F-Zero 99 Impressions & Review – One of the Year’s Best Games!

Introduction and On the Other ’99’ Titles

Within the past few months, rumors of a new F-Zero game surfaced.  I wasn’t sure whether to believe them or not given how long it has been — it has been over 15 years since the last entry on the GBA — but… it happened!  F-Zero has returned… as a multiplayer-only battle royale-style racing game.  This latest entry in the “99” line of titles has graphics and tracks taken from the original Super Nintendo F-Zero game, but with some new game mechanics and lots more players.  It’s chaotic and intense but is pretty fantastic once you get used to it.  This is the fourth Switch ‘battle royale’ game, and the third from Nintendo itself.

Nintendo’s first Battle Royale game, Tetris 99, is outstanding and still is quite popular, but the big question is, how long will this game be available for?  Because while Tetris 99 is still available and supported, the other games in this category of sorts of Nintendo Battle Royale games are not.  Super Mario 35 was announced as a time-limited title and was indeed shut down as scheduled.  I have no idea why they made the game time limited, but I didn’t like it all that much anyway; the physics were just a bit off, not quite NES Mario physics and very far from NSMB.  As for the other one, Pac-Man 99, the game is a Switch exclusive but is run by Namco.  The game is about to be shut down.  I have no idea why Namco is shutting it down now, and it’s really unfortunate that they are because from what I played of it it’s pretty good, but I do admit I was probably part of the problem, I wasn’t playing it much.  I presume player numbers must not have been that high, unfortunately.  Too bad. 

So, the rocky history of these games leaves me skeptical about F-Zero 99’s future.  I hope that this game is more Tetris 99 than Mario 35!  F-Zero 99 is really good, it’d be a shame if it vanishes for no reason at some time not that far in the future.  I recommend playing this game while you can, it’s really worth it.  Another reason to play this game now is that some modes rotate in and out, if you want to play all of the tracks you’ll need to keep coming back.  That so many modern games have features like this in them that force you to play one game for a long time is another issue that I have very mixed feelings about, but … I can’t help but play this game, it’s too fun to ignore.  Yes, it’s endless games like this that are why I don’t actually finish games very often anymore.


F-Zero 99 – The Basics

But this is an article about F-Zero 99, not those other titles.  F-Zero 99 is SNES F-Zero but with 99 racers and some new features.  The game controls a lot like the Super Nintendo game, so control is responsive and feels great.  The game feels designed to be played with a D-pad, though; analog controls exist but are incredibly twitchy, I hate the feel of this with analog.  So that Switch analog stick will sit there unused like usual… heh, with the kinds of games I mostly play on Switch I rarely use that thing.  This game works fine as it is, but better analog controls might have been nice.  I know Nintendo wanted to prioritize being able to play this game with a d-pad because they wanted the game to play well on the Switch Super Nintendo-style controller, and that was a good decision, but the analog controls are incredibly twitchy, I find playing with analog very difficult and awful-feeling.  The analog stick controls could have been a lot better, I’m sure.  The other thing that needs work is the options menu, which has some missing options that should exist.  Audio volume options are badly needed, for example; the music in this game is too quiet, and you can’t turn it up.  It’s kind of annoying to have to turn my TV volume way up just for this one game, then back down for anything else.  There also isn’t an option to dis[play the speed in miles per hour, which is a bizarre oversight to make.  The speed in this game doesn’t matter much, but it should not have shipped only in kilometers per hour, those numbers are somewhat meaningless to me.  Some past F-Zero games were also metric only but still, that’s an issue that could have been fixed. 
But really, that’s it for issues as far as controls and options go, everything else is good.  And these issues are pretty minor; just use the d-pad and maybe turn the sound up a bit and you’re good.
As far as the gameplay goes, F-Zero 99 starts with the Super Nintendo game.  Just like in that classic, the tracks are Mode 7 style rotating flat planes, and the vehicles are sprites.   The game has a nice minimap just like the SNES game, except now it shows your and your rivals’ positions.  There is also a new zoomed in map which shows all cars close to you but doesn’t show the shape of the track.  The graphics are very sharp and high resolution, of course, making the game much sharper looking than the SNES game, but the similarity is clear.  This modern take on classic SNES graphics looks fantastic.  The controls and handling are similar to the original, so control is tight and responsive.  Just like in the original, each of the four hovercars you can choose between has a very different feel to how it controls.  It’s great that the four are so different, four vehicles may not be many but when they are this different it’s enough.  And just like the original, in addition to the racers in the race there are also AI-controlled obstacle cars called bumpers.  The two bumpers from the original game return, with two new ones added.  Just like in the original, grey bumpers litter the course and just get in the way, while red bumpers explode when you touch them greatly damaging your car.  The new types are blue and yellow.  Yellow bumpers give you a bunch of yellow orbs, more on that soon, and blue ones are human-controlled obstacle cars the game sometimes lets you control if you crash out early in a race.

And on that note, F-Zero 99 may start with the SNES game, but it builds off of it to fit its new genre and for the new control and game features that have been added in.  Nintendo did a lot more here than just port the SNES game and add a lot more cars, there are new game mechanics present.  First, the track designs, while extremely faithful to the original, have been expanded in scale to fit the larger field.  Some track elements have been made easier, also — rumble strip areas don’t slow you down as much as they do on SNES, and White Land II’s big jump is significantly shorter and easier, for example.  These changes are mostly okay, apart from the White Land II jump, I really wish they hadn’t messed with that.  F-Zero 99’s tracks are challenging since they are the SNES F-Zero tracks, but the primary challenge comes from the other humans more so than the course.  Overall I think they struck the right balance with track redesign.  Each track has an opening start area as well, a fan-shaped area where all the cars start before driving towards the games’ starting line in the course.  The fan-shaped starting area finishes with a jump to the straightaway to the starting line.  This solves the starting-line issue with so many cars in a fair way, it was a really good idea. 

But as far as game mechanics go, there are a few major changes.  First, and least importantly, SNES F-Zero has five laps while this game has four, but the scaled-up size of the tracks to fit the large field keeps race lengths similar.  More significantly, the the boost system of the rest of the series has been put in this game, so boosting boosts away your health.  The SNES game just gave you one boost per lap, but F-Zero X and beyond have boosting reduce your health energy bar.  I really like that this mechanic is here, it adds a lot to the game.  Boosting, hitting a wall, or bumping other vehicles reduces your energy.  If you run out of energy or go off the track on a jump, you explode and that’s it, you lose; there are no second chances in a race in this game.   Each track has a recharge pit area that heals some of your energy.  How much you get back depends on the vehicle you’ve chosen and how long the tracks’ recharge area is.  Some vehicles recharge energy much faster but have lower top speeds, while others recharge slower but have a higher top speed.  The game is well-balanced and those vehicle differences are interesting.

The second, and probably most important, new ability is about the superboosts to the Skyway.  This new super-boost ability has been added.  When any car damages other vehicles with a spin attack — another feature from later F-Zero games back-ported to the original here — yellow orbs drop.  If you attack others you directly get a bit of meter, but most of the meter building will come from collecting the yellow orbs other players drop behind them upon every spin-attack hit between vehicles.  Additionally, there are some large yellow AI-controlled vehicles that give you a whole bunch of yellow orbs all at once if you touch them.  Once the meter is filled, if you hit the boost button instead of doing a normal boost you will go up into the sky to the Skyway, a second path in the air above each track.  You stay on this more streamlined course for as long as your now-rapidly-depleting boost meter allows.  Timing your uses of the superboost is one of the most important skills you will need to learn in order to do better at this game, because where you start a superboost can have a large impact on how much ground you gain from it.  You will only get a couple of superboosts per race most of the time, since the meter takes a while to charge up, so you need to use them well.  This mechanic is not something any previous game in the series has any analog to, and I’m not sure if I like it all that much overall because it allows you to avoid the challenging parts of a track and sometimes gain a large advantage through just using a boost well instead of through good driving skill, but it is an interesting mechanic that is key to the game.  Superboosts are a lot of fun and timing when to use them is key to this games’ strategy, but when Skyway trips skip like half of the track, as they do with a few of the courses, it kind of removes the challenge of the track, you know?  This is particularly an issue with the track Red Canyon, for example.  On the other hand, the superboost makes this game more accessible to new players and on the surface makes the game easier, but a good player will still do better due to racing better, knowing exactly when to use a superboost, and such.  It’s an interesting and somewhat mixed-bag mechanic.

Lastly for this section, one thing that is kind of the same and kind of a change is the way in-race eliminations for low position work.  SNES F-Zero is a game where each lap the position you must finish that lap in decreases. By the final lap of the five-lap race you must be in the top three to finish.  If you finish a lap in too low a place you lose a life, and you get only a few tries per prix before you have to start over.  F-Zero 99 kind of keeps this system, but scales it down dramatically in importance.  Where on the SNES the core of the game is the battle to learn the tracks well enough to not get ranked out because of not being in a high enough position, here in F-Zero 99 only a relative few get ranked out.  The way it works is that periodically the bottom five or so will be eliminated, but this only happens once a lap or so so by the end of the race at least 75-80 people generally will have finished.  Just stay out of the very back of the field and you’ll be fine here.  It is possible to get ranked out, I’ve had it happen a couple of times, but it’s very rare.  Make no mistake though, F-Zero 99 is a hard game.  The tracks have been made slightly easier than their SNES counterparts in some ways, and the game doesn’t have a mode which constantly eliminates people putting SNES F-Zero levels of “stay at the very front or you’re out” pressure on you, but that game is learnable, good play will reward you with victory.  Here, with 99 human players doing all kinds of random things, luck is a significant factor, and more driving skill will be required to overcome the challenge of all of those other humans.


Rank and Unlockables


And lastly, as it is a modern endless multiplayer-focused game, F-Zero 99 has a leveling system and a lot of cosmetics to unlock.  There is no cash shop here, thankfully; you unlock everything through play.  As with many online games, there are two separate rankings in this game, your level and your online player grade.  The former goes up after every race, with more experience for better performance.  The latter, however, floats up or down depending on how you did.  The game uses a letter grade system like a lot of Japanese online games, so you start at a D grade and go up to C, B, A, and then S.  After S you gain more S ranks, until hitting the current maximum of S20, I believe.  This whole system is based on a strange mechanic, though: you gain or lose rank based on how many of four rival players that the game chose before the race you finish ahead of.  If you finish ahead of all four you get the most possible ranking points, if you finish ahead of at least one you get some ranking points, and if you finish behind all four you lose ranking points.  So, you want to finish ahead of these people if at all possible.  In single races the rivals are chosen based on people close to your level and total experience points.  In mini or grand prixes, though, your rivals for races two and after are based on the four opponents closest to you in the cup ranking, so it’ll be the two people above you and the two below you unless you are in the top or bottom two overall.  The system is strange and I don’t know if it was a good idea or not to have your rank be based on whether you finish ahead of arbitrary other racers, but it works.

As for those unlockables, this game may only have the four cars from the original SNES F-Zero game to choose from, but it makes those four machines look like a lot more by having a lot of different car paint skins to unlock, all in colorful palettes.  You don’t buy them with currency though, this game doesn’t have currency.  Instead these unlock like achievements, so you need to accomplish specific tasks in order to get skins.  In addition to car skins there are also unlockables for your player logo that is displayed during multiplayer.  This logo will show your vehicle of choice, a background, a frame, and three icons below.  You can customize all of these elements from the things you have unlocked based on your level and accomplishments.  Some of these things unlock based on pure play time, while others require accomplishing specific things.  You can also unlock some other things such as new boost and skyway colors, there is a nice amount of stuff here to unlock.  I think F-Zero 99 does a good job of having enough here to make the player want to keep coming back to get more cool skins and icons and such.

And lastly, the game has a weekly player ranking system.  Every time you play a Mini Prix or a Grand Prix, the level points you get in the end are totaled up and added to a running weekly total.  Note, this is based on the level points you got based on your finishing position and bonuses and such, not your player grade, so it isn’t arbitrary.  On the games’ main menu you can view the weekly player rankings.  Here the game shows how everyone is doing, so you can see who’s got the most rank points this week, where you stand, and such.  At the end of each week, the game tells you what place you finished that week in.  I’m pretty mediocre, I finished something like 17,000th place the first week and like 10- thousandth the second.  It’s fine, the game is fun regardless.  I like that the game has something to play for here to keep people engaged with the Prixes.  Nintendo did a great job making this a game which is both simple and complex, fun for a few minutes but rewarding to play for hours, accessible but also something with rewards for the good players.

The Game Modes and Amount of Content


The core of the F-Zero 99 experience is a lot like SNES F-Zero, though, just in modern resolution widescreen and with the insane, intense chaos of 99 human-controlled racers on the track, all driving around and whacking into eachother.  This is a wonderful game with, as described above, solid rewards for people who keep playing it.  As for the actual tracks you drive on, though, there are a pretty limited number of them.  Right now this is probably the games’ main issue.  The Super Nintendo F-Zero game had 15 tracks, which is a decent number but a lot less than its sequels would have.  At launch in F-Zero 99, 7 of the 15 tracks from the original Super Nintendo game were playable.  This felt like definitely too few tracks.  An update in late September added five more, leaving three not in the game yet to be added in a future update.  Even though only five tracks were added, this addition has done a lot to alleviate some of the repetition of the initial launch game.  I hope they continue adding tracks after that, starting with the 10 from the two BS F-Zero GP games for the SNES Satellaview.  Each track in this game is relatively short, so even with a decent number of tracks and the four lap races which this game does, plenty of tracks are needed to keep players engaged.
On those Satellaview tracks that hopefully will be added to this game eventually, I presume that Nintendo has copies of those tracks, because only half of them are currently available; the BS F-Zero 2 game we know is based on the Practice rom for BS F-Zero, which included four new cars and five new tracks, while the other five new tracks were only in the main two week versions with Satellaview streaming audio, neither of which has a publicly available rom.  There are a few videos on Youtube of them being played with the original streamed Japanese voiced dialog, though, which is neat.  There are more SNES-style tracks from the GBA games of course, or they could make new courses, but it’d be pretty fantastic to finally see BS F-Zero return, and for everyone to be able to play the five lost tracks!

Anyway, in order to keep player counts up in the modes since this kind of game requires a large player base to function — remember, every single race needs 99 hopefully human players, though if fewer than 99 humans are in a game when its start countdown timer ends it will fill up the field with fairly mediocre AIs — F-Zero 99 has two modes available at a time.  The two are F-Zero 99 mode and a rotating other mode.  Yes, the main F-Zero 99 mode is always available, but the others are not. In all modes,  after a race completes you get level points based on your finishing position and some other bonuses, and gain or lose rank based on whether you finished ahead of or behind your rivals.  Multi-track championships also have their own point totals they keep track of for the championship rankings.

F-Zero 99 mode randomly selects two tracks from a selection of now seven, the first four tracks of Knight Cup and the first three of Queen Cup, then the players vote on which one of the two they want to race on.  That means that in this mode you may race on Mute City I or II, Death Wind I, Big Blue, Red Canyon, Sand Ocean, and Port Town I.  Once the last three tracks are added Mute City III is likely to join this mode, I’d guess but likely not any more.  That would make this games’ biggest weakness, that if often feels like Mute City 99 instead of F-Zero 99 because most people seem to choose Mute City every time it appears, even worse, but at least each of the three Mute City variants is slightly different.

The Rotating Slot Modes Include:

Team Battle – This mode races on the same tracks as F-Zero 99 does, except here the players are broken up into two teams which compete with eachother for points.  The two most important sources of points are which team is in the lead during the race and the finishing positions of team members at the end and damage done to members of the other team done with spin attacks during the race.  There are also less points handed out for two other categories, including how many members of the other team your team destroyed.  This mode is okay but it’s definitely my least favorite in the game because the results feel extremely arbitrary, these races aren’t really long enough for team tactics. Also, due to the long wait timer you need to wait through between each spin attack, it’s not like races are filled with action, it’s really about the same as a regular race. This mode would be more interesting if they dramatically reduced the spin attack wait timer for this mode only, I wish they’d do that. As it is though I usually don’t play it.

Mini Prix – A Mini Prix costs one ticket. You earn tickets through play in the modes which don’t cost tickets. This three-race championship has preset tracks, you can’t choose. It will consist of two randomly selected tracks from the ones F-Zero 99 mode chooses between followed by one final track from the ones in Pro Tracks mode (below). You get points based on your finishing position in each race and the winner is the person with the most points at the end of all three tracks. These are pretty fun.  Also, remember that you get points towards the weekly rankings from your finishes here.

Pro Tracks – This mode is the harder tracks that are not the fifth track in a circuit. It currently includes three tracks, which it will select two of to offer the players to choose between. The three tracks here are Port Town II, White Land I, and Death Wind II. Once they add the remaining three tracks Red Canyon II is sure to join this mode. This mode’s great and it would be nice if it was available more as opposed to boring Team Battle mode. These are the most interesting tracks the game regularly lets you play on.

Grand Prix – This mode costs three tickets, so you will need to play for a while to be able to play it. A timer on the main menu tells you how long it is until the next Grand Prix starts, and shows an icon for which cup it will be.  They go every two hours on weekdays and every 20 or 30 minutes on weekends.  Grand Prixes are five track championships.  As in the Mini Prix, you get points after each race, and the winner is the person with the most points after all five races.  After each race the bottom 20 people are eliminated, so getting to each next course gets more difficult. So, only the top 20 from track 4 of the circuit can challenge the final track. For the first few weeks after the game released, this mode was the Knight Cup Grand Prix, and went through the five tracks of Knight Cup, finishing with a track you can’t play in any of the other multiplayer modes, Silence. The first update added the Queen Cup to the rotation as well, going through its five tracks and finishing with White Land II.  Once the King Cup is added the third cup will finally be in the rotation.  Of course, you get a bunch of points towards the weekly rankings for doing well in Grand Prixes.

Again though, even when a cup is running only that one cup is available at a time.  You can’t choose.  And here is where the games’ design decision to lock the final track of each circuit to only ever appear as the fifth track of a Grand Prix is so frustrating, it basically means that you will almost never race these tracks!  Grand Prixes are only occasionally available, and even when they are only one of the three is available then.  It’s frustrating that some of the best tracks in the game are hidden away to very rarely be seen.  This will be a particular shame when the final King Cup track, Fire Field, makes an appearance.  It’s a really good course that deserves more play than “maybe once in a rare while if you’re good”!  On the other hand, these tracks are treated specially — instead of the usual large fan-shaped starting area, the final tracks start you at the starting grid behind the starting line, with all 20 racers lined up in their points order.  It’s pretty cool to have some races with a traditional starting grid in ranked order.

This decision, to lock what will be three of the fifteen tracks to only appear as the final track of a Grand Prix, does make those tracks feel more special but, to emphasize what is maybe this games’ largest issue, it also locks some of the most interesting tracks in the game to barely ever appear or, in the case of the Grand Prix cups not currently in the rotation, to be totally unavailable in multiplayer. I understand why only one cup is available at a time here since the mode modes you offer the greater the likeliness that games won’t fill with 99 racers, but the final tracks really should have versions in the regular modes too. I get the idea of making them special, but I’d rather have more tracks to race on all of the time, I think that would be better.

Anyway, though, that’s the modes in F-Zero 99. This game is really really amazing and addictive and I’m looking forward to its future updates. Again I really hope that they don’t stop with the 15 tracks from the original game and also add the courses from BS F-Zero Grand Prix, that would be amazing…


Overall, I love F-Zero 99.  I’d love to see more content and for them to rethink the “the fifth track of each circuit cannot be played outside of its Grand Prix” decision, but other than this this game is really, really good, very addictive stuff.  I have played quite a few hours of this game, and am over level 30 now, and will certainly continue playing.  F-Zero 99 is an amazing game with great controls, very good, nostalgic graphics, and fantastic gameplay with depth and challenge.  The mechanics are well thought through, the tracks are great, there’s a lot to unlock, and so much more!  There is a good amount of variety here, too, particularly when you’re not playing Mute City 99 instead of F-Zero 99… heh.  This game may be one of the reasons why I don’t play games that actually end anywhere near as often as I probably should, but when something this great comes along, a game this fun and in a genre and series I love this much, I can’t not play it, and you shouldn’t either.  Play F-Zero 99 now, it’s incredible.  This game gets an A grade for sure, and it’s close to an A+; whether it ends up that high somewhat depends on how future content updates for the game go.


Note: I edited this article on 10/4 to correct a few errors, most notably about whether the earlier circuits would continue to appear after the next one was published — I thought the Knight League was entirely gone for a while, but if it was it was very brief, both cups are in rotation now.  Otherwise the main changes were to add some needed detail, particularly about the way the rank-out system works and about the unlockables and level systems and such.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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