Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Second Opinion: F-Zero vs. Mario Kart

It seems the Video Game Critic site is up to its usual tricks.  You may recall I blasted the site before, or specifically its review of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I.  While I still stand by my opinion without regret, for once, that's not why I'm here.  I'm actually bringing them up as a makeshift celebration for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System's 20th anniversary.  (A full month-long celebration is out of the question, since I don't know quite as many SNES titles enough to be nostalgic about them.)  If you would kindly take the time to dig around their Super NES section, compare their reviews for F-Zero (D) and Super Mario Kart (A+).  You'll notice the former got a near-failing grade whereas the latter got the highest mark possible.  And what do I think?  While I'm nowhere near as bitter as with the whole Sonic 4 debacle, I still have some counter-points to make.

  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo EAD
  • Releases:
    • Super NES, 23 August 1991
    • Wii (DLC), 19 November 2006
  • Genre: Racing
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost:
Super Mario Kart
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo EAD
  • Releases:
    • Super NES, 1 September 1992
    • Wii (DLC), 23 November 2009
  • Genre: Racing
  • Players: 1-2
  • Rarity/Cost:

First, let's take an objective glance at the games themselves.  Both are racing games which simulate 3-D graphics by scaling and rotating a flat 2-D map in real time.  This ability was courtesy of the much-touted Mode 7 graphics mode of the Super NES.  But both games take vastly different approaches to the same idea.  F-Zero takes place in a futuristic setting and uses sleek hover-cars, whereas Super Mario Kart puts the familiar faces of the Super Mario series onto small-engine go-carts.  As you can guess, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison: both are racing video games, but they taste - err, play differently.

First off is F-Zero.  Having been released first - along with the console's launch, as a matter of fact - I would imagine much of its nostalgia value came from the novelty.  This happens to be a point the Video Game Critic and I agree on.  Unlike most other racing games, in F-Zero you are eliminated if you're below a certain rank.  You also have a power meter which depletes from crashes; your ship blows up when this gauge empties.  Should either happen, you can try again at the cost of one life.  You get one single-use speed boost each lap (starting with the second), and you can recharge your power by driving over repair strips, like a pit-stop.

Second is Super Mario Kart.  As per the name, SMK features the likes of Mario, Luigi, Bowser, the Princess who was still named Toadstool at the time, and four others racing on go-carts.  After each race, the top four-ranking racers get points based on their position, and the winner of the cup is whoever has the most points after the last race.  Come in at fifth place or below, and you'll have to pay a life and try again.  SMK's other big innovation is the use of power-ups which can be collected by driving over "?-block" markers.  Some help you, like the speed-boost Super Mushroom or invincibility Starman, and others attack opponents, like the green and red Koopa Shells or Banana Peels.  Unlike when you take damage in F-Zero, getting hit with one of these items only stops you for a couple of crucial seconds.

With the objective stuff out of the way, let's look at what the Video Game Critic had to say about the two games:

F-Zero: "[...W]hile the illusion of movement is smooth, the surface is noticeably flat and quite pixelated."

Need I remind you that this was early technology.  In still pictures, I'll admit the rotating effects make the track look unimpressively jagged, but bear in mind you'll spend most of your time in motion - sometimes over 500 kilometers per hour (310 mph), as a matter of fact.  Compare that to the carts in SMK, which doesn't even show your speed.  Whatever they're doing, it's probably not enough to break the speed limits on most major highways.

F-Zero: "To compensate, Nintendo made the tracks as flashy as possible, but they tend to look gaudy."

Well, that's just a matter of opinion, now isn't it?

In a related story, let's consider the soundtracks of the two games.  Both have their ups and downs, with F-Zero's music lying mostly in the synth-rock area and SMK taking a more mellow slant with its tracks.  Taking both at their best, I'd give the edge to F-Zero's score, some songs from which I found more exciting and even memorable.  Having been composed by Koji Kondo - only the guy who did the music for Super Mario Bros. - helps.

F-Zero: "There are a lot of CPU-controlled racers, and slowpokes you lap present serious hazards, thanks to F-Zero's 'pinball physics'. [...] It stinks, man."

I'll admit, the physics really bummed me out, too.  The (un)funny thing is, a lot of those "slowpokes" you mentioned don't even count for/against your rank, and only serve to populate the track.  I suppose if you look at that against races in other games, where there are only six or four vehicles on the track at a time, then this might be a good thing.  But when these extra cars only serve to demonstrate the annoying physics model, then it's hard to admit that.

Super Mario Kart: "Thanks to some marvelous SNES 'Mode 7' effects, the ground moves and rotates smoothly below your kart, conveying a sense of speed. [...T]heir textures range from smooth, to wood, to gravel."

And how is this different from when they did the exact same thing in F-Zero?  Both games also have different surfaces here and there; advanced tracks in F-Zero feature low-speed rough, low-traction ice, and other gimmicks.  That said, I can attest that F-Zero has a far better sense of speed than SMK, something I previously alluded to.

This brings up my major issue with Super Mario Kart, especially when compared to F-Zero: the vehicle physics.  Unless you're puttering at a snail's pace, a long-enough turn in SMK will inevitably result in a drift that makes you overshoot your target and slide off the road.  (Among all the game's characters, Toad gets hit with this problem the least.)  The manual drifting, which is a crucial feature in future Mario Kart games, only makes it worse in SMK.  In contrast, the vehicles in F-Zero handle remarkably more car-like.  You still have to slow down and brake for most curves, but you never run the risk of sliding out of control.  Being able to "strafe" with the L and R buttons is also a nice touch which could give you a much-needed edge to your turning radius.

Super Mario Kart: "[...T]he two-player split-screen mode is even better.  The outcome of each race is usually in doubt, but never feels unfair or cheap."

I assume you're talking specifically about the multiplayer races in SMK.  The AI in single-player tournaments isn't exactly what I'd call fair; take a tumble on the 1500cc (hard) difficulty, and you may never get (back) up to first.  Certainly, though, having a human opponent should level the playing field somewhat, so I'll give you that.  Also, whereas F-Zero lacks any sort of multiplayer mode, SMK supports two-player races and the genre-defining battle mode.  It makes me wonder why they couldn't have put multiplayer support in F-Zero.  Maybe a little more time in the oven would've helped...?

In conclusion, while I believe the Video Game Critic's opinions of these two games was too extreme, he did bring up some valid points.  F-Zero's fame to this day survives mostly on nostalgia, given that it was among the very first games powered by Mode-7 graphics, but it has a crucial advantage over Super Mario Kart in that it plays better.  On the other hand, SMK wins points for innovation, from the use of in-race items, to the two multiplayer modes.  Still, neither franchise would become what I'd call "great" until their second entries (Mario Kart 64 and F-Zero X), both on the Nintendo 64.

The Call (F-Zero): B (80%)
The Call (Super Mario Kart): B- (75%)

Next Episode: It's funny I should mention the Nintendo 64...

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