you've got boost power!

f-zero 99 might be my game of the year

when f-zero 99 got announced i saw a lot of people really upset about it. part of that is expectations it couldn't live up to, a certain birdman leaked that there would be a new f-zero game in the direct a couple of days early, and speculation was abuzz with everyone's wildest hoeps and dreams for a new game. when it ended up being an online-only game that reused its assets from the original snes title, i get how that would be a bit of a bummer. but i also saw a lot of people taking this as a sign that nintendo "didn't care" about f-zero, that this was just put out on the cheap to fill out the switch online roster, that it wasn't a "real f-zero game." i saw a lot of comparisons to, of all games, metroid prime federation force.

that strikes me as really unfair to f-zero 99. after sinking about a dozen hours into this game over the past week or so, i can confidently say that the spirit of f-zero is alive and well. and not only that, this game is kind of an incredible accomplishment in its own right.

youtube thumbnail for a reaction video to f-zero 99. it says 'no...' with a white guy looking disappointed.
if i never have to see another youtube thumbnail that looks like this i would be so happy.

recently i was linked a great video by raycevick called "I Love Racing Games, They Suck!". the video is essentially a summary of the racing game genre as it stands in 2023, and that it's pretty damn sad. the simulation games aren't good simulations and nobody's making anything decent that isn't a simulation. and the few good games that are out there are horrifically monetized. even among indies, normally the saviors of mistreated genres, there's a dearth of great racing experiences, especially ones that push the boundaries of game mechanics. every other genre of video game is innovating, incorporating mechanics from different genres or riffing on existing ones, meanwhile racing games have gotten as far as "what if we had an open world" and that's about it. this extends to aesthetics too: when need for speed unbound released earlier this year, some die-hard racing fans were incredibly put off by its graffiti inspired art direction and visual effects, and the developers were houdned with requests to remove or change them. which is absolutely baffling to me because they're fucking sick as hell.

artwork from need for speed unbound showing the graffiti effects
racing game fans see a game with an art style and it activates their fight or flight.

what i'm getting at is that the racing genre has been in need of a high profile breath of fresh air. something that can revitalize this genre, something that takes the same creative spirit that other game genres have enjoyed and applies it to racing. a freebie game from the nintendo switch online service is not the most likely place for this, and who knows if this will actually lead to any more creative and fun racing games in the future, but i can say with confidence that f-zero 99 is not only the best racing game i've played in a good long while, that it's not only a genre mashup that works so well you wouldn't even notice it was riffing on existing battle royales, but it's also just one of my favorite multiplayer games of all time.

f-zero 99 is, on its face, a pretty faithful remake of the snes original. the courses are all taken directly from the first game, as are the vehicles, music, and basic graphics. while there have been some updates, with everything running at a silky smooth 60 frames per second with the benefits of using polygons over mode 7, it seems to be basically one to one. if they had just crammed 99 players onto those tracks with those mechanics, this game would be nothing special. even if they had gone the super mario 35 route and had everyone as an invisible ghost competing in time attack, it would've been kinda neat (i do love me some trackmania) but ultimately not much to write home about. but every addition and modification they make to the gameplay here is incredibly well thought out.

the most obvious new additions are super sparks and the skyway. this is, in essence, a comeback mechanic. when two cars collide, it drops some sparks on the ground. collecting these sparks fills up a meter underneath your power bar, and once it's full you can boost up to an upper path on top of the level called the skyway. this of course has the benefit of putting you above the crowded race track and its damaging walls, as well as providing you speed boosts while you're up there. since these show up when vehicles bump into each other, you're natually going to gain them more often the further you are back in the pack, and there will also occasionally spawn a large gold npc car that gives you a whole bunch of sparks if you run into it.

the skyway from f-zero 99
the skyway is both an ingenius solution to a problem inherent to this style of game and an awesome mechanic on its own.

the skyway is one of f-zero 99's two answers to the problem everyone would immediately think of when the idea of this game is brought up: won't that just be totally congested and horrible? the game addresses this at the start of the race by creating new wide-open starting areas that let players slowly seperate out before throwing everyone onto the track proper. the skyway then serves as the solution in the mid and late game: while the track is more congested, more sparks will drop since there's more collisions, and more people boosting up to the skyway not only lets players bypass traffic but also lets some of the players cut ahead, opening up the track more even once everyone's back to ground level.

despite being ostensibly a comeback mechanic, there's skill in how you use your "super boost" as well. the skyway's path doesn't follow the course's one to one, sometimes cutting over gaps in the road or turning in a different way. the game will never drop you on top of a turn you're not prepared for, and of course won't drop you off the track, so some boosts will last slightly longer than others while the game waits for an opportunity to place you back on the ground. a skilled player can therefore time out when exactly they use their boost to maximize their time riding the upper path. it can also be saved for when you're in a trickier situation: bypassing annoying hazards like the magnet walls in port town II, or just allowing you to sprint full speed at a wall, then boost up to the higher path when you're about to hit it to make that turn without losing speed.

the new mechanics aren't just for players in the middle of the pack though. while you're running first, additional grey and red npc cars will spawn. the grey cars are essentially bumpers, colliding with them will send you flying back in the direction you came from, so they serve as additional hazards. the red cars, which they're often paired with, explode on contact, draining your power bar. (for the unaware, the power bar is f-zero's core mechanic. it serves as both your life bar and your boost meter, and the series is all about balancing the risk reward of boosting but not exploding).

the npc gold, red, and grey cars, along with all the other players on the track in general, make for a much more dynamic gameplay experience than one would expect. you can race on the same course 10 times and have different strategic decisions to make every single time. this makes f-zero 99 not just a racing game about track knowledge and mastery of the controls (though those are of course still incredibly important skills) but knowing how to adapt on the fly and change your racing lines based on the context you're in, even moreso than a traditional racer. it's frantic but incredibly satisfying when you're able to navigate these obstacles to a high placing finish.

adding to this is the other most noticable mechanic not seen in the snes game: spinning and kos. your car has an attack: a quick spin that knocks opponents into walls and each other, that has a brief cooldown. this was not a mechanic that appeared in the original snes game, but rather was ported over from f-zero x and gx, the fan favorite installments on the n64 and gamecube. knocking out an opponent isn't just for eliminating an obstacle though, as getting a ko fully refills your power bar, and even non-lethal collisions grant you some super sparks. this opens up even more unique styles of play: do you focus on bobbing and weaving through traffic and racing cleanly, or do you go on the offensive, aiming for kos to keep your power bar topped up for more frequent boosting?

knocking out a player in this game really is just the most satisfying feeling in the world, especially since you know that was a real other person. it's for that reason that i think f-zero 99, more than any other game in the series, really delivers on the promise of f-zero as a "death race". this was the big selling point of f-zero x on the n64, aiming not just to win the race but destroy your opponents along the way, and the game incentivized this with the power bar refund mechanic. adding this element to the original game not only delivers on that in an even more satisfying way due to the multiplayer battle royale nature of the races, but also shows that f-zero 99 isn't just a pointless retread of an old snes launch title: it's a new sequel in the f-zero series in its own right, and builds upon the mechanics of the 3d titles just as much as the first game.

screenshot from f-zero x showing the death race mode
do you think the "(number left)" of people you need to kill in f-zero x inspired the save messages in undertale's genocide route. i mean probably not but it would be funny.

speaking of the battle royale format in general, i think out of all of the "99" type games nintendo has released, f-zero is the most uniquely suited for the format. like the previously most popular title, tetris 99, f-zero has a very high skill ceiling, and the best racers are going to come out in first place much more often than not due to just playing better. however, especially with the additions of mechanics like super sparks, there's just enough to keep average players coming back: you could play basically the same and get 80th in one race but 50th in another just by the natural variance of that many cars on the track, and that improvement is intoxicating. adding to this is the frankly ingenious "rivals" system, where at the beginning of a race you're assigned 4 players of roughly your skill level. at the race's end, you're shown how many of your rivals you were able to beat, which leads to even more satisfaction even if you don't finish in the upper places of the race overall: you still beat 2 or 3 people who were just as good as you, and that allows you to rank up and unlock new cosmetic options. it's so perfectly engineered to get you to say "okay, just one more race", both after you do well ("i gotta see how much better i can do now!") and when you do poorly ("i know i can do better than that!").

the grand prix mode is equally enthralling. this mode requires an entry of "tickets" earned from completing standard races, and is available only at certain times, so there's an inherent buy-in, adding some stakes for players to play their best. the mode is set up a bit like fall guys, with a series of races that elminate the bottom cut of players each time, culminating in a super tense 20-player race on the course "silence" that's set up just like the races in f-zero x. having an additional mode like this as a showcase of players' skills is such a great addition. even completing one of these grand prixs is a pretty big accomplishment, and taking first place is a true challenge few players will ever be able to conquer. but striving to reach those heights drives you to improve your racing, and keep coming back to the game race after race. it really shows that the developers really understood what makes battle royales as a genre appealing, and there's such great satisfaction in taking down so many actual other players at once in either a single race or a grand prix gauntlet.

remember when i was talking about how racing games don't have art styles any more? i want to talk about this game's. because even though it just looks like the snes game, it's also very well done in a lot of subtle ways. i know a lot of fans of the series really wanted to see a new fully 3d game, something that brings the f-zero series fully into the next generation. for what this game is though, i think this is actually the perfect style. like i mentioned earlier the game does make use of proper 3d in some very tastefully applied ways, such as dynamically zooming the camera in and out, and it really makes the 2d artwork pop even more in a way. it honestly kind of reminds me of the "hd 2d" style of games like octopath traveler: while it's far less dramatic than the effects at play in that game, it has a similar sensation of taking old school pixel art and placing it in a more modern feeling enviornment to create a unique feeling art style (which is pretty impressive considering how many of this game's assets are reused). plus, not only is the snes game what the broadest audience will associate with f-zero (and keeping a broad audience is pretty important when you need 99 players looking for a game at once to run anything) it also allows the game to run at a silky smooth framerate even with a shitton of online players all moving at super high speeds.

frame rate is at its most important in racing games, because the sense of speed is so crucial to selling the fantasy of racing. that's especially true in f-zero, famous for being absolutely balls to the wall with its speed. while the enviornments in f-zero 99 don't whiz by at quite the speeds of a game like gx, the raw number of players creates a sensation of speed just as captivating. especially when you're in the thick of the pack, trading paint with other players in a narrow hallay or at the very start when everyone launches off from the starting line on a wide open platform, it really sells the fantasy of a high speed race to the death. i'm not convinced you could do that with full hd 3d models on the nintendo switch, at least not with the complete smoothness of the controls and visuals that f-zero 99 boasts. this is helped by some truly fantastic netcode that, even with this many players, lacks any noticable choppiness. when you're in the dead heat of a race, trying to make your move to finish in a higher place, boosting with all you've got left while dodging and weaving through traffic as cars explode around you, while that classic soundtrack amps you up, it's truly electrifying, and that feeling is what makes this game so special to me.

screenshot showing the guy from the f-zero manual
it's such a small thing but i love the use of the goofy old artwork from the snes game's manual in the menus. who is this man. i love him.

a couple years back, a couple nintendo developers famously said that they wouldn't make another f-zero game unless they had a "good idea" for one. while that got a lot of consternation from fans, i honestly have to agree. f-zero gx is kind of the perfect version of itself. beyond just adding new tracks and such i don't really know what you do to improve that game that doesn't just make it something different. while that doesn't really excuse that game not getting a port or rerelease in the last 20 years, it makes me totally understand why this is the direction they went with the next f-zero title. i've got a couple gripes with it (it's a liiiiittle light on courses and vehicles at the moment, and being able to host private lobbies or play bot matches on demand would be fantastic features), but all things considered, even though this was not at all what i imagined from a new f-zero title, i couldn't be more happy with it. if you haven't yet, i implore you to give this game a shot. it's free if you've got switch online, and if you don't, grabbing a couple months is pretty cheap and lets you play the pokemon trading card game for game boy color so really it would be worth it for that alone.

unfortunately it doesn't have the f-zero x annoucner though, so until they add him in a patch this game can't be my game of the year. sorry nintendo i don't make the rules. i need to hear "YEAH! THE FINAL LAP!" in a new game.