When F-Zero launched in 1991 alongside the SNES, it brought with it the promise of a next generation experience. Nintendo was hungry to prove that the Super Nintendo was exactly that, Super, and doing so involved pushing the technical boundaries of its hardware beyond what many believed was previously possible on a home console. F-Zero offered a 3D racing experience without ever truly being in 3D. It was a thrilling, fast-paced, futuristic take on the Formula One gaming trend, and stood out as a shining example that Nintendo was not, in fact, the old and technically inept console maker Sega was desperately trying to make them out to be.
Since then, the franchise has come a long way in becoming a cultural staple in Nintendo’s seemingly endless catalog of beloved IP. Despite not releasing a new title since F-Zero Climax arrived on Japanese shores in 2004, the series has survived off of the passion and excitement coming from its core fanbase. It is thanks to these dedicated fans that Nintendo regularly wakes Captain Falcon from his slumber for the occasional cameo or appearance. Whether it’s in the form of a stage in Super Smash Bros, an attraction in Nintendo Land, or a new course in Mario Kart 8, we are repeatedly reminded of the once relevant F-Zero franchise.
But the truth remains that multiple console generations have come and gone without the promise of a new Grand Prix, but in 2017, things are starting to change. In an almost bizarre twist of fate, Nintendo fans are currently experiencing the return of Metroid and the official release of the long-forgotten Star Fox 2. The Switch has put Nintendo is a position where nothing seems out of bounds, and if there was ever the time to argue for the return of the F-Zero franchise- that time would be now.
It can be all too easy to forget that there once was a time in the gaming industry when there was no such thing as the “Big three”. In the late ’80s, there was really only Nintendo, and if you looked very closely, and I mean with a microscope, you may have even noticed Sega struggling to survive off of the table scraps that the house of Mario left behind.
Times were changing, and much like the Vulture in the Spiderman Homecoming, it was time for Sega to change too. Under the tutelage of newly hired CEO, Tom Kalinske, Sega of America was able to position their 16-bit Genesis console as a real alternative to Nintendo’s upcoming SNES. With ad campaigns telling gamers to “Graduate to Genesis” and that “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”, Sega’s goal was to make Nintendo’s platform look like a cheap, uncool, antiquated toy. Why bother with that slow boring plumber when you could be fast and edgy like Sonic the Hedgehog. And the scary part was, it was actually working.
It’s a good thing then, that the Super Nintendo was no bluff. Sure it was 16-bit, just like the Genesis, but it had a trick up its sleeve that Nintendo was hoping would prove to be a real game changer in the upcoming console war: Mode 7. By using Mode 7, the SNES was capable of producing pseudo-3D graphics by tilting and warping 2D sprites. Games could now appear to be displayed in the third-dimension, years before 3D gaming became commonplace for home consoles.
This allowed Shigeru Miyamoto and the rest of the team at Nintendo’s EAD to craft some fairly revolutionary experiences for the launch of the SNES. Two of these titles were specifically designed with Mode 7 as a core feature of their gameplay. The first was a flight simulator called Pilotwings which allowed gamers to fly a variety of aerial vehicles through convincingly three-dimensional space. The second was F-Zero.
While the majority of other developers were chasing after a more realistic Formula One experience, F-Zero was a novel outlier that helped solidify the futuristic racing genre as we understand it today. The genius of F-Zero was that it was able to get the most out of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 technology by rotating the race track around the car, as opposed to moving the car around the track. Doing so allowed the 2D game to have an unparalleled amount of freedom in its controls while maintaining a 3D perspective. Hard stops, lane drifting, and tight turns were now not only possible but necessary to conquer an onslaught of lively yet surprisingly murderous tracks that could never have worked on the NES. The vibrant pixel art, sci-fi setting, and stupidly catchy soundtrack further separated F-Zero from the pack and has helped make the game one of the most memorable racing titles throughout the Super Nintendo’s lifetime.
At 2.85 million copies sold, F-Zero was a financial success, but that didn’t stop Nintendo from waiting a while before releasing a full-blown sequel. This was not particularly unusual during the SNES era. Games like Pilotwings, Star Fox, and Super Mario Kart were also examples of titles that initially performed really well only to be followed by radio silence until the Nintendo 64 arrived. I don’t have an exact answer as to why this was, but if I were to venture a guess, it’s likely that the rising tensions from the 3D space race between Nintendo, Sega, and newcomer Sony placed a lot of pressure on Nintendo to deliver titles that were more and more graphically complex. Star Fox alone made Mode 7 games look ancient, and it was clear that the age of polygons was about to begin. F-Zero fans would just have to wait.
Show Me Your Moves
Like its predecessor before it, when the Nintendo 64 finally did arrive in the Summer of ‘96, it launched alongside a Mario and Pilotwings title, but a particular Captain was noticeably missing from the lineup. Instead of once again joining the “day 1” club, the F-Zero series seemed to be stuck in the past. Although technically not a full sequel, new F-Zero content was still being broadcast in Japan via the Super Famicom’s Satellaview attachment more than a year after the N64’s initial release date.
Broadcast Satellite F-Zero Grand Prix and it’s sequel tried their best to keep fans at bay while Miyamoto made plans for a true 3D successor, dubbed “F-Zero 64”. In the meantime, the team at Nintendo’s EAD was wrapping up work on a different racing game: Mario Kart 64. Although the development teams are not exactly the same, it is worth pointing out that both franchises share a lot of history with one another. Hideki Konno, who was the Director for Super Mario Kart, has previously stated that one of the original ideas for the game came from wanting to have a multiplayer racing experience for the SNES, but not being able to do so with F-Zero due to the technical limitations of the high-speed gameplay.
So with Mario Kart 64 originally planning to take F-Zero’s place at launch (even though it ended up missing the date) and Wave Race 64 scheduled to release soon afterward, many of the key players that would eventually go on to work on the next F-Zero project were preoccupied with other racing titles. It took 8 long years for the franchise to finally return and when it did, not everyone was necessarily happy to see it. Whereas the original F-Zero was an undeniably impressive feat to look at, critics complained that the graphics in F-Zero X were uninspired when compared to other racers at the time. But what X lacked in graphics, it more than made up for in terms of culture and pure gameplay mechanics.
With the help of a rock-solid 60 frames per second, F-Zero X continued the legacy of blistering speed and gut-wrenching decision making set forth by the original. Pair this with a 90’s comic book motif and what you got was a game that ended up defining the spirit that the series is still known for today. F-Zero X may have been low on polygon count, but it was damn charming, and it was clear that the real focus was placed on the gameplay.
The game would wind up selling a total of about 1.1 million copies which is honestly neither here nor there. I want to say that selling north of a million copies is a success, especially with the install base of the N64 being relatively low compared to Nintendo’s previous home consoles, but there is simply no denying that F-Zero X really struggled to keep up financially in a sea of available 3D racers. Mario Kart 64, Wave Race 64, Diddy Kong Racing, Excitebike 64, and 1080 Snowboarding are all games released for the console that easily outsold F-Zero X.
Loop de Loop
Like many other Nintendo franchises during this era, the future of the F-Zero series was sent for a loop while the company was busy migrating its business into the 21st century. Despite making an appearance in 1999’s Super Smash Bros,
Captain Falcon joined the likes of Samus and Fox McCloud in the search for a new life outside the hands of Nintendo’s internal development studios. The early 2000s were filled with second and third party iterations for many of Nintendo’s Internal properties, and F-Zero would be no different.
Partnering with the Japanese PR company Dentsu, Nintendo formed Nd Cube as a second-party studio dedicated to developing exclusive titles for their upcoming hardware. With a majority stake in the company, Nintendo placed two key producers from the original F-Zero as their initial project leads and so it was only natural for Nd Cube’s first title to be a Mode 7 racer set to launch alongside the Gameboy Advance.
F-Zero: Maximum Velocity offered a nearly identical experience to its SNES counterpart, and honestly, that’s not really a bad thing! Playing Super Nintendo caliber games on the go was one of the main selling points for the Gameboy Advance and Maximum Velocity did a great job at creating a game with new characters, new tracks to race on, and a 4 person multiplayer mode, while still remaining undeniably faithful to the original. It certainly didn't break any new ground for the franchise, but it was F-Zero that you could take with you anywhere, and game critics at the time were more than content with Nd Cube’s first offering.
With a software sales target of 500,000 in its first year, Maximum Velocity shattered Nd Cube’s expectations by selling double that; with roughly 1.05 million copies sold. Even though the company was able to comfortably surpass their out internal financial goal for the game, Maximum Velocity sold almost the same amount of copies as F-Zero X despite a much larger install base with the GBA. To give that number even more perspective, Mario Kart: Super Circuit sold nearly six times that amount with 5.9 million units.
Maximum Velocity was no smash hit, but it was at least a moderate success for Nd Cube. So it makes sense to assume that the company would continue onward with the F-Zero franchise given their experience. Weirdly enough, Nd Cube signed a deal with Japanese game publisher NEC Interchannel to create an F-Zero-like title for the GameCube called Tube Slider. As a futuristic fast-paced 3D racer, Tube Slider was probably what the next generation of F-Zero would have looked like had Nd Cube been given the opportunity to make it. So while Nd Cube was busy working on their own racing franchise, Nintendo would have to look for another developer to carry on the F-Zero legacy.
The future of the F-Zero franchise was instead handed to a different newly formed game studio: Amusement Vision. Whereas Nd Cube had strong roots in the Nintendo ecosystem, Amusement Vision bled blue with Sega pride. After the GameCube released in 2001, both Sega and Namco were extremely impressed with the hardware and struck a deal to license the architecture of Nintendo’s purple box in hopes of creating cost-effective yet powerful arcade cabinets. Although Nintendo was not originally planning on expanding their arcade presence, it certainly wouldn't hurt. Not to mention the fact that games developed for an arcade cabinet based on the GameCube architecture would easily port over to the GameCube itself.
The Triforce Arcade Board was the result of the newly formed partnership between the three companies, but more importantly, it helped to build a much-needed bridge of cooperation between Sega and Nintendo- two companies that were at each other's throats just a few years ago. With the ink now dry, Sega was ready to make cabinets with the Triforce, and there was no team better suited to handle this new opportunity than Amusement Vision.
With their previous success developing Monkey Ball for arcades in 2001 and then subsequently porting the series over to the Gamecube with Super Monkey Ball, Amusement Vision understood the situation better than most. Now with their monkey phase behind them, the team wanted their next arcade cabinet to host a new 3D racing game. Racing games typically did well in the arcade space, and the lead producer of the studio, Toshihiro Nagoshi, had an itch for the genre after previously working on the Daytona series. However, Nagoshi didn't want to make just any racing game and so he pitched the idea of collaborating with Nintendo on an F-Zero title. Taking advantage of the fact that working on a game together would lead to more content for their consoles, Nintendo said yes and so Amusement Vision began work on both F-Zero AX for the arcade and F-Zero GX for the GameCube.
The two titles played exactly the same barring a few variations on the available vehicles and tracks. In fact, if you plugged your GameCube memory card into an AX cabinet, you would unlock a special circuit in GX. Don’t get me wrong though, the game was much more than an arcade and home console gimmick. It had a story mode with fully voice-acted cutscenes, a more realistic graphic style that shut-up even the worst F-Zero X complainers, the ability to personalize your vehicles, and a variety of tracks that took you from a ringing casino one second to being surrounded by flying sand sharks the next.
However, it wasn't enough that Amusement Vision had essentially made two games at once. Due to the moderate success of Maximum Velocity, Nintendo originally hoped that Amusement Vision would make three versions of their game so as to not leave out the F-Zero fans playing on the GameBoy Advance.
“Actually, our original development plans called for three versions of F-Zero; one for Tri-Force, one for GameCube, and one for the GameBoy Advance. But the problem was, we have no real experience programming on the GameBoy Advance. Even though I believe we could have done it, we agreed to scrap the idea of a handheld version because it was too much of a challenge” - Toshihiro Nagoshi
With Nd Cube still wrapping up work on Tube Slider during this time, Nintendo was forced to reach out to Suzak Inc, a Japanese game development studio which had also recently been founded. Suzak wasn't able to get their F-Zero game completed in the same time frame as GX and AX, but when F-Zero: GP Legend finally released for the GBA in 2004, it was clear as to why. The game took the same Mode 7 inspired gameplay from Maximum Velocity and added a hefty scoop of classic Japanese manga. In fact, GP Legend was so story-driven that Nintendo decided to create a full-fledged F-Zero anime based on the game’s plot which was scheduled to air in Japan weeks before the title officially launched.
Both F-Zero GX and F-Zero: GP Legend were positively received by fans and critics alike- with GX specifically garnering an abundance of praise for being a natural and exciting evolution of the franchise. Unfortunately, it just wasn't enough. GX is estimated to have sold around 0.65 million units worldwide while GP Legend sits at a meager 0.16. But whenever we talk about the implications of sales data we can only really speculate what that truly means for Nintendo’s bottom line. However, occasionally the company will shed some light on the situation as Miyamoto did in 2007:
“In the past we’ve worked with some outside development houses on titles like F-Zero and Starfox — and let me just say that we were disappointed with the results.
Consumers got very excited about the idea of those games, but the games themselves did not deliver.” - Shigeru Miyamoto, 2007
F-Zero was no longer a financially stable franchise for the company, but if I am being honest, that by itself is a little too lazy of a statement for me to make. It’s true, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I blamed money for all of Captain Falcon’s problems. The unfortunate reality of the situation is that the development studios Nintendo collaborated with to develop the recent F-Zero games quickly collapsed under the pressures of the gaming industry.
Suzak, the newest dev to handle the franchise, had one more opportunity to make an F-Zero title before the series went into hibernation: F-Zero Climax. Due to Climax being leaked months before GP Legend released on US shores, it is likely that Nintendo had greenlit the project with the expectation that GP Legend would sell reasonably well. It didn't, and Climax subsequently became a Japanese only release- making it the least played the game in the franchise. As you can imagine, the game appeared to be using the same engine and core gameplay mechanics defined in GP Legend with a few notable additions to set itself apart like a level editor.
I actually can’t even give you a rough estimate as to how well F-Zero Climax sold. The only available sales data for the game claims that Climax moved 5,049 units during its first 3 days. That’s obviously not the total number of games sold, but considering that GP Legend already sold poorly and that Climax was a Japanese only release, it is reasonable to assume that sales for the last F-Zero game were disappointingly low. Suzak continued to work with Nintendo throughout the DS era with games like Wario: Master of Disguise, but ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2012.
Similarly, F-Zero GX would be Amusement Vision’s last title. In Sega’s attempt to re-consolidate their game studios, Amusement Vision got dissolved a year after GX released. Many of the developers who worked on GX were still working at Sega in some form, including Nagoshi, who currently sits as on the Board of Directors for Atlus.
Unlike Suzak and Amusement Vision, Nd Cube continues to support Nintendo with exclusive titles to this day, but things have never really been the same since Maximum Velocity. Soon after the release of Tube Slider, the company had a falling out, and many of the key players who made the game possible left the company. Nintendo ultimately bought the remaining shares from Dentsu and repurposed the studio. Nd Cube never returned to the F-Zero series, instead playing a key role in both the Wii Party and Mario Party franchises.
So yes, the F-Zero franchise stopped making financial sense at some point during the GameCube era, but even if Nintendo had wanted to try again for the Wii or Wii U, they had no one to make it. A new entry in the franchise would entail a significant amount of risk for Nintendo, especially since the target audience for the company had shifted wildly since the good old days of the SNES which put F-Zero on the map in the first place. Nintendo would either have to bite the bullet by bringing the series back into the hands of their internal development studios or find a worthy third or second-party developer.
The franchise never found a new home, at least not that we know of. Years turned to decades and console generations continued to pass. Captain Falcon made his regular appearances in other Nintendo titles, but not much else. It seemed as if Nintendo was all but ready to give up on the franchise. Of course, this was not entirely true.
Future of Franchise
“I am also very curious and I’d like to ask those people: Why F-Zero? What do you want that we haven’t done before?” - Shigeru Miyamoto, 2012
When Miyamoto said that, he was directly asking F-Zero fans for advice, but I’d like to imagine that Nintendo was having similar conversations with both second and third-party studios throughout the past decade. In 2015, Nintendo Life reported that Criterion, the developer known for the Burnout series, had been asked by Nintendo of Europe to work on a pitch for a new F-Zero title way back in 2011, but Nintendo was hoping that Criterion could complete the game in time for the launch of the Wii U just one year later. The studio already had their hands full with Need for Speed: Most Wanted and couldn't really consider Nintendo’s proposal.
This was the last viable piece of information we have on the potential development of an F-Zero title. Anything we talk about from this point onward is speculation, but I tried my best to gather as much information I could on what the next generation of F-Zero might look like. There is really one big question worth discussing when considering the future of the franchise: Who would develop it? Here are my thoughts on the most likely candidates:
In 2013, 80% of Criterion’s studio migrated over to Ghost Games, another EA owned developer that is solely in charge of carrying forward the Need for Speed franchise. If Nintendo asked them once, they could definitely ask them again. EA, however, may have different plans for the studio. The publisher has not really shown much interest in taking risks on Nintendo’s platforms, but the Switch could change everything. Need for Speed sales have recently hovered between 2-3 million copies sold, numbers that are nothing to write home about. With lackluster financial results from the studio and Switch sales continuing to impress, EA may consider collaborating with Nintendo in the same vein as what Ubisoft did with Mario & Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Keep a close eye on sales for their newest game, Need for Speed Payback, as well as EA’s future comments on the Switch.
Any F-Zero fan currently holding their breath for a new game in the series has likely looked into Fast Racing NEO or more recently Fast RMX as a temporary replacement. The studio has consistently made third party content for Nintendo consoles and their more recent outings have been heavily inspired by the F-Zero franchise. They are probably the most obvious choice and have been especially secretive when discussing their future development plans.
“The problem is I can't talk about it. I'd really like to talk about it, but if I say anything…. let me put it this way: we're very happy to work with Nintendo, we'll keep doing it and our next project will be with them. We're also carrying out new experiments and creating new prototypes, but I can't talk about this either, because they're so deep in their initial stage that there would be no point talking about it now.” - Martin Sauter, 2016
For clarity purposes, that statement was made a year before Fast RMX released for the Switch, but even so, it hints towards a mysterious future. Shin’en has stated that they wouldn't want to make an F-Zero game until they had made one of their own “legendary games” first. So the question becomes, does the studio think that Fast Racing NEO and Fast RMX are legendary enough for Shin’en to move onto something like F-Zero. More importantly, are they legendary enough for Nintendo? Shin’ens history of working alongside Nintendo, their willingness to continue developing for the Switch, and their experience in making F-Zero-like titles make them a studio we should all definitely be thinking about.
There’s always the possibility that Nintendo brings the franchise back into the hands of their internal development studios or even a second-party. Nd Cube was the last second-party to have a chance at making an F-Zero title, but at this point, they might as well be a completely new studio. No other Nintendo second-party has very much experience developing a racing title, except maybe Retro Studios, who got the chance to work on Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS and is confirmed to not be working on the next Metroid Prime game.
Nintendo’s Mario Kart Team
Speaking of which, Mario Kart has consistently shared a back and forth history with the F-Zero franchise from its inception. What if Nintendo looked towards Hideki Konno’s Mario Kart team to work on a new F-Zero franchise for the Switch? Again, this is just my speculation, but if Nintendo was ever planning on internally developing another F-Zero title, the Mario Kart team makes the most sense. Konno actually worked as an advisor on F-Zero X and the Mario Kart 8 DLC is the closest we’ve gotten to an actual Nintendo made F-Zero experience in over a decade. Not to mention the fact that Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has already released for the Switch just a month after the console launched.
In the history of the Mario Kart franchise, Nintendo has never released multiple iterations of the series for the same hardware. Each console has gotten one, but if Konno and his team have already started working on Mario Kart 9, it is extremely likely that it would release within the Switch’s lifetime. What I’m trying to say is, what if since Mario Kart is already out of the way for the system, Konno could focus on trying to make an F-Zero game without the risk of missing out on Mario Kart sales. Maybe the F-Zero DLC was a warm up for an experience yet to come. Your guess is as good as mine.
Show Me Your (Next) Moves
Whether it’s Ghost Games, Shin’en, Nintendo, or another interested third-party, F-Zero fans will likely have to wait just a little bit longer. But I truly don’t believe that all hope is lost. An entire console generation has passed since Nintendo reached out to Criterion on making an F-Zero game for the Wii U and I can’t imagine that the conversations with other developers just stopped happening in the 6 years since then. The Switch is succeeding where the Wii U couldn't, and each new piece of hardware Nintendo releases provides them with yet another opportunity to innovate on their intellectual properties.
“So maybe if we create a new type of controller interface, and we find that controller interface is particularly suited for F-Zero, then maybe we’ll do something again with it.” - Shigeru Miyamoto, 2015
Is the Switch that interface? I hope so, but until we find an interface that works for the franchise, F-Zero fans can take comfort that at the very least, Captain Falcon will be in the next Super Smash Bros title. The same can’t necessarily be said about the Ice Climbers…