Star Fox Series Retrospective Part 2: Lylat Wars

In part 1 of this journey back through the history of Star Fox we took a look at the first game in the series and the sequel that never was. The cancellation of Star Fox 2 so far into development is one of those game cancellations that was hard to accept for fans. By the time Star Fox 2 was canceled, the Nintendo 64 was well into development, and fans could only hope the series would live on in the next generation. Luckily it would, and after the Nintendo 64 suffered some delays getting to market, it finally made it to store shelves in late 1996.

With the launch lineup for the Nintendo 64 consisting only of two games, one of which being the outstanding Super Mario 64, early adopters were craving any new releases as we entered 1997. By mid 1997 there had been a decent stream of releases since launch, including Wave Race 64 and Mario Kart 64, but there were still a relatively small number of games available for the system. On July 1st 1997, just over four years after Star Fox came out and about two years after Star Fox 2 was canceled, the second official release in the Star Fox series was finally available, known as Star Fox 64.

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Though many of the core ideas originally intended for Star Fox 2 were implemented in Star Fox 64, it was in fact an entirely different game. One of the biggest differences between what Star Fox 2 would have been and what Star Fox 64 ended up being was that it wasn’t a sequel in a story sense. Star Fox 64 is an expanded retelling of the original game rather than the direct follow up that Star Fox 2 was set to be. Star Fox 64 presents Andross’ attack on the Lylat System as an unexpected turn of events, and certainly not the second time it had happened. The Lylat System itself is also a bit different than it was in the original game, with noticeably more planets and some of the existing planets in different locations.

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Star Fox 64 also expands upon the characters and backstory, and overall has much more fleshed out narrative elements than the original. The game begins by telling the story of the original Star Fox team, led by Fox’s father, and their tragic defeat at the hands of Andross. The game’s story isn’t spectacular by any means, but compared to other action games of the time and especially compared to the original game, the story is certainly above average. The characters are still basically the embodiment of specific archetypes, but they have a lot more personality and a bit more nuance than they did in the original game, which is largely thanks to the presence of voice acting. In addition to giving the members of Star Fox team a distinct voice and personality, the voice acting also allows the game to deliver story and character interactions during gameplay without splitting the player’s attention like the first game did with it’s text chatter during combat.

The original Star Fox was a technical marvel when it was first released, but as we saw in part 1 it aged very quickly as the 3D technology continued to rapidly improve in those early years of polygons. If Star Fox 2 had come out when intended it wouldn’t have been nearly as visually impressive as the first game, despite being noticeably more advanced than its predecessor. By opting not to release Star Fox 2 in favor of waiting for the Nintendo 64, Nintendo ensured that Star Fox would again be on the cutting edge. Star Fox 64, at a time before Ocarina of Time, Perfect Dark, or Conker’s Bad Fur Day, was among the best looking N64 games when it first came out, and holds up better today than many games on the system. It’s obviously not at all advanced by today’s standards, but economical use of the resources available lends the game a clean look that keeps it from being an eyesore like many N64 games are today.

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It wasn’t just technically proficient visuals that set the game apart, but a great presentation. We’ve already covered the voice acting, but the game also had a cinematic quality to it that really made it feel like something special back in 1997. Each of the unique looking levels told it’s own story, and the little vignettes to open and close each stage added a sense of spectacle. The cartridge-based Nintendo 64 was obviously not capable of the kind of cinematic full motion CGI cutscenes we would soon see on the CD-based Playstation with games like Final Fantasy VII later in ’97, but Star Fox’s in-engine cinematics with sweeping camera angles and faux orchestrated music were still impressive in their own right.

Like the original game four years prior, Star Fox 64‘s innovation was almost entirely in the visuals and presentation, with the gameplay and design once again sticking close to what worked already. However, that’s not to say the game is a carbon copy of the original, and in fact it improves upon it in many ways. One of the most interesting aspects of the game’s design is the way it handles the multiple paths through the game. Having multiple paths through a game was nothing new, having been seen in game’s such as Castlevania 3 and of course the original Star Fox, but Star Fox 64 implemented this idea in much more elegant and seamless way. In the original game you simply chose one of three paths through the Lylat System at the beginning of the game, with path 1 being the easiest and path 3 being the hardest. Star Fox 64 also uses it’s three paths to represent difficulty, but rather than simply choose your path you must instead discover how to change course through gameplay.

Most players will just naturally take the bottom path on their first playthrough, that being not only the easiest path but the one that doesn’t require any specific actions to take. As you play the game more, you’ll uncover secret actions on some levels that reward you with the “mission accomplished” ending text rather than the standard “mission complete” text. Some missions require a certain number of enemy kills, some require that certain teammates remain alive, while others still require you to perform specific actions during the stage. You never know what the levels requires until you uncover it, giving the game a great sense of discovery. Rather than there being three distinct sets of levels through the game, you’ll often find yourself jumping back and forth between the bottom, middle, and top paths as you discover the secret objectives to some levels and not others, which creates great replay value for is, like the original, a game that can be completed in about an hour.

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It wasn’t just the design that saw some smart improvements, but the gameplay as well. Moving up to the Nintendo 64, the game was able to make use of the system’s new analog controls, giving the player much greater control in both movement and aiming. Two of the key features originally intended for Star Fox 2, sequences of 360 degree movement and dogfights against a rival team, were both implemented into Star Fox 64, though these aren’t my favorite sequences. The all range mode encounters as well as the Star Wolf fights all devolve into simply trying to get behind the enemy and keeping them from getting behind you. These sequences are undoubtedly more accurate to real dogfighting than the linear levels, but I’ve always considered Star Fox at its best as an arcade shooter rather than a flight sim. Probably the biggest gameplay addition in Star Fox 64 was the two new vehicles that were added into the mix. The majority of the game consisted of Arwing levels, but there were a few opportunities to use the new vehicles, which were a submarine and a tank. The core gameplay is mostly the same, but new maneuvering capabilities and weapons for these vehicles mixed things up nicely.

For all the improvements made to the visuals, gameplay, and design, the innovation that has had the biggest and longest lasting impact on the gaming industry is without question the rumble feature. Just like the Super FX chip of the original game, Nintendo included a new hardware innovation in the Star Fox 64 box, the rumble pak, which allowed for a new kind of feedback for players. Not long after Sony would release the dualshock controller and in the next generation the Xbox, Playstation 2, and Gamecube all featured built-in force feedback as part of the standard controller, which would become a mainstay in pretty much every controller since. The rumble pak provided a nice compliment to the onscreen action in Star Fox 64, though what it represented for gaming as a whole was probably more significant than its implementation in this one game.

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At the time of its release, Star Fox 64 was the fastest selling game on the Nintendo 64 and received near universal critical acclaim. Of all the game in the series, Star Fox 64 is the one most fondly remembered by most people. The game even received a remake on 3DS almost 15 years later, which also did rather well. Even though the sting of Star Fox 2′s cancellation was one that would remain for many, the extremely high quality of Star Fox 64 was almost enough for fans to forget. With great reviews, strong sales, and a very positive reception from fans, it seemed Star Fox was set to become one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises going forward, but the series would never reach these heights again. Despite anticipation for the next great Star Fox game, Fox McCloud would make only one more appearance on the Nintendo 64, but not in a way most were expecting.

Super Smash Bros.

When the original Super Smash Bros. was released for the Nintendo 64 in 1999, no one could have predicted the phenomenon it would become. Among the initial roster of only 12 characters was Fox McCloud, with his stage being Sector Z. Even early on Fox was among the strongest characters in the game with his quick speed, making him a favorite among the hardcore player base. Fox would become a staple of the franchise going forward, being featured in every game to date and announced to be returning in the upcoming fourth entry in the series. As the series expanded in the next installment, Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Gamecube, Falco joined the fray and there were now two Star Fox stages. With Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii, Wolf O’Donnell was added as the third Star Fox character.

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While seeing Star Fox characters in Super Smash Bros. and its sequels was cool, it wasn’t really a Star Fox game. After Star Fox 64, Super Smash Bros. was Fox’s last appearance on the N64 and Super Smash Bros. Melee was his first appearance on the Gamecube. The first actual Star Fox game for the Gamecube wasn’t far off when Melee was released in late 2001, but once again it wasn’t exactly what we were expecting.

Check back for part 3 as the series goes in a bold and controversial new direction.