“Why F-Zero? What is it that is missing to the series that we haven’t made yet?”
These were the words Mister Shigeru Miyamoto said to French gaming website Gamekult just about two months ago (source). For what is now a decade, fans such as I have been waiting for a new installment in the F-Zero franchise that had yet to be produced. The very last F-Zero, F-Zero GX, was released in 2003 for the Gamecube, and the Wii had not seen this lightning-fast racing game during its lifespan. There neither has been any F-Zero games on DS or 3DS, the last installments on handheld being on the Gameboy Advance with F-Zero: Maximum Velocity released in the West in 2001. But now that Miyamoto-san is overtly asking gamers for their ideas and opinion, I’m willing to give it a shot. Challenge accepted.
First of all, I probably should describe the series for those who might not know it that much; but I will do so mostly from my own experience as a fan. I have been into F-Zero since F-Zero X on Nintendo 64 and played the franchise with F-Zero: Maximum Velocity on Game Boy Advance and F-Zero GX on the Gamecube. I also had the opportunity to play F-Zero AX (the arcade version of F-Zero GX) and the very first F-Zero on SNES. In retrospect, that would be all the F-Zero games we have seen here in the West, so I might as well describe the games in the order of their time of release.
The F-Zero franchise
F-Zero is a series of futuristic racing games in which you drive powerful machines at very, very high speeds in races that are competitive both for the number of opponents you have to face and for the difficulty of their tracks. A trademark of F-Zero is the ability for machines to boost once granted possibility upon the second lap of the race, allowing them to reach higher speeds for a limited time, taking a drastic advantage over other racers were they not to do the same. But higher speed does mean lesser maneuverability, and boosting often has a detrimental effect; therefore boosts have to be used in ways that challenge the player to choose the right balance between efficiency and safety: being the fastest while ensuring you’re still in the game.
The first F-Zero on the SNES (F-Zero) established these clear benchmarks for all the subsequent games. Later on came F-Zero X on Nintendo 64 which changed the boost structure of the original game. While F-Zero had a system that awarded one lengthy boost at the end of each lap, F-Zero X brought a new system that used a machine’s energy level to power several shorter boosts: while boosting in F-Zero meant just using a power-up, boosting in F-Zero X literally meant risking your life. In that line of thought, F-Zero X introduced side and spin attacks for runners to hit and deliberately kill one another on the race. A deeper level of strategy was thus established: should one risk boosting too much and die crashing on a wall at max speed? Should one risk cruising too fast and drift off the road as a result? Or should one boost away from their opponents to fail to distance them and get killed once they keep up? Indeed, from then on, F-Zero had clearly become a game that maxes out on difficulty.
Next came F-Zero: Maximum Velocity on the Game Boy Advance, the first handheld F-Zero, which reinstated the principles of the very first F-Zero: boosts were longer and unique, while attacks from F-Zero X didn’t make it back in the handheld release. As its Japanese name implied, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity was quite much the original “F-Zero for Game Boy Advance” in terms of features.
But the paragon of F-Zero, the one that set the game to heights that have yet been achieved in racing games in a decade, is F-Zero GX: the very last (Western) installment of the series, on the Gamecube.
In a nutshell, F-Zero GX had everything F-Zero: unprecedented speed, massive roster, ridiculous tracks, enhanced trademark difficulty…
Average cruising speed: 1,000 km/h. When boosting, machines could easily reach speeds such as 1,500 km/h; I’ll never forget my max speed with Mighty Gazelle, diving at 3,006 km/h in Cosmo Terminal “Trident.” And trust me, 100 km/h in F-Zero GX IS 100 km/h in real life, just like 300 km/h in F-Zero GX is your topping 300 km/h in a Need For Speed. (I made the experience myself, and I would encourage you to try on your own.)
More than 40 characters, 30 racing at the same time in the Grand Prix. Just like F-Zero X before, the game allowed so many machines on the race that one could only struggle to find their way through, sometimes dying in an instant without knowing where that spin attack actually came from.
Tracks as beautifully crafted as they were complex and hard to complete. Mute City, Port Town, Aeropolis, Green Plant, Big Blue… “Multiplex,” “Loop Cross,” “Aero Dive,” “Split Oval,” “Half Pipe,” “Mobius Ring,” “Drift Highway,” “Trident,” “Long Pipe,” “Ordeal…”
But I digress. All this goes to show the legacy of the F-Zero franchise; the understanding of which I hope I have shared with you, and an understanding I am based upon in my ideas for a next installment of F-Zero, on the Wii U.
F-Zero Wii U: my suggestions
Let’s start with the most obvious: a brand-new HD console calls for brand-new HD graphics. It would be a first for F-Zero, and one that would be quite noticeable and duly appreciated. Livelier machines, livelier stages, livelier environment… The world of F-Zero as if it was real out there on the TV screen. But when it comes to HD, I would not be so quick as to impose 1080p graphics, the reason behind this being that first and foremost F-Zero REQUIRES an unwavering 60fps framerate: and when I mean unwavering, I mean it in every aspect of the game, especially in the massive online multiplayer I will be describing later on. After all, I don’t believe any racer deserves to die because of a split second of unwanted technical malfunctions.
Some might remember the words of developer Shin’en, right here on this website (http://www.notenoughshaders.com/2012/11/03/shinen-mega-interview-harnessing-the-wii-u-power/), regarding resolution:
“Nano Assault Neo is running in 720p yes. We had the game also running in 1080p but the difference was not distinguishable when playing. Therefore we used 720p and put the free GPU cycles into higher resolution post-Fx. This was much more visible.”
Nano Assault Neo is quite a fast game and its steady framerate rendering its 720p resolution is already outstanding. As I would expect the next F-Zero to have machines running at at least the same speed as in F-Zero GX, it seems indubitable how small the difference would be in resolutions in such a game, which is why it’s best to keep that extra power for other features.
Now, onto the gameplay. I call for two new additions that are actually just a clever mix of what the F-Zero franchise has proposed over the years, which I have described previously for that purpose. I would like for the new game to implement a new boost system and a new energy system, the first made of two complementary types of boosts and the second made of two different types of energy bars.
When it comes to boosts, the player would have the ability to either “Boost” or “Burst.” The Boost would be the short boosts akin to F-Zero X and F-Zero GX, granting the ability to quickly gain high speeds for a range of 2 to 5 seconds. The Burst would be more like the boosts of F-Zero and of F-Zero: Maximum Velocity, bringing longer and more profuse heights of speed, though would take more time to build up and would reach a higher max speed than the Boost. As I would suggest the same F-Zero GX speeds in this next installment (which already gave a hard time to many) it would look like this: while Captain Falcon’s Blue Falcon, cruising typical at around 1,000 km/h on the ground, would reach a max speed of around 1,500 km/h with continuous Boosts, a Burst at full momentum would allow it to top 2,000 km/h after about 10 seconds of activation and a drain of half of its energy. A significant leap in speed at an even higher price.
About the energy system, the machines would have a “Life Bar” and an “Energy Bar.” The Life Bar would be the one that attests of the remaining sturdiness of the machine, going down progressively when the player is either hit or hurts himself; however, contrarily to how it was in F-Zero X and F-Zero GX, using Boosts or Bursts would NOT lower the Life Bar. This is where the Energy Bar comes in, affected only by Boosts and Bursts: it is the bar that dictates how many Boosts one can still use and for how long one would still be able to Burst. In effect, the Energy Bar would be segmented so that one can easily see how many Boosts they have left. Once your Life Bar goes empty, your machine explodes at the slightest shock, yet once your Energy Bar gets empty, you can no longer Boost nor Burst.
Now this would seem like a gameplay-killer at first for fans of F-Zero X and F-Zero GX (such as myself actually), but once given a thought it is possible to see in it a dual purpose: making the game more accessible to newbies, while also making it drastically more strategic for veteran racers.
First of all, newcomers and people who were rebuked by the difficulty of the game would stay alive more easily and spend more time enjoying the game, simply because they would not have to fear dying from a small scratch while bringing to drought their Energy Bar. They would have only their carelessness to blame were their machines to explode from damages or to fall off the road, yet their lack of experience to scorn at were they to be destructed by other racers’ attacks.
However, there comes a deeper level of gaming, first implied by the differentiation between Boosts and Bursts. Those who have played F-Zero GX at a high level must probably be aware of the following: in F-Zero, how you allocate your boosts throughout the race is everything. To be as fast as you can, you have to have established beforehand where are the places where boosting will be the most effective. What’s more, you have to know how many boosts your character’s machine can afford and how lengthy those boosts are for a rightful allocation.
Here is an example of mine: in Aeropolis “Multiplex” with Captain Falcon and his Blue Falcon, I boost once at the beginning, a second time when taking the jump, and a third time as I approach the following left then right turns; and here I go, boost in the straight line, boost in the 180°, boost in the new line, boost as it goes up, and boost as I nosedive, taking advantage of the momentum my 5 boosts have provided me to go over the top road, falling right into the regenerating zones to recover all of the boosts I had used as my energy bar had just turned empty.
Now, for most this is hardcore stuff, but probably others with different characters – or even with Captain Falcon, but I doubt it – have different solutions for the same race with outstanding results. The issue is: at this high a level, solutions like this are scarce and hard to diversify.
That being said, this is where the combo of Boosts and Bursts comes in, bringing new possibilities to that “pre-game strategy.” For example, in the previous example instead of using my 5 last boosts before nosediving, I could use a Burst to progressively gain speed exponentially and be even faster. Or maybe someone else playing Captain Falcon would Burst in the beginning, taking advantage of his momentum to unleash faster Boosts and only need 4 of them where I previously needed 5. Quite frankly, coupled with the vast roster of the game – F-Zero GX had 41 characters as well as customizable machines but obviously I’d vouch for more for a next iteration on the Wii U – the possibilities for a good “pre-game strategy” are tremendously higher than the previous scarcity I’ve been talking about.
And that’s only “pre-game strategy,” because the Life Bar and the Energy Bar would provide that supplemental level of “in-game strategy.” What was quite of a drawback in F-Zero GX was that here you are, racing on, boosting abound, and someone attacks you, reducing your life and essentially your boost levels at the same time. You’re doomed: you lost speed, your abductor is gone, and you don’t have the life/energy to reach them anymore… unless you’re that much a better player than they are – which shouldn’t happen either at casual nor competitive levels.
With the Life and Energy Bars, you lost some Life and speed, sure: but the ability you now have for revenge is much greater, since your Boosts and Burst are left unharmed.
What’s more, this dual system of bars is also an opportunity for track design: there would be regenerating zones for both bars – one type for the Life Bar, and one for the Energy Bar. For the sake of a respectable level of difficulty, the Life Bar regenerating zone would take more time than the Energy Bar’s to replenish your machine, which means that at equal length, while the “Energy Zone” would replenish a player’s Energy Bar completely, the “Life Zone” would only replenish it to half. For track designs, this means that sometimes there could be Life Zones and Energy Zones right next to each other, or maybe zones that are apart or even combined… or there might even be stages with no Life Zones at all. (Re-editions of iconic GX tracks, for example, could do without those Life Zones.)
Here is an example of “in-game strategy” in action. Imagine yourself racing, leading the others by just a few seconds. The third and last lap is approaching, and your Life Bar is nearly empty but so is your Energy Bar. Should you go the way of the Life Zone to ensure you stay alive, or should you bet it all on the Energy Zone to be able to take off again? Maybe you could slowly slide in the Life Zone then steer yourself right back in the Energy Zone, getting the Life you need to survive and the Energy you need to succeed through laudable driving skills; but the road is actually split so… which way would you choose?
Rather exciting, right? Next, I hope to share with you the possibilities I imagine for controls, GamePad-specific controls and opportunities, local and online multiplayer, and then to write a final F-Zero Wii U article on single-player specifics, story mode, customization and other expectations, providing you with some even deeper gameplay examples of the concepts of Boost/Burst and Life/Energy Bars for you to have an even better understanding of how important these concepts are for the evolution of the franchise – or so I sincerely believe.