“We need your help, Star Fox! Andross has declared war! He’s invaded the Lylat system, and is trying to take over Corneria! Our army alone can’t do the job! Hurry, Star Fox!”
To longtime fans of Fox McCloud and company, the above text is ingrained in their consciousness. It, along with many more lines, can be reeled off at a whim. Some of them are common memes – “Do a barrel roll!” – while others – “Cocky little freaks!” – are simply delightful little bits of dialogue that most wouldn’t recognize, and may sound rather rude out of context. Without trying to oversell it, Star Fox 64 is practically a perfect game. Its controls and level design are tight, its boss battles are the stuff of legend, its dialogue is suitably cheesy without inducing groans, and its replayability is through the roof.
Combined with its included rumble pak accessory, the game was yet another roaring success for the early days of the Nintendo 64. It took everything that its predecessor on the SNES had introduced, added an immense level of polish, and blew our expectations out of the sky as though they were the Attack Carrier. We had moved onto a new era of gaming, and this plucky little space opera was going to be a firmly entrenched piece of that puzzle.
It’s painful to say this, but two decades later, the Star Fox franchise has become more of a punchline. Misfire after misfire, one infuriating design choice after another, and this once proud legacy has been pounded into the dirt. Its latest offering, Star Fox Zero, sits miserably atop a pile of discount Wii U games, stacked twenty high as overzealous retailers lament having overstocked it so much.
What happened here? How did all of our glorious ambitions lead us to such mediocrity? And more importantly, what needs to happen to right this ship, soaring high in the image of Falco Lombardi, instead of bumbling to the finish line like Slippy Toad?
The answer may lie somewhere in the series’ past, a mission that begins in the far-off year of 1993, where Argonaut Software’s revolutionary space shooter first dazzled players with its polygonal models. Clearly, this game has not aged well, visually; the models are simple and sometimes confusing, the jittery frame rate makes movement feel staggered, and some assets will pop up at you so suddenly, you’d think you’d walked into a haunted house. It’s a victim of its own ambition, but once you put these flaws aside and adjust to the SNES’ limitations, you’ll find some of the most thrilling challenges in the series. This game is unapologetic, and will brutalize you with a barrage of obstacles if you’re not prepared. In Titania, you are told that you must ‘retake the weather control unit,’ but you’re given no further indication of what this means. Some players cycled the endless loop multiple times before they finally happened upon the correct gate, activated the device, and progressed. It’s an element that has been lost in gaming nowadays; modern hand-holding would have clued you in right from the get go to ‘check everywhere for the weather station.’
This sense of chaotic franticness was lost in Star Fox 64, but it was an intentional shift, instead allowing players to soak in their surroundings and get a sense of the grandness on offer. The wingmen’s personalities and dynamic roles within the team were fleshed out, and we really cared about their fate. Fortunately, failure to protect them would only result in their temporary absence this time, but we still felt a pang of guilt whenever they had to flee the battlefield.
It’s important to note that this was the game that introduced us to the concept of different vehicle types, but they weren’t lodged down our throat. Two Landmaster missions, one Blue Marine level. If you didn’t like them, that was okay, because they were far and few between – and though Aquas can be a little dull, the rescue mission of Titania and train assault on Macbeth are among the game’s best levels.
Once we had reached Star Fox Adventures on the GameCube, the sharp decline began. Rare’s sprawling adventure receives a great deal of vitriol from the Star Fox community, and a fair amount of it is unjust. At a base level, it is a perfectly serviceable Zelda clone, with beautiful landscapes and a combat system that is both intuitive and satisfying. The issue is that it was a marriage that did not need to happen, and would end up shaping the franchise in lamentable ways. Forced to shoehorn Star Fox characters into the unrelated Dinosaur Planet concept, the story felt awkward and incomplete. The presumed villain, General Scales, makes for an intimidating adversary, but in the game’s third act, he is unceremoniously dispatched with to make way for the return of Andross, the apparent mastermind behind the whole plot.
Moving forward, the characters and concepts introduced in Star Fox Adventures would become canon, meaning that beloved grouch Peppy Hare was now retired, and Krystal was an official member of the squadron. As a Rare character, she may have had an interesting personality, but we just never get to see it. Once she was out of the hands of her original creators, she would become the poster girl for the series’ descent, coupled with 2005’s Star Fox Assault.
Likely the franchise’s low point, this game was a disjointed mess. Characters we had grown to love had become cheap, annoying facsimiles of themselves, the jerky controls of the Arwing felt unnatural – like a puppet on a string, instead of an aircraft – and most damningly, the gameplay strayed offensively from the core elements that had made the series successful to begin with. Wandering through ugly catacombs in search of mission targets while fending off hordes of generic enemies wasn’t just un-Star Fox, it flat out wasn’t any fun whatsoever. The game’s one redeeming feature was that its mechanics made for good multiplayer antics, but even then, it couldn’t get out of its own way: the unlockable Wolf O’Donnell was so overpowered, he could survive a hit from the sniper rifle, an assured death for every other character.
Star Fox Command on the Nintendo DS fared a little better, allowing us to control a range of ships and pursue different storylines dependent on the choices we made, but the on-rails structure that had made the series famous was gone, replaced by large, empty arenas inspired by the cancelled Star Fox 2. It was ultimately a mixed bag, and has been largely forgotten in the Star Fox echelons.
Completely absent on the Wii, Fox and friends were shelved for a long while, with their only entry coming in the form of Star Fox 64 3D, the best game the series had had in years, and by no coincidence, a faithful port of the Nintendo 64 classic.
Star Fox Zero assured a return to form, and to its credit, it delivered on this promise to a degree. The classic gameplay sections were excellent, and manning the Arwing and Landmaster felt exactly as they should. Unfortunately, they insisted on innovating in ways that nobody asked for, obligating us to use the gamepad to direct our fire, and adding stealth sections that seemed to last forever. Remember avoiding the spotlights on Zoness in Star Fox 64? It was a tense struggle that required precise flying and an itchy trigger finger. Star Fox Zero’s equivalent puts you in the cockpit of the Gyrowing, perhaps the single worst vehicle Beltino Toad has ever produced, and hacking into computer systems. It slows the gameplay to a crawl, and along with obtuse (yet thankfully brief) segments in the Arwing’s walker mode, known to some as the metal turkey transformation, it all harkens to a point of contention that we’ve raised several times across the duration of this article.
Basically: Star Fox is a simple formula. You fly through a level, shooting enemies along the way. At the end of the stage is a boss encounter, and sometimes, the gameplay shifts to all-range mode. It doesn’t need to be tinkered with, and it doesn’t need to be ‘fixed’; the series is at its worst when it tries to branch into other genres. We don’t want stagnant on-foot segments or alterations to the cast. Wolf O’Donnell need not be anything more than an arrogant rival (and most certainly not a father figure to Fox), Peppy Hare need not be rapidly advancing in age to make way for new recruits, and Krystal? Honestly, she need not exist at all.
This isn’t to say that they need to make formulaic and uninspired sequels. The additions in Star Fox 64 supplemented the existing elements and built around them, not in spite of them. If they could just recapture this level of creativity, the Star Fox series would finally reclaim its place as one of Nintendo’s heavy hitters. In the meantime, at least Fox is typically competitive in Smash Bros. It’s all about the little victories, you know.