Thursday, August 6, 2009

the enemy’s coming from behind: star fox 64 retrospective

to do a barrel roll, press z or r twice Nintendo released Star Fox 64 in 1997 for its well-remembered Nintendo 64 console. If you don’t remember what Star Fox is, it’s the one where the anthropomorphic talking animals shoot things with little space-planes. Strange in concept, maybe, but I’d rather have a falcon as my wingman than any of the Engrish-spouting morons from any given Ace Combat game.

There are tons of charming and memorable things about this old chestnut, and I’ll try to touch upon most of them before post’s end. More surprisingly though, Star Fox 64 is a game with an enduring legacy, and while none of its sequels have been nearly as fun, it left a mark on Games as We Know Them.

The Star Fox game in question is mostly an on-rails shooter, that is, your ship (Arwing) travels continuously down a predetermined path and you’re left to dodge and shoot at the obstacles and enemies the game throws at you. Occasionally, typically for boss battles, the game breaks into something it calls “full-range mode” which allows for free flight within a square-shaped patch of map. The whole affair is heavily scripted – there’s no improvisation on the game’s part, which means that anyone who can memorize things can eventually beat the game, and anyone who can really memorize can eventually stomp the game’s face in.

One playthrough to the end will only take you a couple of hours, but one of the things that extended Star Fox 64’s length was its branching path system. For example, on Corneria, the first level of the game, you could beat one of two bosses depending on how you played the level. Defeating one boss would send you to an asteroid field as the second level, but finding and beating the other would send you in the opposite direction, to a battle zone with a much higher difficulty. Once you were familiar with the game, you could take virtually any path through it, adjusting your path to make the game more or less difficult or to maximize the number of enemies you take down.

Perhaps the game’s most distinctive quality was its voice acting, a novelty in console games of the time – we’ve only come to expect voice acting in most games in the last few years, since the advent of the high-definition consoles. If we’re being honest, we’ve got to talk about how hokey that voice acting truly was. Goofy at best and grating at worst, the voice of Slippy Toad in particular made gamers the world over shoot down their teammates in frustration. Still, I ask you, has any other game’s script stuck in the gamer vocabulary with such tenacity? “Do a barrel roll,” “use bombs wisely” and “Fox! Get this guy off me!” are phrases that everyone just knows, and using them wittily in conversation is sure to win one Nerd Points.

Also introduced with Star Fox 64 was the Nintendo 64’s Rumble Pak, a gigantic hunk of plastic that you slapped on the back of your already gigantic Nintendo 64 controller to enable the vibration effect we all take for granted in modern controllers. Indeed, the Nintendo 64’s Rumble Pak and analog control stick prompted Sony to replace the original Playstation control pad with the DualShock in late 1997, a design so popular that it is still around twelve years later in spite of repeated attempts to throw it out.

Star Fox 64 had a little of everything, then: two parts fun, fast gameplay, one cup of goofy-but-extremely-memorable voice acting and a pinch of innovation for good measure. The most disappointing thing for me, someone who spent hours and hours blowing up Andross and trying to get all of the game’s gold medals, is that no further entry in the series has yet topped Star Fox 64. Of all of Nintendo’s staples, Star Fox has proven in the last decade to be the least consistent; while people will buy Mario and Metroid in droves without even looking at review scores, Fox McCloud and his wingmen have been unable to set the world on fire.

The franchise strikes me as rudderless, as evidenced by the sprawling, incomprehensible story and the increasingly Sonic-like roster of Animal Friends. The brand has been kicked around from development house to development house, each team trying to take it in a different direction. Rare made Star Fox Adventures into a third-person Zelda clone. Namco made Star Fox Assault a flop by introducing out-of-place missions that took you out of your trusty Arwing and put you on foot. Star Fox Command, the DS entry in the series, was lauded as something of a return to form, but introduced a touch-based control scheme I found clunky and lacked the graphical flare of earlier entries. Also puzzling are the bizarre character redesigns, each one stupider and goofier looking than the last.

What the series needs to return to form is someone willing to look back to Star Fox 64, someone willing to really examine that game’s strengths, copy them, and then improve upon them. Star Fox 64 was the most fun I ever had playing an on-rails shooter. There has to be someone out there who can make that lightning strike twice.