F-Zero 99 plants the seeds for a stronger racing revival

It’s been a week of mixed emotions for F-Zero fans. Just a few days ago, rumors began spreading that Nintendo’s long-neglected racing series would get a revival on Nintendo Switch. That was true, but not in the way fans may have been expecting. As revealed during yesterday’s Nintendo Direct, F-Zero 99 is a multiplayer retro freebie available to all Nintendo Online subscribers. You could almost hear the collective deflation.

Though it may not have been what fans wanted, there was still good reason to get excited. Switch Online’s foray into oddball battle royale games has yielded some strong results (for my money, Tetris 99 is one of the best multiplayer games on the Switch). Racing games are a good fit for an elimination format — see Stampede: Racing Royale — so I was more than willing to give the left-field release a try.

After a few hours of play, I’m of two minds when it comes to F-Zero 99. On one hand, it feels like a misguided nostalgia play that doesn’t really deliver what the franchise does best. On the other, it’s a surprisingly fun curiosity that lays the groundwork for a more fully realized series revival. It’s perhaps not the best version of what F-Zero can be, but it’s a convincing enough start.

Death race

F-Zero 99 takes the inaugural installment of the series and transforms it into an online battle royale game. It’s a tribute to the series SNES origins drawing on tracks and cars from that era. That approach has some immediate limitations. There are only a small handful of tracks included, as well as four cars to choose from. It appears that more will be added over time, but there’s not too much variety in the launch version.

Thankfully, it makes up for those initial shortcomings with a relatively strong racing hook. Drivers jump into hectic 99-player races that unfold on those classic tracks. Naturally, the idea is to finish a match in first place. There’s a lot of nuance that goes into a successful race, though. For one, players essentially have a health (or energy) bar that’s drained by slamming into track obstacles or getting hit by opponents. Boosting also drains a chunk of energy, so there’s a lot of risk-reward to manage during a race. When should you get aggressive and try to rack up KOs? Is it the right time to boost? Lots of decision-making happens in just a few minutes.

Cars race together in F-Zero 99.

To layer in another twist, cars drop yellow orbs when hit. When a player collects enough, they can press a button to ascend onto a sky track, allowing them to zip over obstacles. It’s a strategic tool, as a smart racer will know the best moments to trigger it to avoid a tricky stretch of the track. It doubles as a smart comeback tool too, as players in the back of the pack are more likely to gobble up yellow orbs while the driver in first won’t find many.

Those core racing ideas form a solid foundation, but F-Zero 99 struggles when it comes to nailing its battle royale rules. It’s not a “last man standing” rule set; the car in first at the end wins, just like any racing game. There are a few elimination catches that show up, though. Cars are permanently removed from the race when they run out of health and each lap cuts the last few racers out.

It’s an awkward middle ground between a traditional racing objective and battle royale rules, making for some mixed stakes. Games like Tetris 99 work so well because there’s a lot of tension the more opponents drop like flies. I can feel my heart beating when I break into the top 10. That’s not so much the case here. I tense up when I’m near first or when I find myself at the end of the pack on the verge of elimination, but the 70 or so places in between are a sort of emotional dead zone. I’m not really in danger of getting knocked out, but I don’t really expect to win. That leads to a lot of races where all I can really hope for is a good chunk of experience points at the end.

A car explodes in F-Zero 99.

Though that core mode is lacking, F-Zero finds far more success in its playlist of rotating special modes. Special gimmicks like Team Battles and pro courses add some variety, but the best implementation comes in Grand Prix mode. Here, players go through a set of five races. The weakest 20 or so are cut at the end of each race, bringing a much more traditional battle royale flavor to the mix. That’s where F-Zero 99 shines, becoming a high-stakes death race that tests my skill and endurance. I’m a little surprised it’s a rotating mode rather than the game’s base one.

F-Zero 99 feels like the first piece of a puzzle that Nintendo has struggled to solve for the past 20 years: How do you make the series stand out in a crowded sea of racers? The elimination angle is a good start, but it’s limited by the retro framework here. When I think of F-Zero, I think of blisteringly fast speeds, complex tracks, and pulp sci-fi energy. Those are all aspects that 2003’s F-Zero GX nailed, bringing a fairly limited SNES game to its logical extreme. Rather than continuing that momentum, it feels like we’re back in first gear.

Perhaps that’s what Nintendo needs to start accelerating. I get the sense that F-Zero 99 might be a low-pressure way to gauge how serious its loudest fans are about a revival. Judging by the knee-jerk reactions to it, I don’t imagine every fan will show up to the starting line. Those that do, though, will find some fun in a curious Nintendo experiment that’s begging to be souped up.

F-Zero 99 is currently free to download if you’re subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online.

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