Star Fox is one of the biggest tragedies in gaming to me. I can’t believe a series so charming, original, and out-right cool is so rarely done right.
The series follows ace pilot and anthropomorphic fox, Fox McCloud, leader of the space combat team “Star Fox.” His friends, Peppy Hare, Falco Lombardi, and Slippy Toad, back him up. Under the command of General Pepper, they serve as peacekeepers in the Lylat System. Their enemies include the parallel team of mercenaries Star Wolf, and the evil galactic conqueror Andross.
Star Fox has broken ground since the 90s, but has since fallen from grace. The games struggle to find a common identity, and that’s what I hope to figure out.
Star Fox 64 Sets the Perfect Tone
It sounds great.
Star Fox 64 is the major example of how to execute the idea behind the series. The soundtrack is a masterful blend of sci-fi, space opera, and 80s action overtones, similar to what you’d hear in Top Gun. The N64’s sound chip had distinctive horn and synth channels that complemented the soundtrack perfectly. The puppet-like 3D models of the N64 look somewhat silly, but they come closest to echoing the game’s artistic influences.
The same thing goes for the voice acting. Star Fox 64 was the first fully voice-acted Nintendo game, and it contributed massively to the game’s character. The actors’ delivery is consistently campy, but it became iconic as well. One-liners like, “Hey Einstein! I’m on your side!” or “Do a barrel roll!” are so self-aware that they bring the player firmly into the game they’re playing, and make them laugh at the silliness of it all.
It looks great.
Shigeru Miyamoto said that one of his biggest influences for creating Star Fox was Thunderbirds, one of his childhood shows. It was a futuristic kids’ show made entirely with puppets and practical models. The aesthetic of Star Fox is a play on the usual perception of puppets as the kind of juvenile medium to tell stories about woodland creatures, and also a tribute to the cheesy action serial style of Thunderbirds. By combining these two styles, Star Fox flips them both on their heads and makes something that surpasses them.
Star Fox 64 also has some great tropes from other media. If it wasn’t already clear, the series is also similar to Star Wars. The game has several homages to the films, like the medal ceremony at the end, and the voice of Fox McCloud’s father in his head at the climactic moment that echoes Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi. Even the way the members of Star Fox communicate with each other reminds me of X-Wing pilots. The idea of playing with multiple vehicles also seems to reference not only Thunderbirds but things like Gundam and Power Rangers.
It is great.
All style aside, the game also plays remarkable well. The levels are full of well-placed enemies, and secret hidden paths that lead to tougher challenges. The fun of Star Fox is learning how to get the full experience. It reminds me of what I said about Crash Bandicoot: the game makes a lot out a little.
The sense of camaraderie within the Star Fox team is also great. Your teammates help clear out enemies and give you hints as long as you keep them safe. They have distinct names, faces, and personalities too, and that makes me feel attached to them as a player.
How Nintendo Did Star Fox Dirty
Nintendo is no stranger to leaving cool and promising series behind for lack of sales, but Star Fox actually suffers something worse. It’s now Nintendo’s testing ground for gimmicks and fads.
And when I say a testing ground, I unfortunately mean that a lot of the tests fail. This excellent video by HeavyEyed explains what I mean, but I’ll lay it out myself as well.
In the early days, it wasn’t like this. The very first Star Fox was essentially the first fully polygonal shooter, and Star Fox 64 was the first ever game with rumble. This made it the first game to give physical feedback to the player, a revolutionary move.
But then we got Star Fox Adventures.
Adventures Threw Everything Off
Star Fox Adventures is a 3D Legend of Zelda clone that overhauled a Rareware game with a Star Fox skin. The game was uninspired, poorly designed, and completely abandoned everything that made the other games stand out. Instead of a ragtag space shooter, we got a game about fighting lizards on a dinosaur planet.
After this divergence we got Star Fox: Assault, which was decidedly a step in the right direction. The problem is, it sacrificed a lot of its dog-fighting action roots in favor of third person shooter combat. Maybe not terrible, but certainly a far cry from where the series started.
Star Fox Command went even further down the rabbit hole by heavily integrating turn-based tactics. Again, this came at the price of good aerial combat. The game also had a branching story that bordered on fanfiction, which added insult to injury.
Star Fox Zero was a Near Miss
Then, along came Star Fox Zero, and I had my money at the ready. Everything about the game was promising at first. Miyamoto talked about how he was planning to create the best example of Wii U GamePad integration on the system. It brought back the original cast of characters, and the old presentation. What could go wrong?
Well, Zero delivered on a lot of fronts, but missed out on something important: good controls. The game required its players to split attention between two screens: the TV and the GamePad screen, both of which are essential. The TV lets the player maneuver, while the GamePad lets them aim properly. What it feels like is playing two different games at once and failing at both. This is the same kind of problem I had with The World Ends With You, although that’s one for much later.
To make matters worse, the story and levels are mostly a copy of Star Fox 64 with a little Assault mixed in. Secret-hunting and multiple paths are there, but less robust. So playing Zero essentially amounts to playing a worse version of 64.
The Problem and How to Fix It
If you thought Sonic the Hedgehog has trouble trying to create consistent gameplay, Star Fox blows it out of the water. It’s basically a series with no idea what to do next. It either experiments with ideas that don’t fit, or lives in the shadow of its one great installment.
What Star Fox needs is to work off of its 64 formula, optimize it, and set it against a completely different backdrop. Different planets, different levels, different story, and possibly new characters would be ideal. Going back to basics was a smart move by Nintendo. The problem is, they never went past the basics.
No Innovation Without Representation
Having a formula doesn’t mean the series can’t try new things. I wouldn’t ditch the original formula completely, because I think it works. If it were me, though, I would add in some ground combat sequences myself.
For example, in Star Wars Battlefront II, there’s a Space Assault mode. The object of the mode is to destroy as many enemy ships and freighters as possible. One of my favorite things to do is infiltrate an enemy ship and sabotage it on foot from the inside. This might be an interesting way to give players options for secrets and defeating bosses. Just as long as it doesn’t make it most of the game the way Assault did. It might even be interesting to give the player a way to temporarily hijack ships mid-air.
Nintendo has plenty of room to commit to a major Star Fox game without having it be a remake or a re-skin. I sincerely hope that the mixed reception of most Star Fox games makes them stop bringing the games back. It’s probably one of the most brilliant concepts they’ve ever had, and no other game has managed to imitate its fun, intense style.
The thing is, Nintendo will never make the series sell if it keeps throwing in gimmicks without refining them properly.
I want to see Star Fox return to its old-fashioned charm and unique gameplay, without sacrificing the wondrous possibilities on the table. A good Star Fox game makes me feel more like I’m in Star Wars than an actual Star Wars game would. That’s saying something, and Nintendo shouldn’t waste the opportunity to make it great. Here’s hoping we get some space fox on the Switch.