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Star Fox For the SNES: A Trip Down Memory Lane
You Are Fox McCloud!
Long live the Super FX microchip and all the awesome gaming goodness it spawned, perhaps notably this game, StarFox, for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This is by all measures one of the best games for the best console of the gaming era. For anyone who's played it, this is nothing new but maybe it's been a while since you've dusted off your old SNES and had a run through StarFox. If that's the case, now's the time for a little nostalgia. This game is not only beautiful to look at and well ahead of its time but it's really exciting to play too!
The Super FX Microchip
Before we get into the game itself, a little preamble is in order regarding this enigmatic thing called the Super FX. Nintendo published only a handful of titles that took advantage of this chip, all of which utilized the extra electrical contacts on the cartridge reserved for supported add-on hardware like the Super FX. These titles included: StarFox, Vortex, Winter Gold, Yoshi's Island, Doom, Stunt Race FX, Dirt Racer and Dirt Trax FX. There were a few other games as well that never got released.
Basically, the Super FX microchip was a chip designed by Argonaut Games for games licensed by Nintendo. The chip was meant to handle complex mathematical operations involved in 3D accelerated graphics rendering but was occasionally also used to accelerate certain 2D effects like sprite scaling and stretching, something Yoshi's Island used to great effect. The chip was in fact so powerful that they joked that the SNES was just a box to hold the Super FX. That's how much more powerful it was than the system it was going into.
StarFox relied heavily on this special co-processor style chip to render all the 3d environments and polygonal objects in the game so that the SNES could manage the rest. Even displaying hundreds of polygons on-screen at a time (nothing compared to today's standards), the SNES/FX duo performed brilliantly, much to the credit of the programmers and engineers who were able to balance the hardware's capabilities with the software's demands. While StarFox is not the only game to use the SuperFX, I believe it was the biggest success at using it, evidenced by the long legacy of StarFox titles and popularity to follow.
Who's your favorite StarFox character?
In typical Nintendo style, they opted for fantasy over realism so the game is set in a universe where talking animals take the place of humans. You are a fox named Fox McCloud who lives on a planet called Corneria under the authority of a commander Pepper (a dog) and in the company of 3 wingmen: Slippy (a frog), Peppy (a rabbit) and Falco (a bird). Your job is to protect the solar system (the Lylat System) from an evil man (surprisingly) named Andross, who used to be a benevolent scientist who ended up going mad and turning against everyone. He flees to the planet Venom at the edge of the system and starts dispatching all sorts of robotic horrors to take over the other planets, including Corneria. You and your wings are tasked with reaching venom and stopping Andross.
This is Andross...
StarFox Gameplay Mechanics
StarFox plays fairly linearly, with a map indicating which level you're on and which level you must play next. Aside from a couple of secret areas that you have to know how to get to (like the Black Hole), there's no ability to select your level. The only choice you get is at the very beginning when you choose 1 of 3 courses, corresponding to Easy, Medium and Hard. All 3 courses end at Venom but course 3 has 1 more level than the other 2 and course 2 takes you around the back side of Andross' base.
Every level has a unique boss and each boss has its own strengths, weaknesses and modes of attack. The enemies are hard enough to be challenging but not so hard that you spend more time dying and retracing your steps than progressing. There are also powerups in the game allowing you to start a level from the half-way point and others to give you extra lives, should you need them. The point system (points are granted in direct proportion to your accuracy during the level) also grants extra lives at certain milestones so as not to be completely pointless. Once again, some really good programming, combined with the Super FX made for some really clever boss designs with swinging, articulated limbs, colorful wireframe effects and sophisticated AI behavior. After you beat a boss you'd be rewarded by some impressive sprite/polygon/particle explosions and usually some POV style camera shifting to show you and your buddies blast off to the next level at some really flattering camera angle.
Speaking of camera angles, you can play the game from 1 of 3 views, which is selectable during play. The first is a cockpit view where you can't see any part of the ship and have to rely on a target reticule and HUD indicators to know the orientation of your ship and what you're aiming at. Then there's the "approach" type view where you're right behind the ship and can get more of a first person perspective. The 3rd angle is the standard one which puts you some distance behind the ship so you can see more of the screen in front of it. All 3 work best in different circumstances and I didn't find any of them prohibitively difficult to use.
The controls are user selectable to the extent that you have 4 modes to pick from. I'm glad they did that because some people think UP is UP while others prefer the more "flight accurate" DOWN is UP. The button keys also have 2 different layouts, depending on whether you're an XY type player or an AB type player ;)
Fighting On the Surface of a Meteor
Star Fox Levels and Environments
There are pretty much 3 different types of "environments" that you can expect in this game. The first is on the surface of a planet... or sometimes inside a planet, on the surface of... the planet. The second environment is in outer space and the third is when you're inside of something like a ship or installation. Sometimes you can transition between the 2 seamlessly, as is the case in the level "Space Armada", which is truly awesome because here's this little pixelated thing off in the distance and, oh wait, it's a ship with what looks like a garage door on the front of it. "Shall we go inside?" asks one of my wing-men. Indeed, I think this deserves a closer look so I fly up to the little ship and then go right inside it and all of a sudden there's a whole new mini-level going on :D How delightful!
The level design is beautiful and varied ranging from fiery volcano color schemes, to blue skies and water to cold desolate, cratered asteroids. Even though the ground and sky are essentially flat, the illusion of depth and variation in the terrain comes from polygonal features like stalactites and stalagmites as well as flowers, buildings, debris falling from above, etc. All this had to obey a polygon budget so I'm quite impressed at how busy there were able to make a scene without causing the hardware to chug.
Star Fox: The Arsenal
Now for the fun part :D Your aircraft (or "airwings" as Pepper calls them) can employ different weapons and use different powerups, all of which are totally awesome. Aside from the standard flight controls, pitch, yaw and roll, you can do a barrel roll... DO A BARREL ROLL! Sorry, couldn't help myself ;) Barrel rolls can deflect some energy weapons like plasma balls and lasers so you can use this as a sort of shield. You can also fire retro-rockets to slow down or boost to speed up temporarily, which is often needed to avoid certain obstacles that are timed to hit you. There are yellow, blue and silver rings you can fly through to restore health, some of which come out of blown up enemies and there's even a shield that makes your airwings wireframe and immune to damage for a few hits. That powerup is my favorite! And if you happen to damage one or both of your wings, the twin blaster upgrade, which normally works on your main weapon can become a wing gyro, which will repair your wing for you when you fly into it! You can still fly with broken wings but you wobble all over the place and your plane flies like crap.
As mentioned, the main weapon is a single blaster that fires from the nose of the plane. Then you can upgrade your weapon twice more, which gets you twin blasters, fired from the wings and then twin plasma ball blasters, which also fire from the wings but unlike the regular blasters, they cannot be deflected by enemies and come back to hit you. You're able to collect up to a maximum of 5 "nova bombs", which are shiny awesome sparkly globules that fire out of the nose and detonate either on impact or when you hit the bomb button. These things are capable of pretty much clearing the screen of most basic enemy classes and taking a lot of health off of bosses or stronger enemies. They're also convenient when you can't quite reach your target for whatever reason, as these weapons are less discerning.
You have 1 more weapon up your arse... I mean in your arsenal. It's your wingmen! They normally fly behind you and will try to kill whatever you miss. They can make up for your poor accuracy and sometimes net you a perfect 100% even if you missed 1 or 2 enemies. They can be a liability too though because they sometimes get in your way and take all of your weapons fire instead of your target. They also have a tendency to get into trouble with an enemy and you have to stop what you're doing and save them or else they will die. If they die it's not the end of the world but they make these pathetic war cries when they die and I always end up finishing the game feeling sad when there's static where my dead wing's face used to be. Don't let your buddies die!
Star Fox is Awesome!
For a game that was supposed to be a tech demo, it turned out to be the crowning achievement of the Super FX team and Nintendo. It's not a long game or a super hard game but it's really fun to play and it's very well done. The box art is pretty epic too and as a kid this was the only game I was able to convince my parents to buy for me on the spot. Every other game took more planning and whining. I was just instantly sure that this game was a winner right from the get-go. If you've seen the original Star Fox commercial (I'm pretty sure they used a dog for Fox McCloud) then you know how compelling it was and how you just had to have the game after that.
Now if only I could solve the mystery of how Fox got his big feet into such narrow boots...