What do you get when you take the first entry in one of Nintendo's most overlooked franchises and cram it with battle royale mechanics after nearly 20 years of dormancy? You might expect a shambling Frankenstein's monster of a game held together by nostalgia-baiting stagnancy. Instead, F-Zero 99 is a clever re-imagining that injects new life into a stone-cold classic while dodging many of the pitfalls found in Nintendo's other battle royale remixes like Mario 35 or PAC-MAN 99.

F-Zero is such an important–and impressive–game thanks in no small part to its presentation. As a launch game for the SNES, its vibey, sci-fi Mode 7 graphics helped plant Nintendo's flag in the 16-bit era as a graphical powerhouse. But F-Zero's more than just a tech demo; it's a high-adrenaline, white-knuckle racing game with some serious teeth. F-Zero 99 takes care to pay its respect to the original's tough-as-nails legacy while giving it new mechanics, to help it fit even better within the '-99' formula. After all, F-Zero has always been about speed and survival.

F-Zero 99 Review - Screenshot 1 of
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

First, boosting has been completely reworked. Instead of getting one big speed boost per lap, you now have to dip into your energy bar in order to zoom ahead of the pack. That change brings some extra push-and-pull between simply surviving and actually winning that rewards skillful play and knowledge of each track. For example, if you're low on energy, you could conserve your power as you zip around the rough, slowdown-inducing corners on Mute City or boost through the rough patch and hope you don't bump into anyone during the home stretch to the pit area.

Marrying this new system with the familiar gameplay is an example of how F-Zero 99 cleverly streamlines and modernizes the original. It's a tactful change that makes sense in the context of the original game and adds a new layer of depth without overcomplicating what already works.

99 also introduces a Spin Attack, which lets you bump into other players with a chance to deal some extra damage. If you happen to KO another pilot (with or without the Spin Attack), your energy meter increases, meaning you have more to allocate to boosting without worrying about depleting your energy too quickly.

There are significantly more racers on the track during a normal race compared to the original. As its name suggests, there are 98 other competitors on the track, and, like in the original, there are extra NPC cars that function as obstacles for you to avoid. Beefing up the racer count all the way up to 99 is a cool change and the spin is necessary to make such a chaotic traffic jam work, considering how easy it already was to get fender bent into oblivion in the 26th century.

F-Zero 99 Review - Screenshot 1 of
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Bumping into other people and NPCs isn't just a consequence of F-Zero 99's congested raceways, either. Instead, it's been worked into a brand-new mechanic. Hitting other vehicles generates Super Sparks, which anyone riding behind the clash can pick up. There are even special golden NPCs that drop extra Super Sparks when you ram them, creating an extra point of conflict and upping the ante on getting those sweet sparks.

Picking up Super Sparks fills a separate meter. Once filled, hitting boost with 'A' ascends you to the elevated Skyway. You won't just move faster on the Skyway, boost pads will appear in specific spots for you to pick up even more speed. There are also no obstacles of any kind–excluding other players–on this elevated track, meaning it's not just a tool to get ahead of the competition. It's also a great Hail Mary that you can use to safely escort yourself across the finish line in case your energy's running so low that you can't risk running into other pilots.

The Skyway adds yet another point for metagaming and balancing risk and reward. In a game where one bump, error, or boost can send you back 20 places, it's a great trump card. Timing your ascension to the elevated track correctly can also let you skip over certain challenging parts of a track. Because the skyway also creates shortcuts over sections of non-track below, it won't return you to the ground until you're back over the track. That means that you can actually extend your boost time if you get the timing right, adding a welcome little skill check.

On top of competing for first place, you'll also be competing with four other races. These Rivals are decided upon based on your individual match history and in-game rank and outplacing even one of them will net you a few points to go towards ranking up. Beating none of them will cost you, though. This system accommodates F-Zero 99's challenging nature well and adds an opportunity to reward players who might be new to the series.

These new additions all infuse new depth and multiplayer sensibility into the previously single-player-only banger. They don't just feel at home as a part of its gameplay, though. They also look right at home in F-Zero's original art style. From the starting areas, which have been reworked to house 99 racers, to the Skyway, everything nails the game's 16-Bit Plus vibe. It even adds in cool touches like speed lines and extra flourishes to explosions and the like.

F-Zero 99 Review - Screenshot 1 of
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

The only part that doesn't fit in is F-Zero 99's new in-game user interface. It smacks of that sterile Switch-era feel with squished, sans-serif fonts and soft edges. Considering the menus in other parts of 99 are studded with art from and inspired by F-Zero's original instruction manual and dripping in neon purples and yellows, it makes no sense that the UI is this bland for any other reason than readability.

You can earn skins for each of the four available racing machines, and new options for your player card. The player card displays your Switch username, the vehicle of your choice, and has some customizable pins and backgrounds. As with the skins, pins and backgrounds are unlocked by competing in races and completing various challenges.

Competing in races is, unfortunately, F-Zero 99's greatest pain point. While it's very easy to hop into a single 99-player race, Grand Prix mode isn't always available. It unlocks on a timer and requires tickets, which you earn from competing in other races, to enter. The time-based barrier of entry is frustrating but given how long Grand Prix races can be, keeping them available at all times could prove difficult for matchmaking after the launch period. That being said, Tetris 99 makes the same mistake in its Maximus mode and takes its sweet time in matchmaking before filling out over half of the average lobby with bots. Given its relative rarity, requiring tickets on top of the time constraints adds insult to injury.

F-Zero 99 Review - Screenshot 1 of
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

In addition to Grand Prix modes, 99 cycles through other modes like Pro, which only features difficult circuits, and a team-based race. The latter splits the assembled players into two groups and tracks various stats throughout (position, number of KOs, etc.) before totting up the totals at the end of the race and awarding the win, Splatoon-style. These are nice make-goods, but it's frustrating that the original's main mode is gated behind a timer.

Thankfully, if you can play F-Zero 99, you can also play the SNES original since both are locked behind a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. So if you're itching to race in a Prix, you can revisit the original.

Conclusion

Despite its relatively unchanged look, F-Zero 99 is unexpectedly refreshing. Though it may not be the return for the franchise that fans hoped for, it's a triumphant and welcome look back at Captain Falcon's first game with a clever twist. F-Zero is simply suited for the -99 style structure in ways that Tetris, Mario, and Pac-Man aren't; it was already an elimination-style battle royale, just a small one. Adding more players doesn't just feel perfect for F-Zero, it feels natural. This isn't the definitive way to play F-Zero, but it is a brilliant take that supplements what worked so well in the original with thoughtful additions that make chasing victory utterly addictive.