Review: F-Zero (Super Nintendo)

F-Zero was a launch title for the American release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). It was one of the first titles to show off the SNES's famed "Mode-7" graphics mode that simulated a 3D plane without utilizing polygons.

F-Zero was the start of a franchise for Nintendo, spawning 5 sequels across Nintendo's home and handheld consoles. Set in the year 2560, the premise of F-Zero is that a bunch of rich billionaires created a new Formula 1 (F1, F-Zero, get it?) series using fast hover crafts. F-Zero features 4 selectable hover crafts, with the fastest car featuring the worst handling, and the slowest car featuring the best handling. Weirdly enough, the fastest car is pink.

So, with your manly pink hover craft, you get to race on 15 tracks spanning 3 different leagues. Each league, Knight, Queen, and King, has 5 different courses. The different race environments include Mute City, Big Blue, Sand Ocean, Death Wind, Silence, Port Town, Red Canyon, White Land, and Fire Field. Some leagues contain variations of these environments.

Graphically speaking, F-Zero is still a treat. The slick Mode-7 graphics do a great job of simulating 3D environments. Unfortunately, everything is very flat. Every obstacle and ramp is baked into the track, rather than created with new sprites. Some reviewers have complained how pixelated everything looks, but I don't find this to be the case at all. Everything is clearly defined and crisp. Most importantly, this game is fast, and the frame rate never slips. Maybe I'm a sucker for this kind of game, but F-Zero still holds up well after all of these years.

The basic premise of F-Zero is to finish each of the 5 races in a league in the top 3 positions. Each race is 5 laps long. You must be in the top 15 positions in the first lap, top 10 by the second lap, top 7 on the third lap, top 5 on the fourth lap, and top 3 on the final lap. There are three difficulty levels to choose from, beginner, intermediate, and expert. If you beat a league on expert, you will unlock the master difficulty level.

The tracks are generally varied. Some are very wide with easy turns that can be taken flat out. Some tracks are a lot more technical, requiring you to slow down before the turn. There are shortcuts in F-Zero that generally tough to find, requiring you to hit jump ramps hidden in the barriers of the game.

The controls in F-Zero are very responsive. In addition to the basic accelerate, brake, left and right, you can make sharper turns using the shoulder buttons on the SNES controller. After completing a lap, you also get a speed boost that you can use at your leisure. You can save up to 3 at a time.

I remember playing F-Zero in the early nineties and struggling to keep my craft on the courses, bouncing from side to side and never really getting anywhere. I figured 15 years of gaming experience under my belt would help improve things. The track barrier lining the left and right hand sides of the track, is called the Anti-Gravity Guidebeam. Running or bumping into this will cause you to lose power. If you lose all of your power, which is shown in the upper right hand corner of the screen, you will lose. The biggest problem with the Anti-Gravity Guidebeam is the if you hit it just right, it bounces you back into the one on the other side. Sometimes it feels more bumper bowling than racing.

Littered throughout the courses are speed pads called dash zones. Driving over these will temporarily double your crafts speed. When cruising along at 1000 kph your craft is uncontrollable. Some tracks place turns after these dash zones which pretty much means you are going to play bumper bowling with the barrier again. Adding to the annoyingness are computer controlled drones which are slow and erratic. They swerve side-to-side, for no real reason other than to slow you down.

The Death Wind track introduces crosswinds, that make your car push to the left or right, depending on where you are on the track. While it is easy to make the correct adjustments on straight section, passing and obstacles are tricky, which often lead to crashing into the barriers... then bouncing around. Port Town and Fire Field have a hazard called a side-pull magnet, which pulls your car towards the side of the track, and then drains your power. All of these things make F-Zero a frustrating experience.

F-Zero does feature a great soundtrack, with fast and upbeat tunes. The hover crafts themselves create the correct whoosh noises as running into things will result in various crash noises. Everything very crisp and clean, and fits into the futuristic feel of the game.

There is a practice mode that lets you race on 7 of the tracks without any CPU controlled opponents. The cartridge will also save your best times. Sadly, there is no multi-player mode. Other than that, there aren't any options in F-Zero. What you see is what you get, 4 hover crafts, 15 tracks, and 3 difficulty levels. The master difficulty level is the only thing you can unlock.

F-Zero is more about course and item memorization than racing. Unlike other 16-bit racers, like Mario Kart or Road Rash, F-Zero lacks the pick up and play factor that makes those titles classics. It often feels more like a tech demo of the SNES graphical capabilities than a full featured racing game. In that regard, it does succeed.

Overall, F-Zero features excellent graphics, a good soundtrack, and smooth controls. The lack of any rewards for winning also hampers the experience and offers no real incentive to keep playing. Ultimately, the poor game play mechanics ruin the game. Most gamers have fond memories of this title, but I didn't find much to enjoy.

Graphics - 8/10
Sound - 7/10 Catchy upbeat soundtrack
Game play - 3/10 Broken
 Overall - 4/10 Nice to look at, but not to play