Star Fox 64 – N64, 3DS

What worries me more; that someone built a plane with a mid-air brake, or that Fox accepted a deadly mission without knowing how to fly it?

What worries me more; that someone built a plane with a mid-air brake, or that Fox accepted a deadly mission without knowing how to fly it?

“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?

...uhh, Falco, maybe we can cut back on the racism a bit?

…uhh, Falco, maybe we can cut back on the racism a bit?

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.

You mean 9 million, right? Please tell me you actually know how hot stars can get. Slippy...you dumbass.

You mean 9 million, right? Please tell me you actually know how hot stars can get. Slippy…you dumbass.

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.

...I mean, get the three behind me. And also this one.

…I mean, get the three behind me. And also this one.

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.”

Star_Fox_64_MapWhile 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.

Because why would you attack a train with a vehicle that can travel at mach-3 and shoot lasers and bombs when you could follow it at 10 mph and fire bullets?

Because why would you attack a train with a vehicle that can travel at mach-3 and shoot lasers and bombs when you could follow it at 10 mph and fire bullets?

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.

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Star Fox – SNES

Okay, everyone turn to your right and look creepy. No, creepier.  Like something out of Norman Bates' childhood.

Okay, everyone turn to your right and look creepy. No, creepier. Like something out of Norman Bates’ childhood.

Back in the early nineties, I subscribed to Nintendo Power.  Video games had a pretty harsh stigma back then; not yet harsh enough to brand everyone with an SNES a school shooting waiting to happen, but you still didn’t talk about them unless in a safe zone–usually the woods behind the school playground during recess. The fact that someone bestowed upon us a magazine–a monthly periodical–that not only talked about video games, but provided screenshots, illustrations, top-secret cheat codes and all that other stuff that the internet would eventually render moot, well…who wouldn’t subscribe to it except old people born before the advent of video games and all those weirdos who never talked about anything but hockey and basketball? As a kid, who couldn’t play games all day long, I got my unwired fix from Nintendo Power, along with all my news about upcoming and recently released games. Interestingly enough, if you look through the covers of issues released from January 1993 to December 1994, you might find a lot of games I happened to have in my personal collection.

Dogs, apparently, live in giant blocks with no doors or windows.

Dogs, apparently, live in giant blocks with no doors or windows.

One game, though, touted in my first issue and hyped for at least the duration of 1993, never really appealed to me. Nintendo Power loved it, though, for something it called the Super FX chip, which ten-year-old me understood only enough to know it somehow advanced the technology of the Super Nintendo to produce things never before seen in video games, somehow improved the system far enough to deliver unto us the magic of hyper-realistic, futuristic, uh…flying triangles? Nintendo Power targeted ten-year-olds, which unfortunately meant a somewhat dumbed-down explanation of their subject matter. It didn’t bother to explain how the SNES needed help with things like frame buffering, scaling, and polygon rendering. As a result, Star Fox appeared to me as only a blank, empty-looking game about flying a triangle through space, shooting at things I could have easily drawn in my computer’s paint program. Still, I remembered the full year’s worth of comics printed in the magazine, the weird TV commercials, and, of course, enjoying the N64 game, so when I started this blog, the SNES Star Fox went on my list of games to play.

I think I designed something like this on my Laser 386sx.

I think I designed something like this on my Laser 386sx.

The instruction manual only drops hints of a story.  You know where you need to go, who and what to shoot down, and a little detail behind some of the planets in the Lylat system, but unless you’ve played Star Fox 64, considered more of a reboot than a sequel, the game just assumes you don’t need to know the details behind the mission or any moral qualms between the characters, and that you’ll just blindly follow instructions like a good soldier.  Either that or it figures none of the ten-year-olds who bought the game after seeing it in Nintendo Power will care about anything beyond “outer space battle with animals.”  Still, for those of you unfamiliar with the series, damn dirty space ape, Andross, has launched an invasion of the dog planet, Corneria from his base on planet Venom.  Cornerian General Pepper has called on the help of Fox and Friends, who unlike their counterparts on earth, want to detain Venom rather than spread it. When starting the game, the player selects one of three courses through the Lylat system, each one corresponding to an easy, medium, or difficult mode of play, indicating either that Andross had the courtesy to only invade a minor, easily liberated chunk of the solar system, or that Fox hasn’t figured out that he could probably just fly straight to the final stage and begin his invasion of Venom immediately.

Did someone forget to finish programming the boss?

Did someone forget to finish programming the boss?

After selecting a course and hearing a message from General Pepper that qualifies more as “small talk” than an actual briefing, Fox and team launch their arwings and the player immediately begins…flying a triangle around a series of rectangles and dodging diamonds. Honestly, this game should have clued Nintendo in to the potential failure of the N64. Since the Super FX chip essentially turns Star Fox into a 64 game on the SNES, using scaling and rendered polygons, the fact that it didn’t immediately become the standard against which we judge all SNES games should have indicated that more advanced technology doesn’t inherently translate to better games. I enjoyed the game, but playing it gave me a strong Star Fox 64 vibe, along with the little voice in my head constantly asking, “Why don’t you just go play that game instead?” It almost felt like playing a developmental demo for the 64 game, without skins and details added to make the world look like something other than flying through a geometry textbook.

Pshh. I think I know what to do if an amoeba attaches itself to my star fighter.

Pshh. I think I know what to do if an amoeba attaches itself to my star fighter.

I could mention other things about the game, such as the outer space water level, where all the objects that usually float through the ocean now float through space, or the dinosaur level which would eventually become the basis for Star Fox Adventures.  The SNES game features most of the same power-ups as the N64 installment, albeit fewer of them, and picking up some items, like the health rings, demands a targeting so precise that the only people who possess the skills can also shoot the center out of a dime placed inside a safe using an airsoft gun.  Even if you do manage to pick one up, its healing power ranges somewhere in between a good band-aid (on the high end) and the power of positive thinking. The halfway points restore a substantial portion of your ship’s shield, but they only give you one per level and don’t come before boss battles, so prepare yourself for playing through half the level every time a boss knocks you out with one hit because you had to play through half the level to get to it.

That last point really gets in the way for me. I like this game, and I would play it more often, but I play games differently now than I did twenty years ago. Back then I didn’t get bothered by repetition or time-consuming early levels. I had more patience for practice.  Having owned Nintendo products instead of Sega, I can never reach the skill at Sonic the Hedgehog that I still have at early Mario games.  Star Fox demands that kind of player, the kind who will patiently work through problems and develop a skill. Either that or save states. I could get through the game with save states.

I actually don't have a problem with this. Anyone else? No? Good.

I actually don’t have a problem with this. Anyone else? No? Good.

The technology, as I’ve mentioned, impresses the tech people more than the players. At the beginning of the mission, a synthesized voice tells you, “Good luck!” (Which sounds more like “Greeblock!”) Pre-sampled tones synthetically garbled make up suggestions of character voices, an idea later implemented in Star Fox Command; kind of neat, and undoubtedly difficult for a 16-bit processor to pull off, but they don’t really enhance the experience beyond what we’d get from Final Fantasy VI or a Link to the Past, which focused on complex story and gameplay, resulting in far better games. I may even argue that many 8-bit games, like Mega Man or the original Legend of Zelda, offered more to their players. I don’t want to give the impression that I have no respect for Star Fox, but unless you want to play it for curiosity or out of a die-hard love of the series, you may just want to go straight to Star Fox 64.