It's been over 20 years since the gaming masses were first taken to the Lylat System. It's certainly grown in many ways, going from a universe of primitive polygons to a gripping space opera, filled with brave heroes, powerful enemies, and space pilots with their own complex characters and motivations. It's genuinely surprising to see how big Star Fox has gotten, especially given its entrenched position as one of Nintendo's second-tier licenses. Part of that is because Fox knows the right time to make an entrance, which is usually when players have become accustomed to Nintendo's platform of the moment.
Another part of why Star Fox has proved so viable is because it's usually the series that's most willing to experiment with ideas. How bold do those experiments get? Let's find out, as we revisit 20 years of Star Fox lore, starting from its humble 16-bit beginnings through the next chapter in the series that's set to release later this month.
Star Fox (1993)
Star Fox wastes little time in getting to its experimental roots. While Nintendo was aiming for an action game surrounding a squadron of space pilots, Star Fox was also considered to be a demo for Nintendo's latest piece of technology: the Super FX chip. This special processing unit was introduced in later Super Nintendo games to allow for rendering of more complex 3D environments. The chip was designed by Argonaut Games, which in turn used Star Fox as a means to demonstrate what the new tech was capable of producing.
Star Fox, itself, was a remarkable 3D shooter that introduced several ideas that would become Star Fox staples. There were multiple routes, separated by difficulty, which would take Fox's crew to different worlds, all leading to a climactic clash with the mad scientist Andross on the planet Venom. While all roads led to Andross, the idea of being able to select different paths was a novel one and introduced a standard that all future Star Fox games would be held to. The Arwing's flight mechanics were fairly simple, sticking to speed boosts and side rolls, as opposed to some of the more complex concepts that would be introduced in later games.
Part of the reason that Star Fox isn't remember as fondly as some of its sequels is largely because there are many people that have not experienced the original game. That's because of the legal tie-ups surrounding the Super FX chip and the defunct Argonaut Games. Because of rights issues, Super FX games have not been re-released and it is unlikely they ever will. While some of those games, like the original Yoshi's Island, have been remade, it's unlikely the original Star Fox will ever see the light of day again. So it's a good thing Nintendo outdid itself for the sequel.
The Experiment: The aforementioned Super FX chip, which introduced the complex 3D worlds that may look primitive today, but set the stage for some of the memorable settings of Fox's future adventures.
Star Fox 64 (1997)
There was a Star Fox 2 in development following the release of the original game, but those plans were halted when Nintendo started work on the Nintendo 64. With more powerful hardware now available, Nintendo imagined it could do better. By all rights, it did.
To many fans, Star Fox 64 remains the best game in the series. It essentially follows the same story as the original game, having the Star Fox crew pursue the evil Andross to his base on the planet Venom. There were some noticebale differences, though. Instead of straight-up choosing a path, branching paths could be triggered by finding secrets across each of the game's levels. This amplified the replay value in a big way, encouraging players to go back and find anything they might have missed. The on-rails action was back in a big way, but Fox's second adventure also introduced All-Range Mode, which brought dogfighting into the equation. These skirmishes often proved to be the most exciting part of the game, especially when pitted against Star Fox's rival team, Star Wolf. The narrative had a Saturday morning cartoon atmosphere to it, but the seeds were sown for what would become a greater story down the line.
Star Fox 64 also tossed in some new modes of travel. The Landmaster tank proved to have the most staying power, lending itself perfectly to the Arwing control scheme and providing a unique dynamic of Fox covering the ground, while Peppy, Slippy, and Falco covered him from the air. There were only two Landmaster levels, but the tank proved so popular that it would return in future games. The Blue Marine wasn't quite so lucky. This submarine put more of an emphasis on button mashing, while its one stage had so much going on, the framerate often slowed to a crawl. This level was one of the few misses in an otherwise perfect 3D shooter.
It's hard to follow up a game like Star Fox, so Nintendo didn't try. Oh, there was another Star Fox game on the horizon. It just wasn't what anyone expected... at all.
The Experiment: The Rumble Pak! That's not a typo, either. Nintendo released its "Rumble Pak" accessory for free with all copies of Star Fox 64, which would introduce haptic feedback whenever a player's Arwing was hit. Reactions to the peripheral were mixed, but that argument would ultimately be a moot point. Nintendo was in love with the concept of rumble feedback and would use it in all future Nintendo 64 games. On top of that, other console manufacturers followed suit and controllers with vibration have now become the norm.
Star Fox Adventures (2002)
Those looking for another 3D shooter like the previous Star Fox games were noticeably disappointed by Star Fox Adventures, the series' first crack at the GameCube. Perhaps that's because this was never intended to be a Star Fox game. So here's the backstory: Nintendo had been teasing a new franchise called Dinosaur Planet, which would take players on an adventure across a mystical planet filled with humanoid reptiles. The game was on the verge of cancellation, but Nintendo had one last Hail Mary in mind. It basically took the idea and applied Star Fox characters to it. This was both a cool idea and a terrible one and it can be summed up in the following statement: Star Fox Adventures was a great game, but Star Fox Adventures was a terrible Star Fox game.
What makes that statement so true? Star Fox Adventures is primarily a 3D adventure game, more in the vein of The Legend of Zelda. In fact, Fox even had his own goofy animations whenever he found treasure or opened a chest. In a way, this was pretty cool, in the sense that it breathed personality into the Star Fox characters that the previous format didn't necessarily allow for. It made the franchise feel more like a space opera, as we got to walk alongside Fox on his journey and have him meet some of the lesser characters that inhabit his world. And it lets us watch Fox adapt to a situation he's not expecting, getting out of his comfort zone and capably taking care of business anyway, because that's what heroes do. It would also set the tone for future Star Fox games, which let players explore the characters behind the cockpit and what makes them who they are. That includes Krystal, who started life here as a token damsel, but wound up becoming a capable member of the Star Fox crew herself.
Where it fails as a Star Fox game is that, up to this point, the series was primarily about on-rails shooting in space. This was a case where Nintendo tried to have its cake and eat it, too, as it tacked on several Arwing missions that felt phoned in. On top of that, there's a big twist at the end, revealing the "true" villain behind the happenings on Dinosaur Planet and it was a plot twist that reeked of a handwritten note stapled to the back of the script.
The Experiment: The whole game! This was a complete format change and a major gamble for Nintendo. In some ways, as mentioned, it set the stage for character moments that would come in the future. But the experiment went over poorly with hardcore Star Fox fans. There's a reason people don't hear a lot about this game anymore. It's not because it's a bad game, far from it, in fact. It's because it sticks out like a sore thumb next to its peers.
Star Fox: Assault (2005)
Nintendo wasn't quite ready to go back to Star Fox itself, but there was someone else that was up to the challenge with another GameCube outing. Namco was more than ready to tackle the franchise and it did so in a big way by expanding the space opera theme far beyond what had been attempted in the past. Fox McCloud was now exploring entirely new worlds, while also dealing with a whole new galactic threat called the Aparoids that were seeking to assimilate the galaxy. This should sound very familiar to fans of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," because the idea was basically Fox McCloud vs. The Borg.
It shouldn't be a surprise with such a classic premise, the story was one of the most gripping in the series. This wasn't a simple matter of Fox just blasting his way forward. He was on the defensive for much of the game. He was faced off with allies that were possessed by the Aparoid menace. He even had to turn his blasters on General Pepper at one point. It was such a high stakes story that even rival Star Wolf set aside their differences with Star Fox, knowing the galaxy was in danger, and helped out at various points in the story. So could the gameplay match the epic narrative?
As is so often the case with Star Fox, when it's on-rails, it's hard to mess up. The on-rails sections and the All-Range Mode sequences are still a lot of fun. Namco even introduced a twist to the All-Range missions, in that Fox could actually get in and out of his Arwing at different points. That meant there were several instances where Fox could fly in Arwing and then drive the Landmaster in the same mission. Sounds good on paper, right? Well, there was a big problem and let's get to that with where this game experimented.
The Experiment: Switching in and out of vehicles is a great idea on paper. And yes, it was cool to go from Arwing to Landmaster and vice versa. However, that also meant Fox was fighting on foot. He was fighting on foot a lot, in fact, and the controls when fighting on foot were atrocious. Fox's movement was clumsy on his own, but the camera was also positioned in such a way that it was difficult to tell where he was going. This led to a lot of falling, which would be an inconvenience at best and an accidental death at worst.
Star Fox Command (2006)
In the aftermath of the Aparoid War, another threat started popping up around Andross' old haunts on Venom. The evil Anglar Emperor was now threatening the Lylat System and Star Fox was called in to save the galaxy once again. But something was noticeably different this time around. It's not just the story, either.
Star Fox Command was the series' debut on a handheld, bringing Fox to the Nintendo DS. Because this was another of Nintendo's new toys, it was time to use the Star Fox team as guinea pigs. In this case, Command felt more like a real-time strategy game, right down to a full-blown "Fog of War" covering the touch screen. When colliding with an enemy, the scene shifted to more traditional All-Range Mode, but the controls weren't quite standard here, either. We'll get into that more in a bit.
Command took the Star Fox 64 idea of branching paths and not only embraced it, but also went further with the idea by introducing multiple endings. Depending on which path the player chose, Fox and company will experience a different outcome and these endings ran the gamut from a new generation of Star Fox pilots taking the mantle from their parents to Krystal going rogue and joining Star Wolf. From a story standpoint, it's wild to see and it's hard to tell which of those endings, if any, wound up being canon. If this month's Star Fox offering is any indication, however, all of that conversation may be moot.
The Experiment: The RTS gameplay would normally be enough of an oddity by Star Fox standards, but remember that when the Nintendo DS was first released, Nintendo was enamored by the idea of stylus controls. Traditional controls were phased out completely (sound familiar?) and Command was controlled purely with the touch screen. While strict traditionalists frowned at the move, many that played the game found the controls to be intuitive and responsive. It was a bold move for the series and one that, by many accounts, worked out.
Star Fox Zero (2016)
And now it comes to this, the first new Star Fox in a decade. Having recapped the series to this point, it puts some of Nintendo's bolder choices for this particular game in better perspective. The choices start to feel less experimental and more ambitious.
As for the story... well... it appears that somebody hit the old reset button here. The story appears to be a copy of the one from Star Fox 64. Peppy Hare is no longer retired, Wolf O'Donnell is back to leading his old four-scoundrel crew, Krystal no longer exists, and Andross is back to threatening the Lylat System. All is as it was! Okay, that's kind of disappointing, but the gameplay looks great, doesn't it?
The Experiment: And here's where Star Fox conducts arguably it's boldest experiment ever. The on-rails gameplay remains as it was, with Zero looking like a much more polished Star Fox 64 in certain areas. But the controls are going to be what make or break this game. The Wii U GamePad's gyroscope will play a big factor, having players in All-Range mode aim with their controller, while also keeping track of where their Arwing is going. Reception for these controls have been mixed, to say the least, even with the addition of 2-player co-op that has one player as the pilot and a partner as the gunner. On paper, it looks brutally cumbersome, but in practice, opinions have been mixed. Even Shacknews has weighed in more than once.
So while Star Fox Zero looks to be an acquired taste, thanks to some of its more ambitious features, that's not a new story for Fox McCloud. Experimentation has been a key element of this series since its inception, so having looked back through the Star Fox lineup, why should Star Fox Zero go any differently? If anything, if it didn't try to shift some paradigms, it just wouldn't be a Star Fox game.
Any memories of the Star Fox series you'd like to share? Join the conversation and let us know in the comments.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Trust Your Instincts: A Star Fox Timeline
The Ozziebot just won't stop shacking. It's programming won't allow it.
never give up
That SNES screen looks WAY worse than I remember!
I hope Nintendo can reimagine StarFox beyond an on rails shooter and figure out a way to open the game up. I said before that I think an on rails shooter is a hard sale at $60.
Awesome timeline Ozzie.
I kinda want the series to end with star fox taking a fight so challenging the only way to win is to become a kamikaze pilot.
Minor spoiler, but that ALMOST happened in Star Fox Assault. In fact, Peppy kamikaze'd the Great Fox as one last desperate effort against the Aparoids.