All art offers a window into a different time or place, a world like or unlike our own to which we can escape. Being an intersection of many mediums, video games are uniquely suited to this purpose. As gamers, we’re always searching for ways to scratch a sometimes inexplicable itch; we crave adventure, immersion, and pulse-pounding experiences otherwise unattainable. Markets are always shifting with the winds, and genres fall in and out of favor, for better or worse, at a moment’s notice. But these victims of mass preference are seldom lost to time, and with a few diehard fans and some cash, even the most fleeting can experience a renaissance. To that end, now more than ever, we need a new anti-gravity racing game.
When I say, anti-gravity racing what I’m referring to are games like F-Zero or Wipeout, games that focus on high speed, adrenaline, and usually neon colors. There are many others, as I’ll go over in the next section, but those two are the heavy hitters.
F-Zero was Nintendo’s offering, focusing on quick reaction time and precision. Between 1990 and 2004, the franchise spawned seven titles (arguably eight, as BS F-Zero Grand Prix was effectively one game released in two parts), most recently F-Zero Climax on Gameboy Advance. It was a serviceable game but suffered from balancing issues and the dubious decision to reuse graphics and musical assets from its predecessor released a year earlier, F-Zero GP Legend. We haven’t seen a console game since Gamecube’s F-Zero GX.
Wipeout was developed by Studio Liverpool, formerly Psygnosis. It included weapon powerups, adding a dimension that F-Zero lacked but sacrificing speed along with a bit of technical skill requirement from its players. That isn’t to say these games weren’t difficult; they very much could be. When all was said and done, there were 10 Wipeout games, including two remastered collections spanning 22 years. The last wholly new content from this franchise was Wipeout 2048 in 2012, released on the PS Vita.
In both series, players took control of unique vehicles that hovered above the courses, rocketing along at breakneck speed through futuristic and sometimes alien locales to consistently excellent soundtracks. Whether you were tearing through Mute City to a sick guitar solo or blasting opponents to The Prodigy, these games offered some of the best music in video games, in-house or licensed.
So why haven’t we seen any new games from either of these racing giants? There are plenty of reasons, but primarily it’s a lack of publisher interest. In 2012 Sony shuttered Studio Liverpool about a year into the development of its next Wipeout title. Since then, we’ve only seen the release of Wipeout Omega Collection in 2017, one of the two remastered collections I mentioned above. While many of those developers went on to form the development studio Firesprite, neither the new company nor Sony has announced any new games in the pipeline. At least franchise co-creator Nick Burcombe has been keeping the game’s spirit alive working on supercars in Liverpool.
On the other hand, F-Zero seems to be hamstrung by Nintendo’s focus on innovative controls. In the above 2015 interview with Smosh Games, Shigeru Miyamoto noted there were no current plans for a new game, but that could change if Nintendo were to develop a controller interface uniquely suited to its style. Since then, the only talk about it came in January of this year when series producer Toshihiro Nagoshi commented on making a hypothetical new entry.
“Putting aside the odds of it happening, I must admit I have a lot of affection for F-Zero GX. If the opportunity were to present itself, I wouldn’t mind. And in that case, I’d like to make it a challenging game. I believe that if Nintendo just wants a racing game that is ‘fun and accessible’, they already have Mario Kart for that purpose.” -Toshihiro Nagoshi
The only way these types of games are going to come back in a big way is with a significant cash infusion, which is a publisher’s language. By not funding big name titles in a genre with a respectable amount of fans, they’re leaving money on the table. More money left on the table means less chance for the industry as a whole to grow, and everyone suffers for it. Crafting a game worthy of filling F-Zero or Wipeout‘s shoes would not be a cheap undertaking, that much is certain, but the fiscal and cultural payoff could be astronomical.
KEEPING THE DREAM ALIVE
Gamers are nothing if not persistent. While major publishers have been resting on the laurels, fans have been making their own anti-gravity racing games. Genre favorites like Redout, Distance, and the low-res BallisticNG have kept the lights on with varying degrees of success.
Of the three, Redout is the standout title. With a score of 81 out of 100 on Metacritic and a space-fighting sequel, it’s easily the most well-received but isn’t without flaws that leave you wondering what it could have been. Distance and BallisticNG face accessibility hurdles, with the former’s focus on VR and the latter’s extremely small but very dedicated, two-man development team. Both are well worth your time if you have the means and desire, but they’re not Big League caliber.
Pacer, released just last year, describes itself as a spiritual successor to Wipeout. Out of all these titles, it perhaps had the best chance of taking gold; some of developer R8 Games’ staff actually worked on Wipeout 3, and they brought in The Designer’s Republic, the same graphic design studio that worked on the first three Wipeout titles, to help with visual assets and marketing. Alas, upon leaving early access, it was still riddled with bugs and had an absolute dearth of content. It functions well as a reminder of the anti-grav glory days, but not much else.
There are dozens of other games that embody the spirit of anti-grav racers, whether they actually feature hovering cars or not, and they all excel and fail in different respects. More often than not, their biggest complication is funding. To be sure, they’re all valiant efforts, but none quite seem to hit the bullseye. Playing these games is like slapping an itch instead of scratching it; you get relief, but it’s momentary at best, always returning worse than it was before.
Despite these small-dev offerings, the most glaring omission in the genre is a competitive scene. It’s no secret that esports are big business, but without a solid, well-known platform to build upon, the dream of leagues dedicated to anti-gravity racing, and they revenue they would generate, will always be just that: a dream. Time and again we see vibrant, fun games for all ages with a high skill-ceiling do well with consumers. Look at Splatoon: Its controls are easy to understand and most weapons are no stronger or weaker than any other, they just play differently. Through practice a player may be able to perform better with their weapon(s) of choice, but the primary way to excel at the game is through deft strategy and utilizing the ink on the map to your advantage.
This type of balancing is a hallmark of successful competitive games and one that comes naturally to the racing genre. Slap the vibrancy and all-ages fun of an anti-gravity racer on top and more likely than not athletes will flock to your instant hit and the millions will start rolling in.
THE FUTURE OF RACING
A lot of progress has been made in gaming in the last decade, and not just technically. Every art form has its own language, and the language of video games when the last Wipeout or F-Zero was released is vastly different from the vernacular we use today. With each passing year, the stories we tell and the worlds we build become less constrained and more easily manipulated. The industry focus now is player agency, not only giving players a choice but making those choices meaningful and lasting, whether it be expressed through story or environment.
If we’re going to build a new anti-gravity racing game, it’s going to take a lot of work. These games are fertile ground for world-building, something the F-Zero games excelled at. Great characters make great stories, and our hypothetical new game would be incomplete without both. Imagine a legion of racers, each with a unique vehicle and motivation. They all, of course, want to win, but why? Are they like you and I, or something else entirely? Maybe humanity isn’t even involved.
Single-genre games are a relic of a bygone era, so why not inject an RPG element? Allow players to earn spec points as they race and improve their vehicles how they want. Give them a platform to build upon and create their own unique stories. Paint an expansive, colorful world they crave to explore more of each time they pick up the controller.
Games like Need For Speed: The Run has shown us you don’t need to be on a track to feel that rush of high-speed adrenaline, and that sort of branching out provides an incredible opportunity to build the universe. And once we’ve built it, allow players to destroy it. Let them uncover shortcuts blown open by explosive weaponry or open entirely new course paths with environmental destruction a la Split/Second.
This is important because in this industry the path to riches is never singular. You can design the perfect esports game but without a proper single-player experience you’ll always be locking yourself out of potential revenue. Overwatch is the elephant in the room here. Blizzard crafted a colorful world filled with interesting characters and lore, but the game had no single-player experience at launch. The best we’ve gotten in the five years since is Archive Missions, and those are only available during the month-long Archives seasonal event. To compensate they’ve predictably doubled down on their PvE experience with the upcoming Overwatch 2, finally offering those who prefer to game alone a chance to fully explore that universe.
Even with a strong single-player and competitive aspect some might be hesitant to play, especially given the notorious difficulty associated with these games. Having mainstream musicians do your soundtrack is an excellent way to bring in players who otherwise might not have given your game a second look (see Danger’s work on Haven, Beck & Deadmau5’s contributions to Sound Shapes, or Trent Reznor on Quake). The prospect alone of someone like Kavinsky scoring a new anti-gravity racing game is enough to make one salivate.
And what sort of racing game is complete without customization? Livery, tracks, in-game fan designs, team logos, vehicle parts, we are in a technological position to give players unprecedented levels of customization control. Allow them to upload and share their creations with other racers. Hold special events on the most popular user-created tracks with unique in-game items as rewards to incentivize socialization.
Nothing I’ve mentioned in the preceding paragraphs is new. It has all been done, to some degree and in varying combinations, by racing titles that came before. But that only speaks to how far behind these types of games have fallen. Asking for a new, groundbreaking title out of the gate may be too much; those are generational titles, few and far between for a good reason. But the fan base is here, the pieces are there, so all we need now is a chance to prove that this genre is financially and culturally sustainable. Video game publishers would do well to remember the words of a late, great Formula One racer.
“To achieve anything in this game, you must be prepared to dabble in the boundary of disaster.” -Stirling Moss