[Review] F-Zero 99

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo Software Technology
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: September 14, 2023
Review date: October 20, 2023

If you ever wanted to simulate Black Friday shopping through a minefield, F-Zero 99 is the game for you. Following in the footsteps of Tetris 99, the now-discontinued Pac-Man 99, and the famously delisted Super Mario 35, Nintendo’s latest entry in the retro-franchise-turned-battle-royale lineup uses Super NES launch title F-Zero as its foundation. Perhaps Pilotwings 99 or Sim City 99 will be next? Anyway, just like the other games mentioned, F-Zero 99 is available at no additional cost to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers, but is it still worth it?

F-Zero 99 is very much an adaptation of the original F-Zero, featuring more or less the same cars, same tracks, same graphics and same music, with a mix of old mechanics veterans will find familiar, and new mechanics borrowed from later games in the series. For example, gone is the one-boost-per-lap mechanic, and in its place is the spend-energy-for-boost mechanic. The spin attack returns here as well, land a KO and your energy bar increases for the rest of the race or grand prix. F-Zero 99 controls a little differently than the original, a bit loose and unwieldy at times, but overall tight and responsive. F-Zero veterans should be able to adapt nicely, which I can personally attest to.

Each car from the original game makes its return, along with their primary characteristics. The Golden Fox is the lightweight weenie with good acceleration and lousy top speed that gets knocked around easily. It’s been balanced out in 99 with fast energy recovery in the pit zone, encouraging lots of boosting. Wild Goose, the green one, is the opposite – a tanky vehicle that’s hard to push around, but recovers slowly, necessitating smarter boosting. Fire Stingray has the fastest top speed and sharpest cornering, but worst acceleration and mid recovery, and Blue Falcon is the balanced all-rounder with good recovery. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses and, in my experience, are all viable.

First player to reach the finish line after four laps is the winner, which as you might have guessed, is far easier said than done. If you saw its announcement in the most recent Nintendo Direct, you’d have seen all the cars slamming together and bashing into each other like bumper cars on a water slide, but it’s not as unruly as it looks. There’s a certain flow to the races where it starts out chunky and clunky but thins out the longer the race goes on. Like the original, the racers farthest back get disqualified each lap, but unless you’re doing a grand prix, there isn’t much pressure in that regard. Inexperienced racers will probably crash out before they get to that point anyway.

The likelihood of you reaching first place isn’t very high, so some short-term goals have been included to help you improve. For starters, each race gives you four rivals around your skill level. The more you beat, the higher your skill level increases. Lose to them, though, and your rating drops. In addition, each race shows you how you ranked among players in certain facets, like among those driving the same car as you or among players the same rank as you. There’s also the added “skyway” mechanic – pick up the orange balls to fill up a bar, then once full it can be used instead of boost to fly up to the skyway where you drive faster over the track. At first this seems like a catch-up mechanic for less skilled players, but since it can be used to cross over tougher part of the tracks, or skip parts of the track entirely, knowing when to use it is an important skill to master.

As much as I’ve enjoyed F-Zero 99, it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge its flaws. Firstly, for better or worse, all of the tracks have returned with all of their archaic 1990 designs intact, though they have been made slightly wider. The game launched with only seven of the original fifteen tracks, but as of publishing this article, all fifteen are present. Not every track is readily available, however, as each track is grouped into different categories. There are four “pro” tracks and three tracks are exclusive to grand prix mode, which leaves only eight tracks in the standard mode. Before each race, two tracks are selected for players to vote on and certain tracks are less popular than others, throttling the variety even further. Be prepared to race on Mute City a lot. Personally this lack of variety doesn’t bother me, I like getting good at each particular track, but I doubt it’ll sit well with everyone.

Along with standard races which are available all the time, grand prixs are available every two hours, or every half hour on weekends. Grand prixs are the real deal challenge of F-Zero 99, as you race along five tracks in the same order as the original game. You earn points based on your position per race, and race whittles down players from 99 to 80, 60, 40, and then 20 final racers. My problem with grand prix isn’t just the limited availability, but also point distribution. First place gets 200 points, second gets 198, third gets 196 and so forth, but that’s the case for every race, not just the first. This means reaching the final race and doing well in that one doesn’t matter as much as consistently being good across the entire grand prix – basically you can reach the final race and still have no chance of winning the prix. There are also team battles and mini prixs (same as grand prix but with three tracks instead of five), but these can also wear out their appeal fairly quickly. Really, team battle exists more to have an extra mode to shake up sessions than to take seriously.

Not to mention the fact that it’s a battle royale with 99 players in any given race. One of the reasons I don’t typically play battle royale games is because the pool of available players is broad and incorporates players of many different skill levels, meaning the best players will always be the ones winning, meaning unless you’re good and/or play often, you won’t stand a chance. When there’s little hope of winning, there’s little desire to continue playing, an inherent flaw with battle royales that F-Zero 99 does its best to address with the short-term goals I mentioned earlier, but expectantly doesn’t solve.

Personally I like F-Zero 99 a lot, but it helps that the SNES original is my favorite game in the series and it turns out that I’m actually kind of decent at it. It’s fun to play in short sessions and can get addicting as you inch closer and closer to your first win, and there are lots of skins to unlock via a pseudo-achievement system. My biggest concern, though, is longevity. Nintendo indicated that no more tracks will be added, but there will be more updates, and data miners have already discovered a few clues as to what those might be. However, there’s always that looming inevitability that F-Zero 99 goes the way of Super Mario 35 and Pac-Man 99, where Nintendo shuts down the servers, so I say play it while it lasts if you’re able to, because there’s no way it’ll last forever.