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Star Fox (SNES) artwork

Star Fox (SNES) review

"Star Fox is a classic ... but maybe not for all the reasons nostalgia gives us."

Y’know the first time I tackled Star Fox I thought I was bad at it just because it was new. I didn’t think about its framerate, nor did I notice that I was on rails and dealing with a starfighter that flew like it was stuck in warm butter. I was wrapped up in fanboyism as a Nintendo kid, and admittedly blind to its faults. I loved and still love this stab at its 32-bit successor consoles. I’ll get it right out of the way now: Star Fox is a classic and deserves it’s position in the hall of greats, but maybe not for all the reasons nostalgia would give us.

Star Fox is, for the uninitiated, an on rails space shooter in which you pilot a sleek looking starfighter consisting of no more than five groups of angular polygons. Two low slung angled wings and two aileron style fins, then the body which resembles a squashed arrowhead with a glowing booster that you’ll be staring at for the duration of the game. Corneria is being attacked by Andross’ army of mechanized space fighters, and his attack will not go unanswered.

As Fox McCloud of the titular Star Fox fighter squadron, you choose one of three ‘difficulties’ that take you through a variety of zones that range from the surfaces of planets to warship littered asteroid fields on your way to locating and defeating the warlord ape, Andross. Difficulty is built into the level design, so if combat has you exploding too often for your liking, you’re best off choosing one of the easier routes. I always choose the easiest, since that’s as much stress as I’m willing to put myself through, given the circumstances.

There are other reasons why the higher difficulties don’t work very well on the Super Nintendo, but they’re technical. First of all the core hardware wasn’t powerful enough to render any of the polygons Star Fox boasts, and required the SuperFX chip in order to maintain its less than stellar 15 frames per second. Usually less, especially when the screen would get crowded in the higher difficulty routes, as previously mentioned. This does not bode well for a game that is in practice reflex based.

That may be why Nintendo opted to give the Arwing - your fighter - the ability to deflect incoming fire with just the double tap of a shoulder button, causing it to perform an aileron roll - not a "barrel roll". Nitpicks aside, the invincibility roll is a concession for the fact that the hardware can't reliably present the information you need to evade obstacles like enemies and enemy fire, at peak polygon volume.

I wonder if you remember how quick Nintendo was to revamp Star Fox for the Nintendo 64. They had scrapped Star Fox 2 in favour of the update for the new console, which makes a lot of sense since the SNES had arguably surpassed its End of Life - though fans might argue consoles never die. A sentimental, but understandable viewpoint.

Star Fox 64 could meet the full expectations of its developers and players, particularly where the SNES struggled: In resolution, framerate, cinematics and voice acting. No more dabbity-daba-dat! Voice actors could incorrectly name aerial manoeuvres with gusto! For the few who owned the N64, this was a welcome change, but I take it as a tacit admission with regards to Star Fox’s deficiencies. That said, let’s return to the introduction to our new world of anthropomorphic animal pilots and space warfare, already in motion – such as it is.

Nintendo knew its console well and executed effectively on its strong points: The score for Star Fox has it all: Exciting orchestral build ups, blood pumpin’ combat themes, futuristic synth sounds and even rock styled mission complete ditties. The opening theme for Corneria will get your feet or fingers moving without fail, and the soundtrack scales in dramatics and scope as you near the end goal and final target. I was certainly less concerned with the technical execution of the game than its epic theme and engaging universe.

As an Atari ST owner, I was no stranger to seeing coders push silicone past its specifications on a routine basis. Who says an ST can’t drive a high resolution display or draw textured polygons? Granted that “high res” was 800x600px in those days, but coders had no apparent regard for what the hardware was designed to do. The guys at Argonaut took the same approach by making a polygon driven game feasible on a system with no such capability.

The SNES was built with accelerators in mind, and that improved its viability and lifespan. Would Star Fox have done better with a faster math co-processor? Certainly, in Star Fox 2 we’ve gotten to see what it could have done for the game, but Nintendo surmounted the weaknesses of Star Fox and capitalized on the market saturation of the SNES to maximize exposure of its landmark property. That was, in part, why the game garnered such praise; here was a gift from Nintendo, one we were eager to accept for our veteran, well loved 16-bit console.

At the time Star Fox competed directly against Cybermorph on the Jaguar and... well, I don’t recall that the PlayStation had any space fighters of note - I’m sure it did, but visibility is key, here. Sega had Star Squadron for the 32X, released just a year later. Each of these systems vastly outstripped the SNES in capability, but Nintendo isn’t known for banking on those things.

Star Fox was an experience that captured the hearts, minds and fingers of the largest installed base of users Nintendo has ever enjoyed. The Switch is well on its way to changing all that, but you may have noticed something in that previous paragraph: Lack of competition. Star Fox dominated the charts because it executed predominantly on the premise in the minds of its players, even though it failed on technical points that cripple titles that do the same now.

The stars aligned for Fox and his crew, mapping the charts for a franchise that has stumbled as a modern shooter and been better served by third parties than first party titles. The franchise has had its ups and downs over the years, but is noteworthy for its marketing prowess and technical accomplishments. I wouldn’t recommend this game as a solid space fighter for an aspiring hero, there are plenty of titles on the Switch that execute on those points far better. I would, however, suggest that you try it for a taste of what Nintendo hoped to create for their players, and accomplished in successive titles.

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (January 26, 2019)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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CptRetroBlue posted January 27, 2019:

I share this sentiment.
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hastypixels posted January 27, 2019:

Ah, the power of sentimentality. That's one of those words Nintendo banked on, to be sure.

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