A chronological history of the Super NES

F-Zero

The Super NES’s debut title offered a blistering showcase for the system’s advanced fake 3D capabilities.

F-Zero

Japanese Title: F-ZERO
Developer:
 Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release date: 11.21.1990 [JP] | 8.15.1991 [U.S.] | 6.4.1992 [EU]
Genre: Racing
Previous in series: None
Next in series: F-Zero X [Nintendo, 1998]
Similar titles: Hyper Zone [HAL1991], Super Mario Kart [Nintendo1992]

About the game

The term “Mode Seven,” of course, refers to the trademark visual gimmick built into the Super NES. Futuristic racer F-Zero offers a perfect summation of what Mode 7 was all about.

Nintendo made a lot of unconventional technological choices when speccing out the Super NES console’s design. The lead behind the Super NES project was none other than NES designer Masayuki Uemura, and the new machine shared a lot in common with his previous console creation. For starters, Uemura stuck with a Ricoh-manufactured processor for the Super NES — a next-generation version of the 6502 variant in the NES. There’s some speculation that this was an artifact of the original plan to include NES backward-compatibility in the new system, but it’s just as likely that Uemura’s own history simply led him to stick with a processor family with which he had extensive experience.

The 5A22 chip in the Super NES had a reputation for being a capable workhorse, but Nintendo went with a version clocked at about half the speed as the CPUs that powered competing systems like TurboGrafx-16 and SEGA’s Genesis. This would prove to be a significant bottleneck for programmers and likely accounts for the relative lack of high-speed action games on Super NES; processor speed isn’t everything, but the systems counterbalances to its pokey chip required unconventional effort by developers. Even though Nintendo’s 16-bit machine ran at half the speed of the other guys’ consoles, Uemura didn’t send it into a cold and uncaring world with nothing to back it up. Rather than focus on raw speed, the Super NES instead revolved around special features.

It could display an impressive number of colors at once, drawn from a palette that eclipsed those of other systems of the time. And of course, it had that crazy Sony audio chip that centered around digitally sampled sounds rather than generating waves or FM synthesis. But controlling it all were the console’s graphical modes, eight in total, numbered 0 through 7.

In simple terms, these modes determined the number of background layers available to programmers and the color depth available to those backgrounds. There are some other factors at work for individual modes, such as Mode 5 and 6’s ability to produce double-resolution graphics, as seen in Secret of Mana’s menus. By and large, though, the modes simply determine the relative complexity of a game’s appearance — you can have complex visuals or colorful visuals, and the hardware gave developers the ability to easily select which they preferred to emphasize. Hardware Mode 7, however, switched things up slightly. It gave developers the ability to create a single 256-color background, a far more limited arrangement than other modes… but unlike those other modes, devs could apply interesting effects to the background. Working in Mode 7, developers could rotate, scale, and distort backgrounds.

All things considered, it offered a pretty basic toolset of abilities that we take for granted in the age of polygons. At the time, though, no other home console offered anything that even began to compare, especially not as a basic hardware feature. It would be a massive advantage for the Super NES, allowing it to render simple and effective illusions of 3D visuals. Not surprisingly, then, Nintendo built one of the console’s launch titles entirely around showcasing this effect. F-Zero is one part racing game, one part tech demo, and it’s pretty good in both respects.

Nintendo published just two games alongside the Super NES when it launched in Japan as the Super Famicom in November 1990, and F-Zero belonged to that illustrious pair. The other member of that duo, Super Mario World, was precisely what you’d expect: A 16-bit iteration of Super Mario Bros., with all the bells and whistles that entailed. F-Zero, by contrast, existed entirely for the sake of showing off the new console’s potential, unbounded by familiar franchises or the constraints of a known property. There were no limitations on what F-Zero could be, no fan expectations demanding it adhere to certain rules.

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The game came to us courtesy of none other than Shigeru Miyamoto, head of Nintendo EAD. After putting the wraps on Super Mario Bros. 3 back in 1988, Miyamoto and his teams immediately set to work on creating spectacular launch titles for the company’s new console, and F-Zero was nothing if not a spectacle.

In effect, F-Zero boils down to a fairly standard racing game. Players control a vehicle, zip around increasingly complex tracks, and try to edge out other racers in order to take first place. Nothing about F-Zero seemed standard in 1990 when the console launched in Japan, at its American launch a year later, though. It looked amazing, moved at an insanely fast speed, and incorporated its futuristic setting into both its aesthetics and its mechanics.

Miyamoto was no stranger to racing games, of course. 1985’s Excitebike had served a similar purpose to F-Zero: To be a showcase for the console’s unique features. You can even see carryovers from Excitebike‘s design in F-Zero, including the ability to adjust your attitude on a jump to alter the strategic value of hang time, and the way you don’t really have a proper race against a fixed number of opponents but rather go out on the track against a motley army of randomly positioned duplicates. In Excitebike‘s case, Miyamoto put together a racer that somehow emphasized platforming as much as driving, making the most of the NES’s effortless horizontal scrolling capabilities. By the time the Super NES came around, of course, sidescrolling was old hat. But Mode 7 was fresh and amazing, and so that’s what F-Zero emphasized.

The game adopted a perspective similar to SEGA’s Super Scaler arcade racer Out Run, with a camera behind the player’s vehicle and the course stretching out ahead at a sharply tilted angle. This visual reference probably wasn’t accidental, because the natural Out Run comparison demonstrated precisely what F-Zero — and, by extension, the Super NES — was capable of. Where even arcade racing games at this point either gave players a complex track and a fixed, top-down view or else a behind-the-cockpit view of gentle curves and lengthy straightaways, F-Zero combined the best of both worlds. It presented both highly complex race tracks and an immersive angle on the action, something rarely seen to that point. Virtua Racer was still a couple of years away, and while Atari had already published Hard Drivin‘, that game had been a slow-paced, finicky car simulation. F-Zero was fast, insanely fast, and it demanded quick reflexes and a steady hand all at once.

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A reproduction of Mute City’s track graphic. Source: Omnimaga.org

The secret, of course, lay in the Super NES’s Mode 7 function. F-Zero’s racetracks consisted of a single giant bitmap graphic; if you were to view them as flat backgrounds at standard Super NES resolution, they’d generally be about two screens by four screens in size. But, using the magic of Mode 7, F-Zero could stretch these simple bitmaps, skew them, rotate them, and create a convincing illusion that they were, in fact, real three-dimensional courses. Clever visual design helped sell the illusion: EAD’s graphical designers used some effective illustrative tricks to create a sensation of depth, of a raised racetrack hovering above futuristic landscapes, flanked by electric orbs that acted as bumpers and hazards to prevent driving off the road.

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Bitmap-based driving games to this point had been limited to creating the impression of a road with simple line-rendering tricks or by using SEGA’s favored technique of sandwiching numerous sprites together in sequence. Some games based around the latter concept had yielded impressive results; Power Drift, for example, managed to add dizzying verticality to its tracks. That was something Nintendo couldn’t do with Mode 7 — F-Zero‘s tracks are flat as a board. On the other hand, Power Drift was an arcade game that fared poorly on contemporary consoles; and F-Zero compensated for its lack of variable height with intricate tracks that convulsed into hairpin turns and even doubled back on themselves with gaps and jumps. And most of all, F-Zero was fast.

Even now, it makes for a remarkably intense racing experience, despite the fact that time and the march of technology have laid its illusions bare. Your sci-fi hover cars scream down narrow, hazardous tracks crowded by other racers at speeds in excess of 450 kilometers per hour, and you really feel that speed… especially when you hit a few consecutive turbo boosts and briefly double your speed to 800 or 900 kilometers per hour. The tracks zip along at a silky-smooth 60 frames per second, and this is one of those games where the frame rate really does matter.

The speed and complexity of F-Zero‘s maps really sells the idea that you’re zooming along on some deadly far-future racetrack. Were the game to run slower, or were it to present you with boring, simple loops to race along, F-Zero would fall apart. Instead, it presents a white-knuckle and almost uncharacteristically hardcore driving experience, and it’s fantastic. It’s all the more impressive when you look at the rest of the Super NES library and realize that very few games that would follow in the next decade or so would come close to offering F-Zero‘s sense of exhilarating speed; if more of the console’s library had felt like this, Sonic the Hedgehog‘s entire marketing premise would have collapsed in upon itself.

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F-Zero builds on its futuristic setting to go all-in on unusual play mechanics, too. For starters, the game system revolves around a damage feature that’s pure video games — in no way does it resemble actual racing physics. Each racer’s car has its own energy meter connected to an energy shield. Once your shield collapses, your car explodes on the track. It’s pretty intense: A racing game where you can die. Not only that, but F-Zero also includes actual instant-kill scenarios (such as jumping off the track) in which your vehicle will explode even at full shield strength, instantly resulting in a loss for that track.

This means F-Zero plays out as a strange beast: A racing game in which you have a stock of lives and can even earn 1UPs with a strong score. Some of the tracks can be downright brutal, and it’s entirely possible to blaze through the first few races in a circuit only to hit a wall with a tricky jump or turn and see a game over despite racking up a bunch of first-place wins.

F-Zero‘s ping-pong-like physics play a huge part in this. The racers’ energy shields cause cars to behave in wild, unpredictable ways. If you strike something hard enough, whether a wall or another racer, your car will bounce off it. The faster you’re going, the more vigorous the rebound… and, frequently, those collisions will happen at an oblique angle that results in your car being spun completely around to face a wall or even drive backward. You can use this mechanic to your advantage, sending other racers careening into a disastrous rebound, but doing so requires great mastery of the controls; otherwise, a mean-spirited collision is far more likely to ruin your day. Unlike in its spiritual successor Mario Kart, when you lose a race at the last minute in F-Zero it’s less likely because of rubber-band AI and more likely because of an unlucky collision that bounces you in every direction but forward.

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You don’t need to complete a race to lose it, though. No, often you’ll know well in advance if you’re not going to place… because you see, unlike in most other racers, F-Zero introduces the possibility that you will die horribly mid-race. If your car’s shields drop to zero, boom, that’s it. It’s very, very possible in certain tricky tracks to snag a wall or another vehicle at a glancing angle that sends you into a murderous pinball frenzy, bouncing helplessly across a course’s energy barriers, until your vehicle explodes. It’s also entirely possible for your car to explode while sporting full shields as well. Unlike in Mario Kart, flying off the track doesn’t cause Lakitu to retrieve you and scold you for your clumisness with a modest time penalty; leaving the track with a misaimed jump causes your vehicle to detonate instantly. Harsh!

There are some tricky jumps in a few courses, and you have to make each jump multiple times since you complete five laps per course, and at any one of these jumps you can easily slip up and lose the race. Do it a few times in a row and your entire performance on the circuit turns out to be for naught — you can see a Game Over on the final track of a circuit even if you have four first-place finishes under your belt.

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The high speeds and high stakes of F-Zero made for a racing game like none other before it. It wasn’t the first sci-fi racer, and it wasn’t the first racing game to use visual shenanigans to create the impression of an immersive 3D racetrack. But no other racer had ever combined breakneck speed, visual immersion, wild physics, and ruthless challenge so effectively — certainly not on a home console. By this point, Nintendo’s software development processes had come a long way from the rough-hewn early days of NES Black Box software, and the undeniable excellence and craftsmanship they brought to game design really came to the fore here: A genuine arcade-caliber experience on a home console.

F-Zero was a brazen act of false promises for lay ahead for the Super NES, too. It promised a certain white-knuckle intensity that the console couldn’t quite deliver on with any consistency, and it might have made a pretty convincing argument if you didn’t pay much attention to, say, Gradius III.

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That’s not the only part of F-Zero that feels a little lacking in hindsight. You can see a lot of seams and compromises within the game — things that didn’t seem so noticeable at the time, when we were blinded by what was honestly an unparalleled home gaming experience, but stand out more conspicuously 25 years later. For starters, the game only includes four vehicles. This was likely due to memory limitations. The bottleneck likely came from the system’s RAM, since each vehicle had to be drawn from roughly two dozen different angles apiece at about six different levels of scale to create a convincing illusion of rotation and distance on the track. That’s a lot to squeeze into 128 Kb of RAM! And the cart itself clocked in at a mere 512 Kb, which also contained all the track data and music — a total of 15 tracks in three circuits.

Perhaps not surprisingly, F-Zero lacked a multiplayer element. Super Mario Kart would eventually adapt F-Zero‘s Mode 7 tech trick into a split-screen format with eight different racers, but that cart had much higher memory capacity and included the DSP-1 add-on chip to enable its advances — something not available for F-Zero, which fit within the boundaries of the Super NES’s innate limitations.

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While F-Zero still feels pretty intense even by modern standards, the illusion of its Mode 7 gimmickry has proven less resilient. The stretchy sheet of race track trick would become thoroughly played out over the Super NES’s life, and unlike proper polygonal tracks, F-Zero‘s tracks are 100% completely flat in nature. Not only that, but the tracks feature very few dynamic elements. You’ll encounter recharge zones and speed boosters, sure, but aside from the racers themselves and a handful of sprite-based objects like mines, the tracks prove to be awfully desolate.

Even if it seems a little flimsy in retrospect, though, F-Zero made a huge impression on kids back in the day. If Super Mario World was the game that kept new Super NES players glued to their consoles for months to find all 96 exits, F-Zero was the game that caught their attention in the first place… and it made for some pretty effective counter-programming to SEGA’s “Super NES is so slow!” campaigns, too.

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The game has seen quite a few sequels, though only F-Zero X for Nintendo 64 really moved the needle. F-Zero GX for GameCube arguably took the hardcore difficulty of the series a step too far, and the several Game Boy Advance sequels attempted to reproduce the vibe and look of the Super NES game, which really only served to demonstrate that F-Zero‘s original tech was very much tied to a specific time and place… which was 1991, not 2004. While the franchise has sat dormant for a decade now, Nintendo will eventually do something with it. Certainly it hasn’t been forgotten; while the game’s cast of weirdo futuristic racers only originally existed in the manual, never to be seen on-screen, Captain Falcon would go on to become a key figure in the F-Zero anime and an iconic mainstay in Smash Bros.

Despite some failings, F-Zero helped introduce the Super NES with eye-popping ferocity. It really and truly created the sense that a new generation of game consoles had arrived, visually eclipsing any previous home racer with its combination of tech and finesse, and that was kind of the point. Anyone can make a cool tech demo. The Super NES made a splash in large part because Nintendo made their cool tech demo into an intense, addicting racing game.

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PACKAGING Gallery

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MANUAL SCANS

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They may have only made a single piece of key art for F-Zero, but they sure got plenty of mileage from it.

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Signs of the times: This page is an almost completely redundant restatement of the information on page 2, because they had so many manual pages to fill.

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Admirable efforts to explain quirks of the game design as official tournament rules. Basically: “The four named competitors have an extra high bar to clear.”

There is probably a lot more backstory here than is strictly necessary.

Hard to imagine Nintendo introducing its characters as straight-up killers these days. But at least there’s no room for a “Falcon shot first” retcon here.

Samurai Goroh seems to have his priorities in order, at least.

Signs of the times: The F-Zero manual recommends using special cables so you can listen to your game in startling stereo sound.

Note: I have made a full-resolution PDF version of the manual available through Patreon.

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