== Nixon Computer ==

Thoughts on 'F-Zero 99'

video games f-zero switch nintendo

Come get your slop

Every few months, Nintendo releases video presentations containing new information about titles coming soon to their current video game platform(s). During these aptly named Nintendo Directs, each of the company’s loyal fans holds out a grubby hand hoping it will be filled with the Product of their Dreams. The Product, of course, is a new entry in whichever venerated Nintendo franchise happens to be their favorite. If, during the course of the Direct, Nintendo attempts to instead show them a trailer for a farming sim or niche Japanese title, they will of course be met with jeers and Twitch emotes expressing boredom or disgust. This is obviously totally justified. Many of these fans have had to wait as many as four or five years for Product to return, so their scorn should be expected.

But there is another outcome that can incur even greater wrath from such fans than not getting Product, which is to get Product but Weird. When Nintendo has the gall to announce something like Pikmin Bloom or Metroid Prime: Federation Force, they are truly asking for it from their legion of well-adjusted adult fans. Grown men will take to reddit and rage righteously about how such games are “worse than nothing!” or “a slap in the face” and that the company has “betrayed them” and “this confirms the franchise is dead.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not running defense for Nintendo here. They suck shit in many ways, but their dork ass fans do too. Both things can be true.

Anyway, those of us in the F-Zero community (such as it is) have long since given up on the franchise ever getting a new entry. The series of futuristic racers has not seemed like a priority for Nintendo in years. F-Zero GP Legend for Game Boy Advance was the last internationally-released F-Zero game, and it launched in Japan in 2003. The followup F-Zero Climax was released in 2004 in Japan only, and the franchise hasn’t seen a new entry since. Bigwigs at Nintendo have expressed bewilderment at the notion that fans would want another game and have suggested that Mario Kart is enough for the racing side of Nintendo’s portfolio. It has always seemed safe to assume that Nintendo was satisfied to keep the IP firmly in the rearview mirror as something only to trot out for their emulation products and services.

Or at least that was true on September 13th, 2023.

It happened to me

On September 14th, 2023, I dutifully joined the folks I just spent a few paragraphs disparaging and tuned into the day’s Nintendo Direct. See, a leaker who had accurately predicted some games from the previous Direct had strongly hinted that F-Zero was due to finally return. Over the years, I had learned to immediately disregard any Direct rumors involving F-Zero as obvious bunk, but the fact that he was right last time got me to at least open the stream. Then the first couple trailers aligned perfectly with what he had leaked. I couldn’t help but feel it was finally my turn to hit the jackpot on the Product slot machine.

What Nintendo announced, of course, was F-Zero 99, a new battle royale, 99-player racing game exclusive to their Nintendo Switch Online service. No fewer than six of my friends texted me right as the trailer aired. Aren’t you excited? Of course I was. F-Zero was one of my favorite series growing up, and I had spent nearly two decades waiting for a new one. I had traveled the country in search of its lone arcade entry. At long last, my yearning for Product had come to some sort of end.

But my Product was also Weird. It was subscription-only and multiplayer-only. It was a (pseudo) Mode 7 game being released in 2023 for some reason. It was not the kind of boxed home video game that I had grown up with and that the series had always been. I should’ve trusted Miyamoto when he said they weren’t going to bring the franchise back unless they could come up with something novel to do with it. And even setting that aside, I suppose it’s no secret that gaming has changed a lot since 2003.

In spite of my concerns, there was no doubt I was going to download and try the game.

Death Race

When you launch F-Zero 99, you must go through a few rounds of tutorials before the game releases you to the online wild. Having strong familiarity with the SNES original, I cruised through that and was awarded my freedom to begin playing. But first, I took at look at my options, profile, and things of that nature.

I was immediately struck by the clean menus, which are littered with art from the comic included with the original game and which blast a nice arrangement of its title music. It’s a game whose presentation seems to have some reverence for the 16-bit title, which I feel is often overshadowed by its successors because of its proto-3D rendering style that makes it look quite dated these days (and that forces all of its tracks to be flat). I’ve always thought there was a beauty of concept present in the game that the SNES just wasn’t quite capable of rendering. Maybe if it had been able to, Captain Falcon could’ve been the SNES mascot he was envisioned to be. By making the comic book art more present in the actual software, I hope players are more able to fill in the gaps of what the world of F-Zero should look like.

But the game is about racing, so once I was satisfied with my settings, I jumped in. In my first two races, I “crashed out” and did not finish. Humbling for someone who considers himself a series veteran.

That’s the thing about F-Zero, though. You can fucking die. There are no Lakitus from Mario Kart or rewinds from Forza to save you. As Ivan Drago would say, if you die, you die. Get knocked around too much or run into walls too much and your shit will explode and you will be disqualified. In F-Zero X, Nintendo implemented the most compelling mechanic of the series, which is that your vehicle’s health bar and boost meter are one and the same. To go fast, you gotta sacrifice your life force. They’ve brought this mechanic back into the SNES era with F-Zero 99, and now with opponents that are more likely to run into you on purpose in your moment of weakness, since killing you will refill their health/boost in its entirety and permanently increase its maximum value.

And this indeed is how Nintendo managed to deploy the dormant IP in an interesting way. By going back to the past in search of a series in which you can actually straight up kill your opponents, they found the right one to use for their first first-party, real-time battle royale game. Sure, the ultimate goal is to win a race, but the constant risk of total annihilation raises the stakes compared to something like Mario Kart. Meanwhile, the simple environments of the SNES original make for a smooth online experience for 99 players. I haven’t run into a single hitch or disconnect in hours of gameplay – hardly a guarantee with a Nintendo game.

Oh, and by the way, on my third race, I beat all 98 other pilots and secured my first place crown. I unlocked a cool skin for my machine for my trouble. I was back. We are back.

See you again

So far, I’ve enjoyed my Weird Product. In fact, I think quite highly of it. Based on the impressions I’ve seen online, I think other people are enjoying it too.

Frankly, this is probably the best way to bring back a franchise that has been dormant longer than some legal adults have been alive. Sure, some younger fans may turn their noses up at the dated graphics and flat tracks. Mario Kart has anti-grav tracks with cool loops! F-Zero simply can’t match that. But it is free after all, and surely some curious kids out there wonder what the hell Captain Falcon was getting up to all those years ago when he was actually in his own games.

Some number of those new players will become new fans. Perhaps if they can come up with some way to play F-Zero GX, they’ll be as amazed as I was when I first played it all those many, many years ago. As amazed as I still am when I boot it up from time to time on my groaning GameCube with its dead system clock battery.

Yes, Nintendo would’ve been fools to attempt to improve on the nigh unimprovable without offering something like this to get some folks to buy in. They could make a great new F-Zero game by merging the perfect mechanics of GX with the metal soundtrack and comic book aesthetic of X, yes. Maybe one day they will. Until then, I hope y’all will join me back in the F-Zero world of 1990. The tracks, in both senses of the word, are unimpeachable. I think you’ll have a good time, and if you don’t, hit me up. I bet I can help you get better.