In these days of ultra-realistic graphical plenty it’s all too easy to forget that for console gamers, 3D visuals didn’t really become par for the course until the advent of the 32-bit technology in the mid-90’s. However, developers had been successfully dabbling with the third dimension for some years previously, mainly on the powerful Western 16-bit home computers like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.
One such company was UK-based Argonaut Software, brainchild of teenage programming genius Jez San. Founded in 1982, Argonaut impressed with early 3D hits such as the groundbreaking StarGlider titles and the ambitious air combat simulator Birds of Prey, but it’s the company’s association with Nintendo’s popular Star Fox brand that granted them worldwide fame.
As the Eighties came to a close Argonaut turned their attention to the rapidly emerging console market, and more specifically, what kind of 3D games could be successfully achieved on the current crop of Japanese systems. The most obvious options were the then-unstoppable Nintendo Entertainment System and the newly released portable Game Boy. After his team had familiarised themselves with the hardware (even going as far as to reverse-engineer a Game Boy console), San approached Nintendo of Japan to propose exploring the possibility of producing 3D titles for their machines.
To say Nintendo were receptive to the idea would be something of an understatement, as San himself recalls: "they immediately flew me to Japan to meet with them. They hired us to do a few 3D games, starting with the Japan-exclusive Eclipse on the Game Boy, which became known simply as X. Then we started doing StarGlider on the NES, which was codenamed NesGlider.”
Argonaut’s craftsmanship in the third dimension immediately impressed Nintendo; it was rumoured that the Japanese giant had been trying to produce 3D visuals on the NES for a while (with largely unsatisfactory results) and were keen to ensure that they, and not emerging rivals Sega, were the first to fully exploit the possibilities of console-based 3D titles.
Having distinguished themselves with flying colours, San and his team were then introduced to what would prove to be the next generation of Nintendo greatness. “During our work, Nintendo showed us their new console,” he remembers. “We immediately started moving over to the Super NES and Star Fox was born.”
The first challenge Argonaut faced was power, or rather the lack of it. Although it was the cutting edge of console technology, at its core the SNES (like 16-bit rival the Sega Mega Drive) was primarily designed with 2D games in mind. Sensing this, San proposed a revolutionary concept: “I suggested the idea that while developing 3D games for Nintendo we might be able to design a 3D chip that would make their game console the first one capable of doing proper 3D graphics.”
This would ultimately lead to the birth of the Super FX chip. Nintendo was enthused by the notion of granting the SNES a little 3D muscle and wasted no time in putting the wheels in motion, as San remembers: “They jumped at the chance and financed the creation of the MARIO chip (Mathematical Argonaut Rotation I/O chip), which was designed by Rob Macaulay and Ben Cheese (who sadly succumbed to cancer in 2001), and was later renamed Super FX.”
With the assistance of this chip the SNES was able to produce and manipulate complex (for the time at least) real-time 3D visuals and effects. Super FX was to be integrated into the cartridge itself: while this meant that SNES owners would not be required to purchase an additional peripheral (as was the case with the ill-fated Sega Mega CD and 32X devices) in order to experience the game, it did result in a slightly higher price point than other SNES releases. It was a smart move that meant every SNES owner had the opportunity to experience this technical marvel, even if it did mean having to extort a few extra quid out of long-suffering parents to do so.
Developing Star Fox was a learning experience for San and his team and they quickly had to acclimatise themselves to the rather unusual working practices of their new mentor – the legendary creator of the best-selling Mario and Zelda franchises, Shigeru Miyamoto.
“Working with Miyamoto-san presents a large learning curve, but can also be a very different proposition compared to others,” remarks San. “He doesn’t like to design games in advance. He subscribes to the ‘try something, then keep tuning, then try something else’ approach to game design. It means that he’s completely in the loop at all stages, which can become a bottleneck. He doesn’t like to do planning. He’s very much a ‘seat of the pants’ kind of guy.”
Despite the unorthodox methods of game design witnessed by the Argonaut team whilst coding alongside Nintendo’s golden boy, the encounter was, as San is swift to point out, an extremely positive one: “I have enormous respect for his talents. He’s an amazing guy, and very humble. But the way he likes to work is very different than most people and it takes a lot of getting used to.”
Links between the two companies were forged and Argonaut was forced to ‘go native’ in order to ensure work with their new partner progressed as smoothly as possible. “We had a small office inside Nintendo,” says San. “We put several of our London staff – Dylan Cuthbert, Krister Wombell, Giles Goddard and later Colin Reed – permanently into Nintendo’s offices in Kyoto, working directly for Miyamoto-san. I would regularly fly over to Japan to spend time with him. We did most of the technology back in England with a relatively large engineering/tech team, which comprised Carl Graham and Pete Warnes on the software-based 3D technology and Ben Cheese, Rob Macaulay and James Hakewill working on the hardware side of things. All the direct gameplay work was done inside Miyamoto-san’s offices in Kyoto. Therefore we had two teams working closely with each other in two different countries.”
While Argonaut primarily handled the technical duties, Miyamoto and his team, led by director Katsuya Eguchi, performed the artistic magic that they’re famed for. “We did most of the programming and all of the technology, and Nintendo did most of the design. They also did all of the characters,” says San.
With Nintendo responsible for level concepts, Argonaut was on hand to provide valuable support thanks to its considerable experience in the field of 3D – an area in which Nintendo was still finding its feet, as San recalls: “It was largely Nintendo's staff that designed the stages and levels, but with help from our programmers, who created the scripting system and showed them lots of examples as to what could be done.” With Argonaut’s talented programmers at their beck and call, Miyamoto and Eguchi were able to break boundaries and create an underpant-soiling experience the likes of which had never been witnessed before on a home console.
Star Fox repaid all of Nintendo and Argonaut’s hard work by shifting over four million copies worldwide. Reviews at the time were unanimously positive. The game was marketed as a true next-generation title and was eventually granted ‘pack-in’ status in the UK – a sure sign that Nintendo regarded it as a ‘killer app’ that would shift hardware on its own.
With the critical and commercial success of the game, a sequel of some description was inevitable and it seemed that the SNES would be the platform to host it. However, Star Fox 2 was never released, despite being almost complete. It seems that the sequel ultimately fell foul of the internal wrangling that was rife within Nintendo at the time, as San reveals: “there was quite a fair amount of politics inside Nintendo with the various departments clashing with each other on major decisions and direction.”
It was not just Star Fox 2 that was effected either – Argonaut had other exciting projects on the table, all of which suffered the same fate as the highly anticipated sequel. “There are some stubborn characters in the middle management levels of the organisation,” San remarks. “Questionable decisions were often made because of someone’s ‘pet project’. We worked on several secret hardware projects for them. For instance, the Virtual Boy was chosen in favour of a far superior product that we had been contracted to design.”
As the SNES slipped into the mists of time and Nintendo’s next machine – the Ultra 64 (later to be rechristened the Nintendo 64) – was announced, a Star Fox update was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. When Star Fox 64 was eventually confirmed, Nintendo decided not to involve Argonaut despite the firm’s sterling work on the first game and the (unrewarded) graft on the second. This didn’t surprise San in the slightest.
“I think it’s typical of some Japanese companies, and particularly of Nintendo,” he comments. “I think they are most keen to work with you when they’re still learning new skills and techniques, and that that was always their goal. Once we’d taught them how to make 3D games and had produced a huge hit for them, they no longer needed us and were keen to reduce their reliance on us.”
The split from Nintendo obviously left a sour taste in San’s mouth: “they poached some of our key staff and carried on doing those types of games without us. This was far more profitable for them and made them more independent, not relying on a piddly little company in England for their billions of dollars in profit. We dragged them kicking and screaming into the 3D age and we made a nice sum of money for such a tiny company, but it was a fraction of what we could’ve made if the relationship had continued.”
Bitterness aside, Jez admits that an alliance with one of the biggest and most respected games manufacturers in the world had undeniable perks, and many valuable lessons were learnt which would later be incorporated into Argonaut’s best selling 32-bit platform titles such as Croc and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “they taught us a lot about how to make mass market games, how to introduce characters, how to worry about control systems more than graphics and how to approach the whole game-tuning philosophy.”
This feature originally appeared in its entirety in Imagine Publishing’s Retro Gamer magazine, and is reproduced here with kind permission.