RetroGrade Review #4: F-Zero (SNES — 1991)

F-Zero, released in 1990 in Japan, 1991 in the USA, and 1992 in Europe, is often credited with being the game that defined and inspired the sci-fi racing genre.  It is easy to see why – the soundtrack is fantastic, the levels have incredible depth (for the time, of course), the four selectable vehicles are each unique; impressively designed; and feel as incredibly fast as the speedometer in the upper-right corner of the screen would lead you to believe,  and  the racing  is   packed   with   various dangers and death-defying shortcuts.

In short, to call the gameplay in F-Zero “frantic” or “hectic” would be two obscenely egregious understatements.  However, the game has a few critical flaws that drastically take away from its overall enjoyment, first and foremost being the total lack of a multiplayer mode (who designs a racing game without a multiplayer mode?  C’mon, Nintendo…), followed by vehicles that, while fast, turn like hockey pucks (even when not driving on the scattered segments of icy track, which ironically seem to make turning easier), and opponent vehicles that appear to be able to selectively avoid obstacles.

The crowning achievement of any racing game is the ability to make you feel two things – immersed in the environment, and as though you are an ace driver.  F-Zero does the first well, with varying backdrops that rotate with each course, and detailed environments that zoom by BENEATH the courses as well.  Visual gimmicks such as blowing sand and moving lava add to this immersion, and gameplay mechanics such as being constantly pushed to either side of the track in the aptly-titled “Death Wind” courses create a cool-but-sometimes-infuriating sense of connectivity.  The feeling of being an ace driver, however, is not present from the get-go.  That’s not to say that it should be – racing games should be difficult, otherwise each circuit and course just begins to feel like a time-trial with a few scattered and slow-moving obstacles.  But being forced to pain-quit (which is like rage-quitting only replace the rage with soul-penetrating defeat and sorrow) after attempting the third circuit for the fourth time on the “easiest” difficulty because the vehicle you were tailing just magically phased through an exploding obstacle that in-turn made you explode and subsequently lose your last life on the last lap of the last course takes a good deal out of what should be an intense and enjoyable experience.

Alongside the challenges of each course come the respective challenges of each vehicle, which I feel weird saying.  In most racing games, you will select a car or driver based on the benefits of that car or driver, but after playing with each vehicle in F-Zero, I felt like I was starting to select whichever vehicle I was selecting because it had fewer or different downsides than one or two of the other cars.  I was not picking the vehicle I totally enjoyed playing, I was picking the vehicle I disliked the least, which is an incredibly sad feeling because I have played every other game in the F-Zero series and have loved each one.  But after initially picking the Blue Falcon because it has always been my favorite vehicle, I found myself avoiding it and picking the Golden Fox, then the Wild Goose, then the Fire Stingray, but then finally going back to the Blue Falcon.  I should have been picking the Golden Fox because it could turn, the Wild Goose because it was durable, the Fire Stingray because sweet-mother-of-mercy it was fast, and the Blue Falcon because it was a not-overpowered (but still reliable) mix of the three.  Instead, I was picking the Blue Falcon not because I felt like it was better than the other vehicles, but because the Golden Fox crashed too soon, the Wild Goose had poor speed, and the Fire Stingray could not turn to save its life.  Each vehicle sure is pretty, though.

For all the difficulties this game contains, however, it could have been extremely enjoyable in a multiplayer setting, which, sadly, is something it more-than-noticeably lacks.  All throughout each painful grand prix experience in which my vehicle could only be likened to a pinball careening down a track, I could not help but think of how much fun it would be to share this experience with a friend – not for the shared misery of the matter, but because it would truly be fun.  Nintendo missed a golden opportunity by not including this in the game.

F-Zero is an iconic game, for its genre-inspiring direction and design, but its frantic gameplay that could and should be both fun and rewarding is greatly offset by the game’s overwhelming difficulty.  In spite of these difficulties, however, it is a game that I wish I could have played when I was younger and I would recommend everyone try out when they can, especially since it is readily available on the Nintendo WiiU e-shop.  Do not, and I repeat DO NOT, play this on an emulator.  You will destroy your keyboard with incessant clicks.

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