Some of the best examples of genre-defining video games come from the Nintendo 64 era. In the realm of scrolling shooters, there are surprisingly few entries, but the games that do exist are usually somewhat critically acclaimed and always fun to play. Star Fox 64 is a nearly perfect realization of its goals as a game, and has a lot of extra merits to make things interesting.
Like Ocarina of Time, Star Fox aims to be cinematic. Many of the big Nintendo 64 games do; the birth of 3D in home consoles fostered an extremely creative environment, and even though developers were new to the format excellent direction and clever usage of the technology at hand brought ideas that were not possible earlier to life. From the moment the game starts running, the main characters of the game are shown to the player. Before the first words are spoken, the immediate familiarity of archetypes the characters are derived from makes one feel right at home, with blocky, yet effective character models.
The communication between different characters is one of Fox‘s greatest strengths. Falco, Peppy, and Slippy are all heroes, much as Fox is. But they’re incapable; Fox is the father figure, the babysitter, and the dynamic created from this is simple, yet extremely entertaining. Not only must the player single-handedly take on every evil force in the Lylat system; the player must also ensure that the Star Fox team survives their missions. It is impossible for them to die, but radio chatter is lost if they do have to leave the team to have ships repaired, and it becomes impossible to receive a medal for a mission if any team members are absent at the end of it. The choice is then left up to the player to decide how to manage the team; while this choice has no bearing on the ending of the game, it does change the experience to a moderate extent. And the experience is quite dynamic aside from this; Star Fox is a game that is meant to be played multiple times, with the player choosing how to execute certain game actions and thus which planet to progress to next.
The first time I completed the game I was somewhat disappointed that I had indeed completed it so quickly, but within the typical plot the content between the beginning and the end is dynamic enough to warrant multiple playthroughs. For one thing, the gameplay is very tight, and while not difficult, maximizing score is a very fun thing to do in this game, especially when balancing the needs of your allies, and when deciding which planets to visit. The scrolling shooter mechanic allows the player to have a narrow field of focus and decide how best to approach it, which introduces a neat element of strategy and makes multiple playthroughs even more interesting. The game is limited in technical complexity, but at the same time there is a large potential for the player to consider things to whatever level of complexity is desired. This goes not only for the gameplay, but the plot as well. For instance, the short and entertaining dialog and its voice acting create a nice, tight mythos to muse on during the game. Enemy interaction and philosophy are sometimes intriguing and always entertaining. The rival gang Star Wolf meets up with Star Fox at multiple points in the plot depending on the planets chosen to complete, and is always fun to fight. The voice acting for all of these characters is phenomenal; emotions are always portrayed effectively, and many of the voices and phrases spoken are hilarious. It’s the kind of dialog that never gets old, the kind that you want your allies present for so that you don’t miss anything, and it’s used very effectively to push the plot forward throughout missions.
Star Fox‘s cinematic side is present throughout the game; each level has an opening dialog/cinematic, and boss introductions and deaths are appropriately handled with as much player control as makes sense. The bosses are all excellent, and hearing their threats, tricks, and screams is always a part of the exhilaration of the fighting. The radio chatter makes even standard gameplay feel like an integral part of the story.
This is something that many games brush off; the possibility of pushing the story forward during scenes of player-controlled action. It’s important to take note of this; Star Fox does an excellent job of keeping the plot moving during levels without taking any control away from the player, while a standard game even today will have some shooting and then a cutscene, and then some more shooting. Why? One shouldn’t feel as though it’s necessary to get to a certain point after playing a portion of a game to progress the plot – the plot should be constantly progressing naturally as a piece of the gameplay. The plot is part of the game! Or at least, it should be. No one wants boring cutscenes in the middle of action, and no one wants a bunch of senseless action in the middle of a compelling tale, yet we see both problems quite often.
There really aren’t many games like Star Fox; today the scrolling shooter doesn’t see much attention. But it has timeless gameplay and visuals, and continues to provide many excellent examples of proper direction and design decisions.
This review is based on playthroughs of Star Fox 64 using Project64 1.7 and a forced widescreen aspect ratio, using an Xbox 360 controller. Aside from very few graphical glitches, this was an excellent exercise in emulation.