In 1993 the Mega Drive / Genesis was selling well and 2D was the bread and butter of console gaming. "Emergency, emergency… emergency, emergency! Incoming fighters prepare for launch", hailed the 16-bit Nintendo counter attack. For Sega and NEC it was too late: the swooping Nintendo Arwing squadron hammered the early ‘90s into its most notable 3D submission. SNES Star Fox was a powerhouse attack, which gamers would never forget.
Whilst it did not win the 16-bit console war single handed, the first ever Super FX boosted cartridge was a stand out SNES exclusive. Combing quirky Nintendo characterisation and an epic sci-fi setting, it resulted in an on-rails shooter that blew away '90s pre-conceptions of console capabilities. Star Fox (clumsily renamed "Starwing" in Europe — we've asinine licensing issues to thank for that) was many gamers first jaunt into a home console 3D experience. The implementation of SNES game enhancing chips was not new; Super Mario Kart was boosted by DSP in 1992, but the Super FX chip took enhancement to another level.
However, whilst 3D graphics were the selling point in '93, they are the one area of this game in which a modern gamer may scoff. Chunky, bland Corneria buildings, with cumbersome meteor rocks set to brown and grey coloured terrain, could be viewed as downright ugly.
Regardless, any retro gamer slotting in this cart should rejoice: this is a Nintendo game and as such it is jam packed with attention to detail. The aforementioned Corneria has a basic blue skyline on both difficulty level one and two, but switch to the hardest setting and it presents a blistering orange sunset. A Titania mist and snow weather effect may elicit confusion, causing gamers to check their empty glass to confirm that they have not spat their milk over their TVs; however, activate the planet's weather generator to witness its true burnt umber, less milky, skyline. Retro fans will delight in the developer's expertise at extracting the best out of the Super NES fundamentals, using its self-contained powers to supplement effects; bosses explode in a grand flash, the screen turns red and pixels fly like space dust. Mode-7 efficiently takes select care of background sprite scaling, cloud effects and explosions. Star Fox contains moments of 16-bit beauty.
Yet, it would be reckless to assign Nintendo all of the credit for the visuals. The actual 3D mastery was orchestrated by UK code-house Argonaut Software and its proficient head, Jez San. It was this mix of technical expertise and Nintendo's game designing genius that brought the lit torch to the fireworks. Despite being a SNES 3D pioneer, the priority was still on showcasing graphics to the benefit of gameplay. Whizzing up and down vertical tunnels from the inside of a Space Armada juggernaut is a nifty visual effect, as is skimming between spinning Sector X girders, but more importantly they are fun to play. The game demands that the controls are mastered: players must perfectly time hitting the brake or boost of their Arwing, as well as becoming expert at implementing projectile-avoiding barrel rolls.
Star Fox combines all of the pre-requisites for a great game. It mixes classic gaming mechanics with tried and tested shooter playability. Flying through a checkpoint ring of stars to boost health, collecting invincibility shields and saving nova bombs for boss battles, are all classic play mechanics. It owes as much to Atari's 1983 vector Star Wars trench run (reflected in its Space Armada, stock cruiser corridor dodging) as it does to Namco's 1991 3D arcade shooter StarBlade (through the option of a first person cockpit viewpoint). The Star Wars links run deep into this game: details like the rogue underdog's battle against an evil empire and little touches in the game's action are respectful to the sci-fi classic – a brief escape of a stock cruiser's innards, before the flames engulf your craft, conjures memories of a Death Star fleeing Falcon.
Brilliantly, the music takes similarly lofty inspiration. It provides as epic a space opera soundtrack as you could expect from the SNES's sound subsystem. The contrast between the opening title screen's military march score (as Andross's army advances) against the rousing and uplifting opening tune for Corneria is particularly pleasing.
To navigate the universe in Star Fox the player is presented with a menu in which they can choose the arduousness of their path; however, other titles offer gamers respite through the option to branch back to an easier route, Star Fox is not that kind. Anyone who is unsure which difficulty they have chosen need only know that if they are heading towards Macbeth, then they are a brave pilot who relishes a challenge. This design is well thought out: in one smart swoop, it presents a game with a fast arcade run playtime, a sufficient variety of stages and a balanced difficulty curve.
The paths are not superficial either. Decent level one route flyers will battle one incarnation of Andross (Andorf if you're in Japan), but find that he has a more advanced set of attack patterns and forms on level three, the hardest difficulty. The bosses are designed with a multitude of attack patterns and polygons transform their shape to reveal new weak spots.
This game has plenty of lasting power and is filled with surprise. The mere mention of the words "Asteroid Belt", "orange", "crash", "fruit machine" and "black hole" will put a smile on even the grumpiest retro gamer's face. It contains the very definition of a gaming Easter egg, hidden away within its 8-megabit cartridge.
However, it has been just as influential in its own right. Star Fox 64 maintained much of the original's basic play, control and presentation touches. While it doesn't include supplementary vehicles – for example you will not be careering around in a Landmaster here – it also does not complicate the gameplay to the extent of the DS and, particularly, GameCube editions. In its heart it's arguably the most pure playing game of the franchise: you fly an Arwing and you blast down Andross's Venom scum; you start with three lives and you earn credits as you progress. Star Fox gets the basic, fun mechanics right first time.
SNES Star Fox opened the door for 3D shoot 'em ups on home consoles and SEGA happily strolled right through that opening two years later with the Saturn classic Panzer Dragoon. In fact it would not be too bold a statement to suggest that Treasure was partly able to evolve run and gun games, with N64's Sin and Punishment, by considering some of the ground work built by Star Fox.
The release of Star Fox and its integration of the Super FX chip successfully distinguished the SNES from the competition, at least until Sega cunningly placed its own nifty processor into the Mega Drive Virtua Racing cart a year later. However, a year is an eternity in gaming and even Sega were not that cunning a fox in this instance. Argonaut and Nintendo created a magical team for this project. The sparks flew from the screen in a genuine mix of European and Japanese talent. Aurally, visually and in its character design and presentation it was phenomenal in 1993 and will be rightly remembered as a classic.
Star Fox was the first release in a new series that Nintendo fans now hold dear and it ranks amongst the very cream of Nintendo’s long list of gaming glory.