F-Zero GX/AX – 2003 Developer Interviews

F-Zero GX/AX – 2003 Developer Interviews

In these interviews, members of Nintendo and Sega’s Amusement Vision studio, including long-time F-Zero designer Takaya Imamura and Amusement Vision head honcho Toshihiro Nagoshi, discuss their collective vision for the 2003 Gamecube racing game F-Zero GX and its arcade counterpart, F-Zero AX. These games represented both Nintendo’s long-awaited return to arcades and Sega’s first genuine collaboration with their long-time rival.

Hiroyuki Sakamoto – Director
Takaya Imamura – Producer / Supervisor

—How did this tag team come about?

Sakamoto: It started with the idea of “Let’s do something interesting!” In the beginning we didn’t think about pros and cons, we wanted to create something new. The project rapidly took shape.

Imamura: We’ve always only made console games and I was very happy we’d get to create an arcade version this time as well. Sakamoto seemed worried and I felt a bit sorry for him (laughs).

—What were the hardest parts of development?

Sakamoto: I was primarily a player of F-Zero games, so I had to be careful not to make it too hardcore. It wouldn’t have been good to have everything be exactly as I wanted. So I had to be careful regarding the design of courses and the handling. However, if the game were too easy, F-Zero players would find it boring…that was a difficult situation. We didn’t want the game to simply be an evolution of F-Zero X, we wanted to spice it up a bit. So a simple port was never on the cards.

—In the beginning it was tough, wasn’t it?

Sakamoto: In the very beginning we dug through the F-Zero X assets. I’ve played a lot of that game so I had it all in my mind, but we had many staff members who had never played it. There were even some who didn’t know what kind of game F-Zero was, which worried me. If you don’t precisely lay out every step you don’t really know where the goal is.

—What side suggested the collaboration?

Sakamoto: Which one was it…(laughs). Back when the joint planning started, I was toying with the Gamecube/GBA link. But that changed several times.

Imamura: Originally there was the Triforce (an arcade board jointly developed by Nintendo, Sega and Namco that allowed for graphics on par with the Gamecube). Nintendo had withdrawn from the arcade business 20 years ago, but they thought it would be nice to see another of their properties in the arcades thanks to the collaboration. Back then everything was vague, there was no clear plan. Questions of memory card or slot usage were left to Sega. Arcade hardware differed completely from what was inside the Gamecube, but if Sega could change that…it’s a great thing that they managed to do it.

Nintendo’s Takaya Imamura at a score attack event held shortly after F-Zero AX/GX’s release.

Sakamoto: Since it was our first time developing an F-Zero title, we were all pretty excited.

Imamura: But on the other hand it was a struggle. Handling such a major title for another company would put incredible pressure on us. But we thought that if this pressure went in the right direction, we could pull it off. I think Sakamoto-san was pretty stressed (laughs).

—Then things took shape over time.

Sakamoto: Right. We somehow wanted interoperability. Of course we thought about things that could be fun. And from the beginning we kept asking the question: “Are people really gonna bring their memory cards to the arcade?” (laughs)

Imamura: I felt it would be nice to have a slot for your memory card in the cabinet. But I was told that if we put a hole in an arcade cabinet, there might be some shenanigans. I didn’t know about such things at that point. You approach arcade and console games with separate attitudes, even if the game is the same. For example, with arcade games you have to think about how to get the most efficient gameplay for the 100 Yen you put in, and how to make it so you can navigate menu screens within a few seconds. For Sakamoto and his people this was second nature, but we had to be told about a lot of things first.

—What is the hardest part of developing the game for both consoles and the arcade?

Sakamoto: The controls. GX is controlled with buttons and a stick. AX uses pedals, breaks and a steering wheel. They’re fundamentally different schemes. The Gamecube controller’s range of input was surprisingly tight, so we wanted very fine-grained controls. Arcade controls are relatively rough, so we tuned it so it was fun to really go to town on the controls. We wanted both GX and AX to have the same feel, the same vehicle should handle the same way in both games. That was hard to achieve. Then later, the schedule became an issue (laughs).

—So development lost steam after a while? (laughs)

Sakamoto: And I lost weight, about 5 kilos I think.

Imamura: When I first met Sakamoto he didn’t have a beard and his hair wasn’t this long either (laughs).

The Pursuit of Speed

—What is the underlying concept of F-Zero?

Imamura: I’ve been in charge of the series for a long time, but I think it’s very easy to see that what players definitely want is a sense of speed. Plus a unique world. So if Sega would be able to nail just this aspect, we’d win with both heads and tails. (laughs)

Sakamoto: Because when the game said “2000km/h” we wanted to actually give players a taste of how that felt.

—What’s the best feature of the new games?

Sakamoto: There are many game modes, but the main one was making the compatibility of GX and AX interesting. When you bring your memory card to the arcade you can use both the default and custom vehicles from both games; every time you play AX you get tickets you can use in GX; you an use the AX default vehicles in GX…things like that. If you connect to the internet you can get ranked with your GX vehicles.

Sega’s Hiroyuki Sakamoto (2016); since F-Zero he has primarily worked on the Yakuza series as a localization lead, planner, director, and producer.

—Having this sort of compatibility in a racing game is most definitely an eyecatcher. What else would you like players to notice?

Sakamoto: Definitely the sense of speed. It’s a game about gathering speed, so we wanted to really push that. We want players to find ways to go faster and to feel like they’re getting better. And we want them to see the quality of the graphics and sound. The music is very intricate and cool, we hope people notice that.

Imamura: Each sound effect is very detailed as well. Even the boost sound changes depending on the vehicle you use.

Sakamoto: The game is very science-fiction oriented, so having engine sounds differ depending on the vehicle came naturally. Everyone brought in ideas. Even when I didn’t say it had to change, someone came up with an idea. So we just let it happen.

—Why did you cram so many game modes in?

Sakamoto: It’s a hobby of our producer. (laughs)

Imamura: Racing games are always the same, it’s a simple contest of speed, right? So we wanted to add lots of elements so that players wouldn’t get bored. Things like customizations and the compatibility with AX.

Sakamoto: We wanted to expand upon and add to F-Zero X, to give players lots to do and achieve. There are many completionist elements.

Imamura: There are hardcore players that still play the original F-Zero on the SNES, training for years to break records and such (laughs).

Sakamoto: We want people to still play our game in five years. It has that much going for it.

Imamura: That’s for sure. Speaking from a sales perspective, F-Zero can’t keep up with a big franchise like Mario, but there are a lot of people who love the series and play the games. We have a huge number of hardcore fans. We want to appeal to them as well.

Presenting Customized Vehicles!

—There is a lot of content in GX. You have story cutscenes, customization…I get the feeling you put a lot of effort into the details.

Sakamoto: We did. Time Attack Mode, Grand Prix Mode, Story Mode…and all of them are fleshed out. And in Edit Mode you can customize the vehicles. We thought about the Story Mode as a sort of bonus, but it kind of blew up (laughs). Instead of just making a simple racing game we wanted to expand the scope and thought it would be nice to have cutscenes. And since the characters all have personality they could really shine in cutscenes. We got a bit carried away, became overambitious, even (laughs). But that kind of fits F-Zero too.

—Usually the vehicles are the star of racing games, but since F-Zero has unique pilots with their own personality, you didn’t just want to put the focus on the vehicles?

Imamura: The pilots and their respective vehicle form a unit with a surprising amount of personality. That’s something you don’t see in many games.

Sakamoto: The world of F-Zero is already established. The elements are easy to grasp, the unique elements are all there, so it’s a good idea to just use them.

Imamura: And it’s great that the customization features are now fleshed out. I want to go over to Sega and have a customization battle (laughs).

Sakamoto: We have staff members who’ve spent an absurd amount of time customizing vehicles, sticking emblems on them and such. You can scale the emblems to achieve the exact designs you want, so we have people sticking them on with precise movements of the stick, down to the millimeter (laughs).

Imamura: Since you can make and apply your own emblems, you can really make vehicles your own. And when you go to the arcade you can earn parts you can’t get at home. That’s one of the key aspects of the compatibility. There is a huge number of custom parts alone.

Sakamoto: And you can show off vehicles you made at home in the arcade. There are people who care more about the look, others put the focus on performance. I think just editing the vehicles provides plenty of fun. It’s like working with plastic models. That’s another part of the game that people can get into.

Imamura: And there’ll probably be someone drawing weird things on their vehicle, then eagerly coming to the arcade to show it off (laughs). It’s a free world, after all.

Sakamoto: There’ll be more than one I’d say (laughs).

F-Zero’s GX’s machine customization garage, complete with notoriously inaccurate letter grades for each machine part.

Striving for Top Speed Using The Boost Button And Strategy!

—Now, the difficulty level seems to be pretty high.

Sakamoto: It’s very tough. The difficulty alone will probably keep you busy for three months (laughs).

—Some circuits had tracks that almost seemed impossible (laughs).

Sakamoto: Well, you’ll master them. People can become better than they expect (laughs).

Imamura: The game seems like a racing game, but really there are action elements in it, like in Mario games. It’s more a “high speed action game”. There is jumping and shortcuts. You’ll notice many action elements during the racing gameplay.

—Isn’t there a vehicle that’ll guarantee a win, or something?

Sakamoto: In F-Zero you can change the settings of the vehicles, which can radically change everything. Those people who thought “This is the only fast car” can reverse that situation by changing the settings.

Imamura: I’m looking forward to seeing what incredible records and custom vehicles our players will achieve once the game is out.

Sakamoto: From a developer’s perspective it’s interesting to think about what people will come up with.

—What parts were the most fun when you playtested the game?

Imamura: Versus races get pretty heated.

Sakamoto: We really got into Time Attack.

Imamura: Back in F-Zero X I’ve played versus mode for ages. Same with our staff (laughs).

Sakamoto: Everyone gets really worked up for some reason…When I say “This vehicle is too fast, make it slower so it’s more balanced” the guy who set a fast time with that vehicle gets angry: “Why do you want to make it slower, it took forever for me to master it!” (laughs). And when I say “This vehicle is too slow, increase its performance” someone will inevitably go “I’ve been doing perfectly fine with this vehicle, so if you make it better you’ll just take it out again!”. It’s all personal complaints (laughs).

—When I played the game, the boost felt really good.

Imamura: AX has two boost buttons, and wildly mashing the big one in the middle is a lot of fun. It’s like a new playstyle! (laughs) I’ve mashed it so much I was worried I’d break it.

Sakamoto: At first the small boost button you can use with your right thumb wasn’t there. There was only the big one in the middle of the steering wheel. But since you had to let go of the wheel to use it, we decided to add another button that’s within reach. Back when you could only use the big one, you’d hear people banging on it like BANGBANGBANG throughout the office (laughs). In arcades there are these button-mash contest games. People were banging the boost button as if they were playing one of those (laughs).

Imamura: Well, it was fun to do so (laughs).

The F-Zero AX arcade steering wheel with gloriously large boost button. (A fuller look at the deluxe Japanese cabinet for F-Zero AX can be found here.

Sakamoto: There are still staff members who use the center button. Even on difficult courses they use one hand to steer and the other one to go BANGBANGBANG (laughs). They want to keep banging that button no matter what. Though when it comes to that, it feels like a slightly different game (laughs).

—It’s a shame GX doesn’t have that feature (laughs).

Sakamoto: Let’s try to add it somehow (laughs).

—I guess that thing with the boost button is supposed to offer some simple fun, without much complexity content-wise?

Imamura: Right. In fact, it’s a rather competitive game. If you don’t crush your enemies, you won’t be able to get in first place.

Sakamoto: I can destroy other vehicles with pinpoint accuracy. You can run, but you can never get away (laughs). Some people have crushed 20 vehicles in 3 laps. A co-worker did a side attack and exclaimed “This feels so good!” He did nothing else because it felt so good (laughs).

Imamura: When playing at a higher level, the combat is a very important and fun component. Each player has a personal playstyle and developing strategies is important, even when playing against the computer.

—Speaking about dominating enemies, how do you do that?

Sakamoto: First, you need to know the courses. That’s the theory in racing games. Then you need to know the quirks of the vehicles. They have different weights too, lighter vehicles have good acceleration and handling. Heavy vehicles have slower acceleration and can’t turn as fast. We have the 30 vehicles from F-Zero X and created 11 additional ones, so there is a lot of variety. Generally in other racing games, the vehicles are all more or less the same, but in our games each vehicle has character. Even the boost power and duration is different among them. In the beginning it might be a bit confusing, but I think people will get better. It’s fun to discover what vehicle works best for what course, and things like that.

F-Zero GX & F-Zero AX Can Be Enjoyed by A Wide Userbase

—When it comes to racing games, I feel like the userbase is a bit limited.

Sakamoto: That’s true, racing games are a stoic genre.

Imamura: But there are also games like Mario Kart. And while our game might look like a hardcore title, its scope is actually rather wide. Even people who have avoided racing games because they find them too difficult can enjoy the games at their own skill level. It’s fun for beginners and pros. I think this is made possible by the years of know-how that Nintendo and Sega have accumulated. The cooperation of these two established companies created a very good thing. There are many parts where you look at Sega and think “Just as expected!” When it comes to making games, it’s the best word to describe it.

—How does it feel from your side, Sakamoto-san?

Sakamoto: Personally, I consider F-Zero to be a textbook example of a game.

Imamura: What a great thing to say! As expected! (laughs)

Sakamoto: I’ve played F-Zero to exhaustion, I’ve sucked dry every nook and cranny. I wanted to know 100% what made it fun and why. F-Zero X was a deceptively deep game, one that even people who have never played a racing game before would try out. What made the game fun from that point on was the chance to show off your skills.

—Was there an established target-audience?

Imamura: It was already all ages (laughs). Speaking from Nintendo’s point of view: Many of the people who’ll play AX in the arcade won’t own a Gamecube, so they will be drawn to it. When GX comes out, some kids who don’t often go to the arcade will buy it. And if those kids want to make use of the compatibility features they’ll come to the arcade…I hope that’s how it’ll turn out.

Sakamoto: I’m very interested to see the audiences of the arcade and Gamecube versions racing to see who is faster. There have to be some fast racers hidden among all the console players that have never visited an arcade. I think the compatibility features will get them into the arcades so we can see how good they are. For a racing game that would be a great achievement.

A glimpse at the exhilarating speeds that can be attained in F-Zero GX.

—What do you have your eyes on now?

Sakamoto: I really love racing games. I’ve played Daytona USA so much I got blood blisters (laughs). As for racing games, I’d like to focus more on pure speed competition. I feel like current racing games favor other elements over pure competition.

Imamura: When you look at the recent trend of more realistic racing games, you’ll see that the target audience has shifted. They are more geared towards men who are into cars. So from that perspective F-Zero is really accessible, even to children and people who don’t like cars.

—What is next for F-Zero?

Imamura: The collaboration with Sega resulted in an excellent game, so next we’d like to aim even higher to make F-Zero synonymous with racing games in people’s minds. It’s a game, but I want to develop it into a franchise that will continue to be known and loved by a wide range of people, without being limited to games.

—Finally, please say something to your players.

Imamura: Please try out the compatibility features. Take the memory card to the arcade and play both games, that would make me happy. It will definitely expand your game experience.

Sakamoto: The collaboration between Nintendo and Sega was a historical event, and having a F-Zero game in the arcades is also a huge deal… My main wish is for people to try out the compatibility features and to enjoy a pure racing experience.

—Thank you very much for today!

F-Zero AX – 2003 Developer Interview

with producer Toshihiro Nagoshi; originally featured in Arcadia

—First, tell us about how your company came to develop an F-Zero game.

Nagoshi: When the Triforce board was being developed, it was decided that Sega would get the title. But that’s obvious, I presume you wanted to hear something a bit more interesting… When the question was asked: “Do you want to make another driving game?” we said “If we can think of something, we’ll do it!” Nintendo knew that I had mentioned F-Zero as an inspiration in various places. So they thought that if we did an F-Zero, we could make it fun. Development started soon after that.

—With the Triforce board being developed, the hardware was already decided on?

Nagoshi: Right. So far Sega had always created the hardware for each game, so I guess in that sense it was a new experience for me.

—You’re still in early stages of development?

Nagoshi: Yes. Nintendo has pretty much okayed the design drafts. At the conference last month we said that since the hardware has evolved, the software would need to evolve as well. But they told us to really have a grasp on the direction. Of course visually and technically, but they meant that “F-Zero feel”, what made the series special. We made some prototype screens and they liked them. Of course we wanted some of that Sega originality in there. Giving that up was not an option. Especially with arcade games there’s a certain pride involved on our end. We want to create the whole package to give players what they're expecting.

Sega’s Toshihiro Nagoshi (2003), then-famous for his work on Daytona USA and Super Monkey Ball.

—How was the work divided between Nintendo and Amusement Vision?

Nagoshi: We create the design. Once it has taken shape, we submit it to Nintendo for review. That’s the workflow.

—Have there been any arguments between the two companies?

Nagoshi: If anything, we get a lot of freedom. I was a bit worried in the beginning. If they wanted to handle everything, it would’ve been better if they did the development themselves. Since they chose us as a partner we wanted a chance to show what we can do. I was worried it would become a tug-of-war situation, but then they said “Since you’ve done the design, you can create the basic game.” “Well, we’ll do our best!” (laughs).

—Was this new illustration (see above) done by Amusement Vision?

Nagoshi: Yes, we did that. But there’s no car visible… (laughs)

Staff: Don’t say that! We hoped nobody would notice… (laughs)

Nagoshi: Of course you notice! (laughs) But Captain Falcon has become very symbolic for the franchise. Honestly, Sega doesn’t have a title like that. Be it Daytona USA, be it Sega Rally…it’s never established who’s behind the wheel. Even I have no idea. (laughs)

—I see. (laughs)

Nagoshi: Rather, Sega had this culture where the player was the player character. Some people thought that was a bit impersonal. But I didn’t dislike this freedom, this lack of imposition, you know. The sense that you create your own drama, that you’re the main character. This time we started working from the opposite end, by asking things like “Who is Captain Falcon?” It was the first time for us to so obviously have a main character, so it was a fresh experience.

—Was the mechanical design also handled by Amusement Vision?

Nagoshi: Yes, all of it. Unfortunately I can’t show you, but the full view of the Falcon is also pretty nice. We designed the other characters according to our tastes as well, when we thought we could make the design cooler somehow, we just did it. For example, we applied our own colors when we felt we could get more charm out of the original designs that way.

—You have developed both the AC and GC versions. Are there any differences?

Nagoshi: Since I’d have to talk about the content of the design docs, it’s a bit hard for me to explain. At last month’s presentation we talked about a home- and an away-version, with the home-version being “GC”. The away-version is “AC”. When you’re designing two linked products like that, you have to make one of them the core. For us, the home version is the main version. Of course we’ll give the arcade version something special, but I can’t tell you what it is right now (laughs).

—So the arcade version is built around the home version?

Nagoshi: I think that’s natural, because the games were originally console titles. That’s where the core audience is.

—What are your plans for memory cards?

Nagoshi: We’ve confirmed that we’re using Memory Card 59. If you put a Game Boy Advance in the mix as well you’d end up with too many possibilities, it would be a bit chaotic. So we scrapped that. However, in the very beginning there were plans for 3 versions of the game (including a GBA one). However, we had no experience with the GBA. We probably could have done it had we tried, but we discussed it in meetings and decided that it would ultimately have put too much of a burden on us. As a joke I thought about announcing a GBA version with a 32-digit password or something (laughs).

—(laughs) Is there a difference in how you use the Memory Card 59 compared to the VMU?

Nagoshi: Yes. I talked directly to Miyamoto-san about this, actually. I suggested making something players could use to carry the card around. Something you could hang around your neck, or a keychain. Just because the Memory Card is tiny doesn’t mean people will carry it around. We’re really thinking a lot about how to make it easier for players to carry the card, we’ve had several talks about it.

—To make the best use of it, like with the VMU?

Nagoshi: Right. I also thought about making something a bit stupid. Like a catch for your hat…although rain would be an issue (laughs). Or attaching the card to your wristwatch. I’d like to do something along those lines.

—Something like Falcon is wearing?

Nagoshi: Oh, that could be good…people might like to have things the characters are wearing. I might use that idea.

Nagoshi: Ideally yes. I also think about how to present these items. For example, right now, I’m picturing a commercial: A salaryman’s heel snaps open, revealing a memory card shining in the arcade…something like that. It would tell people that everyone can carry their memory cards around. Ideas like that sometimes pop into my head.

Staff: When you’re working on a console title, you become very aware of marketing and how to convey things to players.

Nagoshi: I think Sega’s been great in that regard, but…imagine an old Sushi chef stubbornly saying “Under my roof we only do it like this!” That’s the feeling I sometimes get. You have to do things the way you’re told. If the chef was a little softer…

—Things would be more flexible.

Nagoshi: Yeah, you want to make the chef happy, that’s the feeling you get. The desire to create something beautiful as a creator hasn’t changed. With a bit more flexibility and open-mindedness I feel like Sega could become even better than before. That how it has to be, I feel.

—To get back on topic: What will the arcade cabinet be like?

Nagoshi: At the conference, the person in charge of production said “Since this has been long awaited, we’ll want to make it really good and worthy of the title!” I’m also waiting to find out what that’ll look like.

—Previous racing games had cars with 4 wheels, making movement a bit stiff. But since this time the vehicles float, I’m hoping for a different sort of cabinet that reflects that feeling.

Nagoshi: Like with After Burner?

—Yeah, exactly.

Nagoshi: That’s great (laughs). I could drown you in ideas. I’m planning on suggesting some, I’m really looking forward to how the final cabinet will turn out. It’s not like you can make a cabinet with such a powered-up drivetrain for any game. It’s a rare chance, so I will strongly suggest it. The arcade should give you an experience you can’t get at home.

Takaya Imamura, Shigeru Miyamoto and Toshihiro Nagoshi at the press conference announcing their collaboration on F-Zero AX & GX.

Translated by Andrej Preradovic

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