F-Zero – 29 years Mode 7
Nintendo were riding high when they released the Super Famicom in November 1990. The success of the Famicon and NES put the gaming giant in an unprecedented position going into the 16-bit console age. The Mega Drive, released two years earlier, was doing well but Nintendo had an ace up their sleeve. Mode 7 graphics enabled the SNES to produce jaw dropping pseudo 3D backgrounds. The first game to use this amazing feature was F-Zero.
Set in 2560 when a new racing competition is launched based on Formula 1, F-Zero was a launch title in November 1990. You cannot help but be impressed when you first experience F-Zero, the title screen alone gives you an indication you’re in for something special. A loud blast of rallying chip tune makes you sit up and take notice. A sprawling look across one of the tracks shows depth never seen in a racing game before. You choose one of four vehicles as they spin looking very 3D. There is lots of wow factor.
As you begin your race and start shuffling from side to side and whizzing around corners it is clear you are playing a special game. It is no surprise that this is one of the best scoring games in the infamous Famitsu magazine. The Japanese publication is renowned for its tough review scoring but gave F-Zero 37 out of 40. The game has been included in many greatest of all time lists and is often cited as the future racing genre pioneer.
Everything about F-Zero oozes quality, the bold bright sprites layered onto the multiple backgrounds, the pumping soundtrack, the tight controls. You can’t help but be impressed with its presentation and gameplay. The way the background zips into the foreground constantly tricks your brain. You do see 3D graphics that are not really there. This is the magic of Mode 7 and what helps this game literally stand out from the crowd.
Mode 7 allows a raster graphical plane to move independently. It means that texture maps can simulate 3D backgrounds without using polygons. They rotate and scale as needed to give a pseudo 3D effect. In F-Zero the Mode 7 rendering makes the environment rotate around a central point. In this case the central point is your vehicle. F-Zero was designed to show off this technique and it succeeds in spades.
The technique went on to define the console and many of its best titles boast the feature. Sega had their super-scaler technology on the Mega Drive but in retrospect this was overshadowed by Mode 7. The games that took advantage of this technique look fresh today as Mode 7 was so ahead of its time. It may have been a clever visual trick but it helped push the boundaries of console gaming.
The fact that this was one of the first games for the system is impressive. Just look at the launch titles for the Mega Drive and put them alongside Super Mario World and F-Zero. If you played this at launch you will hopefully remember how groundbreaking it was. Just like with Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. Nintendo knew how to innovate. They were not known for their racing games but this put them in pole position.
One criticism that is often levied at F-Zero is the lack of multiplayer. You can imagine what impact a two player option would have had. Mario Kart style battles as you boost passed the finish line. It is a big what if but we suspect this was due to development time. Also, you will have noticed that parts of earlier tracks are reused in later ones. This may have been to further speed up development but does not affect the overall gameplay.
Nintendo needed a game ready at launch to show the why it was still the best. They needed something to trump Sega’s blast processing and F-Zero was the answer. They snatched back the graphics crown on day one. Nintendo were already two years behind the Mega Drive and needed to win back their market share. Sega’s perceived dominance needed a shake and Mode 7 provided the answer.
At the time everyone was raving about Super Mario World and quite rightly. But with hindsight F-Zero shows off Nintendo’s 16-bit behemoth a lot more than their flagship launch title. It shows that Nintendo already knew how best to utilise the SNES. Just marvel at the backgrounds whirling in and out as you experience one of gaming’s greats. Give F-Zero a proper playthrough again, you will not be disappointed.