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Feature: The Making of Star Fox

Posted by Damien McFerran

We go behind the scenes to discover how a small UK code-house helped Nintendo enter the realm of 3D – and make millions in the process

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.

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User Comments (37)

KeeperBvK

#1

KeeperBvK said:

Usually I don't read your interviews and the likes, but this prove to be a very interesting article. Thanks for posting it. :)

sykotek

#2

sykotek said:

Does this mean there won't be a release for Star Fox 2 on my Wii Virtual Console!?

Shiryu

#3

Shiryu said:

I followed the development of star Fox (Starwing over here as noted above) the best I could on magazines (Super Play, Super Power and a few others I used to read religiously back then) and was so thrilled when I finally saw the game hit the shops over here in Portugal. It went for the (sadly normal) 16.000$00 PTE which is the equivalent today of €80.00 (and people complain about the prices of games today). I did not even make it home, a friends house was closer then mine, so we wnt right ahead and play it right there and then. We were as excited as the time we got "Street Fighter II". I was already a huge fan of polygon games from the arcades (Battlezone and Starblade, to name a few) and Elite on Amiga, so this was right up my alley. But I could not be rpepared to what I got: This was "THE" polygon game to have, there was nothing remotely like it on Megadrive or Amiga and the OST was simply amazing! Argonaut should be proud of their accomplishments on this game, It's a true shame Star Fox 2 never seen the light of day on the SNES, I would have surely picked it up too. Another great Interview, thank you NL. =)

PS: Weird, I don't recall reading this on Retrogamer... did I miss an issue or something?

JamieOStaff

#5

JamieO said:

I am just reiterating what Sean said above, but I really enjoy reading Damo's pieces in Retro Gamer. I still return to my back issues now, so I've read his coverage of the likes of Starfox, History of the Game & Watch, plus The Making of the Nintendo Virtual Boy and Making of Game Boy, before. However, I often go back to these features, there is so much to learn from them about gaming's history.

The depth of coverage that goes into these Retro Gamer pieces is staggering. After you read through this level of writing you really appreciate the extent of the research, including interviews with key people, as well as anecdotes and retro details that you would not be able to find easily, not even on the web. I would recommend to any retro fan to pick up the magazine and its back issues.

Print and paper magazine coverage is very much alive and I am a big fan of the UK's video game magazines, from the past and present. We have a rich history of great gaming mags. It is brilliant to see these articles being republished here on Nintendo Life. :)

DamoAdmin

#6

Damo said:

@Shiryu - It was in issue 28. My first ever feature for them, in fact! That was some time ago now - they're up to issue 75 :O

@JamieO - Glad your enjoy the features my friend!

Stargazer

#7

Stargazer said:

Fascinating read. The idea that Virtual Boy beat out something far superior is really interesting. I would love to know more details :-)

GamingAddict

#8

GamingAddict said:

I used to borrow this off my best friend years ago when I was a kid. The SNES days were great.

nix

#9

nix said:

starglider, ah those atari st amiga 16bit memorys flood back, wireframe 3d digitized speech cutting edge technology. Loved it Jez you rocked, who would of thought you now run a poker web site.

MrPinguy

#12

MrPinguy said:

Star Fox 2, it's really a shame that wasn't released.
I really had to play in a emulator (with the fan translation + fixes), it is one of my favorite Star Fox, I hope that Nintendo changes that and release it in some form, i will gladly buy it.

RaylaxStaff

#13

Raylax said:

I love how NintendoLife gets permission to publish articles from great mags like RetroGamer. They sit well amongst the great NL-written articles and make this place compulsive reading.
Excellent article, keep up the good work, NL and RetroGamer :P

Shiryu

#15

Shiryu said:

@Damo: That would explain why I missed it... the magazine was not yet published in Portugal back then.

Ren

#16

Ren said:

never played 2, not sure where to find it online. I hope they'll release it for VC or something.

Capt_N

#17

Capt_N said:

Before doing a "Barrel Roll" was an internet meme...

Nice article, btw! :)

Maxsh

#18

Maxsh said:

Nintendo Magazine System is an awful name for a magazine. (as shown in one of the screenshots)

SepticLemon

#19

SepticLemon said:

OMG! The memories! I remember owning THAT copy of Nintendo Magazine System! Those were the days! Unfortuatantly due to my pathectic ways as a kid, I flogged some of my old copies for 50p at a car boot sale. I think the earliest copy I own is issue 15-16 that had reviews for Super Street Fighter, Morkat Kombat 2 and Knights of the Round.

Going Back to Star Fox though, unfortuanantly for me never played it back then, since my Parents didn't have enough money to get me the hottest games at the time. In 1999, I think, I managed to get hold of a copy of Star Wing, but since it was the gimped up PAL 50hz version, it had huge black borders around the game, not just the top and bottom; so I was a little bit disapointed, but never the less, the fact that Nintendo managed to get 3D working on the SNES is amazing. Just think what would happen if Nintendo could do something like this on the 3DS?

Interesting huh.....?

kevohki

#20

kevohki said:

Great retro article. Now if Nintendo would only make a Star Fox game for the Wii...

JamieOStaff

#21

JamieO said:

@Maxsh Ha, ha, I agree that Nintendo Magazine System (NMS) is not the greatest name for a magazine, but it had an excellent team of writers. With games journalists like Julian Rignall, Tim Boone, Radion Automatic, Paul Davies and Angus Swan it was a great read. Many of their team were already legendary characters from their C&VG and Mean Machines days. Whilst I think that many fans of the mag from back in the day will have their favourite writers out of that list, the magazine did change its editors, and some of the more anarchic aspects of Mean Machines were stiffled by such close connections to Nintendo. However, everyone must agree that Jaz Rignall is a legend. Paul Davies is cool too, he now has a regular column in Retro Gamer each month. I think the title Nintendo Magazine System holds up well today, as it adds a quirky element to the retro mag.

@SepticLemon Man, I'm sorry that you sold off some of your early issues of NMS cheap, I guess when you are younger you do not always realise that you may still be wanting to read them in 15, or 20 years time. I'm lucky that I kept loads of my old mags, however you're in luck too, because as long as you download the ComicRack reader, you can also download the Star Fox issue of NMS (Issue 6, March 1993). Head over to Out-of-Print Archive to get it, they have four more issues of NMS to download, too. :)

Omanamona

#22

Omanamona said:

This is cool and all, but when can we see another Star Fox game, or a Star Fox SNES virtual console release?

aaronsullivan

#23

aaronsullivan said:

The first was probably the best. Then the ONLY other Starfox game, Starfox 64, added some great stuff, but had vastly inferior music and lacked the explosion of great gameplay ideas -- loved the tank levels though! Loved both of those games. It's too bad there weren't ANY other Starfox games for later consoles. Maybe Nintendo should make a 3rd one? ;)

Junkface

#26

Junkface said:

Why oh why do you guys tease?? We need a StarFox game now! In any form willl do. I read somw issues ago in Game Informer that there is a completed StarFox game that was never released? Sounds like a great idea for a WiiWare release! PLEASE :)

John3714

#27

John3714 said:

Oh man, what I would've given (and still would) to play a Super Nintendo sequel.

antdickensAdmin

#30

antdickens said:

I'm sure Nintendo have been working on tech demos with the Wiimote and StarFox, it does make sense. I'm sure it's on their "todo" list.

Fantastic read Damo, great job :)

CH405K1N6

#31

CH405K1N6 said:

Normally, I'm not able to read long articles because I have the attention span of a pebble, but this was a good article. Nice job Damo! :D

OldBoy

#33

OldBoy said:

Great game. Great article!! Nice one Damo. Lot of stuff that I never knew about. Keep em' coming please :)

deadly_by_design

#34

deadly_by_design said:

Great article. I recall hearing rumors and scant details of Star Fox 2 in my Nintendo Power days, but nothing real.

I still remember playing the Star Fox demo at the local mall, where they had a competition for logging the highest scores. Even if I'm primarily a PC gamer now, I miss those kinds of promotional ventures.

thedanman64

#35

thedanman64 said:

Too bad Argonaut went out of business in 2004. Starfox is a classic that is just screaming out for a release on virtual console.

CharlieRod

#36

CharlieRod said:

Awesome game> Waited forever for it to release on VC, but then Got it at Mile High FleaMarket for like $5 or something. Cool article BTW. Thanks "G"

Kirk

#37

Kirk said:

I still think the original Star Fox is the best of the franchise.

I'd love to see a re-release that simply runs the game in full anti-aliased HD (so silky smooth polygon edges), increases the draw distance as far as possible, runs at a rock solid 60fps, and sticks with pretty much everything else as it is, even sticking with the flat shaded polygons etc, although I wouldn't mind if they actually increased the numbers of polygons used in places where it would make sense.

To be fair, I'd like to see a proper fully textured HD version but I worry that modern texture artists would just make everything look dull and "realistic" and ultimately ruin the beautiful aesthetic and appeal that the orginal still has imo, so I'd rather stick with that than risk making it look wrong.

Basically, a finely polished and fully tweaked Virtual Console release of the original or something like that would be awesome.

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