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F-Zero was mindblowing

Forget F-Zero X or GX. The SNES original found the best balance between velocity and style, says Craig Owens

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".

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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.

Depth perception

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.

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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.

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11 comments so far...
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  1. ChandraONM Wednesday 20th Feb 2013 at 16:11

    I've got a pristine, boxed copy of the Super Famicom version at home. Mmmmmm. . . amazing game but so hard on the highest difficulty.
    Virgin Atlantic used to have it on their flights but the controller was always broken :shock:

  2. CyberGW Wednesday 20th Feb 2013 at 16:15

    I may download this tomorrow.
    Sounds really fun, and at 30p, you can't really go wrong!

  3. Darkblizz Wednesday 20th Feb 2013 at 16:47

    GameCube sequels sacrificed some of the graphical detail for the sake of speed and framerates

    Are you insane? GX looks fantastic even today. Buildings loom up around you, creatures swim in the air around you in Sand Ocean, display screens in cities are always changing, you can see every scratch and bit of chipped paint on the machines....

  4. Waldy565 Wednesday 20th Feb 2013 at 17:15

    Nice to see another article from the mag ONM :(

  5. jaco_p Wednesday 20th Feb 2013 at 17:16

    as you say, x and gx were much faster than the original, oh, and they had multiplayer and looked better.
    Don't get me wrong, this must have been the first snes game i played and i loved it. But it doesn't stand up as much today as it's succesors. Plus it cheated

  6. Zaphod_B Wednesday 20th Feb 2013 at 17:18

    GameCube sequels sacrificed some of the graphical detail for the sake of speed and framerates

    Are you insane? GX looks fantastic even today. Buildings loom up around you, creatures swim in the air around you in Sand Ocean, display screens in cities are always changing, you can see every scratch and bit of chipped paint on the machines....

    I agree, X was my fav. to play but very minimalist, however GX was a graphical powerhouse of a game!

  7. MatthewONM Wednesday 20th Feb 2013 at 17:39

    Nice to see another article from the mag ONM :(

    This article was printed two months ago. Don't be silly.

  8. Sunnyleafs Thursday 21st Feb 2013 at 01:10

    Listening to the Port Town theme song still gives me chills - so great.

  9. BattleGooseUK Thursday 21st Feb 2013 at 06:27

    I'm probably in the minority here, but I find controlling my ship near impossible with wall crashes on every corner. F-Zero X and GX I was good at, but the original?! Waaay out of my league.

  10. Knightendo Thursday 21st Feb 2013 at 10:28

    When I read this article in the mag a while back I couldn't believe the comment about the GameCube version too! Obviously the writer (it wan't Chandra) hadn't a clue! He was completely biased towards the original and that comment about GX made me doubt the rest of the entire article! It had some of the most amazing graphics I've ever seen, even to this day!

  11. liveswired Friday 22nd Feb 2013 at 00:15

    Flamebait article. Clearly the writer has NEVER PLAYED F ZERO GX. t**t. :roll:

    F-Zero GX is one of the BEST looking, MOST GRAPHICALLY INTENSE titles on GAMECUBE, NOT TO MENTION THE FASTEST. The detail, special FX, lighting, AI, number of racers on a track, draw distance, massive roller coaster tracks, excellent textures with tonnes of detail all running at 60fps? You call that a sacrifice in visuals? :shock:

    F-Zero SNES has not aged well at all and is incredibly poor by todays standards.

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