This year will see the launch of another entry in Nintendo's long-running space battle series, Star Fox. It's an indication of how popular the franchise is with fans that last year's relatively detail-free E3 announcement was one of the biggest stories of the entire event, and while Nintendo is doing a commendable job of keeping its cards close to its chest about this all-new Wii U instalment, that has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of dedicated followers of Fox McCloud.
With this new entry looming on the horizon like a massive space dreadnought, we thought it would be the ideal time to take a look back at perhaps the most famous unreleased game in Nintendo's history - Star Fox 2. Following the success of the 1993 SNES original it was almost inevitable that a sequel of some kind would follow, and the second title - seen by many as the 16-bit system's swansong - was heavily promoted in the gaming press prior to its eventual cancellation.
According to Dylan Cuthbert, who was employed by UK studio Argonaut Software and worked with Nintendo on both Star Fox and its sequel, production on the follow-up began almost as soon as the dust had settled on the first game. "After a month back in the UK, we started back up pretty much immediately," he tells us. While most sequels tend to rigidly adhere to the format of their forerunner, Cuthbert reveals that there was a degree of uncertainty in those early months of planning, and no one really knew what kind of shape the final game would take. "It was all up in the air," he recalls. "Katsuya Eguchi was driving for a more iterative kind of space game based only very vaguely on an old Famicom title called Star Luster. While we were researching the overall loop of the game, we got to work on the Arwing's transforming abilities and I developed a 3D platforming prototype. Bear in mind, this is a long time before Super Mario 64 and Shigeru Miyamoto was very interested in this part of the game."
Eventually, it was decided that Star Fox 2 would eschew the linear, level-based design of the original and introduce a more tactical and open arrangement, with random elements that would make every play-through different. "Eguchi-san wanted to investigate a more 'Rogue-like' structure to the game," Cuthbert explains. "I think you can tell from Animal Crossing that he likes that kind of iterative, exploratory style game, based on algorithms." Miyamoto was fully in favour of the shift, seeing it as an opportunity to experiment with new styles of gameplay. "He often says Star Fox is his 'test bed' for new ideas," continues Cuthbert. "The series was never intended to be limited to linear 3D scrolling stages, and he will often say that the only reason they did that was to get the best speed and performance out of the Super FX Chip."
Speaking of which, the version of Super FX which was to be included in Star Fox 2 was more powerful than the one which powered its predecessor. "It was the same chip used in Yoshi's Island and had a few improvements we didn't use, such as being able to rasterize polygons into the SNES sprite format," says Cuthbert. "However, the main advantage we used was that it was twice the speed."
Cuthbert worked feverishly on the new title, once again uprooting himself from his native England to Nintendo's Kyoto-based headquarters for the duration of the development period. While he was still technically an employee of Argonaut Software, communication with the UK studio was minimal. "I basically lived in Japan and worked at Nintendo with very little contact to Argonaut during development," he says. Star Fox 2 was shaping up to be a massive improvement over its already stunning ancestor, and would push the ageing SNES to its very limits. However, during the development period Sony and Sega both launched their powerful new 32-bit home consoles, the PlayStation and Saturn - and as a result drastically altered the public's perception of what 3D visuals should look like. The playing field was changed overnight and it was clear that Star Fox 2 - despite clearly running on older hardware - would be compared the latest 3D games hitting the market. It says a lot about Nintendo as a company that it had the gumption to pull the plug on the title completely.
"It was the summer of 1995 and the PlayStation and Saturn were suddenly doing very well in Japan," recalls Cuthbert. "I think that caught Nintendo off-guard. The decision was made because they didn't want the old-gen 3D going up against the much better 3D of the next generation, side-by-side. The rivalry between Sony and Nintendo was very fresh and strong back then because of the whole SNES CD-ROM affair." What makes the decision even more remarkable is that Star Fox 2 was practically finished. "The game was about 95 percent complete," Cuthbert adds. "Even after the decision was made we went ahead and completed it, taking it to be fully QA'd through Mario Club."
Any other person would be crushed to see all of their hard work withheld from the appreciation of the general public, but in Cuthbert's case his attention was already wandering. "It was upsetting of course, but by that point I had already decided to try and join either Sony or Namco and work on the PlayStation with its superior 3D performance - and I needed a bit of a break from Japan," he admits. "Obviously it felt like a waste but at the same time I also didn't want it to be compared directly against games such as Ridge Racer, which felt like you finally had an arcade machine's power in your home. On top of that, a lot of the experimentation we did in the first half of the development was very useful for me personally, as well as for driving ideas and concepts for Nintendo's future N64 games." Indeed, it has been said in the past that the aforementioned platforming prototyping done for Star Fox 2 filtered through to Super Mario 64, one of the most influential video games of all time. Cuthbert isn't convinced this is entirely true, but admits that there could have been some crossover. "Some of the platforming experiments we did definitely gave Miyamoto the confidence he needed. At one point we had slopes and rotating platforms, switches and things that really did feel like Mario in 3D."
Cuthbert would leave Nintendo - and Japan - to join Sony, and while Star Fox 2 never made it to market, its impact would be felt shortly after its cancellation. Miyamoto himself has stated in the past that some of the elements in the SNES sequel - the 'All-Range' mode, charge shots and head-to-head duels - would be factored into Star Fox 64, the next game in the lineage. Does Cuthbert feel a sense of vindication that some of his work did make a difference, albeit on another game? "I'm not sure I felt vindicated as such, but when I first saw Star Fox 64 - in a Toys"R"Us near Sony's HQ in Foster City, California - I have to honestly say I was surprised at how bad the graphics were; the more elegant colours and minimalistic textures and polygons of the SNES version were replaced with a much more 'muddy' look, and the model designs seemed to be a bit of a step back in elegance. However, the frame rate was a solid 60 and the cinematic set pieces were way better than the original - especially with the voice overs - and this added up to it being a better, more playable game overall, I think."
Nintendo historians will know that Star Fox 2 wasn't the end of Cuthbert's association with the franchise. In 2001 he would return to Japan to establish his own studio Q-Games, and five years later would release Star Fox Command for the Nintendo DS. Surprisingly, Miyamoto would encourage Cuthbert and his team to explore the same territory that the cancelled SNES sequel did. "The initial prototype we made was very much like the original Star Fox, but Miyamoto specifically told us to take the game in the direction of Star Fox 2 and I was happy to explore those more strategic themes," Cuthbert recalls. "Miyamoto told us to be more experimental, using the DS' two screens in as interesting a way as possible. Takaya Imamura was stationed in our office permanently during development and created the story lines and other character-based parts to the game."
In a neat twist, it would be during the production of Star Fox Command that Cuthbert was re-acquainted with his past, ill-fated project. "During development we received a copy of the mastered Star Fox 2 ROM to play, and it was quite a blast." This ROM would have been the final game, complete with QA tweaks and ready for a release that never happened. Cuthbert is keen to point out that this version is far superior to the numerous leaked prototype ROMs which are currently doing the rounds on the web - the leaking of which has been erroneously attributed to himself. "There are a few ROMs on the net in various conditions," he states. "But the ones I checked out are all old and they don't have the randomizing Rogue-like stuff working or all the encounters in place, so you don't really get the feel of the game we were making."
Another thing Cuthbert is refusing to rule out is working with Nintendo again in the future. Following Star Fox Command, Q-Games would assist with the 3DS port of Star Fox 64, further strengthening Cuthbert's personal link to the franchise. He's keen to keep the door open, but Q-Games' close relationship with Sony is very much the focus at the present moment in time. "I still have a lot of friends there, of course," replies Cuthbert when asked about teaming up with Nintendo again. "But right now I'm enjoying the sheer power of the PlayStation 4 and it's letting me do some really interesting things, and I've always been about trying to be on the cusp of cutting-edge technology," he admits. "Right now, the PlayStation 4 is where that is for me."
He may be carrying a flag for Sony's hardware right now, but Cuthbert still takes a keen interest in the future of the series he has done so much to build. Like every other Nintendo fan, he can't wait to see what the Wii U version of Star Fox looks like, and has some very firm ideas of the direction that Nintendo should take. "I hope they make it cinematic of course," he concludes. "But the most important thing is going to be how the controls turn out. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do to enhance the depth of the game."
EPILOGUE: When we originally published this feature back in 2015, the chances of gamers actually getting to legitimately experience the truly final version of Star Fox 2 were slim. "The legal problems regarding the now-defunct Argonaut Software are probably a nightmare," Cuthbert lamented at the time. "Never say never though! The fully complete Japanese ROM at least does exist." Indeed it does - and in 2017 Nintendo announced that it would be included with the Super NES Classic Edition.
Main image credit: Lylat Legacy