Nintendo Classic Mini: SNES developer interview - Volume 2: F-ZERO
Hello, everyone! I'm Akinori Sao, a writer in Kyoto.
This series of interviews was done to commemorate the release of Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System. 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 kilometres 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 Star Fox 2.
And now for Shimizu-san, Nishida-san and Imamura-san!
Volume 2: F-ZERO
Sao: Shimizu-san, you were the director of the original F-ZERO game.
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, you might work with others on the courses and think about the racing vehicles.
Sao: What year was that for you at the company, Shimizu-san?
Shimizu: I started working on development of F-ZERO during my fourth year at the company.
Sao: Nishida-san, you were main programmer. What year was it for you?
Nishida: I think it was my third year.
Sao: What did you do before making F-ZERO?
Nishida: For Famicom, there was something called the Disk Writer…
Sao: The Disk Writer was a machine that provided a service for copying new games to the Family Computer Disk System.1 At the time, it was installed in all kinds of stores.
1. Family Computer Disk System: A peripheral product for the Famicom system released in February 1986 in Japan. 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 Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Originally released in Japan in November 1991, and in Europe in September 1992.
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.
Sao: You created that iconic scene?
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.
Sao: Quite some time ago, Shigeru Miyamoto said in an interview that Nintendo outsourced most of the programming prior to Super NES.
Shimizu: That’s right.
Sao: That was until you were able to do your own programming, around the time of F-ZERO.
Nishida: I was the first one in Entertainment Analysis & Development, the department that I belonged to at the time.
Sao: You were the first programmer in EAD.
Shimizu: Thus, F-ZERO was made entirely in-house.
Sao: How many people worked on it?
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.
Sao: So not many people made F-ZERO. Imamura-san, you were a designer. What year at the company was it for you?
Imamura: It was my first year. When I joined the company, the F-ZERO project had already started.
Sao: Does that mean F-ZERO was your first task?
Sao: When did you join Nintendo?
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
Sao: What kicked off development of F-ZERO?
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. It was only sold in Japan.
Sao: You had put a lot of effort into it, but they didn’t like it.
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!
Sao: It awakened the fighter in you? (laughs)
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.
Sao: What exactly were you experimenting with, Nishida-san?
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.
Sao: Super NES had various modes for graphic rendering.
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!”
Sao: You thought that would make for a cool racing game.
Shimizu: Right. I thought if we used that to make a racing game, it would shock everyone!
“It’s gotta be the future!”
Sao: Imamura-san, were you at Nintendo at that time?
Imamura: I think it was right after I joined. I remember how surprised I was when I saw the demo.
Sao: At that time, did it show something like the F-ZERO racers?
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.
Sao: Why did those develop into the F-ZERO racers of the future?
Shimizu: That was because a futuristic world like the one portrayed in the Batman movie was on my mind. However, having tyres would have made things much more difficult.
Nishida: With tyres, 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.
Sao: If you tried to make the tyres move, the number of pixel images would increase much more.
Shimizu: Yes, drastically. But then we discovered how that wouldn’t be necessary if we simply removed the tyres. (laughs)
Imamura: So we decided to lose the tyres 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”.
Sao: The name sounds cool, but it resulted from a desperate shortcut! (laughs)
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.
Sao: By setting the game in the future, you were able to employ a number of creative tricks.
Removing the invisible wall
Sao: The racers in F-ZERO reach over 400 kilometres per hour.
Shimizu: That was the idea while making it.
Sao: In addition to that feeling of speed, what was also fun about playing was the surprise that came from making a massive jump to take a shortcut. Were you planning such gameplay from the start?
Shimizu: We did for some of them…
Imamura: There was an invisible wall in the air until partway through development.
Sao: But that would have prevented you from pulling off those incredible jumps.
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!
Sao: Shortcuts became possible when you removed the invisible wall and created Jump Plates that made shortcuts possible.
Imamura: That’s right. We performed detailed checks on the courses and decided the places where shortcuts would be all right.
Sao: But if you go off the track…
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.
Sao: Removing the invisible wall vastly broadened the range of gameplay.
Imamura: We removed the wall at Miyamoto’s suggestion, and it’s my impression that F-ZERO transformed as a result.
Sao: Nishida-san, do you remember anything particular from development?
Nishida: Rocket Start.
Sao: Rocket Start is a technique in which you get your racer up front before the start signal, let a vehicle behind you bump into you, and thereby get a head start.
Nishida: Right. That actually began as a penalty, but it found use as a trick move.
Shimizu: It began as a bad start.
Sao: How did you come to include that?
Nishida: In Famicom Grand Prix: F1 Race, if you hit the throttle button before the start signal, the tyres 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 tyres, right? (laughs)
Sao: (laughs) There aren’t any tyres, so you can’t make them spin!
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…
Sao: You suddenly jump into the lead! (laughs)
Shimizu: When I saw that, I thought, “Maybe that’s all right!”
Sao: You knew that would happen before release.
Shimizu: Yes. I thought players would enjoy the game more with Rocket Start.
The face of Super NES?
Sao: Changing the topic, I’d like to ask about the characters. Captain Falcon and other characters don’t appear in gameplay, so how did they come about?
Imamura: I remember we started thinking about various things after the game was complete.
Sao: You didn’t think about characters at all during development?
Imamura: No. Captain Falcon was originally the mascot character for Super NES.
Shimizu: That statement is a bit shocking, isn’t it? (laughs)
Sao: Yes! (laughs) I’ve never heard that Captain Falcon was the mascot for Super NES.
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.
Sao: Captain Something? (laughs)
Imamura: So I started thinking about a character who would match the colours of the Super Famicom controller, with some red and blue and yellow.
Sao: How did Captain Something-or-other, symbol of the Super NES, become Captain Falcon of F-ZERO?
Imamura: I don’t really remember.
Nishida: I brought some materials. These are specifications that Shimizu drew up.
Sao: What a thick folder! Are these all F-ZERO materials?
Nishida: Yes, they’re all just for F-ZERO. Since I was the programmer, everything came to me.
Sao: (flipping through the folder) There are course maps in here!
Sao: Even you’re surprised, Shimizu-san! (laughs) How many years has it been since you saw these?
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 6th would make it about five months after I joined the company.
Nishida: And here’s an illustration Imamura drew of Captain Falcon.
Sao: Second from the left? He looks a little different… He’s got a cigar in his mouth!
Imamura: I drew this very early on. I brought some materials too.
Sao: This is the comic that was in the F-ZERO game manual.
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.
Sao: So a character originally created for Super NES suddenly became the face of F-ZERO.
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?!”
Sao: How long did development take from start to completion?
Shimizu: About a year and a half?
Nishida: Yeah, about that long.
Sao: When it was released simultaneously with Super NES, what was the response?
Shimizu: At the time, wholesalers had something called Shoshinkai.7
7. Shoshinkai: An organisation consisting mainly of Nintendo’s primary wholesalers. It distributed Nintendo products and hosted video game trade shows. It disbanded in 1997.
Sao: Back then, Shoshinkai hosted a trade show almost every year.
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.
Sao: Two isn’t very many.
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.”
Sao: I suppose people who saw F-ZERO before the release of Super NES sensed an incredible leap forward.
Shimizu: Yeah. I don’t think anything like that was even in game arcades.
Sao: So you got a considerable response even before release.
Shimizu: Yes. I thought it would go over well.
Sao: After release, the ability to record top course times was quite popular.
Shimizu: That’s right. Especially for Mute City.
Sao: You try for your best time down to a hundredth of a second.
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)
Sao: Yes, I suppose so. (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.
Sao: The release of Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System may be the occasion for people to set more records.
Imamura: Maybe so. I have high expectations!
Look forward to volume 3 of this interview series, coming soon: Super Metroid!
Find out more about some of the classic games included in Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System in our developer interviews!
Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System will be released on September 30th. Please check with your local retailer for information on current availability.