maintaining your composure as the final lap gets closer is harrowing. The computer can be brutal at times, willing to bump into you and knock you around the track and exploit any screw ups on your part immediately. The difficulty curve is pretty steep, even in the Knight League, and I’ll wager most will use their continues by the end of the Queen league. The track design is incredibly clever with many tight hairpin turns and long stretches of hazards that are extremely rewarding to master. Thankfully there is a practice mode to hone your skills without any outside interference. The only thing F-Zero is missing is multiplayer, likely a victim of a launch crunch.
The SNES Mode 7 was able to for the first time bring the same level of scaling and rotation seen in many arcade games to home consoles. The pseudo 3d courses twist and turn in unbelievable ways thanks to Mode 7, and even today the effect is impressive. The courses span a wide range of settings and even the multiple iterations of the same theme, such as Mute City are all unique and sometimes take place at different times of day. The soundtrack is also phenomenal; every track has its own theme and there are as many as 2-3 remixes that are unique.
Still fun and just as groundbreaking as it was in 1991 F-Zero is a fun and challenging trip down memory lane. It’s a shame the US and Europe never received the updates released through the Satellaview but that’s understandable. If they would have included a multiplayer option this would have been the complete package. That’s a minor issue though, as the sequels more than made up for that.