Star Fox review by Allard Vuyk
Today, there is one trait all games have in common: 3D graphics. No matter what new game you play, or on which platform, the graphics will be rendered in 3D, with a few exceptions mostly on portable systems. Even a game featuring 2D gameplay will likely use 3D polygonal techniques for display. Yet there was a time when this was the other way around, when 2D was the rule, and 3D was as much an exception as 2D is today.
Much like black-and-white cinematography in film, presently 2D is more an artistic choice than a prerequisite forced by technology. Traditionally however, gaming systems were built specifically to move a relatively small number of tile-based images on a static background, not to perform the copious mathematical operations and full-screen updates necessary to display 3D graphics.
What was needed was an innovation, a "hack" that could bypass the 2D hardwired into the system.
In 1993, this came in the form of the SuperFX chip, a processor that offloads all graphics tasks from the main CPU, a Graphics Processing Unit if you will, which has been called the first video accelerator.
Argonaut, the developer behind the chip, joined forces with Nintendo and together with Shigeru Miyamoto produced the first game to use the SuperFX concept: StarFox for the Super NES
Why is the preceding discourse important? When playing StarFox on the SNES today, it is easy to be put off by the relative crudeness of the 3D graphics, mainly due to low resolution, frame rate and geometric complexity. However, when put into historical context, it becomes clear what a radical step forward this game represents. The excitement it generated at release was phenomenal, and it received almost unanimous positive reviews. For many, this encounter with 3D was their first, and it put gaming in a whole new perspective. Instead controlling the action from the side, as an interacting but distanced spectator, we were now sharing the same view as our heroes, Fox McCloud, Slippy Toad, Peppy Hare and Falco Lombardi, as together we ventured across space, over planets, though asteroid fields and beyond into another dimension. This shift in viewpoint allowed for a much more subjective experience, placing the player inside the game world.
The story centers on Dr. Andross, who has been banned from the planet Corneria for practicing dangerous scientific experiments in the heart of the planet's largest city. He fled to Venom, the most beautiful world in the Lylat star system, enslaving the population trough technological superiority, recruiting them into his army, turning the planet into a miserable, polluted, militarized hell. Corneria, which had all but forgotten about Andross, was quickly overpowered by his massive starfleet.
General Pepper, commander of the Cornerian defense, decided to use the prototype "Arwing" craft, which ironically has been developed from Dr. Andross' experiments. However, time was too short to train pilots for these new ships, so he called upon the Star Fox team, a disparate group of adventurers highly skilled in military combat.
You control the leader of the team, Fox McCloud, as the four emerge in formation from a Cornerian hangar. There are three routes from Corneria to Venom, each representing a difficulty level. The middle route is "easy", the upper "normal" and the lower "hard". Each route provides a unique experience with different planets and space sectors. This is where the game differs from countless other games in an exceptional way: each route can be completed in under an hour, but the experience is different almost every time it is played through. Instead of toiling trough a long quest which is rarely revisited after completion, this game presents an hour of marvelous spectacle, with surprises every mile flown. Because forward is the only onward, once something's past, it's too late; no backtracking. This means that when you miss something, you can only get it on the next play trough by planning ahead. There is so much happening in each level that there is a lot to miss, giving plenty of reasons to replay the same route. Because the game can be completed within one sitting, there is no need for saving. This makes the latter missions the kind of nail-biting tense that games which save every checkpoint - i.e. just about every modern game - definitely lack. What's great about that is that it makes the initial, easier levels worth paying extra attention to, because after each level the percentage of enemies shot down is totaled, and a continue credit is awarded at specific cumulative scores.
The enemies are one of the greatest strengths of the game. Each stage has a unique and broad variety of imaginatively designed enemies, each with its own particular movement and animations. Some are organic and indigenous to the environment, some are autonomous machines, and some are ships with enemy pilots, who sometimes drift helplessly through space at the screen after their ship has been destroyed (remember, these are the enslaved beings from Venom; they don't even want to fight.. war is hell).
Taking down these enemies is done with a single blaster at first, but it can be upgraded to twin blasters, and after that to awesome double plasma-ball cannons by picking up a floating icon, which mostly appears after destroying a specific enemy ship. Be careful however, because the ship's wings can be damaged, losing the upgrade. Picking up the icon with broken wings will only repair them. "Novabombs" can also be dropped, which destroy just about every enemy on screen. They are very helpful to get the 100% rating, but you start out with only three, and although more can be picked up, it’s best to use them wisely as the bomb loadout does not reset between stages.
At the defensive side, double-tapping the left or right shoulder button performs a barrel roll which reflects enemy plasma fire and deflects missiles, a tactic essential to survival. There is also a shield which turns the Arwing into a cool wireframe model and protects against all damage while it lasts. Simply holding the shoulder button makes the Arwing roll sideways, useful for getting through narrow gaps that may hide power-ups, and for getting past some of the more difficult obstacles later in the game. In addition to that, the Arwing can boost and brake to escape enemies or pass timed doors.
Every level ends with a giant boss, each with flashing weak points and requiring a specific strategy to take down. It is very satisfying hitting these weak points, especially when the huge ship or creature finally falls to the ground and explodes in massive fireballs accompanied by thunderous sound, followed by the rousing victory music.
In fact, sound effects and music play a huge part in the experience of this game. The music deserves special mention, as each track is not only wonderfully composed, but also arranged in such a way that it doesn't sound overtly electronic. Sampled instruments are used to give it an orchestral texture which is not found in other SNES titles. The result is a score that not only fits the tone of each level and enhances the action, but is music in its own right. The final movement of this symphony, which plays over the end credits, is a stirring crescendo suggesting comparisons to John Williams and Dvořák. The soundtrack as a whole is in my opinion the best of the SNES, perhaps the best ever videogame music. It also mixes well with the effects, quite an achievement considering the blaster sound is heard almost constantly. The effects have been designed by Koji Kondo, famous for the Super Mario Bros. and Zelda music. Explosions have a great "crushing" sound, enemies and buildings zip past with very good stereophonic spaciousness and "real" voices are quite clear, which was rare at the time. Then there are the character voices, using a novel technique of stringing together short vocal samples at various pitches, which was again used later to great comedic effect in Banjo-Kazooie.
For a space shooter, there is actually a lot of character interaction. Your wingmen, named before, engage enemies as well, and comment on you snatching their prey if you manage to beat them to it. They also get into trouble themselves, for which especially Slippy is famous (or infamous), and require you to save them from their pursuers. Fortunately, they are invulnerable to friendly fire and it should be no problem keeping them alive on all missions, to face the final boss, Andross, together.
In conclusion, it is obvious that I like this game a lot. It was revolutionary at the time, and is worth playing today just for its historic value. But there's more to it than technology. It's a game that is so tightly designed and perfect that it can't be improved by changing anything, only possibly by adding content. But that's for sequels, and at the risk of losing focus. Inevitably, the sequels did come, unfortunately not as StarFox 2 on the SNES, which was cancelled, but as StarFox 64 on the Nintendo 64. Interestingly, StarFox 64 also carried an innovation that has carried over to this day: controller rumble. But it didn't take the graphical quantum leap the original made. In discussing the history of videogame graphics, it is interesting to pose the question: what if Starfox on the SNES had not happened, or would not have been a success? Would 3D be as pervasive throughout the game industry as it is today? The move to photo-realistic graphics has undoubtedly drawn a larger audience into gaming. Perhaps, tired of the same 2D graphics, the market would have collapsed as it did in 1983, when people were tired of the same gameplay until Nintendo reinvigorated it. Or look at it from another perspective, what if Starfox on the N64 had pushed the technology as much as it had on the SNES? What if it had real-time raytracing, or at least pixelshaders - don't say it couldn't be done; that's what they might have said in SNES' time. Image how far we could have been today.
If you have the chance, check this game out (again), and don't judge its graphics too hastily. Stick with it and you'll find an excellent game with endearing characters, challenging gameplay and marvelous levels and sound. It will steal your heart and blow your mind (not the other way around - that would be nasty).