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F-Zero 99 feels like a battle royale in a pinball machine

Wiped out.

Winning in first place in F-Zero 99
Image credit: Nintendo

As a kid I seemingly had an obsession with going fast, at least in games. I grew up on Sonic the Hedgehog and when it came to racing games, F-Zero was king. It began with F-Zero X for me, though playing the GBA launch game Maximum Velocity steered me towards the SNES original too.

Then there was F-Zero GX, for me the pinnacle of the series and racing games as a whole. A friend of mine brought around his brother's copy of the game imported from Japan (remember when games used to have staggered releases?!) and it absolutely floored me. As soon as I could I imported a copy of the game from America along with a Freeloader disc. I was hooked, as much on the incredible soundtrack as the racing itself.

Since then, F-Zero fans have had very little. Miyamoto has famously said the series won't return unless there's a significant or unique gameplay reason.

F-Zero 99 Nintendo Switch Online - Nintendo Direct 9.14.2023Watch on YouTube

Well now it's back, in a sort of modern-retro form that I doubt anyone expected - or necessarily wanted. As with Super Mario 35 and Tetris 99, F-Zero 99 is a battle royale for Nintendo Switch Online subscribers that pits 99 players against each other on one track. If that sounds like a mess, it kind of is.

After a brief bit of training that slowly ups the number of computer bots, it's time to jump into the main 99 mode. Players vote on one of two tracks - there's a limited number and they're all from the SNES original - and then start out on a wide starting grid that slowly funnels towards the main track. Then it's four laps of mayhem.

The first couple of races ended in me exploding on the final corner, which infuriated me. But once I got my first top 10 position, my frustration turned to glee. Then it turned back again when I retired on the next race. My results seem inconsistent, even though I feel I have a (modest) level of skill.

Mid race in F-Zero 99 crashing into others
It's high speed carnage. | Image credit: Nintendo

For me, the joy of F-Zero has always been the balance of speed and grip, the tight controls allowing you to weave through winding, looping tracks at supersonic speeds. Yes there's a spin attack to knock out your rivals, but only if you're feeling spicy.

F-Zero 99 instead places more emphasis on racing aggressively. With so many racers, it's necessary to whittle down the competition by spinning into rivals to knock them off course and lose precious energy - as ever, energy acts as both health and boost power, F-Zero's key risk-reward mechanic. Except when other players retire, they return as extra vehicles to clog up the track and bump into the remaining racers, messing up their laps. Yes, it gives those players something to do instead of simply spectating, but it means the track never clears up to focus on - you know - actually racing. It's often more like driving around a pinball machine.

Aggression has another bonus: super sparks, used to initiate a superboost which launches players to a skyway overhead that's (mostly) clear. It's a great way to overtake large swathes of the competition and knowing when to deploy it - to skip difficult sections of track, timed when others don't use it - is key to success. And when sparks litter the track, it's possible for the back of the pack to scoop them up and surge forward, providing some balance. It's a great addition that not only provides respite from the chaos, but adds layers to strategy.

There are other modes too, which provide variety and are accessed on a rotational basis. These include a mini grand prix of three races, races across the more difficult pro tracks, or team battles. The latter I particularly enjoy as it's almost like a Splatoon game with racers split into two teams and ranked not just on position but the number of KOs and spin attacks. It means those at the back can still contribute to the team score through aggressive play.

Beating rivals across all modes improves your grade, plus general play adds to your experience level and your ticket haul. Tickets can then be used to enter weekly grands prix of five races, where the pack diminishes after each race. It elongates the battle royale formula, where only the strongest move on to the next race. This is F-Zero 99 at its most tense, its best and worst.

Mini Prix results screen, crashing out after three races
Heartbreaking, I was doing so well... | Image credit: Nintendo / Eurogamer

On the one hand, as the pack gradually clears it's possible to focus more on racing than battling and it takes true skill to make it to the end. On the other hand, it often feels like luck over ability, which can be incredibly frustrating.

For me, a grand prix goes something like this: I'm sat comfortably on the sofa for the first round before rapidly shifting to the edge of my seat, teeth gritted, palms sweating, adrenaline pumping through my body...and then disaster on the final bend. It's an absolute rush, but I'm not sure my heart can take it. I've been listening to the GX soundtrack simultaneously, which does add to the nostalgic appeal.

F-Zero 99 is certainly a fun distraction, then, even if each race is tumultuous carnage. But it won't beat a fully fledged new game.

So what's the answer to Miyamoto's question of how to elevate the series and bring something new? Well it's not shoving 99 players together in one race, even though I'd welcome it as an option. But as a sign of a potential online mode, with ranked play, multiple modes, and battle royale as the ultimate challenge? Absolutely.

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