Star Fox

Star Fox

For weeks I had gone back to the video rental store, denied my birthright of playing the brand new Star Fox recently released by Nintendo. Since it came out, we went every Sunday after church since, and every time it was the same. Some other kid had rented it out already. Finally, just in time for summer vacation, the game was available. I could be that lucky child renting it out and depriving any other youth the pleasure of sweet, polygonal dog-fighting action.

With the unrelenting excitement that comes standard to most seven-year olds, I smashed that gray cartridge into the Super Nintendo, struck the power button, and then ... sat back and prepared to zone out with my eyes glued to the television screen. In hindsight, maybe my father wasn't such a fan of video games because my expressions often resembled those of the hippie stoners he had gone to high school with.

I was hooked from the opening animation, pupils tracking the cinematic display of ships getting gunned down by a menacing spacecraft that descended towards a beautiful blue planet. Fighter vessels burst from the carrier like bees from a hive, a stray craft turning to fly towards the player. The music pulled me right into a movie theater, bombastic and epic during the title screen, yet so calm and serene for the settings menu. I played through the tutorial, quickly learned that I was not yet ready to comprehend inverted-flight controls, and then launched into this interstellar adventure.

If you had asked me at the time why I loved Star Fox so much, I wouldn't be able to properly articulate the reason. "Because it's awesome!" I would exclaim, and probably jabber on about how the music is awesome, the bosses are awesome, the levels are awesome, and simply providing conclusions rather than proper arguments. In fact, even today I might not be able to explain to you what made Star Fox work so well, were it not for Nintendo's later treatment of the franchise.

At this year's E3 it was subtly (and not so subtly) announced that a new Star Fox game is in development for the WiiU. My heart soared like an Arwing-class space fighter with infinite booster rockets, only to be shot down by Shigeru Miyamoto's description of the gameplay.

Note that my problem isn't with the motion control, though I'm a tad skeptical on how well that can work. I've find the WiiU's and 3DS's gyroscope features to simultaneously be useful and a major frustration, depending on how each game implements the feature. What really worried me was the continued shift away from the on-rails element of gameplay.

You see, back in 1993 you'd undoubtedly hear about how amazing the graphics were. At the time, they most certainly did impress. While PCs were beginning to explore three-dimensional spaces with games like Doom, the Super Nintendo came about with Star Fox, thanks to now-defunct developer Argonaut Software. Key members of the studio had managed to impress Nintendo at CES well enough that a deal was struck to develop software and hardware for their game machines. This lead to the Super FX computer chip, which was placed in the game cartridge and allowed the Super Nintendo to run a game that was beyond its own internal hardware capabilities.

While this was enough to floor consumers and critics alike at the time, there was a lot more going on that would make it a permanent fixture in Nintendo's vast library of franchises. For example, compare Argonaut's first three-dimensional spaceflight game, Starglider. You can certainly see the beginnings of Star Fox roughly ten years earlier, but it looks almost quaint in comparison. Not graphically speaking, of course. The polygons in Star Fox aren't that much more complex, merely filled in with colors to provide a more solid appearance. You can also see how Starglider's lights along the ground, communicating to the player where "down" is as well as speed and proximity, is used on planets like Corneria and Venom in Star Fox.

What Starglider lacks is a basic sense of fun and gameplay. It offers an experience that, at the time, was novel. Fly around in a three-dimensional space, gunning foes down. Yet that concept has been refined time and time again in the thirty years since Starglider first released, from Wing Commander to Rogue Squadron, Project Sylpheed to the upcoming Star Citizen.

This is where Argonaut's expertise ended and Nintendo's began, as it was Shigeru Miyamoto that suggested the all-important change of putting the game on rails. Not only did this speed the gameplay up considerably, but it opened doors that help Star Fox survive the test of time.

By placing the Arwing on rails, the player is still limited to a two-dimensional plane of movement along the Y-and-X-axes. The Z-axis, forward and backward, is controlled by the computer, constantly propelling the player forward. The only control in that scenario is to either use the boost or hit the brakes, maneuvers that are often used in order to avoid obstacles.

Which is where the real essence of the game comes in. Instead of trying to create a simulation of flying a plane, Star Fox simply provides a variety of obstacle courses that happen to bare an outer-space theme. Buildings, space ships, debris and asteroids are frequently hurtling towards the player's Arwing, forcing the player to deftly dodge and swerve around each object. Then come the enemies, swooping in on flourishing flight patterns, whose destruction adds to the player's score and hopefully accumulates to a bonus Continue. All this while seeking hidden archways and passages for power-ups, shortcuts, or other potential secrets.

Miyamoto's small recommendation pulled Star Fox right out of simulation territory and firmly planted it in the realm of the arcade machine. Instead of trying to provide a more genuine dog-fighting experience in the skies of Corneria, it was simply changing the perspective on games such as Galaga, R-Type or 1942. So while the game's simplistic polygons are now antiquated, the gameplay itself remains enjoyable and polished even by today's standards. Controls are responsive, the different difficulties provide significant challenge, and the simple score-chasing concept allows any player to just drop right back into it.

Perhaps this is why I've never been able to really jump into any of its sequels so easily. They've either pulled the player out of the cockpit or slowly drifted further and further from the arcade style of the original, relying too much on narrative to carry the game forward or even switching back over to the "all-range" mode instead of staying on-rails.

Sometimes it is nice to see a game evolve beyond its roots. Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid are all Nintendo properties that have seen great improvements thanks to growing game design trends, many of which have evolved in large part to these franchises. Yet Star Fox, for me at least, always worked best as a simple arcade game.

That's what stuck with me after I had rented it, and why I continued to play it for evenings, weekends, and whole summers after that. The soundtrack was beautiful and epic, it often felt quite cinematic, and the technology was impressive, but I kept returning because maybe, just maybe, I'd be able to reach the planet of Macbeth this time. Maybe I could defeat Hard Mode, and maybe I could 100% Medium difficulty.

I want to be optimistic about this new Star Fox for the WiiU, but hearing about its all-range mode and efforts to combine players into an awkward-sounding helicopter machine — none of that has anything to do with what I loved about that first simple game in 1993. I wonder if, perhaps, Star Fox's time in the spotlight has long since passed. Maybe I merely need to stop clinging to what was and welcome the future with fresh eyes and open arms.

Comments

I'm blown away by these graphics. This game is the most fun. The only complaint I have is that none of his wingmen have real voices, just weird noises. I'm busy dodging laser blasts and debris. I don't have time to read that text and I really want to hear what Slippy and Peppy have to say.

I missed Star Fox, not having a SNES. But I played the heck out of Star Fox 64. I found the all range mode broke up the action, but it wasn't my favorite part and fortunately it seemed reserved for a few specific levels and bosses.

Star Fox Adventure, however, was just dreadful. Nobody hears Star Fox and thinks "platformer with occasional flying missions."

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

I missed Star Fox, not having a SNES. But I played the heck out of Star Fox 64.

Same here. In a way I'm glad I missed the original, because in my mind it is richly graphical with a fully voiced cast. The banter is all cliched, maybe, but it's the rich pastiche of cliches that make Tarantino movies fun or Uncharted's plot a good time. I replay at least once a year, and Area 6 still gives me goosebumps.

I'm also disappointed at all the sequels because all I want is another dang rail shooter.

I never got to play StarFox Assault on the GameCube, which was evidently a rail-shooter that was merely developed by Namco. Doing some YouTubing, it looked like it had the potential to be a pretty fun game, but it was also one single storyline campaign with a lot of cut-scenes.

Starfox Command on the DS wasn't too bad, but it was also not too great either.

Of all the franchises Nintendo has done well with, it's so weird that they've taken so many missteps with Star Fox. I feel like it's the one game where, at this time, it might be better for them to just say "Okay, let's NOT focus too much on doing anything drastically different".

As I said, though. Might be better this time to wait and see what the next game is before being so down about it.

ccesarano wrote:

As I said, though. Might be better this time to wait and see what the next game is before being so down about it.

I'm sorry, you must be new.

This great yawning chasm of snap judgements and nihilism on your whirring, glowing box is called "the internet." And it will swallow your optimistic reasonableness like Galactus eating a bowl of cheetoh flavored asteroids. (He likes a good asteroid because it's a little meteor)

Or maybe you just haven't gotten to know Thomas yet.

ccesarano wrote:

Of all the franchises Nintendo has done well with, it's so weird that they've taken so many missteps with Star Fox. I feel like it's the one game where, at this time, it might be better for them to just say "Okay, let's NOT focus too much on doing anything drastically different".

Well they did rerelease Starfox 64 on 3DS. That's probably the best move the series has made since Starfox 64 released.

But at the same time I refuse to buy that since I have my N64 that still works just fine.

Stele wrote:
ccesarano wrote:

Of all the franchises Nintendo has done well with, it's so weird that they've taken so many missteps with Star Fox. I feel like it's the one game where, at this time, it might be better for them to just say "Okay, let's NOT focus too much on doing anything drastically different".

Well they did rerelease Starfox 64 on 3DS. That's probably the best move the series has made since Starfox 64 released.

But at the same time I refuse to buy that since I have my N64 that still works just fine.

My wife wants a 3DS for Christmas. I think I know at least one game that will be under the tree...

Grenn wrote:

I don't have time to read that text and I really want to hear what Slippy and Peppy have to say.

Trust me, no you don't.
Or often it's just

Spoiler:

I'm being shot at, please help

ccesarano wrote:

I never got to play StarFox Assault on the GameCube, which was evidently a rail-shooter that was merely developed by Namco.

For me, there were a few big dings against Star Fox Assault that kept it from being as good as Star Fox or Star Fox 64:

1) fully linear game (no branching mission paths)
2) Arwing missions varied between on-rails and free-roaming (never cared as much for the free-roaming ones)
3) Landmaster missions were all free-roaming (Landmaster wasn't great to begin with, but no on-rails missions? Bleh)
4) On-foot free-roaming missions... WTF?

Finally, something about the responsiveness of the controls just never felt right to me the way the SNES and N64 entries in the series did.

[edit]I looked up a FAQ to jog my memory, and oh yeah, now I remember how much this game annoyed me. There's a total of ten stages. Only four of them are classic on-rails Star Fox action.

Rogue Squadron made the same mistake in RS3. The other vehicles besides spaceship part was ok. Driving an AT-AT walker was kind of fun actually. But then they did some on foot levels and those were just atrocious. Those few levels are so bad they bring the whole game down.

Very true, Stele. I was very disappointed by how many non-spaceship levels there were in RS3.

Wow, I was lead to believe there were a lot more levels in Star Fox Assault when I YouTubed some gameplay footage. That sounds absolutely atrocious.

I actually was so frustrated with the game that when I reached the fourth stage, only to find out that it was the third stage in a row heavily featuring free-roam land combat, I quit and never touched it again. Thank goodness it was a rental.