“You should see this. It’s just like having an arcade machine connected to your television.”
Those were the words my brother, ten years my senior, said to me one time he came home from his job on a ’90s gaming magazine, pulling a Super Famicom out of his bag.
While the system didn’t quite live up to those lofty expectations in some regards — particularly as it got a bit older — there were certain games that, once I had my own Super NES and some games for it, reminded a younger me very much of those words. And Star Fox was one of them.
In the early to mid ’90s, young Pete was mildly obsessed with the idea of recreating an authentic-feeling arcade experience at home. I knew that it wasn’t possible to truly have a home arcade, because the generalised or consumer-grade hardware we had at home was a fraction of the cost and capability of specialised arcade hardware at the time. But I still appreciated when games felt like they were arcade games.
The reason for this is that visiting an arcade was a rare treat for me. Unlike in the US, where arcades were pretty widespread in the ’90s, here in the UK, if you wanted to play arcade games, you generally had to go to the seaside. And I lived near Cambridge, which is a long way from the seaside. So I wanted to find the next best thing at home and enjoy it whenever possible.
It was often small, subtle things that made me feel a game was “arcadey” rather than grander aspects of game design: an interesting attract mode; a flashing “Press Start” on the title screen; a satisfying electronic-sounding “biddly-boop” noise when you eventually pressed Start; some sort of pre-game sequence where you could imagine strapping yourself into one of those big hydraulic cabinets that used to host games like After Burner and G-LOC.
Star Fox provided me with all those things and more. While I was aware that its Super FX-powered polygonal 3D graphics paled in comparison to its rough contemporary in the arcades, Starblade from Namco — which I had been thrilled and delighted by on our last family trip to the seaside — this was the kind of experience I’d been looking for.
So simple to pick up and play that you didn’t need to read the manual in order to have a good time with it, yet providing sufficient depth and challenge to maintain interest, Star Fox was a delight to play. And I played it a lot.
Star Fox’s development came about through Nintendo working alongside British software house Argonaut Software throughout the NES and SNES era. Argonaut had developed a solid reputation for being able to fling 3D graphics around on home computers thanks to their Starglider series, and Nintendo were clearly interested in trying to make their techniques work on their own hardware.
Argonaut’s initial project was a prototype for NES that roughly followed the mould of Starglider. The group subsequently ported this prototype — known as NesGlider at the time — to pre-release Super Famicom hardware in an attempt to improve its performance, but Argonaut lead Jez San came to the conclusion that they weren’t going to get it running any better without some custom hardware. Although the Super Famicom had its Mode 7 capabilities for creating 3D-like effects from flat 2D images — as seen in games such as F-Zero and Super Mario Kart to great effect — it was a bit lacking in the areas that made true polygonal 3D graphics work effectively and smoothly.
The resultant Super FX chip made continued development of the project practical, so while Argonaut worked on the technological side of things, Nintendo worked to provide the game some character. Designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Katsuya Eguchi decided that they didn’t want to make a conventional science fiction story and so, inspired by various Japanese folklore legends, came up with the animal characters.
Protagonist Fox was inspired by Fushimi Inari-taisha, the head shrine of Shinto kami Inari, which was close to the Nintendo offices. Inari is the kami for foxes, fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture, industry and general prosperity, and is often represented as having pure white foxes known as kitsune serving them. Hares and birds also appear frequently throughout Japanese folklore, so Peppy and Falco followed quickly. And Slippy came about as the result of a Nintendo employee who had a toad as a personal mascot.
The Japanese inspirations run even deeper than that, though; the Cornerian forces are made up of dogs and are locked in perpetual combat with the monkey-like Andross because of the Japanese expression 犬猿の仲 (ken’en no naka) which literally translates as “dog-monkey” and is used to describe a bad relationship, in a similar way to how we might describe diametrically opposed viewpoints in English as being akin to the relationship between cats and dogs.
Keeping a worldwide audience in mind, though, Miyamoto decided that he would keep the word “fox” in English rather than using the Japanese kitsune. While kitsune carry particular, specific associations for Japanese people, these would not translate to the potential Western audience, so the name Star Fox stuck worldwide. Except in Europe, of course, where trademark issues with a German company named StarVox caused it to end up renamed Starwing.
Star Fox is simple in mechanical concept. You, as Fox McCloud, leader of the titular four-ship wing of spacefaring anthropomorphic animal mercenaries, are tasked with saving the planet Corneria from the forces of Andross. You do this by flying in a straight line, trying not to crash into anything, blasting anything that flashes when you hit it until it explodes, and flying through rings for bonuses.
In its purest sense, it is a total adaptation of the scrolling shoot ’em up formula into a three-dimensional environment. Rather than constantly moving horizontally or vertically as in a Thunder Force or a Raiden, here your movement is constant in the Z-axis, into the screen, and your control is limited to your X and Y positions. Somehow this never truly feels limiting, however; the game has been designed so that you never feel like you want or need to deviate from the path set out ahead of you. You have an important mission to fulfil, and it’s straight ahead.
Even with the game’s technical limitations, the levels are enormously varied, with gorgeous bitmapped backgrounds that pitch and roll with your ship’s attitude, and a variety of weird and wonderful low-polygon shapes to get in your way and blast into satisfying sprite-based explosions. The first level on Corneria sees you flying through an abstract cityscape; later levels see you navigating asteroid fields in space, whizzing through the middle of enemy capital ships, fending off sea life and enemy robots alike a few metres above a planet’s ocean, and trying not to anger space stingrays while shaking off pulsating electric amoebae. It all concludes with a dramatic, spiralling descent to the enemy’s home planet, all in perfect sync with the dramatic (synthesised) orchestral soundtrack.
That soundtrack played a big part in my appreciation of Star Fox as being “arcadey”. It was quite unlike anything I’d ever heard the Super NES produce. It was energetic, it was bassy, it was filled with surprisingly convincing (for the time) recreations of various instruments, including howling electric guitars. It felt like the sort of soundtrack you’d just be able to hear bassy hints of above the blaring ambient noise of a busy arcade, but being able to appreciate the detail and craft that had gone into each and every composition while playing it in the peace of one’s home made it truly special. There are boss themes from Star Fox I still hear in my head to this day any time I have a significant or challenging activity to accomplish.
Where Star Fox perhaps falls down a bit from a modern perspective is its replayability — or rather, its incentive to replay. There is a scoring system, which is based entirely on a “percentage” grade you attain at the end of a level rather than the later games’ emphasis on stylish combos and multi-kills, but no means of saving or tracking high scores. There are, however, three completely different routes through the game that roughly correspond to difficulty levels, as well as two very strange secret levels and lots of smaller hidden secrets throughout the main stages.
Rather than score attack, the main incentive to replay Star Fox comes from the simple spectacle of it all. While its visuals may look laughably simple to a modern audience, if you allow the game to truly immerse you in its low-poly world, it’s a thrilling and enjoyable experience that can be enjoyed time and time again like a good movie — even if you know everything that’s coming.
And, indeed, that’s exactly what I’ve done every so often over the years since its original release. The technology that drives it all may be incredibly dated now, but the game still holds that arcadey magic for me — arguably even more so than its more impressive successors.
And now I can play it on my lunch break thanks to the Switch! Hooray!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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