It’s the 30th anniversary of Shigeru Miyamoto’s racing masterpiece F-Zero in North America, but it feels like a birthday party for someone who hasn’t turned up. Since 2004’s F-Zero Climax – which, let’s be honest, was a Japanese-only Gameboy Advance game – the closest we’ve come to a return of Captain Falcon has been an appearance in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. And with a roster of over 70 characters, you’re getting hard-pressed to find a Nintendo character that doesn’t feature in Smash.
So, why hasn’t the red carpet been rolled out now that F-Zero is well into its 30th year, with new games, fancy Joycon decals and reissues of older games? They did it for Link, right? The wait for a new game in the series is entering its fifteenth year. Whisper it, but it may well be that F-Zero is no longer an ongoing Nintendo property…
While we cry and moan, we don’t often ask ourselves why. Why has Nintendo put this beloved franchise out to pasture? What has F-Zero done to Nintendo? How better to answer these questions than… a listicle!
Wipeout made things complicated
When F-Zero launched in North America in 1991 (1990 in Japan) on the Best System Ever (Xboxes not included, of course), the Super Nintendo, it was a technical marvel. It was at the forefront of the Mode 7 games along with Starfox, simulating 3D worlds that far outstripped other games out there. Before it launched, it was seen as a kind of technical demo, a proof of concept for Super Nintendo’s future, and no one expected it to be, you know, good.
Can you believe that the Sony PlayStation launched just three years later than F-Zero? It seems like they were separated by decades, but the releases were relatively close. And a year after the PS1 launched, Sony had their own technical marvel, Wipeout. Suddenly, F-Zero was no longer the best or most innovative 3D science-fiction hover-car game with realistic physics and a banging soundtrack (a pretty narrow genre to suddenly be second place in). Wipeout was the F-Zero of 1995, the tech demo that showed off its system, and there’s a strong argument that the players went with it.
F-Zero doesn’t fit Nintendo’s vision (or demographic)
Nintendo could have chucked down the gauntlet and come at Wipeout with both engines overclocked, but it took them a lackadaisical three years from Wipeout’s release to reply. F-Zero X landed on the Nintendo 64 quite a ways into the console’s life, and while it’s a bonafide classic, it didn’t budge Wipeout, which had already gone onto release Wipeout 2097 and its own N64 challenger, Wipeout 64, in the intervening period.
So, why did Nintendo wait seven whole years to properly capitalise on F-Zero with a sequel? To understand that, we reckon you need to understand how Nintendo works.
Nintendo aren’t the type to chase the pot of gold at the end of the technological rainbow. They’re nothing like Sony, whose vision is to pioneer with graphical fidelity, raw power, VR and other frontier developments. Put that down to Virtual Boy or other failures in that area, but Nintendo have forged their own path, and that’s been driven by consumer value rather than where WIRED says the future is going.
With that in mind, F-Zero is a bit of an odd kitty. It’s unique selling points are its blistering speed and 3D tracks, all of which need a console with raw horsepower to pull off. But Nintendo have stopped trying to compete with Sony and Microsoft on those terms a long while ago.
Instead, Nintendo have aimed for a kind of universality. Everyone in the family wants to play the Nintendo Switch, or so the theory goes. Animal Crossing can be played by any age, any demographic, and the same goes with Zelda, Mario et al. If we’re being honest, it’s hard to imagine an F-Zero with that same universal factor. A casual, ‘F-Zero for everyone’ would be missing the point.
It’s been too long…
To be fair to the Switch, it can pull off some impressive games. The Witcher III, Overwatch, Skyrim and others can all run fairly well on the little devil. So, why should F-Zero be out of the question?
The problem is an obvious one, but it needs to be said: F-Zero has been gone so long that we don’t know what it looks like any more. It’s not like Mario Kart, which can look at the previous generation’s version and update it with a layer of gloss and fidelity. Mario is Mario, and you can largely steal his model from another of the Switch’s vast catalogue of Mario games.
But knowing what the Falcon Flyer looks like nowadays isn’t that easy. The last game was on the Gameboy Advance, so Nintendo can’t exactly use it as a model for the future. The world, the tracks, the characters – they would all have to be reimagined, reconcepted and remodelled. That’s not an easy path to take.
There’s also the sad truth that not many people who worked on an F-Zero are still in the industry any more. It was Shigeru’s baby, of course, but we can’t imagine that he’s working full hours…
There’s no second Amiibo
Which brings us to another painful truth. Is the world of F-Zero actually that strong? Is it that memorable? Take out Captain Falcon. Now take out the Falcon Flyer. Take out the music (ah, Big Blue) and remove the more iconic track layouts. What are you left with?
F-Zero’s cast of characters are pretty weak. There’s Samurai Goroh, we suppose, and hardcore F-Zero fans might be able to rattle off Pico, Dr. Stewart or Blood Falcon, but to the majority, F-Zero is a bit anonymous. In Nintendo’s world, that’s something of a killer. There’s no Amiibo to sell and market. There’s no likeable characters for family members to pick and enjoy.
It’s not just the characters; it’s the world. If you wandered off the track in a Mario Kart game, say, then you’d still know you were in a Mario game. The phallic hills, the Piranha Plants, the pipes: they’re all part and parcel of the Mario universe. Step off the track in F-Zero and it would be the blandest of sci-fi worlds. You wouldn’t know it was F-Zero.
It’s more niche than we’d like to admit
This one hurts us the most, as we want a new F-Zero, damn it.
Let’s play a game of Honey I Shrunk My Audience. It’s been eighteen years since the last truly good, reasonably well-played F-Zero. Eighteen years. Let’s be charitable and say that the game had a shelf-life of four years, where people could still play it and enjoy it. That still means that you’d have to be twenty-four years old to have been an impressionable ten-year old playing the last F-Zero. That leaves quite a chunk of Nintendo’s audience who have no idea what F-Zero even is.
Video Games Sales Wiki tells us that roughly 700,000 people bought F-Zero GX, with 1.1 million buying F-Zero X, and 2.85 million buying F-Zero. Ignoring the fact that this shows some mighty diminishing returns, the numbers are not a patch on some of Nintendo’s big guns. Why make a 700,000 F-Zero when an Animal Crossing brings in 31.18 million, a Smash Brothers nets 22.85 million, Breath of the Wild gets you 22.28 million and Mario Odyssey 20.83 million?
You could point to the Switch being a magnitude more popular and F-Zero being more of a mid-tier Nintendo game. But let’s point to another mid-tier title: Luigi’s Mansion 3 is a sequel to a well-loved Gamecube game from the same period. It sold 9.59 million on the Switch, when it sold 2.5 million on the Gamecube. That’s a multiplication of four times the original, to give us a ‘Switch Factor’. Four times F-Zero GX’s 700,000 is only 2.8 million, and yes – that’s less than the original F-Zero sold on the dusty old SNES. It’s not a paltry amount, but Kirby Star Allies and Mario Tennis Aces have sold more, and they are much easier to make.
It was a fatality of the early-2000s third-party ventures
There’s also a high probability that F-Zero is an open wound at Nintendo headquarters. F-Zero, alongside Starfox, was a bit of a test for third-party development at the time, as Amusement Vision were drafted in to make F-Zero GX. That was a significant moment, as Amusement Vision were a SEGA company, and it formed one of their first collaborations.
But it didn’t go well. “If Nintendo planned to hold our hands through development, I would have suggested they develop the game themselves. That way we could focus on a project which would reflect our studio’s abilities. I figured that would cause a war, but I was told most of the responsibility would be left to us”, famously remembered Amusement Vision president Toshihiro Nagoshi. Shigeru Miyamoto has also gone on record to say “consumers got very excited about the idea of those games, but the games themselves did not deliver”, in reference to F-Zero GX and Starfox Adventures.
A possible future for F-Zero could have been third-party development. It’s working for Metroid, by all accounts, with the fantastic looking Metroid Dread on the horizon. But a third-party F-Zero might just recall some bad times.
But let’s end on a high note: there’s plenty of reasons it should exist
This article has ended up a bit doom-and-gloom, but let’s not ignore the reasons why a new F-Zero should exist.
Wipeout has gone quiet. The fight for Best Arcade Racer on this generation of consoles is wide, wide open. It’s waiting for a Daytona, a SEGA Rally, dare we say it – an F-Zero to come in and steal the crown.
The Switch is at its absolute peak. You could release a new iteration of Glover and it would likely do well.
And slowly, but surely, Nintendo is exhausting its well of neglected franchises. Advance Wars is getting a re-release. Not one but two new Metroids are coming out. We’ve had a Dr Mario, for frig’s sake. There’s only one way the track is going, and we all know that it’s heading for Big Blue.
Would you play a new F-Zero? Do you think we’re chumps to think that a new F-Zero is impossible? Let us know in the comments – we’re eager to be hounded down.