Why is it that F-Zero 99 destroys everything I know about videogames?
So… F-Zero, right? Super Smash Bros. seemingly accidentally made it a permanent member of the Nintendo Pantheon™, but F-Zero has quietly been a featured player since the launch of the Super Nintendo. We have Mario spearheading the “goofy” world of kart racing, and we have Captain Falcon showcasing technical, real racing. Of course, “real” is in heavy quotes here, as F-Zero is based in a future universe where aliens pilot cars that do not even have wheels. Once we are past the aesthetics, though, F-Zero has always traded the silliness of launching turtle shells at your rivals for precise racing and learning to properly manage turns. And, just to keep things interesting, F-Zero racers are highly destructible, so if you smack those sides a little too often, you are going to explode. Sorry, Pico, but you gotta go sometime.
As a flagship franchise, F-Zero has been promoted in the Nintendo propaganda rags since its inception. When F-Zero first crossed its starting line, it was also in the funny papers with Howard & Nester, and Nester learning the hard way just how white-knuckle fast F-Zero could be. From then on, every F-Zero release was touted as the speediest thing to ever hit a Nintendo console. Maybe it was a way to show off new hardware, or maybe it was some residual animosity toward Blast Processing. Whatever the origin, we were always told (loudly, as one must play it loud) that F-Zero was the fastest game from here to Big Blue. Oh! And deadly! Nester exploded on his maiden voyage, and every F-Zero was a confirmed “death race”. F-Zero X even had a literal death race mode! This was very different from the likes of Super Mario Bros. where every Mario death was considered wholly non-canon. In F-Zero, when Octoman died during a race, and did not return for the sequel, it was implied that was it. Couple this with racers like Deathborn and Black Shadow, and F-Zero has a higher level of background violence than Mortal Kombat. Johnny Cage was revived after his death by centaur. Super Arrow’s family (Mrs. Arrow [I’m not even kidding]) still weeps over his grave.
But, for my money, all the hype over F-Zero was just… hype. Do the F-Zero games offer a racing experience with breakneck speed? Of course. But can I get an extremely similar feeling in the likes of any other racing game on the planet? Yep. Let’s face facts: our primitive 21st Century brains can only absorb so much “fake speed”, so there is an upper limit to how fast a game can go before it is all a blur. We cannot have a “technical” racing game if the speed is exaggerated over a player’s ability to react. And the whole death race thing would be a whole lot more convincing if there were about 10,000 percent more interaction with opponents. Yes, you inevitably bump into a racer or two on your way to the checkered flag, but even the later F-Zero games limit the number of pilots that crowd around you at any given time. And, again, this is something that makes sense: a jammed track makes for an annoying race, and nobody wants to lose that trophy because a bot randomly appeared on your nine at the wrong time.
F-Zero has always been all sizzle and no steak. It was never a bad experience, just not what was advertised. I’m never going to make the Mona Lisa with Mario Paint, and I’m never going to experience high-octane, faster-than-I-can-comprehend racing with F-Zero. C’est la vie.
Until F-Zero 99. F-Zero 99 is everything I always wanted.
In the grand tradition of Super Mario Bros 35 or that thing with Tetris I keep hearing about, F-Zero 99 is a “retro” release of a game with a new king-of-the-hill emphasis. This is the SNES F-Zero all over again, however, instead of competing against a collection of “bot” racers, you are one of 99 racers zooming around Red Canyon. And, while the concept of progressing along “old” tracks while 98 rivals are all muscling for position sounds overwhelming, it works surprisingly well. Sure, there is some traffic congestion here and there, but you can use your spin attack (compliments of F-Zero GX) to carve out some elbow room. And once you have a place to yourself, it is all about technical racing… and collecting little pac-man dots. Look, I have no idea where these pickups originated, but if you get enough of them, you get to cruise down a heavenly inside track above it all. These shortcuts are not 100% paths to victory (they help, but they are not win buttons), though they do provide significant breathing room for about a third of a track. And that is important, as you need a little time to breathe when your opponents are actively trying to knock you into oblivion. Other than those brief, dot-based reprieves, it is all white-knuckle racing, all the time. Pray you survive.
Combine all of this, and F-Zero 99 is exactly the “death race of the future” that the F-Zero franchise always promised to deliver.
This is the first time that F-Zero has truly captured the feeling it advertised. But if you take a step back, you realize that not only was this concept first floated in 1990, the majority of this game is straight out of 33 years ago, too. The tracks are just as limited as on the SNES cartridge (White Land I and White Land II? I am on the edge of my seat). Music is exactly the same. Stickers and paintjobs do not hide how we are limited to four pilots/”cars”. And, while 99 players and all these moving parts would be impossible on the original hardware (for one thing, the Super Nintendo could only handle so many multitaps), the graphics do look remarkably faithful to the 16-bit original. There was no attempt to make this “HD”, or even implement models from the most recent “next gen” F-Zero game (arcade or Gamecube, both games will be old enough to drink next year). Hopping from the Switch Super Nintendo Virtual Console version of F-Zero over to F-Zero 99 does not in any way look like you are moving between games that are separated by three decades. There is a little less blur on the new version? I guess? This game all about the future is firmly rooted in a past when the number one male specimen on television was Roy Biggins.
And… none of that matters.
This is F-Zero. This is the most interesting this franchise has been since its inception. It is not only thrilling, but every piece of F-Zero is working perfectly in tandem. Your car’s “body type” matters to your playstyle, and if you try to “get rough” with Dr. Stewart at the helm, you will explode. The “boost requires health” system introduced in F-Zero X (a significant change from OG F-Zero) means speed equals life. Whereas many an F-Zero game could see a racer winning without once hitting a pitstop for an energy refill, dodging the service stations here will mean you finish in rank 98 of 99 (assuming you don’t explode). Every last core piece of F-Zero is working in perfect harmony here, complete with a Grand Prix where rankings actually matter beyond being in the top 3. F-Zero is here, it is complete in every way, and it is an absolute blast to play.
And it is all on a “free” downloadable title featuring assets that are old enough to have opinions on New Kids on the Block.
I have learned that AAA gaming is dead. Long live whatever the heck happened here.
SBC #17 Captain Falcon & F-Zero 99
Captain Falcon in Super Smash Bros Ultimate
- He any Good? I am going to be brave and say something controversial: the Falcon Punch is a graduated smash-attack, and it is a waste of a neutral special. Please stop doing it, Captain Falcon. Find a new catchphrase. Other than that, speedy boy has some excellent attacks that dive kick diagonally or dive kick horizontally or dive throw up. … Need to work on the phrasing of that one. I personally love Captain Falcon’s full moveset, and he does not feel out of control like some of his speedier rivals.
- That final smash work? This is the ur sit-here-and-watch Final Smash, and I hate it for that. But there is merit in being able to say “Link died when he got hit by a car.”
- The background work? Big Blue is the F-Zero stage where racers zoom along on a 2-D plane. Probably should have used the “classic graphics” Mute City for this article, but I am tired of looking at SNES sprites at this point. Big Blue is sometimes difficult to track with its continually moving vehicles, and watching a valuable item sail off into the sunset is always demoralizing. But you can also watch a Mewtwo touch the track and be ushered into oblivion, so it all balances out.
- Classic Mode: Up Close and Personal is all about Captain Falcon fighting the brawlers of Ultimate (including Mii Brawler, natch). Roy is the only sword boy allowed in this tournament (probably on account of rival fire powers), and Ryu curiously winds up as the opponent with the greatest range (thanks to that fireball). Little Mac is the most obvious rival character, and Giga Bowser is the finale. Min Min would have probably snuck in there if she wasn’t DLC.
- First Appearance: I remember the good captain being faster… Maybe I am thinking of Melee? Whatever! Those N64 graphics for “clothes modeling” are really something, and Falcon without his dashing moves feels downright wrong. A flying “forward Falcon Punch” is a sin against the circuit.
- Smash Trivia: In the original Super Smash Bros. for N64, there are more bounty hunters on the roster than women. This kind of thinking has been carried forward to the modern day, where Super Smash Bros. Ultimate somehow has more playable dog-people than women of color. What the heck, Nintendo?
- Amiibo Corner: This is a weird pose, right? Captain Falcon looks like he is initiating a spinning bird kick or playing soccer. He cannot actually do either of those things in Smash Bros. (with items turned off). Much though I hate to admit it, the fact that they ignored an opportunity for a Falcon Punch statue is depressing.
- Does Smash Bros Remember Today’s Game? Captain Falcon is the only F-Zero representative playable in Smash. Samurai Goroh is the only assist trophy. Captain Falcon’s outfit is the only Mii Costume. The only sign that F-Zero ever got off the SNES is the Port Town Aero Dive, and even that someone could mistake for an “HD Remake” of an OG F-Zero Track. So even though F-Zero 99 did not exist until after the release of the final Ultimate DLC, F-Zero looks to be heavily represented here.
Captain Falcon in F-Zero 99
- System: Nintendo Switch “Nintendo Switch Online” exclusive. Get it while it’s still available!
- Number of players: Less than 100, but greater than 98.
- Say something mean: There is no reason they could not provide “character art” from latter games to offer the illusion that Bio Rex or Zoda are piloting other crafts. Come on, Nintendo, you made a mint off of Peach Wearing a New Hat on that mobile Mario Kart.
- Favorite Vehicle: Pico’s Wild Goose is my car of choice. I will admit that I need its extra help on cornering, and I really need that ability to not detonate instantly when I start bumping around the track. I am not the most technical racer on the F-Zero circuit…
- Favorite Track: Mute City III is very similar to Mute City I (which gets picked by players a lot), but there are a lot more excuses for players to explode. So I am down with that. I like watching rivals detonate, and I will not apologize for that.
- So, did you beat it: I have been in first place, but I have yet to finish in first place. I think I missed the launch window of when my meager racing skills would have gotten me a victory out of the gate, and now I have to compete against the best of the best on a daily basis. I can finish in the top ten pretty often, though!
- Did you know? The majority of art across the menus of F-Zero 99 is from the American version of the SNES manual. However, there is unique, new art for Mr. Zero (the announcer) in a few places. Glad to see that the most forgettable character in the franchise gets new art over, say, Pico.
- Would I play again: The other benefit of these “download titles” is that, as long as they are running, they are very easy to play for three minutes between other games. And I have just the right kind of ADD that makes that happen often, so I will inevitably be playing F-Zero 99 again.
What’s Next? We are going to take a look at a goddess, and a fortress that god has forsaken. Please look forward to it!