Immediately after I labeled this document, I got the theme to Fortuna stuck in my head. Star Fox is a tremendously important game to my development. When I first experienced it as a wee tot, I ate it up. I would watch my Uncle Kevin play it. My family would gather around and try to unravel its secrets. I once faked an illness to get out of school to have more time with it. Not only that, I would craft paper airplanes that looked like the eponymous Arwing of the series. The four-wingman dynamic was one that I’d try to sell to my friends. I was obsessed.
Don’t let that give you the wrong idea, though. For one thing, the Star Fox series has admittedly not been good for years. While I have a soft spot for Star Fox Command, that’s more for its bold narrative. Star Fox Zero was only okay. I completed it and haven’t touched it since. Yes, it would have been better without the motion control gimmicks. Actually, the best Star Fox game released since Star Fox 64 was Starlink: Battle for Atlas on Switch. Hah! That’s embarrassing.
As for Star Fox, it has aged poorly. I don’t think that’s any secret. The 3D graphics were extremely impressive for their time, but now they’re a hindrance. But is it still worth playing? No. Well…
If you’ve already waded through Star Fox 64, this is going to sound familiar: Andross has invaded the Lylat system from his base on Venom, and it’s up to you and three other pilots to make him stop.
From the outset, you’re given three routes to take to Venom, corresponding to three difficulties. The other routes are not only harder, however, but they’re also entirely different. Different scenery, unique music, and their own bosses. It reminds me of shareware episodes, but then there’s a secret on one route that can send you to the others. It’s rad.
Star Fox is a rail shooter. At that time, this would make it similar to Space Harrier or 1983’s Star Wars arcade game. The latter comparison might be more apt since both Star Fox and Star Wars use a 3D effect. The difference is that Star Fox actually uses polygons, whereas Star Wars uses wireframe, but we’re getting technical.
You’ve got the idea, though, right? Rail shooter but using actual 3D polygons, meaning you have to dodge scenery and blast enemies. It’s extremely early 3D, using one of the first 3D co-processors available to consumers, the FX chip. There is some hint of depth perception, but it could have really done with throwing some crosshairs on screen. There are actually two view modes that you switch by hitting the select button, but the cockpit view is kind of weird and makes it somewhat difficult to thread obstacles.
Actually, threading obstacles isn’t all that easy to do, even when you can see your ship. The flat-shaded polygons don’t lend well to depth perception, and I think the collision detection is iffy to begin with. I guess that would check, since collision detection remained iffy through a lot of the early 3D era.
They did what they could, and that turned out to be a lot. Some of the bosses are pretty abstract looking. You had to use some real imagination to figure out what the carrier was supposed to be wagging at you. But then there are bosses like the dancing spider or the dinosaur on Fortuna. There’s a lot of variety on display, and figuring out how to avoid danger and expose their obvious flashing weak points isn’t always a matter of intuition.
The planets are similarly varied. Most have their own unique enemies and obstacles. Sometimes you’re cruising through narrow canyons. Other times you’re assaulting space armadas. You’re given a vague briefing ahead of time, then you’re sent in to figure things out on your own.
The use of actual 3D opened up some interesting features, such as the ability to blow off the individual wings of your Arwing, but it came at a cost. The framerate absolutely chugs most of the time. Back then, it wasn’t anything irregular. If you look at similar 3D games at the time, such as Hard Drivin’, that’s sort of just where we were. The FX Chip certainly helps, but it can be difficult for anyone new to the era to get accustomed to the simplistic graphics.
Star Fox wasn’t an easy game, either. Though I can blow through it now, and I was able to conquer its hardest route in my youth, it gave me a lot of trouble when I approached it again in my young adult years. You have a small number of lives to make it to Venom, and you have to start over after you’ve burned through your continues. This is made difficult by the game’s variety, as you’re not always prepared for new obstacles.
It also has a taste for secrets. The Black Hole level is the most obvious, but there’s one that takes you out of the dimension. They’re both rather bizarre but intriguing asides, and finding them for the first time back in the day was overwhelmingly exciting.
Finally, the soundtrack is amazing. It really captures the awe of the strange planets and massive battles. It’s sort of strange to me that games like F-Zero have had their soundtracks remixed into infinity, but Star Fox shifted styles immediately to space opera and never looked back. The same magic has never been recaptured.
The problem with Star Fox is that Star Fox 64 exists. Star Fox 64 was basically just a redo of the original, and it’s better in almost every way. Almost. The soundtrack isn’t as memorable, and when your wingmates go down, they’re just out for a level, which makes saving them less urgent. There’s also an argument to be made for the original’s abstract and alien graphics. Star Fox 64 is a lot more grounded and, therefore, maybe less interesting aesthetically. Still, it had better use of 3D, a similar taste for secrets, and just as much variety.
We wouldn’t have gotten there without Argonaut Software’s original collaboration with Nintendo. The two sides came together to create something impressive in both design and technology. Or it was at the time. As I said, Star Fox has been superseded several… Once. It was superseded by Star Fox 64, and then Nintendo couldn’t figure out how to make it good again. Wow, that’s really depressing.
This review was conducted on an SNES with a cartridge copy of the game. The author’s parents bought it for them ages ago.
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