November 19, 2021

One Developer's Quest To Revive F-Zero In All Its Glory

It's been a long 17 years for F-Zero fans. Nintendo's wicked-fast futuristic racing series came screeching to a halt way back in 2004 with the Japan-only release of F-Zero Climax. Since then, fans have been starved for new F-Zero content, with Nintendo only providing small rations of the series through games like Nintendo Land and Mario Kart 8.

However, F-Zero fans are finding hope in an upcoming indie project that looks a lot like the dormant series. Titled Aero GPX, the new game looks to replicate the blistering speed, split-second decision making, and memorable personality that once made F-Zero so beloved. IGN spoke to Aero GPX creator Aaron McDevitt about his inspiration to create a love letter to F-Zero, changes that longtime fans of the series can expect, and what makes racers like F-Zero stand apart in the genre.

Quick test of a cylinder track over the new ocean shader: pic.twitter.com/b7VR67Fo6S

— Aaronmac64 (Aero GPX) (@aaronmac64) October 23, 2021

McDevitt has been modding games for years, but Aero GPX is his first real crack at making a game from scratch. He says he was inspired by F-Zero because of how different it feels compared to other racers on the market.

"I've been playing F-Zero games all my life, ever since F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64," McDevitt says. "Like everybody back then, I noticed that F-Zero X was just doing something different with how fast it ran. Locked 60 fps on Nintendo 64 was unheard of, and it pushed the technological envelope that I definitely had not seen on a console like that before."

That focus on high-tech solutions has always lived within F-Zero. Beginning on the SNES, the original game used a texture mapping solution called Mode 7 to simulate 3D graphics – something that would otherwise have been impossible on the console. The game itself kicked off a series known for high speed, zero gravity racing, unforgiving tracks, and a memorable cast of characters anchored by Captain Falcon, who has become much better known for his appearances in the Super Smash Bros. series.

Compared to other Nintendo series, and to many other racing games in general, F-Zero leans more towards the hardcore. F-Zero X was released for the Nintendo 64 in 1998, and introduced the concept of a tied health and boost meter to the series – if you want to get a speed boost, you have to sacrifice some of your vehicle's integrity. It's a high-leverage risk-reward system that benefits the brave, and punishes the reckless.

While McDevitt says Aero GPX most closely resembles F-Zero X, he isn't setting out to make a simple F-Zero clone. Aero GPX seems to be designed as the evolution of F-Zero X and F-Zero GX, the franchise's final home console entry that was released on the GameCube nearly two decades ago. One major change in Aero GPX directly relates to that risk-reward system.

"I feel like the unified health boost energy system of F-Zero is very much a part of that game and that franchise's iconography, and I don't want to directly rip that," McDevitt says. "I want to try and find other ways of selling the same experience and the same type of decision making, and twist it for Aero GPX where I get the same feel, but I do it in a different way."

In the current build of Aero GPX, the health meter and boost meter are separate, which is a departure from the established formula. Instead, whenever you reach an opportunity to refill your meter, you'll have to make a rapid decision between restoring your health to preserve your vehicle, or filling your boost meter to go even faster.

That decision-making requirement is just part of what makes F-Zero, and in turn, Aero GPX, more demanding than what some racing game players are used to. There are no items to bail you out, the AI competition is fierce, and if you fall off the track even once, you die and have to start the race from the beginning.

McDevitt says this hardcore nature is part of F-Zero's DNA, and it's something he's working to capture in Aero GPX, specifically in the way F-Zero rewards precision.

"F-Zero basically wants you to cheat death in order to go faster. Interact with other racers, use your own health pool in order to take them out of the race, but also use your health pool to boost and move forward," McDevitt says. "There's also the way the traction and the handling system works, and how it rewards you for being very nuanced with your analogue control stick movement. I think that's just something that no other game has nailed yet, where it feels instantly responsive to player input."

On the flipside, McDevitt says he's also working to improve the more technical aspects of the genre, implementing hardcore maneuvers and strategies that will pay off for players willing to put in the time and effort. Some of these features include a greater focus on aerial movement through tubes of air called slipstreams, nosediving to gain speed, and other mechanics implemented for those who want to hit the highest speeds possible.

However, just because the game can be technically challenging doesn't mean McDevitt isn't making it with everyone in mind.

"Accessibility is a huge pillar of my design," McDevitt says. "I've got a lot of accessibility features planned, like autopiloting assistance. I want this to be a game that everyone can comfortably experience. I will have the super hard master tier difficulty on the career mode and grand prix for the players who want that challenge. I do still want to have that, but I'm going to do my best to make this an accessible game that as many people as possible can play."

Not giving up hope on a F-Zero revival

McDevitt has been working on the game for a while, but there's still a long way to go. He says he wants to include 30 unique characters and vehicles in the game to match the style and tone of F-Zero, along with developing tracks, a campaign, and more.

"I am taking it one day at a time, but I want to try and get it out by the end of next year or early [2023]," McDevitt says. "I have most of my structure done, and the game physics and all of the base programming is fairly set in stone. From here on out, it's moving onto the content and design phase, which is easier said than done. It's still a Herculean task, but it's kind of the thing I've done before. It's still gonna be quite a bit of work and still gonna be some time, but I do think I can do this next phase of development a bit quicker."

The goal is for the game to initially launch on PC, but McDevitt hopes to bring it to Switch and anywhere else he can put it, "with an analogue stick." And as for Nintendo's future with F-Zero, McDevitt is one of the longtime fans who isn't giving up hope just yet.

"I hope [F-Zero] does return. And I honestly do think it will eventually. Once Nintendo gets a killer idea for a new F-Zero game that pushes the technological envelope again, I think they'll return. I honestly do."

McDevitt's thoughts on F-Zero's official revival echo those of Takaya Imamura, the retired Nintendo artist and designer who helped create Captain Falcon. In an interview with IGN earlier this year, Imamura said F-Zero isn't dead, but "without a grand new idea, it’s hard to bring it back.”

For now, indies like Aero GPX seem to be the main way classic F-Zero fans can look forward to something new, and McDevitt understands the passion that surrounds the community.

"I want people to be patient if they're seeing Aero GPX, and understand it is still early. But Aero GPX is something I fully intend to bring out eventually. It's been a wild passion project of mine, and to see people be so excited about it kind of warms my heart, and I want to take this thing through to the finish line. That's a really cheesy pun, but I guess it's true!"

You can follow the development of Aero GPX at @aaronmac64 on Twitter.

Logan Plant is a freelance contributor at IGN

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