“Do a barrel roll!”
Now that I have the formalities out of the way, let’s talk about Star Fox. The SNES game reached an incredible zenith of popularity, earning it a permanent place in the hearts of its fans probably for life. Clearly, in order to top that record, Nintendo only had one option: get more than six people to play the game. So the original didn’t live up to the hype, and maybe people didn’t fully appreciate the technical implications of what looked like a kindergarten acid trip. And yes, maybe with a canceled SNES sequel, Star Fox didn’t show much promise as an up-and-coming game franchise. But now the series boasts…five whole games. And a remake. And the canceled project. And one slated for release next year. So that…raging…popularity must have come from something, right?
If you’ve kept with me for at least that last paragraph, you probably already know why: Star Fox 64. This game sold both the franchise’s name and the N64, even showing us the system’s potential for multiplayer games–at least until Rare released Goldeneye, which made Star Fox’s dogfighting look as bare bones as, well…the SNES game. It came bundled with the rumble pak, Nintendo’s most popular useless add-on since the oh-so-bad Power Glove flopped like a dead carp and R.O.B., unable to find anyone to play games with him, had to take a side job as Fox’s secretary. Uhh…okay. So in retrospect, maybe Nintendo bamboozled us all with a stealthy, ninja marketing attack. But clearly that didn’t work with the original, so obviously something must have gone right with the game, right?
More of a reboot than a true sequel, Star Fox 64 introduces a more refined story for the game. Evil Monkey Scientist Wizard Thing, Andross, has invaded Corneria from his charming, elegant gated community on planet Venom, a world known for its atmosphere of pure smog and oceans of corrosive acid. General Pepper of Corneria, convinced that he’ll suffer no negative consequences from banishing a telekinetic evil genius to an unpleasant and inhospitable world, shows the utmost faith in his men-in-uniform by hiring a team of mercenaries to assault Andross. James McCloud, Peppy Hare and Pigma Dengar fly to venom, where Pigma turns them in to Andross. James, not as gifted as his cousins Connor and Duncan, dies, and Peppy escapes to tell Fox about his father’s demise. General Pepper, certain that a new team consisting of a) James’ obviously less-experienced son, b) a Star Fox member who clearly failed the same mission on his first attempt and c) an obnoxious mechanic with with a high-pitched whine and zero combat aptitude will certainly save the day, sends them off to Venom to make as much headway as they can, then presumably to die so Pepper doesn’t have to pay the bill.
The game shows more refinement than the SNES installment, but I might as well say that the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto shows more refinement than a dead log. While still basically made from rendered polygons, the objects in the game make up shapes more complex than a box of tinker toys, and have textures that clearly took more effort than figuring out to work the “fill” tool in Microsoft Paint. High-quality sound recordings let the characters talk to each other and tell a story; a story about three pilots who constantly need their boss to rescue their inept asses without ever bothering to shoot down any enemy pilots themselves. That really sums up the game right there. Very minimal character development–none, if Peppy didn’t occasionally comment “You’re becoming more like your father,” who, I’ll remind you, died. Pretty steady conflict, with no escalation. Every so often you’ll run into an old friend or rival mercenaries, Star Wolf, but while that may affect events in subsequent levels, it doesn’t really add anything to any semblance of “plot.” No, as Fox, you fly straight through the levels, shooting down monsters and enemy pilots alike, while your three wing men kindly offer themselves as bait to lure occasional enemies into your line of fire, and then demand you immediately save their lives.
Also new to the game, Star Fox 64 introduces “all range mode” for certain boss battles and a few stages. In this mode, the tips of the arwing’s wings will extend slightly outward, which any physicist can tell you gives a plane the ability to fly in more than just one direction. Fox has a square field to engage in dog fights, sometimes literally as all your battles with Star Wolf occur in all range mode. Most of these battles involve trying desperately to brake, bank, roll, u-turn or somersault only to discover the enemy outmaneuvered you and still enjoys burning you with lasers from behind. Perhaps more descriptive than “all range mode,” they should have called this “always turning around mode.”
While in the first game, the controls reacted on a timeline akin to plate tectonics, Star Fox 64 controls allow plenty of time to dodge, collect power-ups, and do however many barrel rolls you wish with a reasonable response. The game offers more power-ups and a reasonable amount of health-refills, even if Fox has the tendency to hoard them all to himself when Slippy might find better use for them. But the game really shines in its adaptive difficulty. While at the beginning of the original, you picked a hard, medium or easy path from Corneria to Venom, Star Fox 64 allows you to proceed to more difficult levels depending on certain events or your performance in the stage you just completed. Small tweaks to levels, such as guest characters showing up later if you play certain stages, and dozens of different possible paths to take introduce a surprising amount of replay value. Even the final boss changes depending on which direction you approach Venom from. And if you get through the difficult final stage, the game even graces you with a visit from Ghost Dad. Er, James McCloud, not Bill Cosby.
I really enjoyed this game, which shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, in high school, I’d often visit friends houses, and due to my ability to wake up completely alert at any hour of the day, I’d have to keep occupied while waiting for my friends to wake up…so I just might have the high score on three or four different cartridges out there. But that had nothing to do with the fact that I never got invited back again. I should say, though that most people enjoyed Star Fox 64. Nintendo really screwed up one thing, though; they didn’t try to replicate this game play at all. I’ve avoided Star Fox Adventures for years because it doesn’t look like a Star Fox game–which, considering the two previous releases in the franchise, only makes a small amount of sense. I enjoyed Star Fox Command, but only for a little while, and for some reason, Star Fox Assault didn’t even show up on my radar until recently. But if I ever get my student loans paid off, I have them on my list, and maybe I can say more about the newer games than I can about this one. I usually try to write two full pages on each game, but I can only find so many ways to point out how the SNES Star Fox felt like Star Fox 64 in beta.