It may have passed by most people, but February 2013 was the 20th anniversary of the Japanese release of the original Star Fox. March is the 20th anniversary of its North American release. Thinking about that made me try to remember why we even liked Star Fox in the first place and how Nintendo could possibly bring the franchise back.
Way back on the Super NES, of course the most obvious appeal of the first Star Fox was the 3D graphics. Beyond that though, it was just how well SF nailed the overall feeling of being a guy controlling a space fighter within a squadron of other guys. That game and Star Fox 64 are both what solidified that appeal I think.
Reading the Star Fox team’s chatter while flying into the middle of a 3D space armada felt closer to a sci-fi space battle than any console game I’d seen up to that point. I think for me it was the first major step forward for that motif before games like Star Wars Rogue Squadron pushed it further. Even the scant voiced lines like the opening “*beep* GOOD LUCK” before flying through a dark, nearly wireframe runway tunnel conveyed a feeling of flying out on a mission. Small things like the fact that you could get a damaged wing on your ship used to get an audible “whoah” out of me.
Star Fox 64 went full-blown with this, being probably the most cinematic Nintendo 64 game before Ocarina of Time came out. The before-mission briefings, cut scenes, and fully-voiced chatter probably made SF64 feel like the closest thing the N64 had to Metal Gear Solid.
You couldn’t call the SF games simply cinematic showcases though because the first two were actually very good tunnel shooters. I feel like people tend to forget this in regards to the original game.
SF64 may be regarded as the definitive SF game, but the original I think is different enough from it to hold up surprisingly well, probably because tunnel shooters are quite rare (the only other major ones being old franchises like Panzer Dragoon and Space Harrier). The original SF is also a much more challenging game than its successor.
I remember watching my brother fly into those space armada warships Death Star trench-style thinking about how hard it looked. The fact that Nintendo managed to completely render the feeling of flying into one, shooting the core, and then flying out, uninterrupted, in a Super NES game, is pretty incredible when you think about it. That’s not even talking about the challenge involved in the rest of the level design, which the multiple paths made surprisingly varied for such a graphically intense game at that time.
SF64 however was that game I mastered, eventually reaching a point where I always finished it with the exact same score. It’s one of those games I became a perfectionist at to the point where it almost wasn’t fun anymore, rage-quitting after even the slightest mistake.
What I really miss about SF64 though is the multiplayer. In the few months between SF64’s and GoldenEye’s releases in 1997, the former was THE four-player game for me on the N64. It felt like a true test of flying skill constantly looping and Immelmann turning around my brother and his friends. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve played a great console multiplayer space fighter game since. That’s one thing I keep hoping every new SF game brings back.
I think all three of those qualities: the in-cockpit in-squad feeling, the arcade shooter design, and the multiplayer, are what subsequent SF games have failed to reproduce. They need to get back to all that man.
Star Fox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet was a pretty good Zelda clone with the SF license slapped onto it. I’m still not sure about Star Fox Command on the DS.
Star Fox Assault was the closest we got to another real SF game. Some people even like it a lot. I think the game had its moments, at times being reminiscent of SF64, but it wasn’t really a return to form.
I started to get flashes of that feeling during Assault’s first level — the space armada fight which felt like I was in the middle of an anime space battle out of Gundam or Banner of the Stars. At its best, Assault managed to emulate SF64’s battles, but never really surpassed that game.
For the SF franchise to return to form, I think another game would have to feel like a true evolution on top of SF64. It would have to further enhance the feeling of being a guy controlling a space ship within a squad of other guys, through superb arcade level design. I also want to see the soul of SF64’s multiplayer definitively brought online.
Ideally, I’d want Nintendo to handle SF internally once again. In my opinion one of the franchise’s problems is that Nintendo hasn’t handled a game internally since SF64. None of the subsequent games has had Nintendo-caliber design behind it. The perfect studio to do it within Nintendo would probably be EAD Tokyo (Super Mario Galaxy), since the head of that studio was a lead designer on SF64. Galaxy shows they’ve got the chops for that kind of game design too. Retro Studios would probably be able to pull it off too.
I don’t have any illusions however of Nintendo putting its most valuable internal talent on a franchise that probably never sold nearly as well as Mario or Zelda. If it’s outside studios we’re talking about, Platinum games’ Hideki Kamiya (Okami, Bayonetta) is already in deep with Nintendo working on The Wonderful 101 and has expressed great desire to do SF. The other studio I personally trust with the property is Treasure, who at the very least would nail the arcade game design part.
With an outside developer, I think that at best Nintendo could end up with a game that does for the SF franchise what Sega’s F-Zero GX did for that franchise. Really though, I just hope Nintendo finds a way to keep SF in people’s minds. It really is one of Nintendo’s staple franchises, and they need to start treating it like one again.