More than just a pretty race: the blistering SNES launch title F-Zero might have shown off the brand new console's newfangled Mode 7 technology, but beneath the pseudo-3D surface was a brisk, breakneck speedster and purest racing game Nintendo has ever made. Speed freak Craig Owens reminisces about zooming down Mute City's sky-high straights, soaking up the sun on Big Blue, and taking the Blue Falcon for its very first ride
Here's a fun experiment. Walk up to a stranger and ask them to name a SNES racing game developed by Nintendo. They might politely decline at first, they might even back slowly away from you. You must persist: it helps if you have a warm and friendly gleam in your eyes. Eventually, when your interviewee finds there's nothing behind them but a cold, unyielding wall, they'll relent. They always do. And, nine times out of 10, what they'll quietly whimper is "Mario Kart".
It's really no surprise, because Super Mario Kart looks and feels like a Nintendo game. There's the Mario branding, for a start. Then there's brightly coloured, creative track design and, of course, the powerups that turn races into spectacular running battles. It's exactly what a Nintendo racing game should feel like, which is why it's easy to overlook the fact that a very different kind of racer was released two years before. Before the dreaded Blue Shell, you see, was the Blue Falcon.
F-Zero is hardly obscure, but it's definitely one of Nintendo's less favoured children, with only three main entries in the series released for home consoles in the last 22 years. The irony of this, of course, is that it was one of the two games Nintendo trusted to launch the SNES in Japan, the other being Super Mario World.
It's - literally - easy to see why. F-Zero was a showcase for the SNES's Mode 7 scaling technology, which was essentially a clever way of squeezing not-quite-but-sort-of-3D depth effects from the 16-bit machine. But that's underselling it. At the time, F-Zero was mind-blowing. If Super Mario World was the game that showcased what Nintendo's dev teams were capable of, then F-Zero was the game that showed off what the SNES itself could do.
Zip around a hairpin turn in one of F-Zero's futuristic tracks and the course appeared to shift with you. More precisely, it shifted around you - the perspective altering to account for your adjusted point of view. If you're interested in the science bit, what was happening was that the (traditionally static) background image was being rotated and adjusted in line with your craft's position. But who cares about the science bit? What mattered is that it felt like those lightning-quick hovercraft were positively zooming through three-dimensional space. We'd seen nothing like it.
And "Zooming" is no exaggeration: F-Zero felt fast. It doesn't seem as quick now: perhaps it was something to do with the pseudo-3D effect giving a stronger sense of motion than those of us raised on two dimensions were used to, but at the time, even on the easiest difficulty and in the slowest craft, it rattled along at one hell of a pace. Activate a boost and straights would pass in an instant, while corners came out of nowhere and slammed into your craft. You needed a good memory and quick reactions to master these courses, because there were no red shells or banana skins to bail you out.