Star Fox Series Retrospective Part 1: Enter Star Fox

More than any other game developer or console maker, Nintendo has come to be defined by its stable of long running franchises and iconic characters. Nintendo is responsible for many of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful video game franchises of all time, and despite some complaints about lack of innovation and new ideas, you can pretty much count on consistent quality offerings out of the major Nintendo properties. With things like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon serving as Nintendo’s front-line franchises, many of the second tier series’ are often overlooked. One of my favorite among these less frequent, less popular Nintendo properties is Star Fox. It’s been a while since the last Star Fox game, and not counting the 3DS remake of Star Fox 64 the last was released in 2006. Nintendo may have forgotten about Star Fox, but we sure haven’t, and we’d like to take you on journey through the history of the series. We’re going to take a close look at each installment and give an overview of the game, its development, and my personal experience playing it. So, let’s start where all things do, at the beginning.

Star Fox

Star Fox Title Screen

The early ’90s of gaming was defined by the original “console war” between the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo. It was during this time that the idea of 3D graphics was seeming more and more the inevitable future of the medium. Some of the earliest attempts at 3D games were things like Virtura Fighter and Daytona USA in the arcades and Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM on the PC. Though both the Genesis and Super Nintendo were technologically incapable of rendering true polygonal graphics, the push towards 3D was still sweeping the industry. Rather than wait for their next generation systems to be ready, both Sega and Nintendo were itching to jump on the 3D bandwagon immediately. Sega went the route of peripherals like the Sega CD and 32x, which increased the horsepower of the Genesis to make use of things like full motion video and polygonal graphics, but Nintendo opted for a different path.

During this time, Nintendo was working with British developer Argonaut Games to achieve 3D graphics on the Super Nintendo. After some attempts at using the existing SNES hardware, it was decided that it simply wasn’t powerful enough to render true 3D graphics. This lead to the development of the Super FX Chip, which was basically a graphics accelerator installed in the game cartridge that gave the SNES the ability to render polygonal graphics. The Super FX Chip would go on to be used in a handful of SNES games such as Yoshi’s Island and the system’s port of DOOM, but the first game to make use of it was Star Fox, released in 1993.

Star Fox Screen 1

With the Super FX Chip, Star Fox was among the first home console titles to feature true polygonal graphics. Though by today’s standards the visuals of Star Fox look beyond dated, at the time they were quite impressive. Many other games of the time, such as 3D world runner or F-Zero, used various tricks to mimic the look of 3D, but Star Fox was the real deal. It was of course very basic, with the majority of the game consisting of empty outer space environments populated only with enemy ships and asteroids, but it was an early glimpse of the future years before the Nintendo 64 or Playstation were released. Of course, as is often the case with games on the cutting edge of technology, Star Fox aged rapidly and poorly. There is really no getting around how ancient the game looks today, especially considering many of the better looking 2D games on the system are far more visually appealing from a modern standpoint.

Whereas Star Fox’s visual presentation was revolutionary for the time, the game’s design was actually deceptively classic. At its heart, Star Fox is a scrolling shoot’em up much like other games of the time like Gradius, Life Force, or R-Type. The prime difference was that rather than scrolling from left to right or bottom to top like pretty much every other space shooter of the time, Star Fox utilized the sense of depth allowed by the Super FX Chip to basically scroll forward. What this means is that the game is essentially moving through a tube, with your only movement capability being positioning on screen. While some see this as a detriment, I view it much like classic shoot’em ups; the gameplay is about dodging projectiles and obstacles while shooting enemies rather than about exploration and unrestricted movement.

Star Fox Screen 3

For as poorly as the visuals have aged, the game is still quite enjoyable to play. It’s not exactly the best space shooter on the system, and the lack of analog control is certainly not ideal, but it’s still good fun. The game has a decent array of enemy types and the bosses offer a good deal of variety to the gameplay. The game is very short, being completable in under an hour, but it does have three different paths through the game, which was interesting for the time. Rather than have three different difficulty settings which add more enemies or tweak damage values, the game has three different sets of unique levels which serve as the difficulty settings. It’s just a shame the majority of levels in the game take place in space and don’t look much different visually.

One of the more interesting aspects of Star Fox is team Star Fox itself. Consisting of four pilots, each a different anthropomorphic animal, their back and forth chatter during missions gives the game some personality. Sure, they each represent fairly standard archetypes, with Fox as the stalwart team leader, Falco as the friendly rival, Slippy as the naïve new guy, and Peppy as the wise old timer, but it works well in this type of game. The story itself has the team being contracted by the Cornerian army, led by General Pepper, to combat Andross and his armies which are invading the Lylat system. There isn’t much actual in game story, with the manual presenting the majority of the plot, but the mission briefings from Pepper and the in-mission dialogue does serve to give some substance to the world.

Star Fox Screen 2

Overall Star Fox is an interesting piece of history, but certainly not a timeless game. There is really no getting around how bad it looks compared not only to other games in the series, but also less revolutionary games of the era, but that really is the price to be paid for innovating. Despite it’s myriad rough edges, I actually found myself enjoying my time playing it over 20 years after release. It’s not the best game in the series, and it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the best 2D shooters on the SNES, but the gameplay is solid enough to enjoy even today if you look past its shortcomings.

Star Fox 2

starfox2-a

After Star Fox enjoyed critical and commercial success, Nintendo unsurprisingly turned their attention towards a sequel. Set for release in 1995, Star Fox 2 was to be a direct follow up to the original, with Andross once again waging war on the Lylat System. However, the game would never see the light of day despite basically being completely finished. The only reason ever given for the game’s cancellation was that Nintendo wanted to focus their 3D efforts on the impending Nintendo 64 and leave the less impressive 3D of SNES and Super FX Chip behind. Obviously, this was a very disappointing turn of events for fans, especially considering the leaps the game appeared to me making.

The game was set to feature many impressive additions, such as being able to play as other characters, a tactical map view that added some light strategy elements to the game, sequences of full 360 degree movement, and battles with a rival team called Star Wolf. Many of these features would go on to be implemented in future games, but obviously that wasn’t known at the time. Star Fox 2 has become one of those almost mythical games, with fan translated ROMs and gameplay videos popping up all over the internet in the years since. It’s a shame Star Fox 2 never saw the light of day, but what was to come would certainly dull the pain fans were feeling.

Check back next week for part 2 as the series moves onto the next generation and reaches impressive new heights.