Racing to the Death

You can watch this essay here!

The first time I drove on the highway was harrowing. I had just started the second phase of driver’s education and it was pretty much my first time behind the wheel. It was no secret to my instructor that I was nervous, I held onto the wheel of the car in what she continually described as a “death grip,” and she was constantly telling me to “just relax.” As I drove down the mostly empty streets of my hometown in the afternoon, I felt barely in control of the vehicle, every acceleration felt like a jump forward, and even 25 miles per hour felt so incredibly fast for me, someone who had already spent thousands of hours in a car by the time they turned 16. As we passed the local Wal-Mart we approached the highway and my instructor told me to turn onto it. My heart pounded, but I did what I was told. I accelerated onto the highway, 65 miles per hour, a blistering pace in my imagination. It felt like I had just activated the hyperdrive on the USS Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon: all the stars zipped right by me. I’m sure my instructor had seen many scared students before, but even she sounded nervous as we drove a couple miles up the highway, got off, turned around, and drove a couple miles back. When I got back to school that afternoon, I walked through the hallways feeling nervous, but I reassured myself “I learned how to walk, I can learn how to drive!” And it was at that moment that I walked right into somebody.

F-Zero is like when I got on the highway for the first time. The game feels fast, unwieldy, out of control: and I love it. It’s all the terror of driving and none of the consequences. An exhilarating blast through dangerous and ever changing tracks that keeps the player on their toes. In this futuristic racer, the player takes control of one of four vibrantly colored “F-Zero machines,” which is just a fancy way to say hovercraft. This machine is the player’s link to the strange alien culture of pseudo-Formula One racing, where, as far as the game is concerned, there is no money, no story, and no characters: just racing. In the world of F-Zero, only one thing matters: speed. If you aren’t fast, you’re out. And if you aren’t good: you’re dead [cut to explosions].

F-Zero was a launch title for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, better known as the SNES. It utilized the systems “mode 7,” a new form of texture mapping, to simulate 3D racetracks around the player’s machine. For Nintendo, and anyone who picked up an SNES on release, it represented an evolution from its predecessor: there is no comparison between F-Zero and Super Mario Bros in terms of speed; a new day dawned for gaming’s biggest company. Thirty years later there are all manner of racing games and twitch shooters, but the speed of ­F-Zero holds up, its split-second decisions and blazing pace are a joy to play. In this video, I’d like to explore how every muscle in F-Zero’s body is geared toward speed and how the game manages to make feeling out of control fun.

Part 1: The Illusion of Speed

Despite the relatively limited hardware of the SNES, F-Zero is designed to feel as quick as possible: the developers pulled out every trick they could think of to communicate just how fast and out of control the player is when piloting their machine. Whether it is in the game’s sound effects, visuals, gameplay, or music, speed is always at the forefront of the F-Zero experience. This speed was unsurprisingly the main selling point of the game. In an early television advert the viewer is told that “nothing prepares you for F-Zero… you won’t believe the power, you won’t believe the control, you won’t believe the jumps, the curves or the feeling you get until you experience it yourself.” While contemporary racing games might achieve or exceed the feeling of F-Zero, I have to believe that Nintendo’s initial claim was right: nothing can prepare you for this game’s speed. Still, the speed of F-Zero is as much an illusion, a trick of the eyes and ears, as it is a actually in the game. In uncovering this illusion, we can better understand how games communicate feelings to their audiences.

The primary way that F-Zero communicates speed is through its visuals; this is partially achieved through the “revolutionary” technology of “Mode 7.” This graphics mode for the SNES made it so the background of a level could be manipulated for intense visual effects. While the actual maps of F-Zero are simple two-dimensional constructions, when manipulated by Mode 7 they become the dizzying sights of a futuristic world. The primary way this influences the play of F-Zero is in how it making turning feel dramatic. Just like how the “Dark Matter Engine” from Futurama moves the entire universe around it rather than moving the ship itself, when one turns in F-Zero, it feels like it is the entire map which changes direction rather than the player’s machine. This use of Mode 7 ups the anti, as even a quick tap to the left or right hurls the entire screen in new direction, leaving every movement feeling consequential and momentous. One could imagine that this design decision might lead to headaches or thrown controllers when the player tries to make small adjustments, but the shoulder buttons mitigate this by slightly moving the machine to the left or right on the track. This is not as for turning corners, but useful for repositioning on the track and removing the need to use Mode 7 for every turn. Still, Mode 7 is a key component that allows F-Zero to fly faster and more aggressively than other racing games of its era.

There are many small details that help convey the game’s feeling of speed. In any racing game speed is primarily conveyed through the use of stationary objects, whose passing by indicates the player’s pace. The sides of the race track help accomplish this goal; instead of the traditional lines we expect to denote the boundaries of a racetrack, each track in F-Zero is lined with the small bubbles which fly across the screen, a clear indicator of the speed the player is moving at. The bubbles serve a secondary purpose, as they electrocute the player’s vehicle and sap it of energy if they get close. Often the track itself aids in the illusion of speed. Many of the straightaway roads in F-Zero are two horizontal tones of gray, as they alternate across the screen it makes the player feel like they are shooting through the track at a rapid pace. The backgrounds of these levels are visually dense, a kaleidoscope of colors flickering in the distance. They generally give a feeling like the player is traversing vast landscapes at high speeds. Importantly, neither Mode 7 nor these visual tricks actually make F-Zero’s races any quicker, they only make the racer feel faster.

Of course the actual gameplay of the F-Zero emphasizes speed in a variety of ways. While this might generally be expected for a racing game, F-Zero goes beyond the typical for games of its era. One of the most important design decision that helps communicate the speed of the game is in how little the game’s mechanics try to slow the player down. In most racing games, if the player slams into a barrier, another vehicle, explosive, or runs into a rough patch of grass they are dramatically slowed down or halted, but in F-Zero the player barely loses any momentum at all, they instead lose power (which we’ll get to in the second part of this video). There can be moments in the game where the player bounces between walls and other cars rapidly like a ping pong ball; only to come out the other side going as faster than when the ricochet ballet started. Just like how the game utilizes various tricks of the eye to show the player’s speed, the track is littered with slow machines that the player will have to pass even if they are in first place. The quick decisions the player has to make to pass these vehicles means they rarely have a chance to rest on the track, there is always some new slowpoke to overtake. After every lap the player’s vehicle is given a speed boost they can use to go way beyond their top seed for a short time and many tracks feature boost arrows that will give them a similar temporary increase in speed. Utilizing these boosts, which let the player fly further off jumps and blaze past rough terrain, is not only important to winning races, but also offer a change of pace to emphasize the player’s speed in dramatic and powerful fashion. The track design forces the player to consider these boosts careful, there are many sharp right turns and even U-turns throughout most tracks, which add to the rhythm of slowing down and speeding up, which makes the games intense acceleration more apparent.

The sounds of F-Zero act as the final piece to its speedy puzzle. There are constant whirring sounds which rise in pitch the faster you go and similar high pitched humming when other racers are near. This importantly helps the player situate themselves in the action because there is no way to “check the rear view mirror.” Banging into walls and turning both offer dramatic clicking sounds to warn the player of danger. Meanwhile, if the machine’s energy is low or the player is in danger of disqualification there is a loud warning system. These sound effects are accompanied by the game’s stellar soundtrack which features fast paced and memorable tunes. Some you might be familiar these songs with because of their inclusion in Super Smash Bros but there isn’t a bad song across the track. I particularly like Fire Field, Big Blue, and Death Wind. Nintendo was clearly confident in the quality of the music, as they released a Jazz album of the game’s tracks upon release, a link to which you can find down below.

With every aesthetic decision of F-Zero geared toward such energetic and fast-paced action, the game is a great example of how different aspects of a game can be geared toward creating a particular experience. In this case that experience is aimed to wow the player with the game’s speed. In my experience, it is singular minded titles like F-Zero that do better at standing the test of time, if you can do one thing really well that will likely still feel good even decades later. Still, all this speed has another side effect: creating a game where the player feels out of control!

Part 2: Out of Control

Similar to how I felt when driving on the highway for the first time, F-Zero is a game about being out of control. The blistering speed of the player’s machine, in conjunction with how that speed is communicated to the player, constantly reinforces this feeling. But lets explore other ways the game makes the player feel like the machine is driving them as much as they are driving the machine.

The most obvious way that the game gets across this chaotic feeling is through its many explosions. If the player’s machine goes out of bounds or runs out of power, it abruptly and violently explodes. While many racing games have punishment for these things, they typically just set the player back. In Mario Kart the out of bounds player is brought back in bounds by a helper and in most racing games the only penalty for constantly running into barriers is a last place finish or a damaged car. Not so here, while I noted above that hitting barriers doesn’t really slow the player’s machine down, it can still cause them to lose the race through violent destruction. When the machine’s health is low, F-Zero becomes about tactically avoiding all barriers and other vehicles until they can get some power back at the game’s power stations, which act as the “Formula One Pit Stop” of the game. These moments can be quite tense, as one move of an unpredictable foe or one bad turn can spell destruction and game over, or at least a restarted race. The looming threat of destruction is a key component in the formula of F-Zero that elevates the racer from fun hyperspeed romp to anxiety inducing hovercraft fiesta.

Other elements of the game also contribute to this chaotic feeling. The speed boost, for instance, adds to the unwieldy character to the F-Zero machines. As one might expect, handling of the vehicle is dramatically lessened while boosting. The player might like to time their boosts for straightaways, but also might need to use it to catch up after hitting a barrier or taking a bad turn, since the boost will set the player back to maximum speed. Courses are also littered with hazards, whether they be elemental like slippery snow, strong winds, or rough patches of earth; other cars which the player must avoid, jumps that the player must make to avoid hazards or even death, or land mines that deal significant damage to vehicles. The hazards system of the game greatly adds to the quick decision making the player must do to survive and thrive while also presenting the player with a consistent reminder of their mortality should they slip up.

One way to think about video games broadly is as “allegories of control,” an argument put forth by Alexander Galloway in their great book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Galloway primarily analyzes the Civilization series, but his ideas are applicable to any game. They write that “Video games don’t attempt to hide informatic control; they flaunt it… the gamer is not simply playing this or that historical simulation. The gamer is instead learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm.” What this means is that when a player learns how to play a game, they are learning how to exist in a unique instance of coded architecture. F-Zero, and to some degree driving in general, exemplifies this attitude quite well. When I first started driving I was afraid of driving fast because I didn’t trust myself to understand the “system” of driving. Similarly, when I first started playing F-Zero I made so many mistakes that the machine felt out my hands. But the longer I drive, in real life or in the game, the more accustomed I get to the system. The more in control I am of the machine, the more the machine’s systems are in control of me. Because being out of control is so brutal in F-Zero, the player is quickly forced to adopt the game’s systems as their own: and the linear tracks and paths toward success the game presents reinforce the designer’s intentions for how the player should engage with the game. This is ultimately creates an algorithm of control, where the only way for the player to be in control is to give in to the way the game asks them to play it. Though this is not to say the game isn’t fun, it absolutely is! But to play any game is to let it take some control over you, so that you may master it, or else you may feel completely out of control over what happens.

Conclusion

F-Zero is a classic game for a reason. Its tight controls, exhilarating speeds, and death defying scenarios make for a memorable experience. While the game lacks components we generally think of as core for a racing game, like multiplayer, the ability to tune ones car, or a whole host of other features, it reigns sup reme not because of a glut of features, but because of its commitment to its singular goal of giving the player a racing machine that, at least initially, will elude their control. By reinforcing its systems with the brutal consequences of mistakes, F-Zero forces the player to learn fast or die trying.

Erik Kersting

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