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.