By Paul Kainoa Vigil / December 1st, 2015
Remember the last time Captain Falcon starred in an F-Zero title? It was more than ten years ago – F-Zero Climax for the Game Boy Advance, and it wasn’t even localized. It’s depressing that between Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Smash Bros. for 3DS’s release (which came a month before the Wii U release), not even a spin-off title was released for the F-Zero series. In the meantime, other Nintendo franchises not named Super Mario Bros., Kirby or The Legend of Zelda are seeing more activity. Fire Emblem’s future in the West appears relatively secure, albeit with some changes to make it more appealing. And the Star Fox series is finally seeing a new entry…though considering the mixed reception to the title thus far, I can’t help but once again fear for the future of that series.
In all honesty, I think getting F-Zero off of the ground again is going to be quite difficult, even if what I think needs to be done for the next F-Zero game is pretty simple in theory. I’m going to take some time to write about the F-Zero series and what I hope is next.
F-Zero is a futuristic racer with vehicles that move at incredibly high speeds and racing circuits that take place on different planets (and sometimes in outer space). F-Zero got its start on the Super Nintendo. It was one of a modest handful of titles (alongside fellow Nintendo racer Super Mario Kart) that made use of Mode 7 to convey the illusion of 3D scrolling.
You were only ever racing against three other vehicles in the first game. Dropping to 5th or below was basically a signal that you were screwing up. And Mode 7, while cool in its own way, was limited in its ability to describe speed, relegated to the Game Boy Advance’s games like F-Zero Maximum Velocity and F-Zero GP Legend as the franchise pushed itself on stronger hardware.
Then came F-Zero X for the Nintendo 64. A complete game-changer. All races featured 30 vehicles, all cars and tracks rendered in 3D. I have to imagine that someone at Nintendo thought that the initial proposal for a new F-Zero with these new features was made by people who were out of their mind. It was a colossal evolution from F-Zero for the Super Nintendo. And it’s partially what made the game so memorable…besides perhaps the hard rock-themed soundtrack and the edgy art style (especially evident in character profiles.)
This was the winning formula. We saw it return for F-Zero GX for the Nintendo GameCube. Incidentally, this game was developed by SEGA. SEGA seemed to think that many of the ideas established in F-Zero X were good enough. The additions made in GX were ancillary, though welcome: treats such as an emblem editor, story mode, and little touches like the post-grand prix interview or vehicle customization. It has to be said that F-Zero GX is just visually stunning, too. There’s nothing like playing through the game and moving through the different racing environments.
Shigeru Miyamoto has previously commented on why he understands a new hypothetical F-Zero title to be so difficult. Two years ago, Miyamoto said that a new, great idea that could push the series forward into a new generation and be a step above its predecessors wasn’t yet apparent to him. The suggestion here is that without such a revolutionary idea, it felt difficult to justify making a new F-Zero game. I don’t really think such an idea is necessary, to be honest. I’d liken this situation to what’s going on with the Paper Mario series — after the relative disappointing arrival (though not completely disappointing in execution) of games like Super Paper Mario and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, there is increased clamoring for a more “classic” or linear Paper Mario title like the original game or Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.
That being said, Miyamoto’s also shown slightly more openness to the idea when earlier this year he mentioned that a new controller interface would be needed for F-Zero to make more sense. So he’s had more time to ponder the issue, and now he sees a way forward. I think that such an idea will generate slightly more mass market appeal, but in the end if the features aren’t there and the gameplay isn’t tight enough, the hypothetical word of mouth on a more visceral, “truly next-gen” F-Zero won’t make up for a lacking game. I’ll admit that in the end it will take both audiences — the already-converted and those who need to be told what a new F-Zero will bring to the table of racing games — to make F-Zero work, but the operative word there is BOTH.
With the success of Mario Maker, some may be inclined to suggest that a track editor should be explored for a new F-Zero title. It is already present in F-Zero X, though an expansion pack is required. That aside, I think a track editor is non-essential. I wouldn’t protest its inclusion, but a perfect experience that entails high-speed racing, 29 other competitors per race, and vibrant backgrounds are far more necessary. I’m not sure the idea of a track editor has ever been massively popular – it’s been included in some titles and omitted in others, and isn’t a regularly discussed feature when people talk about what makes F-Zero great or what could make it better. I suppose the discussion wasn’t there because the ability to trade levels didn’t exist in the same capacity that it does today, but I’m not sure it’d have much of an impact regardless. I don’t mind being wrong on this front.
One feature that absolutely has to be nailed is multiplayer. Multiplayer is already a part of F-Zero X and F-Zero GX. However, those are products of a different time, and a new F-Zero would absolutely need to move forward into online gaming. And honestly, split-screen multiplayer for F-Zero is inadequate. I personally hate it. Having your visibility of the track compromised heavily dilutes the playing experience, especially when you move through tracks as quickly as you do in F-Zero. I have no doubts that this would be difficult to implement. But if this feature is omitted, then we can expect F-Zero as a franchise to remain dormant right after any new title is released.
Multiplayer is obviously important for racing games, and generally any type of game that can be played competitively. Only F-Zero die-hards or nostalgiacs who desire the experience of the high-speed racing genre’s heyday (WipeOut, etc.,) will buy a game without online strictly out of love for the franchise. Odds are, the aforementioned audience is going to make up a large part of the buying audience anyway (besides people who really like Captain Falcon and Smash Bros..) But a primarily single-player racing game, or a new F-Zero that is a carbon copy of F-Zero GX (which is by far the best F-Zero game anyway) is unfathomable for a new F-Zero. Races with up to four or six human players should be fine. 30-player races is probably asking for a bit much. Blur handled up to 20 players online, but…we don’t absolutely need that here.
By the way, for anyone who might propose F-Zero GX HD if it’s apparently such an amazing game like I think it is: it will absolutely not do well. It’s not like a hypothetical Super Smash Bros. Melee HD, which has a massive eSports and grassroots community surrounding the game itself. The sales weren’t abysmal for the original F-Zero GX, but they weren’t good.
I’d also like to touch on the idea of difficulty for a new F-Zero game. F-Zero GX is regarded as an incredibly difficult racing game. Having played through a majority of its content (everything except the highest difficulty chapters on Story Mode) I don’t disagree. That being said, all F-Zero games come with the option to play at novice class levels. I would be sorely disappointed in any overtures to make the game easier. Part of the fun (and misery) of my time playing the game involved how frustrated I became trying to finish particular circuits with the highest point total of all racers. The option for players to enjoy the game at less-challenging difficulties has already been a part of F-Zero; there’s no reason to hamper the playing experience for those seeking a challenge. Besides, presenting the option for a higher difficulty could be something worth exploring for any player who feels they’ve sufficiently tried out the easier difficulties and want to branch out into something new.
Maybe F-Zero GX set the bar too high. It was a supernova; it executed its identity well, it specified its audience, and all of this perhaps to its own dismay. I’m not sure the problem lies entirely with the racing genre. We see nowadays that other platformer games not named Mario (e.g. Klonoa, Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog) have either steadily lost traction over time or don’t exist anymore. The Mario Kart series sells well, but Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing Transformed developed by Sumo Digital (any Blur fans in the crowd?) also enjoyed positive commercial and critical reception. Nevertheless, as a futuristic high-speed racer, F-Zero is definitely in a tough spot because it might just be the only title of its kind on the market. And it’s a market that isn’t hosting any other titles of its kind at the moment. Whether or not you love or hate risky situations, that is still quite the risk to contend with.
I am convinced however that F-Zero offers such a unique experience that it has to be revisited. I’m not convinced that its qualities can’t be articulated by Nintendo in a new game, and that there’s no reason to return to F-Zero. I’m skeptical about whether or not Nintendo is interested in this series to begin with when they can pursue paths that are less challenging. And simply from a standpoint of appreciating a great game, I hate seeing F-Zero stuck in this long dormancy. It’s why I’ll continue to beg for its revival.
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