Why F-Zero Disappeared, And What it Needs to Make a Comeback

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I promised a couple days back, when Shigeru Miyamoto talked about the F-Zero series, that I’d investigate why the franchise dropped off a cliff after the release of F-Zero GX. At the time, I had a sneaking suspicion about why the series suddenly saw a big dip in popularity… and I’m fairly confident that that hunch was correct.

The idea is simple: the way a title is perceived by the mass market has a lot to do with its presentation. For example, The Wind Waker was largely seen as “kiddie” by a large group of Zelda fans, who went on to avoid buying the game – as is evident from the large drop-off of sales between that game and 1998’s Ocarina of Time.

I think the problem that the latest incarnations of F-Zero have faced has everything to do with presentation and little to do with the content itself. If the series wants to rewrite itself for Wii U, I think it’s going to need to re-align with the demographic that went out and bought it in the first place.

Let’s take a look at the box artwork for the original F-Zero:

There’s not a whole lot going on here, but it’s very clear from the artwork that the game is:

  • a high-speed racing game – look at the blur effect streaming behind both Captain Falcon and Goroh’s vehicles
  • set in a classic futuristic setting – the cityscape in the background looks like something ripped off of the cover of one of the sci-fi digests of the 30s, 40s, and 50s
  • a tad edgy – the way the logo is all bent out of shape suggests that the game’s a bit brutal in the challenge department

The presentation is very much in line with one of Nintendo’s previous sci-fi games, also known for its punishing difficulty: Metroid. And, as it turns out, F-Zero‘s reception very closely matched the commercial reception of Metroid. The original Metroid shipped 2.73 million units; F-Zero shipped 2.85 million. I think it’s safe to say that both games tapped the same audience based on the similar presentation and sales performance.

Now let’s take a look at the presentation of F-Zero X for Nintendo 64:

It’s a similar concept, except the artwork has been more modernized and includes a much more extreme blur effect. I think it’s fair to say that it’s basically an “amped up” version of the original F-Zero box artwork. However, F-Zero X went on to sell only 1.1 million copies, less than half the sales of its predecessor. Why?

There are a few factors to consider. Foremost among them is the massive drop-off between the SNES and N64 audiences – SNES sold 49.1 million and N64 only sold 32.93 million, despite steady population growth during the 1990s. Despite the decline, it seems that there’s still a fairly large generation that grew up on Nintendo 64. I believe that this suggests that the drop-off was perhaps even larger than it looks, with the larger part of the Nintendo 64 audience being kids whose parents bought it for them while a sizable chunk of NES and SNES fans skipped the system completely. This could explain why F-Zero saw such a steep decline on N64 – the kinds of fans who went for Metroid and F-Zero in the past just didn’t transition over.

Nonetheless, over one million in sales still isn’t too shabby.

F-Zero: Maximum Velocity on the Game Boy Advance saw a comparable sales performance to F-Zero X. Its boxart pretty much matches what one would expect for a GBA companion to the franchise. But the games that followed…

F-Zero GX, the series’ GameCube incarnation, is rightly regarded as one of the most well-made racing games to ever appear on a Nintendo platform. In terms of the actual play experience, from the visuals to the controls to the difficulty level to the depth of play, it’s actually a pretty remarkable and impressive game. However, the game managed to slip even further than its predecessor, with a dip down below the one million sales mark. I’d say we can partly attribute this to the GameCube’s sales decline over the Nintendo 64, but I think there’s something else going on here.

Let’s look at the box artwork.

I think there’s a fairly obvious difference in presentation between the F-Zero GX box artwork and the box art for the previous games: there’s less of a focus on “futuristic racing” and more of a focus on “weird and somewhat campy-looking characters.” Now, of course, the campy characters were always there – Captain Falcon has always looked pretty ridiculous, and a ton of even more bizarre racers were added in F-Zero X – but they were never given center-stage in quite the same way.

If I knew nothing about F-Zero and I saw this box artwork, I don’t think my first conclusion would be that it’s some kind of racing game. I think it would be that it’s some kind of futuristic anime game. And let’s face it – among futuristic anime games, this one would probably strike me as one of the least interesting.

The perception of a game from its shelf presentation is hugely important. What new customers see when they browse retail shelves will determine which games they even bother to give a second look. If F-Zero‘s front-of-box presentation doesn’t jump out at people, they’re going to overlook it – and I think that this was a large contributing factor to F-Zero GX‘s GameCube struggles.

Did you know that there was actually a second F-Zero game on the Game Boy Advance, titled F-Zero: GP Legends? I’m willing to bet that the answer is “probably not.” A quick look at the cover art seems to tell us why – it’s even more “anime” and even less “futuristic racer” than F-Zero GX! Plus it’s got this weird yellow background that looks like something out of a bad children’s cartoon.

This is not how you present an F-Zero game. No one is going to look at this game and think, “This looks like a game that I need to have.” Maybe there’ll be a select few who recognize Captain Falcon on the cover from their time with Super Smash Bros. and pick it up out of curiosity, but there’s nothing here that is “appealing” to the F-Zero target audience, and as such, it should come as no surprise that it missed that audience completely.

I think Wii U marks a good time to re-introduce the F-Zero brand, especially if the Nintendo Land attraction gets newcomers curious about the series – but Nintendo’s going to need to realign the brand with its original edgy sci-fi racer image if it’s going to become successful again. No campy characters on the front of the box. None of this “anime” crap. If they focus on the high-speed racing that made the series so beloved in the first place, I think they stand a chance at capturing the audience they’ve lost with the more recent installments.

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