Held back by technological limitations, harmed by punctual poor implementation, and with its luster eroded due to its pioneering nature, Star Fox has lost far more during the years following its release than other Super Nintendo classics
It is hard not to look at the original Star Fox, released in 1993, as a considerable technological achievement. While the finest games of the era pushed hard to make the best of the pixels and power produced by the 16-bit multiprocessors that consoles of that generation housed, Nintendo was looking the other way when producing the first adventure of the saga. In cooperation with Argonaut, a British game developer, the company had its eyes set somewhere else; more specifically, in the world of polygons, which would allow the creation of true tridimensional models. In order to do so, though, the Super Nintendo alone was not enough, as despite being able to render such images, it did not succeed in materializing them in a satisfactory enough way to meet Nintendo’s usually high standards. For that reason, a new microchip – called Super FX, which would also go on to support the special graphic effects of many future releases – was created and embedded into the cartridge itself.
Such information is valuable not just because Star Fox is notable for being the first time ever Nintendo made a game with polygonal visuals, but also due to how, from a modern perspective, playing through it is witnessing those kinds of graphics, which are now the norm, at one of their earliest stages. Consequently, it is undeniable that, be it in comparison to other Super Nintendo classics or to contemporary games, Star Fox suffers quite a bit. And that is because where other praiseworthy titles of the console were surfing high on the wave of pixelated 2-D visuals, which were in the process of achieving their pinnacle back then and that have, as such, not been greatly improved on; Star Fox navigates through the muddy waters of getting the hang of how to produce polygons and how to make a pleasant gaming experience out of them.
Truthfully, given the standards of the era, the game does check those two boxes well: its graphics convey the intended visual message, and the gameplay that accompanies them is pleasant. Yet, and much thanks to its role as a pioneer in technology, it is easy to see time has taken its toll on it. In choosing the arcade sidescrolling shoot ’em ups starring spaceships as the main source of inspiration for their technological display, Nintendo certainly made the right move in picking a gameplay style whose simplicity supported an experience that would be absolutely controlled. By having to constantly move forward and maneuver their ships within the limits of the screen, players would always be forced to follow a very restricted path in which a preprogrammed group of objects would move in and out of view, therefore keeping processing quite straightforward for the microchip as well as giving game designers the opportunity to, like movie directors, orchestrate – at all times – what gamers would be seeing. Nonetheless, that smart restraint does not save Star Fox from, nowadays, coming off as occasionally visually clunky.
Where games from the Nintendo 64 era – that is, the generation that followed – succeeded in nicely disguising the fact their characters and scenarios were made of polygons, Star Fox does not achieve that; a natural consequence of its audacity to aim for those types of visuals with rather limited technology. Ships, whether friendly or hostile, and other bad guys are clearly wire-frame models that have been filled up with tridimensional shapes. Buildings are giant rectangles covered in an uniform shade of gray; likewise, textures that are employed pretty much to every scenario asset lack distinguishing traits. And some obstacles embrace their nature as wire frames so deeply that is pretty much all they are: empty skeletons that have not been adorned with any polygons. It is a set of characteristics that does give Star Fox quite a unique look; sadly, it is not one that retains the appealing value it held upon its release.
Set in the Lylat System, and in what seems to be a universe filled with anthropomorphic animals of various species that live in relative peace, the game’s events are set in motion when Andross, a monkey scientist, is banned from Corneria – the system’s urban center and most important planet – for conducting experiments so ambitious that they threatened the lives of its inhabitants. Unbeknownst to the authorities, though, Andross flees to Venon, a green world at the edge of the system, enslaves its citizens, and creates a massive army while totally destroying the planet’s ecosystem in the process. Shortly afterwards, he declares war on Corneria. Unprepared for such threat and power, and unable to train pilots to board their most advanced spaceships, the Arwings, on time, the Cornerian generals turn to the mercenary Star Fox team for help.
And, just like that, Fox McCloud, Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad set out on their debut quest. From Corneria, the starting point of the journey, to Venom, the highly-defended home of the final battle and that is subdivided into two courses, players can choose between a trio of distinct routes of varying difficulty. Although the three bookending courses are shared among all routes, they appear – in each of the three paths – in distinct formats; in some cases, being considerably extended and packed with meaner foes and obstacles, and in others taking on a completely unique facade. Meanwhile, all the stages in between them – three in Level 1 and Level 2, and four in Level 3 – are entirely exclusive, and present a nice variety of settings, ranging from a handful of battles that take place in outer space amidst asteroids or inside sectors with defining traits to courses that happen on the surface of planets, including the snowy Titania, the organic Fortuna, and the volcanic Macbeth.
Regardless of the place in which the action is occurring, though, Star Fox follows a very defined pattern. Piloting the ship of Fox McCloud, the group’s leader, players fly through these stages while being tested in their ability to avoid enemy fire, shoot down as many members of Andross’ army as possible, navigate through a myriad of obstacles, and – at the end of every level – take down a big boss. The mighty Arwings are capable of blasting their standard laser, releasing powerful bombs (which are limited and can be collected in the levels), breaking, boosting, tilting vertically to increase maneuverability or to sneak through tight spaces, and performing the famous barrel rolls (triggered when the shoulder buttons are pressed maniacally) to deflect incoming fire. Furthermore, by using the select button, players can switch the game’s camera view, with stages that happen in outer space allowing a first-person perspective that while rather helpful in terms of aiming is hurtful regarding seeing shots coming one’s way. In general, though, it is a simple setup that works quite well, and the fact there are four control options – with minor differences – to choose from guarantees most players will be satisfied with one of the available systems.
Within that scope, Star Fox operates – from the start – at a respectable level of difficulty. The gaps in challenge between the easy, medium, and hard paths are noticeable; all of them, however, are genuinely tough. Yet, and unfortunately, while some of those hardships stem from purely fair elements, others do not. In the first case, Star Fox is unafraid to throw a good amount of enemies at players, and those rival ships sometimes pack a heavy punch since some of their projectiles make quick work of the shield of the Arwing. Players are, therefore, constantly asked to move around the screen, perform barrel rolls, and shoot accurately whilst being aware of their surroundings; a frantic task that adds excitement and tension to the dogfights. To counterbalance that, and much like the arcade titles that inspired it, the game is equally not shy in handing out various helpful items, such as differently colored rings that restore distinct amounts of health, bombs, a shield for temporary invincibility, and a power-up that either restores the ship’s wings if they are broken or upgrades the might of the standard laser to a good degree.
In the second case, there are the obstacles. A good portion of them are indeed perfectly manageable; others, sadly, pose vicious threats for reasons that are not very good. Firstly, down the line, as players get closer to Venom, the game has a habit of forcing Arwings to pass through the tiniest of holes, sometimes through a series of them. And the punishment for failing to do so is quite steep as three or four hits onto walls – especially with the body of the ship, which absorbs a higher amount of damage – are enough to cause it to go down; and if the hit happens on the wing, it will most likely be torn apart right away, causing players to lose whatever laser boost they had acquired as well as a great deal of flight stability. These segments, as a consequence, turn Star Fox into a bit of a trial-and-error experience, as it is occasionally apparent that only sheer memorization of these obstacles will allow one to overcome them.
In a similar vein, and perhaps as a sign of the technical limitations Star Fox had to face in entering uncharted visual territory, the second problem that arises in relation to the stages’ physical hurdles has to do with how late they, at times, come into view. The draw distance of Star Fox is by no means spectacular, which, considering its trailblazing nature, would have been forgivable if it did not affect gameplay; nevertheless, it does. A good number of the game’s most challenging obstacles only materialize when it feels like it is almost too late to analyze them and think of a course of evasive action to take; as such, doors that open and close, plants that pop out of the ground quite suddenly, sets of rotating bars, and other assets come off as either downright unfair or way too difficult for their own sake.
That issue becomes even more frustrating because, as a game where each course does not last for more than five minutes and whose origins lie in arcades, Star Fox extracts length out of its life system. Which means that, once they run out, players have to restart from Corneria, a fact that makes the feeling that one has just lost a bunch of lives over a set of unfair obstacles quite anger-inducing and turns the memorization process that comes with trial-and-error into an ordeal that has gamers going back to ground zero over and over again. The game does alleviate some of that via mid-stage checkpoints, which sadly can be missed if one does not fly right through them; rare 1-ups floating around hard-to-reach places on the courses; and the earning of extra lives according to the amount of points that is amassed. Nonetheless, these measures do not totally erase the annoyance of being right on the doorstep of Andross just to be sent back to the starting screen because an object came out of seemingly nowhere.
Those that do succeed in grasping the details of the stage design and turning the beating of Andross, through whatever route, into a relaxing pastime, will open the doors to the greatest allure of Star Fox: the attempt to beat one’s highest score. Following each level, players are given a final punctuation according to the number of foes they take down and the state of the ship of their three allies, who are constantly getting into trouble and asking for help. And after Andross is beaten, the scores attained on all stages of the route are summed into a shiny total. Differently from the Star Fox games that followed, though, the Super Nintendo version does not exactly count how many enemies one has downed while playing the stage, but awards players with an arbitrary percentage that will be 100% when a certain threshold of foes is beaten. That implementation puts a ceiling on how well one can do in a level, as after that established threshold is crossed there is no distinction in score regardless of how many extra bad guys have been killed. In spite of that odd quirk, the game offers practically endless replay alternatives, as maxing out each route’s punctuation is an absolutely daunting task, since it requires keeping allies fully healthy while not missing a whole lot of enemies.
The conclusion is that, like many Super Nintendo classics, there is fun to be had in the original Star Fox. However, differently from other remarkable titles of the era, the first quest of Fox, Falco, Peppy, and Slippy has had a big portion of its glory eroded by the passing of time. Although it inaugurated a gameplay style that has served the franchise relatively well for a big amount of years and translated with grace the excitement of sidescrolling space shooters to the 3-D perspective, the fact it was one of gaming’s first huge endeavors into the world of polygonal graphics has caused its visuals and some of its gameplay components to lose luster. Going through its stages remains a thrill, shooting up as many enemies as humanly possible is still an appealing challenge, and trying hard to beat one’s best score in each of the game’s three routes is certainly alluring. Sadly, the reaching of those awards has to go through being able to look past very aged visuals and a few frustrating gameplay quirks that stem from technological limitations and clumsy implementation.