Even if Star Fox 2 cannot be fearlessly recommended due to its blatant wrinkles, it can at least be applauded and given some praise for an audacity that does generate some exciting fruits
Despite belonging to a franchise that is relatively popular, Star Fox 2 is not exactly a well-known game. The credit to that weird status goes, of course, to the story surrounding its development; one that may be unknown to many, but that is most likely very familiar to those that are aware of the title’s existence. With its planning stages kicking off at some point in 1993, not too long after the debut’s release, the project planned to revisit not only the arcade-inspired gameplay of aerial shooting that dominated its predecessor, but also to boast – once more – cutting-edge tridimensional visuals that were, during the early portion of that decade, otherworldly; a graphical display that was intended to be even more impressive due to the creation of an optimized version of the Super FX processor that had allowed the original effort to sport its signature 3-D look.
As the game was nearing completion, however, the project into which Nintendo and its technological partner, Argonaut Software, had poured so many hours was faced with a major problem. By then, it was 1995, and both the PlayStation and the Sega Saturn had hit Japan in the previous year, containing advanced hardware whose power allowed them to seamlessly output polygons and, therefore, create tridimensional worlds that were vastly superior to what Star Fox could achieve. Furthermore, with the launch of the even mightier Nintendo 64 fast approaching, it became clear to the Japanese giant that Star Fox 2, if released, would sink like a rock under the weight of poor sales, technological inferiority, and financial risks, especially because the additional chip it used was simply expensive to make.
The result was bitter cancellation and change of direction, with the focus being shifted to creating a new Star Fox game for the upcoming machine. Oddly, though, given the sequel planned for the Super Nintendo was pretty close to being done, developers were ordered to see the work through to the end. Completed, the game ended up not coming out; yet, knowledge of its existence and of its concluded state led many to seek it through illegal roads, and copies of the software – albeit all of them being of the package in an unfinished state – made their way to the Internet and to fans who were curious to check the long-lost production.
Quite unexpectedly, the status of Star Fox 2 as a mysterious title nobody ever got to play but that lied completed somewhere inside Nintendo’s headquarters would change in 2017, when the company opted to include the product into the collection of games packed inside the Super NES Classic Edition. Afterwards, late in 2019, the once-missing sequel would see its potential audience greatly expand when it was made available for the Nintendo Switch. And although those who sit down to play it are bound to discover that the tale of its development is far more alluring than the final result itself, gamers ought to be thankful Star Fox 2 is at last out there, for it succeeds quite nicely in presenting a very unique look into the franchise.
Amidst notable shifts in gameplay, the title actually does not put much effort into altering the context that leads the galaxy’s most famous team of mercenaries in spaceships to be called upon for one more mission. Defeated in the original adventure, Andross, the simian scientist who got banned from the Lylat System due to his ethically questionable research on bio-technology, has returned from the dead. And, apparently, still very much angry towards the one who sent him away (General Pepper) and those that stopped his plans for revenge (the Star Fox crew), the mad monkey unleashes, from the edge of the system, another vicious attack on Corneria, the most important world of the galaxy.
Although the plan of Andross is essentially the same as it was the last time around, Star Fox 2 turns the struggle to save Corneria on its head. Where the debut featured a progression that was as straightforward as it could be, for players navigated a series of levels in a predetermined order until they got to the villain’s home-world and annihilated him and his fleet; in Star Fox 2 the structure is far looser, as the effort puts the decision of where to go and what to do entirely in the hands of gamers.
That format is possible because even if in gameplay Star Fox 2 is still centered around flying and shooting, in the way its overworld is presented the game draws heavy inspiration from the real-time strategy genre. Corneria and the important locations of the Lylat System appear statically on a map, with planets that have been conquered by Andross and his army being clearly highlighted; meanwhile, other hazards sent in by the antagonist also show up on the screen, such as groups of fighters, mighty battleships, missiles, and other dangers. Confronted by so many potential threats, players must move their Arwing towards the problem they want to deal with and engage on a mission to take it down. The task, however, is not as simple as it initially sounds.
In Star Fox 2, the Lylat System is one big chessboard, because as the Star Fox team moves and spends time in combat, so do the minions of the villain. As time passes, missiles and groups of fighters get closer to hitting Corneria; the battleships charge their powerful and highly damaging canons; the bases, located on planets that are dominated by the bad guys, prepare to launch more missiles; Andross readies the deploying of extra enemies; and even a weird space virus may be sent across the system to hack into the defense satellite that helps defend the main world by shooting incoming threats. It is an onslaught, and players’ main goal is not just to survive it all, but to also get rid of all trouble and gain entrance into Andross’s base for the final encounter without allowing the damage counter of Corneria to hit the mark of 100%.
The result is frantic. Before making any move towards their next target, gamers will – more often than not – be forced into considering what to do, whether it is to bring down a battleship that is conveniently nearby, tackle a risky chase for missiles that are about to hit Corneria, or take care of a base across the system that is getting ready to propel more projectiles out to space. And to add a nice strategic variable to the component of movement, the Star Fox mothership, which can be used to fully heal one’s Arwing, also has the ability to teleport to any planet that is not under the control of Andross’s forces, a feature that will come in handy with some frequency.
Furthermore, the fact that the bad guys never stop to take any sort of rest puts pressure on gamers to clear missions as quickly as possible. Whenever the Arwing touches a rival unit on the map, the view will shift to a gameplay screen in which the signature ship can be controlled in a 3-D environment; and on its very top, a clock that counts the time spent in the task will remind players that, out there in Lylat, the pieces are still moving on the board. To drive that point home even further, amidst the traditional exchanges between the members of Star Fox, players will receive eventual communications from the Cornerian army letting them know that a new group of fighters has a appeared, missiles have been launched, and battleships are about to fire away, therefore giving the experience an edge of urgency that is very special.
As it was the case in the original game, Star Fox 2 presents three levels of difficulty in which that madness gets progressively more brutal. In the normal configuration, which is a relative breeze, the Lylat System will only feature a pair of conquered planets; Andross will send out two battleships, one boss, and no viruses; the Star Wolf team, which appears chronologically for the first time here and whose units are faced individually, will be short one member; the rate in which missiles are launched and the battleship’s canons are fired will be low; and the charging of Corneria’s defensive satellite will be fast.
Simultaneously, when it comes to the the hard and expert modes, the latter of which is unlocked only if gamers get a good grade when clearing the former, it goes without saying that besides skewing those variables in a way that does not benefit the good guys, the two of them also do some alterations in the strength of foes and in the complexity of stages, a turn that ends up making those settings amount to considerable challenges that are going to demand quite a few tries to be overcome.
Regardless of how meaningful they are, the changes in format are not the only ones performed by Star Fox 2 in relation to its predecessor; the game also implements novelties in a few other areas, and some of them – even if not revealed to the public until much later – would go on to influence the saga as it moved forward. A good minor, but meaningful, example of that progress is the ability to charge one’s laser; a skill that, here, appears without the automatic lock, hence forcing players to aim, but whose devastating blow would play a major role in the excellence of Star Fox 64.
Before getting to save Corneria, players will have to select two among the six members of the Star Fox team. With the familiar faces of Fox, Falco, Slippy, and Peppy, plus the newcomers Miyu and Fay, the crew is divided into three classes that differ on the speed and resistance of their ship; on how long their laser canons take to charge; and on the limited special item they come equipped with: bombs, protective shields, or replenishments for the craft’s armor.
The second character that is selected will act like a wingmate during missions; in those cases, however, their central form of helping will just be giving advice to newcomers on how to control the ship. Their main uses will actually be others: firstly, it is possible to switch – on the map – to the second Arwing with the press of a button, consequently bringing some relief in moments when the healing mothership is too far out; secondly, if one of the characters is blasted to pieces, the other will be able to take their place, letting players avoid seeing the game over screen and starting the quest from scratch.
The biggest additions executed by the game, though, and the ones that ultimately allow Star Fox 2 to be what it is when the action moves away from the map and into the cockpit of the Arwing, are the walker and the all-range mode. The first, which would only see the light of the day in 2016 alongside Star Fox Zero, is a metamorphosis of the ship – which can be triggered at any time there is solid ground below it – that transforms it into a machine that walks on two legs. When that happens, the standard controls drastically change: in addition to gaining the ability to jump, the walking is mapped to the digital pad while turning the apparatus around is achieved via the shoulder buttons.
Controlling the craft in the original Star Fox was never overly smooth, since the breaking, the boosting, the handling, and especially the execution of the barrel roll, the famous maneuver that deflects incoming fire, were not polished to a very optimized level thanks to the lack of experience gaming companies had with 3-D movement and the incompatibility that existed between the Super Nintendo’s joystick and the tridimensional environments.
In Star Fox 2, that issue reappears, but it becomes somewhat more serious. A lot of that has to do with the walker and with how frequently it is used; the machine seems to aggravate all of those problems due to the fact the walking and the turning in 3-D are linked to inputs that are far from the modern ideal: that is, two analog sticks. As such, even if it opens up some very interesting ground-based gameplay opportunities, including a few enclosed segments that are dungeon-like in their design, the walker ends up being more of a hindrance than a bonus.
Contrarily, the all-range mode – whose first appearance would come in the Nintendo 64 classic – is a complete and undeniable victory. The term refers to gameplay segments where rather than moving mindlessly forward in orthodox on-rails fashion, the ships get to roam freely around a specified area. To say that Star Fox 2 takes advantage of the new concept is an understatement; the quest is almost entirely built over it, as pretty much all of its missions ignore the restricted, yet fun, format found in the levels of the debut and opt to go for new grounds.
Encounters involving bosses, squadrons of fighters, members of the Star Wolf team, viruses, and missiles take place in open space, with players getting to see the area either from a first-person or a third-person perspective (a change that can be made at will) and being able to do whatever moves they feel are necessary to get the upper hand on their rivals and rid the Lylat System of the trouble as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, planetary bases involve two portions: one on the outside, when gamers can switch between the Arwing and the walker to hit targets that will open the way to the building; and one on the inside, when staying on the ground is the best option to go through a simple maze of rooms and foes that will eventually lead to the well-protected core of the structure. Finally, duels against battleships have a similar division, but while the internal sequence is pretty much the same, it is preceded by an external segment that has the Star Fox team going through obstacles and enemy ships that are trying to stop them from getting into the larger vessel.
Admittedly, it is not a whole lot of variety and it is easy to wish there were more to the game than those challenges; a few on-rails levels, for instance, would have done wonders to the mix. However, Star Fox 2 sort of thrives on that absurd simplicity because, quite clearly, its focus lies elsewhere; more specifically, on its refreshing blend of the straightforwardness of arcade gaming with the calculated tension of real-time strategy.
Rather smartly, and also following a tradition of the saga, the game squeezes as much as it can out of that nature, for even though saving Corneria should not be more than a two-hour affair regardless of the chosen difficulty, Star Fox 2 begs to be replayed due to a scoring system that, based on numerous variables (including a few collectible hidden tokens), keeps track of the best performances gamers have had.
Much like its predecessor, Star Fox 2 is, in spite of being released well into the 21st century, a relic of the past. And its position as one of the first shots Nintendo ever took at tridimensional gaming, especially one that was carried out over a platform that was far from ideal to the task, dates it badly. Perhaps far more than any other Super Nintendo game, and to a degree that is even more extreme than that observed in relation to many late NES efforts like Kirby’s Adventure and Super Mario Bros. 3, it is a product that has aged a lot, and not kindly: its graphics are poor to a point that makes it hard to tell the exact shape of some objects or set pieces; its models are simple junctions of large polygons; its frame rate is sluggish; and its controls will occasionally annoy.
It is hard to overlook elements that, in the past, were major technological victories but that, in a context where tridimensional gaming has reached full maturity, come off as awfully clunky and outdated. Nonetheless, it would be unfair to let Star Fox 2 be fully defined by them when it does such a great job in building its own identity. The game is very much a sequel to an equally flawed classic; after all, it borrows a universe of spaceships, dogfights, and a whole lot of shooting from it. At the same time, though, it barely feels like the second chapter of a saga, because the changes it operates in structure, leaning to a strategic vein, and in gameplay, betting on free-roaming combats, create gigantic separation between it and its predecessor. Therefore, even if Star Fox 2 cannot be fearlessly recommended due to its blatant wrinkles, it can at least be applauded and given some praise for an audacity that does generate some exciting fruits.