Hello, everyone! I'm Akinori Sao, a writer in Kyoto. This series of interviews were done to commemorate the release of Super NES Classic Edition. My topic for this second interview is F-ZERO.
F-ZERO is an intense racing game in which you speed along courses in the future at speeds over 400 kilometers per hour. It’s also known as a game that Nintendo released simultaneously with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
After release, F-ZERO was a huge hit because of immensely popular features such as the ability to record your best course times down to one-hundredth of a second. How did development of the game begin? This time, I will be talking to game director Kazunobu Shimizu, main programmer Yasunari Nishida and designer Takaya Imamura, who also appeared in the first interview covering Star Fox.
And now for Shimizu-san, Nishida-san and Imamura-san!
Shimizu: Yes. I was the director, but I also worked on the art.
Imamura: In the days of Super NES, it was common to work in various areas. So even as director, I might work with others on the courses and think about the racing vehicles.
Shimizu: I started working on development of F-ZERO during my fourth year at the company.
Nishida: I think it was my third year.
Nishida: For Famicom, there was something called the Disk Writer…
1. Family Computer Disk System: A peripheral product for the Famicom system released in February 1986. The floppy disks used with the system allowed players to use Famicom Disk Writer Kiosks to copy new games. This system was sold only in Japan.
Nishida: Right. I was in charge of programming for converting that service data.
Imamura: And after F-ZERO, there was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.2
2. The Legend of Zelda : A Link to the Past : An action-adventure game included in the Super Nintendo Entertainment System : Super NES Classic Edition system. The game was originally released in Japan in November 1991.
Nishida: That's right. Just before the Legend of Zelda logo appears, a polygonal Triforce symbol comes spinning in. I was in charge of programming that.
Nishida: Yes. Back then, I was just beginning to experiment with polygons, which were expected to be the core technology of the future. That scene was Nintendo's first time to use it in a game.
Shimizu: That's right.
Nishida: I was the first one in Entertainment Analysis & Development, the department that I belonged to at the time.
Shimizu: Thus, F-ZERO was made entirely in-house.
Nishida: Including me, there were three programmers.
Shimizu: There were others who rendered backgrounds, so in total, it was made by eight people.
Imamura: Including the producer, Miyamoto-san, makes nine.
Imamura: It was my first year. When I joined the company, the F-ZERO project had already started.
Imamura: It was 1989, the year before Super Famicom released in Japan. After I joined, Miyamoto gathered some of the new employees and said we would be working on the new system. Even now, I clearly remember how happy that made me.
Getting Totally Bashed
Shimizu: The inspiration was Famicom Grand Prix: F1 Race3 for Famicom, a racing game from an overhead point of view. We made a sequel to that and showed it to staff at Nintendo of America, but they totally bashed it!
3. Famicom Grand Prix: F1 Race: A racing game released for the Family Computer Disk System in October 1987.
Shimizu: They were like, "This isn't a racing game! Racing cars should be cooler!" They even said it wouldn't sell, and that ticked me off!
Shimizu: Yeah. (laughs) I thought, "Well, if that's what you say, then I'll make something really cool!" And while I was in America, the movie Batman4 was a big hit.
Imamura: The Batman movie directed by Tim Burton. That was released the year I joined Nintendo.
4. Batman: An American film released in 1989 and starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
Shimizu: During my stay in America, I bought a bunch of Batman comics and then came back to Japan. And that just happened to be when Nishida was experimenting with a racing game.
Nishida: At that time, a few young programmers had been given various topics and were experimenting with Super NES functions. My topic was a racing game using Mode 7.5
5. Mode 7 : A graphics mode that supports functions such as scaling and rotating backgrounds.
Nishida: Yes, Modes 0 through 7. And Mode 7 functioned to allow scaling and rotating of backgrounds, a characteristic of Super NES.
Shimizu: Nishida used Mode 7 to rotate about the bottom four-fifths of the screen and show the distant landscape in the remaining one-fifth. When I saw that, I thought, "This is it!"
Shimizu: Right. I thought if we used that to make a racing game, it would shock everyone!
"It's Gotta Be the Future!"
Imamura: I think it was right after I joined. I remember how surprised I was when I saw the demo.
Imamura: At first, big-wheeled vehicles that Shimizu-san had rendered were racing around. They were like Hot Wheels6 toy cars.
Shimizu: Yeah, yeah… Hot Wheels!
6. Hot Wheels: A brand of miniature cars produced by the American company Mattel. Since the brand appeared in 1968, Mattel has introduced thousands of models.
Shimizu: That was because a futuristic world like the one portrayed in the Batman movie was on my mind. However, having tires would have made things much more difficult.
Nishida: With tires, we wanted to turn them, but that would have been challenging with the tech back then.
Imamura: I was making pixel art for the cars one by one. What's more, I had to create them in different patterns when they're seen from various angles. The total number of frames for that alone was staggering!
Shimizu: Nowadays, we could just create polygons and rotate those, but back then we still couldn't use them.
Shimizu: Yes, drastically. But then we discovered how that wouldn't be necessary if we simply removed the tires. (laughs)
Imamura: So we decided to lose the tires and have the racers hover. (laughs)
Shimizu: After all, the game is set in the future! (laughs)
Shimizu: But there were other reasons for setting it in the future. For example, we weren't able to render three-dimensional buildings. But if we had a course floating in the air with the city far beneath, we wouldn't have to show building shadows and so forth. In that case, it's gotta be the future!
Imamura: Yes, that's right.
Nishida: And we had to prepare curves at various angles, from broad ones to tight ones, so we considered lining up something round along the edges.
Shimizu: We lined up round objects and decided to call that the "guard beam."
Nishida: Yep! Since they're round, they look the same from any angle! (laughs)
Shimizu: Another merit was that we could create them from just a few elements.
Removing the Invisible Wall
Shimizu: That was the idea while making it.
Shimizu: We did for some of them…
Imamura: There was an invisible wall in the air until partway through development.
Imamura: Yes. It was also set so you couldn't leave the track.
Shimizu: Oh, that's right! There was an invisible wall…
Imamura: You remember now? I remember that because when the wall was still there, I felt like the game lacked something. But when we removed the wall, I began to feel like it became an awesome game!
Imamura: That's right. We performed detailed checks on the courses and decided the places where shortcuts would be all right.
Shimizu: You blow up! (laughs) And we wanted the explosions to have a lot of impact, so we made the sound as loud as possible.
Imamura: We removed the wall at Miyamoto's suggestion, and it's my impression that F-ZERO transformed as a result.
Nishida: Rocket Start.
Nishida: Right. That actually began as a penalty, but it found use as a trick move.
Shimizu: It began as a bad start.
Nishida: In Famicom Grand Prix: F1 Race, if you hit the Throttle button before the start signal, the tires would just spin and you wouldn't go anywhere. We had received instructions to include that same penalty, but the racers in F-Zero don't have any tires, right? (laughs)
Nishida: So we had the engine overheat. If you hit the Throttle button before the start signal, the engine backfires, your power plummets, and your rivals shoot past you. That was the intent, anyway.
Shimizu: But if a vehicle behind you pushes from behind…
Shimizu: When I saw that, I thought, "Maybe that's all right!"
Shimizu: Yes. I thought players would enjoy the game more with Rocket Start.
The Face of Super NES?
Imamura: I remember we started thinking about various things after the game was complete.
Imamura: No. Captain Falcon was originally the mascot character for Super NES.
Shimizu: That statement is a bit shocking, isn't it? (laughs)
Imamura: Even most people at Nintendo don't know that. When development of F-ZERO was almost complete, I was doing a bunch of illustrations and someone expressed a desire to make a mascot character for Super NES, with a name like Captain Something.
Imamura: So I started thinking about a character who would match the colors of the Super Famicom controller, with some red and blue and yellow.
Imamura: I don't really remember.
Nishida: I brought some materials. These are specifications that Shimizu drew up.
Nishida: Yes, they're all just for F-ZERO. Since I was the programmer, everything came to me.
Shimizu: About 25 years! (laughs) Oh, there's my stamp with the date. It says "Year 1," the first year of the Heisei era.
Nishida: In the Western calendar, that's 1989.
Imamura: And September 6 would make it about five months after I joined the company.
Nishida: And here's an illustration Imamura drew of Captain Falcon.
Imamura: I drew this very early on. I brought some materials too.
Imamura: Yes. These are the rough sketches. Originally, he was Captain Something-or-Other, but we started talking about what to do for the F-ZERO packaging, and I tried drawing something in the style of an American comic.
Shimizu: When we showed that to Nintendo of America, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Then all sorts of ideas came up, like including it in the game manual.
Imamura: I think that's what happened, anyway.
Shimizu: The comic gave a sense of the game world that we couldn't explain in the game itself. And I like the way it ends right as it builds to the start of a race.
Imamura: For a guy in his first year at the company, I did pretty good work, no? (laughs)
"Are Those Polygons?!"
Shimizu: About a year and a half?
Nishida: Yeah, about that long.
Shimizu: At the time, wholesalers had something called Shoshinkai.7
7. Shoshinkai: An organization consisting mainly of Nintendo's primary wholesalers. It distributed Nintendo products and hosted video game trade shows. It disbanded in 1997.
Shimizu: F-ZERO was exhibited for the first time at that trade show before Super NES was released. We had about ten consoles out for the launch of Super Mario World and two for F-ZERO.
Shimizu: I think that was the scale of the events back then. And incredible lines formed at those trial stations. I was there to explain, and a young employee from another game developer came over in great excitement and said, "Are those polygons?!" (laughs)
Nishida: I got asked the same thing. (laughs) Of course, I answered, "No, they're not."
Shimizu: Yeah. I don't think anything like that was even in game arcades.
Shimizu: Yes. I thought it would go over well.
Shimizu: That's right. Especially for Mute City.
Shimizu: For example, if there's a small space between the Guard Beam and a dirt patch, a daredevil will squeeze through. We knew such stunts were logically possible, but no one on the staff had tried them.
Imamura: Originally, we thought of Boosts as a way to blast through Dirt. That seemed like a miraculous move! (laughs)
Shimizu: And because of that, chasing top course times became incredibly popular, which was fine, but no one played anything but Mute City! I wanted them to race on all the courses! (laughs)
Imamura: Just a few years ago, there was an update to the fastest time for Mute City. For the first time in over a decade, someone set a record and made it a topic of conversation again.
Imamura: Maybe so. I have high expectations!