Anna Wiggins will be contributing a guest post for each year’s worth of games covered in the Super Nintendo Project. For 1991, she’s talking about F-Zero.
It begins with sound. When I think about F-Zero, it is the soundtrack that sticks in my mind. Where other games I had played had background music, F-Zero had songs. Big Blue was the most memorable. These memories are pleasant. This music has been a part of my internal soundtrack for most of my life, occasionally earworming in over the years, always an oddly comforting sense memory.
And this sort of sound was unprecedented. The number of bits in a gaming system was on the one hand meaningless to me; at seven years old, I had no idea what the technical difference between an “8-bit system” and a “16-bit system” were. But on the other hand these terms held an iconic power; clearly the SNES was twice as powerful, and so its games would be twice as cool. If I’d had a little more knowledge, I probably would have expected them to be 256 times as cool.
So this, for me, was my first real taste of what “16-bit sound” could do. I was hooked, and after this game music became a much larger part of how I judged games.
(What I didn’t know at the time was that the SNES made considerable improvements to the NES’ sound system, beyond just doubling the size of all the registers. The SNES came equipped with a separate dedicated co-processor for audio processing, the S-SMP, which meant game programmers could spend more cycles doing software manipulation of sound samples without affecting the game’s performance. Separate graphics processing chips were common in consoles already, but a coprocessor dedicated to audio was a leap forward for sound capability, and allowed for a lot of the richness in sound that jumped out at me here.)
Next comes light. This game looked great, with an initially dizzying faux-3d effect that pivoted around as the player’s car turned. I remember being amazed by this, and it’s what made me want to play the game, despite racing games not being the sort of thing I’m naturally inclined to play.
(F-Zero and Pilotwings were both basically tech demos for Mode 7 graphics, though I didn’t actually come across the term Mode 7 until much later, when SquareSoft ran television advertisements for Final Fantasy III. “Mode 7” was Nintendo’s great technical superiority claim for the SNES, a counterpoint to Sega’s “Blast Processing”. It sounds less impressive than Blast Processing, and indeed, described from a technical standpoint, it sounds like a fairly humble feature. However, unlike Blast Processing, it can be described from a technical perspective. The SNES graphics hardware had 8 different “modes” for drawing backgrounds, numbered 0-7. (Programmers always start counting from 0. It makes us feel special.) If you know just enough about computer graphics processing to be dangerous, it may seem strange that backgrounds were handled differently than anything else, but console graphics chips at the time had built-in notions about ‘backgrounds’ (things that didn’t move) versus ‘sprites’. (things that did move) Mode 7 was a mode where the background could be rendered in a way that imitated 3d perspective, and quickly rotated and transformed to keep up this illusion as the sprites moved. Really, like everything else in graphics programming, this just required some clever matrix algebra.)
Finally, tactile sensation. These memories come last, because I spent a lot more time watching and listening to F-Zero than I did playing. The SNES controller was still slightly oversized in my hands in late 1991. My fingers struggling to get used to the shoulder buttons. I never actually figured out how to use the shoulder buttons effectively in F-Zero. In truth, I was pretty bad at video games.
(The SNES controller wasn’t that different from the NES controller, all things considered: it had 4 new buttons, but that was all. But this added complexity, and it was part of a trend that continued until controller design more or less settled into the modern Xbox / Playstation style. As controllers got more complicated, the learning curve for video game systems got steeper, which in turn shifted the target age for gaming consoles. In other words, video games grew up with me. Where the Mario, Zelda, and even Sonic franchises were aimed at a pre-teen demographic, Halo and Call of Duty are geared solidly toward late teens and college students. The 18-35 demographic rules, now.)
I always had to share the SNES console with my older brother, and often with my cousins and my brother’s friends. They were almost all older than me, and better at video games. And so I was well accustomed to the ritual of taking turns at video games.
This did not work equally well for all games, though. Fighting games were easy – they were two player, they were over quickly, and controllers changed hands between each fight. Super Mario World, with its save data and repeatable challenges, we conquered cooperatively. But F-Zero was a game with a number of continues and no saveable progress. Which meant the standing rule was ‘play until game over, then switch’.
So, being bad at the game meant I got to play for about 10 minutes at a time, often followed by an hour or more before I got another turn. So, playing F-Zero, I learned how to enjoy watching other people play video games. This was a defense mechanism and a rationalization; watching was a consolation prize, and on some level I knew it. Eventually it developed into a legitimate interest, and broadened into a general love of watching people do things they are good at. But not in 1991. In 1991, it was just frustrating.
I was 7 years old in 1991. My primary pastimes were reading, playing with Lego, and playing video games. All of my hobbies were things that could be enjoyed alone. You might reasonably (and correctly) infer that I didn’t have many friends.
When I did try to engage with other children, it didn’t usually end well. I was ‘weird’, or ‘annoying’, and social interactions often led to conflicts I didn’t understand. This pushed me further and further into solitary activities. I wasn’t unhappy, though. The depression and hopelessness that came with the surge of testosterone into my body was still a few years away. Yes, I was bullied and shamed for being the weird kid. But I didn’t particularly care. I had books, and video games, and a whole world of private stories and secret histories. I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely.
But video games were a solitary activity centered around a finite resource; something I enjoyed but had to share. And F-Zero was an example where that sharing didn’t work well, so my memories of it are intertwined with frustration and tension. Whenever I picked up the controller, I knew that I wouldn’t have a chance to play again for a long time. This made playing stressful, because every mistake brought me closer to another long wait. The consequences of failing were disproportionate. This made the game less fun. And so, ultimately, my engagement with this game was short. I started declining my turn. No, I’ll just watch. I’d rather go play outside, anyway.