It successfully brings space shooters from arcades to homes not just by perfectly capturing the genre’s excitement and high-scoring thrill, but also by naturally expanding the otherwise brief experience into a meaningful length
It seems that, as a general rule, most Nintendo franchises take at least a couple of installments to confidently find their footing and fully mature. Case in point, the trio made up of what are arguably the company’s biggest properties only achieved widespread masterpiece status – and landed on formulas that would subsequently be used as the pillars for most entries to come – at their third attempts: Super Mario Bros. 3; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; and Super Metroid. The Star Fox series is no different, and the proof it adheres to that rule lies in the quality leap that was executed between its first two efforts. Its Super Nintendo debut, though a marvelous technological achievement for its time, was held back by a myriad of issues ranging from design shortcomings and, most importantly, the fact it was boldly venturing into tridimensional territory during an era when visuals under that perspective were still far from being completely realized. It was only later, with the arrival of the Nintendo 64 and its native 3-D graphics that did not rely on hardware-related trickery, that the lovable team of mercenaries unearthed not just a satisfying look, but also a gameplay format that was thoroughly engaging.
Perhaps aware that, by using its newest system, its developers could finally do justice to the clever concept of bringing the frantic gameplay of arcade shooters to a console setting, Nintendo opted to – instead of moving the original plot forward – revisit it and reboot the franchise. And that is why even though Star Fox 64 carries a few extra interesting twists in its story, it employs the exact same premise used by its predecessor. Andross, a brilliant monkey scientist who lived on Corneria, is frustrated that his weapons-related research is ignored within the peaceful planet. One day, after going mad, he unleashes one of those devices and causes destruction around the world’s major cities. He is captured, marked as a traitor, and banned to the distant planet of Venom. Years later, when suspicious military activity on Venom is noticed, the Star Fox team, then formed by James McCloud, Pigma Dengar and Peppy Hare, is sent to investigate. Unfortunately, Pigma betrays the group, James is killed, and only Peppy returns home. Afterwards, when Andross declares war on Corneria, a new version of the Star Fox team is created – led by James’ son, Fox – and its members try to make their way back to Venom while dealing with Andross’ huge army.
Star Fox 64 presents the aesthetic changes one would expect with the coming of a new generation of consoles: its visuals are far superior to the very polygonal look of its predecessor, and its ships – both friendly and hostile – are particularly well-designed. Also thanks to that technological leap, the areas in which its missions take place are pleasantly varied, including planets dominated by urban landscapes, polluted waters, desertic environments, and more; likewise, enemies that have to be shot down from the skies come in numerous formats and have distinct weapons. The most significant steps Star Fox 64 takes towards maturity are, nonetheless, elsewhere, and as a statement on how big of an evolution the game is, they permeate the effort in pretty much its entirety.
It all starts, naturally, with the controls. The Arwings move smoothly through the air and maneuvering them is a highly responsive experience with absolutely no hiccups or challenges. Star Fox 64 throws plenty of physical obstacles and groups of foes at the team and, supported by a control scheme that is rather intuitive and incorporates an assortment of cool moves, players can perform a pretty airborne ballet through it all, beautifully avoiding structures and traps while shooting down as many bad guys as possible. All the actions from the original return: the ships can use their endless standard laser, which can be upgraded by picking up a specific item; launch bombs, which are limited and must be collected around the levels; temporarily boost or break; and use the shoulder buttons to either, by tapping them, perform a barrel roll that deflects enemy fire or, by holding them, tilt the ship sideways so it can move more efficiently.
Besides those familiar tricks, Star Fox 64 brings to the table some very exciting additions that augment the prevalent thrill of the franchise’s fast-paced gameplay. The first-person perspective, once limited to certain stages, can be switched to at any time; the ships can now perform loops to surprise enemies that try to approach them from the rear; and an ever-present aiming reticule plays a major role in allowing more precise shots. Although all of those new features greatly contribute to the increased enjoyment, none are as positively influential as the biggest of all introductions to the crew’s arsenal: the charge laser. By holding the A button, the Arwing will quickly charge its canon and the aiming reticule will automatically lock onto the first ship it hovers over; once that shot is let loose, it will almost invariably hit its target. It is simple, it is easy to perform, it looks rather stylish, and it may not seem like much, but it causes a massive excellent repercussion on Star Fox’s greatest allure: its scoring system.
Undoubtedly, a lot of Star Fox is about taking control of Fox’s ship, going through waves of foes, making one’s way to the end of the stage, protecting other members of the team by shooting the enemies on their tail, and engaging in great boss battles that always close all missions. However, it is arguable most of it is about getting high scores. As ships move relentlessly forward, gamers will try their best not to let a single enemy go by without making them burst into pieces via a well-timed laser shot. By taking bad guys down individually, though, most ships only yield one point. And that is where the magic of the charge laser comes in, because given it reaches a wider area, it allows players to take down multiple foes in one blow. And the more of them hit the ground in a single shot, the more sweet bonus points are produced. Smartly, the designers behind Star Fox 64 took great advantage of that gameplay twist, because stages are packed to the brim with opportunities for gamers to string together epic combos if their timing is just right, creating an astounding amount of room for the improvement of scores if one manages to serve the perfect combination of charged shots and quick individual laser bursts.
Inside that frantic rush, Star Fox 64 presents stages that are generally divided into two kinds. There are those that, set in the so-called Corridor Mode, follow closely not only the game’s arcade origins, but also the original Star Fox, for the ships move along a predetermined path and need to deal with neatly orchestrated enemy groups that come their way. Contrarily, and entirely new to franchise, there are those that happen in All-Range Mode. Occurring inside limited rectangular arenas, where ships are free to go wherever they wish to, these put a spotlight on all-out dogfights that will test players’ skills, especially when these combats are against the Star Wolf team, a gang of mercenaries that has joined forces with Andross. In these scenarios, performing loops and tight turns becomes utterly necessary, and the Arwings gain the ability to execute U-turns, which allow them to change the direction into which they are flying in a second. Sometimes, such as in the opening stage of Corneria, levels will include portions in both formats, going into All-Range Mode when bosses and their minions come into play. However, most of the times they either focus solely on one or the other.
Regardless of the gameplay approach that is used, Star Fox 64 is a title that is able to do quite a lot with a little, extracting variety out of both modes and making them equally exciting. The game further exercises its flexibility by throwing into the mixture a pair of other vehicles in addition to the Arwings. The Landmaster (a tank) and the Blue-Marine (a submersible) have the same basic movements as the signature flying vessels, save for their lack of looping and the Landmaster’s ability to use a pair of boosters to fly for a short while. Nevertheless, their behavior is quite different, as they are much stiffer and react more slowly to changes of direction. As secondary units, they do not appear very often (the Landmaster stars in two courses and the Blue-Marine in one of them). And although it is undeniable these levels are not as fun as those in which flying happens, the two vehicles emerge as great additions, for besides controlling well – albeit acting very differently – they uncover some nice level design opportunities that would otherwise be absent, and pave the way to a few notable moments.
Be it in the water, in the skies, or on the ground, the action of Star Fox 64 is always accompanied by some recurring themes: there is the thrilling action, there is the blood-pumping wish to score big, and – walking along with all of that – there is a stunning sound work. The musical score is pretty solid and the sound effects are a big highlight, but – when it comes to that front – the profuse voice acting absolutely stands out. Characters, whether the heroes themselves or Andross’ generals, are always communicating over the radio, and their banter is integral to the game. Sure, a few cheesy lines appear occasionally, but the dialogues do so much good it is hard to complain. The pilots gain loads of personality, and there is great chemistry between the focused Fox, the wise Peppy, the good-hearted yet clumsy Slippy, and the arrogant Falco. Moreover, the villains become more than ships that have to be shot down. And the missions, which have their context briefly explained by General Pepper before the team jumps into battle, have sub-plots that are developed and unexpected events that are dramatized.
The crown for the greatest feature of Star Fox 64, however, goes to its alternate routes. The journey the Star Fox team must take from Corneria to Venom will always have seven stops, with the first and last being – obviously – fixed. Yet, the Lylat System has fifteen levels total, and that means there are different paths that can be taken to reach the final objective. That is possible because, save for five of the missions, there are always two possible successful outcomes: mission complete and mission accomplished. The former will always send players towards the right edge of the map, where the easiest levels lie; whereas the latter will hurl them in the opposite direction, where the most gruesome stages can be found. The most intriguing aspect of that quirk is that the level-specific goals that lead to the mission accomplished status are rather varied and it is entirely up to players to figure them out: sometimes it involves killing a boss quickly; other times, it may entail the activation of switches, the passing through portals, the finding of secret caves, the destruction of radars, and more.
There is a genuine sense of curiosity and discovery in figuring out a how to get to the missions that are harder to reach, and that considerably boosts the game’s replay value, because multiple runs through the adventure are required so that all courses can be visited. And that repetition is rarely frustrating, because hardly does any adventure from Corneria to Venom go to waste, even when one does not stumble on new places. There is always the chance to improve on one’s total punctuation, as the game keeps track of the ten highest-scoring runs players have recorded. And there is always the shot at earning medals, which are by far the most sought-after awards of Star Fox 64, as all areas have a punctuation threshold that, when reached while all of Fox’s wingmates make it out of the battle alive, will cause the stage’s icon to be gloriously stamped with a golden piece of metal that will serve as proof of players’ total mastery over that place. In addition to serving as an excellent incentive to keep playing, these rewards have a practical purpose, for getting all of them unlocks Expert Mode, which has its own medals and offers levels that are much harder thanks to: enemies behaving more aggressively, a scarcer distribution of healing and power-up items, and the vehicles’ increased frailty. The medals, however, pose a slight problem, because given one can never freely choose between stages, even after all of them have been visited, players looking to get a certain medal will always have to replay the game to make their way towards the intended planet.
Getting to the end of Star Fox 64, even through its easiest route, is a pretty decent challenge, especially for less experienced players, as losing all lives makes one have to start back from ground zero. However, even with those retries, clearing the game itself should not take very long given stages never last for more than ten minutes. Therefore, these measures to extend gameplay time are absolutely necessary, and they are wonderfully implemented, feeling pleasantly natural and playing into the hands of the game’s arcade inspiration. The last act the game executes in that regard is the inclusion of a multiplayer mode where up to four players can battle it out in one of three modes, all involving taking down one another: Time Trials, where the goal is scoring the biggest amount of kills before time runs out; Battle Royal, where the last one standing wins; and Point Match, where a certain number of points needs to be achieved. Despite being quite engaging at the time of the game’s release, this is the sole area in which Star Fox 64 has not aged very well, as not only are the arenas quite uninspired, but the general lack of options makes the fun that can still be found in the mode run thin after a short while.
Overall, Star Fox 64 is nothing short of spectacular. It is the full realization of the concept of bringing arcade space shooters to a home console, and it reaches that status not just by perfectly translating the genre’s excitement and high-scoring thrill to television screens, but by finding ways to naturally expand the otherwise brief experience into a meaningful length. Be it by flying an Arwing, piloting a Landmaster, or diving in the Blue-Marine, players are bound to have an excellent time when blasting through Andross’ large army, and they will do so accompanied by likable characters, plenty of voice-acted dialogues, and stages that always succeed in surprising, testing gamers’ capacity to react quickly and shoot fast, and inviting them back for one more try. It is a source of joy that keeps on delivering for quite some time, and it is no wonder the absurd quality of the action it presents has been so hard to replicate.