I remember first laying eyes on Star Fox at a game store display, and pretty much freaking out. I believe I would have killed a man on the spot if it would have resulted in me walking away with the game. The idea of a space shooter was, of course, not particularly unique. The idea of a space shooter with three-dimensional polygon ships and backgrounds, however, was. It was especially unheard of for a console, and was only made possible by the Super FX coprocessor chip, which this game acted as a flagship title for. As Argonaut Games designed both the chip and the game, this should come as no surprise. What is a surprise is that the game is far more than a simple tech demo, and was luckily worth every single bit of freak out I initially had.
The game follows the escapades of an elite crew of anthropomorphic animals, led by “Star” Fox McCloud, as they protect their homeworld against attack from the spacefleet of an angry mad scientist gorilla. Fox and company’s Arwing fighters offer them great maneuverability, upgradeable weapons, the ability to target from the cockpit in certain levels, and look pretty spiffy for being made out of enough polygons to count on two hands. The action leads the crew across multiple levels on three different difficulty paths, with all roads leading to the enemy homeworld of Venom, a very strange but cool-looking boss fight, and an escape cutscene right out of Return of the Jedi.
I usually don’t talk about graphics this early in the reviews, because they rarely make the game. Here, they certainly do. The Super FX chip works exactly as advertised, and creates fast, sharp enemies and a suitable illusion of 3-D. Explosions and smoke are still sprites, either in a large graphic or in smaller dots simulating microscopic, firey debris, but everything else is constructed of 3-D polys moving realistically inside a 3-D space. Now, you will note that the ground never actually moves, and motion is merely simulated by a rolling carpet of dots or stars, so there isn’t a complete 3-D “world” as in modern games.
Still, this is only an issue if you’re looking to critique it. Buildings will fly past you at impressive speeds, enemies zip around in vertical shooter flight patterns, and lasers exist as actual objects that must be artfully dodged. Likewise, the entire game is built using only handfuls of flat, monochrome polygons, but the ship designs make the most of the limited resources. It also allows for specific parts of ships to shear off and tumble away; something pretty new and pretty cool. Bosses can have missile pods or launch bays shot off, smaller fighters break apart into shards and sparks when destroyed, and your craft can lose wings on either side if they take enough damage to that location. The broken wing is visually apparent, and noticeably limits your handling.
The gameplay is best described as an invisible corridor, a term I believe that even the manual coins. The camera sits in a static position behind the ship. The ship is free to move around the edges of the screen while always flying forward at a constant speed. It’s similar to video backdrop games like Microcosm, except here you cannot change direction, and there are no twists and turns. Enemies and objects come at you from further down the “corridor.” The game is split pretty evenly between space and planet levels, and each function identically, as the need to dodge asteroids and buildings both draw from the same basic skill. The space levels offer the ability to move the camera into the cockpit. The fighter controls don’t change, but you trade the ability to aim accurate crosshairs at your enemies for the cost of not seeing the clearance between space objects and your fragile wings.
You also have the ability to briefly control your speed with a boost and brake function. These are useful for environmental hazards that pop up throughout the levels, like boosting out of the way of falling pillars, and braking to give a door time to open. You will rarely need to use them in the course of pursuing and attacking your enemies. Both speed functions are limited by a generic engine meter that depletes when either one is used, and recharges in a few seconds.
Controlling the ship is fairly easy as well. Standard controls are obvious and responsive, following a flight sim standard of pressing up to dive and down to climb. Brake and boost have individual buttons, as does your laser and a bomb pickup useful for clearing the screen of foes. The final ability makes perfect use of the SNES pad’s shoulder buttons, and rolls the fighter 90-degrees to the pressed side. This is useful for assisting in a turn, to keep your wings clear of a passing obstruction, or to fit through narrow slats in the level, like between buildings. Double-tapping either shoulder button causes the ship to roll, which deflects lasers should they strike while rolling, and also makes a completely pointless victory celebration after defeating a boss – usually after boosting to fly through the resultant gigantor explosion.
The music is catchy and generally upbeat. Most of it will remain recognizable to those who have played the game, which is pretty much the best thing I can say about it. There are a few digitized voices in the game, usually announcing a pickup or status change, like wing damage or an approaching boss. These are extremely brief, but can be useful. The actual characters do not talk. Instead, they make unique “wah-wah” noises like the adults in Peanuts. Perhaps it is to give them some personality and a language, but more likely it is because voice clips for the length of what they’re saying couldn’t fit into the cart. You will read their comm chatter through subtitles at the bottom, most of which is totally superfluous. Occasionally they will announce that they have enemies pursuing them, and then appear in front of you with enemy indeed dogging them. You are supposed to assist them here, with their shields dropping the longer you ignore them.
Your three wingmen do actually kill an enemy or two from time to time, so they are worth having around, but mostly this will affect your end-of-level score. If a wingman’s shields drop to zero, they will pull out of that level and you’ll take a fairly substantial point hit. Otherwise, they serve no direct purpose – though it is amusing to have one say “This one’s mine!” in a reverse of the above situation. You can then steal the kill they’re stalking and listen to some angry “waah woobonoo wanah!” curses.
The only real complaint is that the game can be rather short, and it can be rather difficult as well. Still, the three different difficulty paths, which take you through three different sets of locations, help to offset the shortness. The difficulty, I suppose, is up to you, but the entire game is certainly playable.
Before this game, my favorite space fighter was Wing Commander. It absolutely had much more depth, but the multi-angled sprites for ships didn’t always cut it. StarFox brought forth something much faster, much more 3-D, and did an amazing job at replicating all those classic action scenes like space dogfights and outrunning explosions. It probably influenced every 3-D fighter sim after it, and somehow managed to create personality, recognizeability, and sentiment out of endless frames of a starship’s ass made out of only six or seven triangles. I look at the starship ass shots on this page, and I want to go play more StarFox.
Super FX chip makes an impressive debut in a very fun arcade shooter.
Short, difficult, but still plenty replayable.