Looking Back at Star Fox

starfox_iconThe Star Fox series is certainly eclectic. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to do with itself. Nintendo never seemed satisfied with letting it just be the arcade rail shooter that fans prefer, and it instead used it as an outlet for experimentation and innovation with admittedly varied results. But that’s also what makes the series, as a whole, interesting.

I’ve enjoyed the Star Fox games over the years, and with one of the latest entries, Star Fox Zero, creating its own waves (both positive and negative), I felt compelled to look back at my own experiences with the series.

Star Fox (1993)

More than any other entry in the series, the original Star Fox is very much a product of its time. However, being one of the first home console games to use polygonal 3D graphics, it was also the most revolutionary.

It might be hard to tell by looking at it now, but seeing it for the first time back when it came out was mind blowing. For a console that was already faking 3D pretty well with its “Mode 7” scaling and rotation effects, the fully polygonal scrolling landscape was on another level entirely. I remember thinking how cool it was when, during the Space Armada level, you would see giant battleships in the background, fly right up to them, then inside them to destroy their cores, and back out the other side. And it all happened seamlessly.

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It’s less impressive today with its choppy frame-rate and sluggish digital controls, but some parts of it do hold up. In particular, the soundtrack by Hajime Hirasawa, with its mix of heroic John Williams-esque orchestrations and gritty guitar rock, is still my favorite in the series.

It also had a very particular atmosphere to it that’s never quite been replicated since then. Part of it was probably just the abstract nature of the graphics, but the original Star Fox felt downright bizarre at times. Things like the random geometric shapes floating through space and low-polygon count for all the character models made everything feel alien. Even now, I still don’t know what Professor Hanger is supposed to be, but I love it just because it’s so weird and random.

While it may be difficult to go back to today (both from a gameplay standpoint and because it’s never been re-released on the Virtual Console), I will always have a soft spot for the original Star Fox.

Star Fox 64 (1997)

While Star Fox 64 is objectively a better game than the original, I have to admit I’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about it. A lot of that stems from the fact that Star Fox 2 on the SNES, which I was extremely hyped for, never came out, and instead I only got a remake of the original. Not only that, but despite being a superior game, I felt that it failed to recapture the charm of its predecessor. In particular, the soundtrack by Koji Kondo and Hajime Wakai lacked the driving energy of the first.

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That’s not to say I didn’t like the game. The controls were vastly improved due to not only the game being on hardware capable of running the game smoothly and responsively, but also the availability of an analog stick. I spent quite a lot of time playing this one back in the day.

Star Fox 64‘s main innovation was the inclusion of the N64 Rumble Pak, making it one of the first home console games to provide force feedback. It also boasted fully spoken dialog, which was not uncommon at the time, but impressive for a cartridge-based game.

As a reboot, Star Fox 64 set the standard for the series going forward, and was the game all future installments would be compared to.

Star Fox Adventures (2002)

Here we have the Star Fox game that was not originally intended to be a Star Fox game. First in development as an action-adventure simply titled Dinosaur Planet, the why and how of its conversion to the Star Fox series is muddled. But as a spin-off, it still left its mark on the franchise, influencing future installments.

Rather than being a rail shooter, Adventures is a Zelda-like game with Fox running around on foot fighting enemies with a staff. It’s quite a change of pace, and some fans still look down on it as a mediocre black sheep that had no right to be a Star Fox game in the first place.

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Personally, however, I loved it. Part of that might be because it was the very first game I got for my GameCube and it has some sentimental value. But as a fan of the Zelda series, I highly enjoyed the gameplay, and I never saw a problem with a spin-off doing its own thing. In its own right, I find it to be a solid romp.

Being the final game Rare developed for Nintendo, it’s also gorgeous, with some nice fur and water effects, real-time facial animation, and an amazing soundtrack by Dave Wise.

I never quite understood why it’s so looked down upon. I think it deserves more appreciation than it gets.

Star Fox: Assault (2005)

In a way, Assault is a return to form, going back to the arcade-shooter style the series is known for, but for me, it’s kind of a mixed bag. Of the 10 stages in the game, only three have the classic rail-shooter gameplay. The rest of it is free-roaming All Range Mode dogfights, on-foot shooter sections, and Panzer Dragoon-style 360 degree shooting segments. At its best, I found it to be a fun shooter that takes the series in new directions. At worst, it’s a little dull and aimless.

There are things I like, to be sure. I like that it’s a true sequel that moves things forward, with an original story and a new enemy to fight (the Aparoids). It also has a terrific soundtrack by Yoshie Arakawa and Yoshinori Kawamoto.

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Assault is not really a bad game. I have no problem with Star Fox trying new things, and I’ve always liked the idea of Fox being on foot in a run-and-gun-style shooter. It’s just that these other styles of gameplay don’t seem to be as well done as they should be, and they clash with the parts of the game that really shine.

In the past, the game has never really held my attention for very long, but I should revisit it at some point and give it a fresh chance.

Star Fox Command (2006)

I don’t have much to say about this one because, honestly, I’ve never played it. For some reason, I was never compelled to try it, either when it was originally released for the Nintendo DS, or after last year’s appearance on the Wii U Virtual Console. I’ve been curious about it, but not quite enough to jump into the cockpit. I should get around to it at some point, though.

Star Fox Zero and Star Fox Guard (2016)

Aside from the 2011 3DS port/remake of Star Fox 64, it took a decade for the series to return with not one, but two new games. Being that they’re so new, I shouldn’t say too much about them until they’ve had a chance to sit with me for a while, but my initial reaction is extremely positive.

Both games embrace the experimental nature of the series, with Zero putting a new spin on the arcade shooter gameplay, and Guard fitting an entirely new style of gameplay into the Star Fox universe. For now, all I’ll say about Zero is that it’s easily the most intense and hardcore game in the series. (Would you expect anything less from Platinum Games?) I haven’t spent much time with Guard yet, but it’s more fun than I expected it to be.

I’ll write up a proper post for both games in the near future.

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