It's hard to believe that sat here in 2017, we're actually getting the chance to review Star Fox 2. The Super FX-powered SNES swan-song has gone down in gaming folklore as a perfect example of Nintendo's ruthless approach to the video game business. When faced with the possibility that it could be compared unfavourably to software on the infinitely more powerful PlayStation and Saturn – both of which launched at the end of 1994, before Star Fox 2 was scheduled to be released – the Kyoto giant simply canned the game, despite it being all but finished. Since then, fans have had to make do with unmastered beta ROMs which, according to programmer Dylan Cuthbert, aren't representative of the final product – until now, of course. Star Fox 2 is one of the 21 titles available on the SNES Classic Edition (or SNES Mini, if you prefer) and that means after more than 20 years, we're finally getting the chance to give it a proper critique.

From the moment you boot it up, it's abundantly clear that Star Fox 2 is no lazy sequel based on recycled ideas. While the 1993 original offered players distinct routes through the game and plenty of secrets to uncover, this sequel abandons that linear structure in favour of a more open-ended approach that calls for tactical smarts as well as a steady aim. The objective is the same – the destruction of Andross' forces – but here you're presented with a map of the Lylat system which can be navigated freely. In the bottom-left corner is Corneria, which must be defended at all costs; should its damage meter reach 100 percent, then it's game over. The map is dotted with threats which trigger a 3D action sequence when contact is made; Andross' massive carriers, for example, are capable of spawning groups of fighters and must be taken down by entering them and blowing up the core (just like in the memorable armada level in the original Star Fox). Planets under the control of Andross are capable of launching missiles at Corneria and these too must be subjugated to keep your homeland safe. As well as dealing with these hazards, you'll need to find time to fight off Andross' crack fighter team, Star Wolf, as well other marauding foes.

Whilst charting your path through the Lylat system you'll notice that time is paused when your ship is stationary; you can plan your next move without being under any pressure. However, the moment you select your destination, everything moves in real-time – missiles charge towards Corneria, enemy squadrons patrol the stars and carriers loom ominously towards their targets, ready to unleash another legion of fighter craft at any moment. Should you take damage you can dock with your mothership to replenish your shields, and it's also possible to warp to any free planet once aboard, drastically cutting down the time it takes to move around the map. You're not totally alone in your fight; a defense satellite orbits Corneria and is capable of taking down smaller foes, but it can be hijacked by Andross' forces and used against you, so periodically it must be liberated; another distraction to keep you on your toes. All in all, there's an awful lot to keep track off on what is, at first glance, quite a small map – and to cap it all off, time continues to tick when you're in a mission, which means you're under pressure to finish off the enemy as swiftly as possible, lest a rogue missile make its way to Corneria.

At the start of each game you get to select your main pilot and a wingman. There are three different Arwing types, each with different shield, speed and special item configurations, and your wingman is selected randomly after you've picked your controllable character. All three craft are capable of transforming into Walkers (an element which was later re-used to great effect in Star Fox Zero on the Wii U) and it's possible to pick up different special items (shields, restorative items and smart bombs) along the way – if you're really eagle-eyed, you can also upgrade your single-shot blaster to a twin-barrelled variant which deals out more damage. It's worth noting that by holding down the fire button you can charge your blaster, just like in Star Fox 64 – but the concentrated surge of firepower has to be aimed manually and doesn't lock onto nearby targets.

Your first few goes on Star Fox 2 might feel a bit disjointed, especially if you're used to the more structured setup seen in the original game. Some enemy encounters last mere seconds, and if you don't plan ahead you may find yourself aimlessly speeding around Cornerian orbit, desperately taking down incoming missiles and enemy squadrons. However, once you learn to make use of the mothership's warping ability, you can begin to pick apart Andross' forces in a more methodical fashion; it's a good idea to start with the planets as these can be used as warp points once conquered before moving onto the carriers. Each vanquished foe reduces the amount of defensive work you have to undertake, and once you've removed all threats from play, you have a clean run on the main bad guy himself.

When playing in 'Normal' mode, Star Fox 2 is a pushover. It's possible to see the end credits in around 45 minutes, but this default difficulty setting should be seen as a training mode rather than the game proper; the real challenge is to be found in 'Hard' mode, which not only throws more enemies into play but also increases their proficiency in battle. Finishing Hard mode is quite a task, and many sessions will end with Corneria being totally overrun. Even when you do eventually manage to emerge triumphant, Star Fox's appeal endures; the randomised nature of the experience means that every play-through is unique. Planets and carriers contain different base layouts and enemies – including some large bosses which are just as impressive as those witnessed in the original Star Fox – which means you'll keep seeing new things even after several successful runs.

It should also be noted that you are awarded a rank at the conclusion of each play session (even if you lose), and to give you an idea of how stern the game is, we were given a rather pitiful "D" rank after what we considered to be a particularly competent performance. Working out how to boost your rank is all part of the challenge, and it should also be pointed out that you can't really consider the test truly passed until you've found all of the special medals scattered throughout the Lylat System – a considerable task which offers a worthwhile reward to those who rise to the challenge; we'll let you find out what that is for yourselves, however.

Despite the hidden depth of the game, Star Fox 2 does feel like it suffers from a slight lack of focus at times. The tight and thrilling set-pieces of the original outing are missing – an inevitable consequence of giving the player more freedom – and while there's a welcome degree of variety to be found on the planets of the Lylat system (Fortuna has underwater sections, while Macbeth is covered in molten lava which damages your ship when in walker mode), the "all-range" approach means they don't feel as detailed as they did in the first Star Fox.

In terms of presentation, Star Fox 2 is a hard one to judge effectively, especially when viewed in 2017. The second revision of the Super FX chip which was supposed to sit inside each cartridge offers more processing muscle than the original, and this allows for limited texture-mapping effects and more detailed polygon models. Even so, the game runs in quite a small window and the frame-rate is painfully jerky at times, especially when flying around one of the Lylat system's planets. This would of course have been more forgivable back in 1995, and while it's a little bit unsightly, it should be said that the game still controls well enough. The music is something of a mixed bag though; there a few stirring tunes on show but it never reaches the same epic heights of Hajime Hirasawa's soundtrack for the 1993 original; some of the tracks are actually rather unpleasant to listen to.

Conclusion

Reviewing a retro game when you've no real nostalgic attachment to it is a rather odd experience, but it does at least mean you're judging it on its own merits, rather than viewing the whole experience through rose-tinted glasses. Star Fox 2's influence can clearly be seen in games like Star Fox Zero and Star Fox Command (the latter of which was developed by Dylan Cuthbert, who worked on both SNES outings) and the fact that it attempts to do something very different from its predecessor is worth applauding. Whereas the first Star Fox was enjoyable yet linear, its sequel presents an experience which is not only reliant on your flying skills but also your ability to plan ahead and react calmly under pressure – especially when you're in the middle of a fire-fight and you're receiving increasingly hysterical damage reports from Corneria's surface.

By opting for a more open approach however, the epic tone of the original game is watered down somewhat; on-rails linearity may be stifling at times but it does at least allow for some awe-inspiring set-pieces, and Star Fox 2 arguably trades those for a tense, tactical experience which – depending on your personal preference – could be considered more challenging and rewarding. This is a game which begs to be played over and over again so you can improve your rank, find all of the medals and see every single randomised event possible.

Star Fox 2 is unique in the world of video gaming; a AAA title that has to be assessed without the comforting memories of playing it in your misspent youth. Would it have made a bigger splash back in 1995, if Nintendo hadn't blinked in the face of Sony and Sega's graphically potent 32-bit systems? We're not sure we can categorically answer that question to everyone's satisfaction, but what we do know is that this 22-year-old relic is worth owning a SNES Mini for, and may well surprise you with its depth, complexity and challenge – so long as you're not expecting a straight sequel to the original.