Star Fox
  • Genre:
    • Shoot 'Em Up
  • Platform:
    • SNES
  • Developers:
    • Nintendo
    • Argonaut
  • Publisher:
    • Nintendo
  • Released:
    • JP 02/21/1993
    • US 03/23/1993
    • UK 06/03/1993
Score: 80%

This review was published on 07/28/2013.

Star Fox is a 3-D on-rails shooter released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993. The game was called Starwing in Europe due to some copyright issues. This is the first game in the Star Fox franchise, a franchise that didn't get extremely popular until a bit later on. It was jointly developed by Nintendo and Argonaut Software; two companies that couldn't have been more different if they tried. Nintendo mostly made mainstream games that were of low difficulty, whereas Argonaut usually made insanely hard games that would have you pulling out your hair. Together, they were able to make a game that was neither ridiculously hard, nor extremely easy. It's still pretty hard, though. What makes Star Fox really unique for a SNES game made in 1993 is that it's in 3-D, with actual polygons. Yes, there were three dimensional games way before Super Mario 64. The SNES wasn't a 3-D capable system, so it required external hardware to give it the horsepower to push out polygons. This is where the Super FX chip comes in. The cartridge containing Star Fox also had the Super FX chip inside of it, and this enhanced the graphical capabilities of the core SNES system, allowing it to render basic polygonal shapes. Star Fox is pretty good at what it is, but it hasn't aged too well.

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The world of Star Fox is set in a sci-fi universe within a stellar system called the Lylat system. This Lylat system is inhabited by anthropomorphic characters that pilot aircraft similar to jets in outer space. Fox McCloud is the protagonist of the game, being the leader of a team of space mercenaries calling themselves Star Fox. I think it's a little egotistical to name a team after you. The other three members are Falco Lombardi, Slippy Toad, and Peppy Hare. Yeah, those are some cheesy names. I like how most of the surnames describe what type of animal they are. Every character has a unique personality that quickly becomes apparent as you play the game. There are snippets of dialogue from different members of your team during missions, giving you an idea of what they're like off the battlefield. Falco is a cocky blowhard who is never grateful for anything, Slippy is the young klutz, and Peppy is the experienced pilot who constantly doles out dull advice. Team Star Fox is commissioned by General Pepper, the commanding officer of Planet Corneria's army, to take out a mad scientist by the name of Andross. Andross was banished to a nearly uninhabitable planet called Venom for his evil deeds, but he persists in his evil by sending forces from Venom to attack Corneria. The fate of the Lylat system rests on the shoulders of the Star Fox team, as the Cornerian forces are too inept to do anything. If you can get past all the strange animal folk, Star Fox has a pretty good premise to it.

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You control a special aircraft referred to as the Arwing in Star Fox. Despite being rendered in actual 3-D, you can't actually move anywhere you want to. As mentioned, Star Fox is part of the on-rails genre, because it's literally on rails. What that means is that you're constantly moving forward, whether you like it or not, and you're on a set path that can't be altered. It's the ultimate form of linear game design. You're able to steer the Arwing around to dodge enemy attacks, but you can never change the ultimate path of travel. The game is basically like a 3-D version of those side-scrolling space shooters like Gradius. Every mission generally has you flying through an area as you dodge enemy fire and shoot down as many foes as you can, eventually culminating in a boss fight. Your maneuverability is intrinsically connected to your aim, so you have to move your ship in order to shoot stuff. This can be inconvenient in certain situations, since it makes it difficult to dodge and attack at the same time, but it has the benefit of greatly simplifying the controls. Though you can't change your forward path, you can slow it down or speed it up by using either the boost or brakes. This comes in handy for avoiding some environmental hazards, like asteroids. If things ever get too frantic, you can use your limited supply of bombs to clear most of the screen of enemies or inflict major damage to a boss. The coolest thing you can do, though, is the barrel roll. Holding down one of the trigger buttons makes the Arwing tilt in that direction, which is useful to fit through tight spaces, and tapping it lets you do a quick dodge roll. This roll can deflect enemy fire, making it very handy. It's true that there are some limitations inherent to Star Fox's controls, but their simplified nature makes them very intuitive, and the game is designed with those limitations in mind. That's why all the future Star Fox games essentially retained the same control scheme.

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The graphics to Star Fox are a mixed bag. On the one hand, these visuals were very advanced in 1993, especially for a 16-bit console like the SNES. On the other hand, they look absolutely awful. Almost all the polygons are completely without textures, only being filled with flat colors and shoddy gradients. It's obviously unfair to judge an early 3-D game based on its visuals, but these graphics actually impact the game play in a significant way. Some of the enemy fire is rendered in 2-D sprites, which makes it difficult to determine their distance from your ship. As a result of that, you'll probably get hit a lot whenever these kinds of shots are fired. The biggest issue, however, is that the graphics lag the game to high heaven. A lot of people don't seem to realize this, but most emulators play Star Fox at a much higher frame rate than what it runs on real SNES hardware. The real thing runs like molasses, with such a low frame rate that it makes the game much harder to play than it should be. Star Fox is by no means an easy game; it requires a lot of careful precision to beat. The low frame rate hinders that precision in leaps and bounds, making it even harder to beat. If you're fussy about running games at a constant 60 frames per second, then you may have some trouble with Star Fox. It's likely to bother even those who aren't sensitive to low frame rates. I don't typically dock points for bad graphics, but I'll have to make an exception for this one. When graphics hinder game play, they become a problem.

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While the missions themselves are linear, the game does have some nonlinearity to it overall. You have three different paths to choose from at the beginning of the game, each one taking you through different locations. The paths act as the difficulty selection for the game, as they're numbered from one to three, with three being the hardest. All the paths start from Corneria and eventually lead to the final level in the game, Venom, but everything in between can be different. Corneria and Venom also change a bit depending on the path you picked. Most games don't do anything more than increase enemy hit points on higher difficulty modes, but Star Fox actually gives you new levels. That's a really cool way to incentivize replaying a game on higher difficulties. It's definitely worth completing Star Fox three times to see what all the paths have to offer. You do have to get fairly good at the game to see it all, though. The more advanced paths can be quite challenging, so plenty of practice is required if you hope to overcome them. Some paths are also longer than others, with the third route being particularly lengthy. If you add it all up, the game has a lot of content going for it. The multiple paths concept transforms Star Fox from a typical shooter into something a little more profound.

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Star Fox is one of the first games in its genre, so it's far from the best. It is, however, pretty decent. The controls are intuitive, the stages are fun, the bosses are cool, and the multiple paths add a lot of replay value. Where the game falls short is in the graphics department. It's painfully obvious the SNES wasn't meant to handle a game like this, with how the system chugs to render anything on the screen. If it didn't impact game play at all, then I would let it slide. It does, however, so this can't be ignored. Having said all that, Star Fox is a well designed game with lots of polish. It laid down the groundwork for what eventually became Star Fox 64 on the Nintendo 64, and for that, it should be admired. Star Fox may be the best 3-D game to come out in the early 1990s, but it's superseded in every way imaginable by Star Fox 64.

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