Star Fox, a Thirty Year Reunion
One of my favorite games back when I was a kid was Star Fox 64. It’s one of those games that’s almost impossible not to love. The gameplay, the presentation, the soundtrack, the memorable quotes, the infinite replayability… it was borderline perfect. Clearly, it wasn’t the first game in the series. It was the third. Not to mention the fact it was a remake of the first Star Fox, which turns thirty today. Thirty freaking years already. The franchise is cherished by many, and the story behind the game is as interesting as the game itself, but did that game age well? Furthermore, has that particular SNES game ever been good to begin with?
The story behind this thirty year old game is absolutely fascinating. Star Fox may have been designed and directed by Shigeru Miyamoto himself, but the game wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t by a handful of British gaijin borrowed from Argonaut Software (the company that would eventually develop the Croc games). Dylan Cuthbert and Giles Goddard were the programmers behind the game and the Super FX chip, the magical piece of hardware imbued in each cartridge which allowed the 16-bit Super Nintendo to actually render polygons and 3D environments, a coup for the time, given how Star Fox was released during the height of the bit wars.
The year 1993 was the launch year of the first, uh, “mainstream” 32 and 64-bit machines meant to compete against Nintendo and Sega. The 3DO and Atari Jaguar may be considered jokes nowadays, but at the time, they had potential to steal even more chunks of market share from Nintendo, with powerful (albeit expensive) machines. The Super FX chip was created to prove that the SNES could handle itself against supposedly beefier hardware, with a little help from additional soldering and coding. And to showcase the power behind the chip, Star Fox was born.
What better way to showcase some new tech than with a space dogfight simulator? Design-wise, Star Fox was perfect. It was a mere rail shooter, but one which allowed for branching paths, small secrets within levels, power-ups, a variety of control schemes, and a cast of memorable characters. The graphics were clearly archaic as hell, but the game did not look that dated when you compared it to, say, Cybermorph on the Atari Jaguar, the so-called 64-bit machine which told us dumb consumers to “do the math”.
All of this is worthy of my utmost respect. Shiggy and his crew designed a perfect game. The problem is that, when you actually start playing it, you’ll realise that, well… Star Fox isn’t very good.
Be it due to the lack of an aiming reticule, poor depth perception, or poorly explained controls, piloting the Arwing feels more cumbersome than it should. You cannot perform air ballet like the moves you can pull off in Star Fox 64, for instance. It was clear that the SNES and the Super FX chip could pull off some polygons, but that was just it… they just didn’t look THAT good onscreen. I cannot imagine that, even for 1993 standards, Star Fox looked that impressive. Sure, the act of seeing your SNES render 3D images was probably impressive, but at what cost?
Then we have the framerate. This is the real deal-breaker to me. Even with the advent of the Super FX chip, the SNES can just barely render the half a dozen simultaneous polygons that show up onscreen at any given moment. If this game is running at more than 10-12 frames a second, then I’d be impressed. It chugs like a Ford Pinto stuck in a snowfall. This also directly impacts on the gameplay, as the controls feel sluggish and unresponsive. It’s more amusing to see than to actually play. It may have been a nice counterargument against your millionaire schoolmates with a 3DO back in the day, proving that the console mommy had purchased for you could go neck and neck with the expensive CD-based machine, but that was it. A tech demo, a bragging point.
I respect the hell out of Star Fox for what it was setting out to do in 1993. You gotta love how feisty Nintendo was being, proving the naysayers wrong with their whole “bit wars” schtick. That doesn’t mean I have to like this game… as a game. It’s just not very good. It was a proof of concept, a big fat tech demo. If anything, we ended up getting Star Fox 64, one of the best games of all time (don’t at me) four years later, so that alone is enough to validate the original Star Fox‘s existence. It also marked the beginning of arguably Nintendo’s most neglected and disrespected franchise alongside F-Zero. One I sure hope won’t die with that disgraceful Wii U title as its swan song, its last hoorah. Happy anniversary, you weird, ugly, barely polygonal monstrosity. At the end of the day, we still love you.