For most of my life, I’ve been a huge fan of the Star Fox series. There’s just something about this quickly-paced action-packed space shooting series and its cast of high-personality characters that captivates me, even though its a rather small series when you total up how many titles are in it. However, despite my interest in the series, the original Star Fox for SNES evaded me for a long time. Nintendo would not put it on their Virtual Console, and for a while, my limited means meant I couldn’t spring for an original copy. However, after many years of longing for the game, I finally got a hold of it, buying a copy to play… only to end up getting another copy in the SNES Classic. Still, I was mostly just happy to finally have it, and while it doesn’t stand at the same heights of the future installments in the series, there’s still stuff to love about the first adventure of the Star Fox team.
The Star Fox series has had a few reboots, but the original game’s plot is simple enough. In the Lylat System, anthropomorphic animals live together in relative peace across a few planets, but when a mad scientist monkey named Andross is exiled to the planet Venom for his dangerous ambitions, the peace is disrupted by his newly established empire. To save this piece of the galaxy, General Pepper has contacted the Star Fox team of mercenaries, a crack crew consisting of Fox McCloud the fox, Slippy Toad the frog, Peppy Hare the rabbit, and Falco Lombardi the… the uh, bird of some sort. He’s got falcon traits, pheasant traits… he’s a bit of a mix of birds I guess. Anyway, you play as Fox McCloud, flying your specialized space fighter the Arwing to take down Andross’s forces as you work way to Venom to foil the monkey’s plans in person. The characters in this game aren’t quite as interesting as they would become in later installments, although I have to compliment General Pepper on his cool shades in this version. While you are in the levels themselves, your crew will make sporadic appearances either to ask for your help when chased by an enemy or to try and take on some enemies themselves. They have very few lines though, with only a hint of personality showing for each of them. You get that Slippy is a bit of a novice since he stutters, Falco is cocky because he thinks he can handles things and resents your help, and Peppy… he’s just normal, sadly, rather than the mentor he would become in later games. I’m not going to begrudge the first game for not making these characters endearing, I just wish your crew had more of a purpose. They drop by every now and again and sometimes say they are helping in some way but I could rarely tell if they were making an impact, especially when they seemed to phase through objects as if the game didn’t mean to put them there in the first place. It’s not helped much that the game’s dialog is all told through weird alien language with subtitles… but then they have some English vocals during transitions and certain scenes. Again, I can’t expect the whole game to have voice acting on the SNES, but it makes the English seem the stranger part since everything else is a made-up noise scramble.
Certainly the much more important part is how that gameplay feels. Star Fox has you flying your starfighter forward constantly, enemies attacking you from all over the screen that you have to dodge or shoot down. There’s a good amount of enemy variety and the bosses are all pretty distinct if mostly rather bland visually, but that’s more a failing of the graphics than the game design. Star Fox does something rather ingenious to separate its three difficulties, making each one of them a different path towards Venom. The first path is the easiest, with path 2 and 3 upping the difficulty as if they were a Normal and a Hard mode, and they all feel exactly as difficult as those designations would imply. The paths do not really intersect much but are fairly unique, even the repeated planets and settings having different level compositions, enemies, and most of the time even repeat bosses have something new up their sleeve. While most games you only want to play through on one difficulty, the three paths are distinct enough that they’re all worth taking a look at, even if one won’t give you much trouble while the other is rather difficult to stay alive in. It’s not too hard to get continues or extra lives on any difficulty, and if you can collect the laser upgrades when they appear things will gradually become easier and make the challenges ahead more appropriate. Some bosses on the hard route seem set up to kick your butt before you have the chance to learn how they work though.
There is a rather unfortunate split in how you can handle certain levels though. In levels that take place on a planet, you view the Arwing from behind and have no aiming reticle for your lasers. You have to eyeball the position of your ship and angle it a certain way to hopefully send your lasers where you want them to go, a prospect made more difficult by the fact you’ll move your Arwing around in the process. While you will get the hang of it, it’s never quite precise enough, not helped along by the fact your lasers take some time to travel so you have to do a bit more leading than you’d expect. This issue is remedied quite well in the space levels, where you can use a first-person mode that gives you a targetting reticle. In the areas where you can see your Arwing, it not only is hard to aim, but the Arwing’s model fills a lot of the screen real estate to make it harder to avoid things or aim at them all that well. In first person, all you have is your big green square to guide you, and your shots are much more accurate for it. I felt like I could shoot things reliably in this mode, and while it’s stranger to dodge in this mode because you don’t have a good view of the space your starfighter occupies, I at least never felt like I hit anything I shouldn’t have. If anything, it seemed like I squeaked by a few things I thought would hit me for sure! In both modes you can spin to deflect lasers or brake and boost to avoid obstacles, so there’s certainly a few ways to help you avoid trouble in either mode if you feel you can’t manage a quick dodge. Only a few areas ever require intense reflexes though and even if you do end up eating some hits, you have enough health that you can often squeak by and potentially make it through the level if you play it safe from there. I would say there are health pick-ups, but that same blessing that made it seems like you didn’t hit an enemy even though it looked like you did hurts when its time to get pick-ups. Health rings, laser upgrades, bomb pick-ups, shield boosters… all of them require you to fly into them, and the game is pretty picky about what qualifies as flying into them. If you don’t have the time to line up your flight then there’s no reason to even go for that health pick-up that popped out of an enemy. The ship can’t make such quick adjustments to the flight path to accommodate the sudden appearance of some pick-ups, and touching the side of the pick-up doesn’t count as acquiring it.
A lot of these issues so far aren’t dealbreakers. A lot of points exist where it can be improved, but some just require adjustment to your approach or acceptance of a limitation. The flying and shooting are all still very fun, with a variety of challenges, some good difficulty segregation, and a few secrets here and there as well… but there’s one aspect of this game that hurts it, and it pains me to say it… but its the graphics.
A game doesn’t need good graphics to be good, and a bad game can have amazing graphics… but the important part about graphics is properly conveying what the player needs to see and interact with. Star Fox for SNES was chasing the 3D trend and trying to be cutting edge when the medium wasn’t even going to master polygonal graphics until after the Nintendo 64 era. Star Fox decided to make 3D models on the SNES, and to handle that demand, the appearance of the objects in game is incredibly simplistic and rather bland. A lot of white, red, blue, and grey makes up the game’s models, with the heaviest emphasis being on white and grey. Wireframes and weird objects that don’t resemble anything realistic make up a lot of the environments and obstacles. Even when it was new the game was ugly, it was just doing something that didn’t seem possible and was novel for doing so. It’s certainly impressive that the SNES was pushed this far visually, but the sacrifices done to make it work hurt the gameplay. Enemies have very simple designs that don’t convey much, and while there are a lot of enemies in the game, many are variations on simple designs like orbs and ovals. You’ll see the same butterfly enemy a lot too, since that’s one of the shapes that’s distinctive enough in the graphics to be interesting even if it doesn’t make too much sense why the enemies have butterfly-shaped spaceships. The bigger issue with the visual design is the fact the game can’t display too much because of it and enemies that are a bit too far away are hard to make out. If you could shoot the enemies just fine, who cares how ugly they are, but at a distance, enemies become static messes and your lasers don’t seem to hit them reliably because of it. Bosses are big enough to avoid these problems mostly, retaining features at a distance because of their size. However, when the game involves mostly shooting at little enemies or dodging obstacles you need to see coming, its important to have a good view of what is coming up ahead. This makes the moment to moment gameplay less fun than it should be, but it doesn’t drag the game down too much. Things are visible if hard to discern, and if you just keep firing with little concern for accuracy you can eventually hit those blobs of static a ways out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the visuals are also why the pick-ups are harder to get than they should be.
THE VERDICT: Although the 3D graphics were the marketing gimmick of the original Star Fox, they seem like the game’s weakest feature. Sure, you don’t actually move in three-dimensions since the game’s always moving you forward itself, but flying through the many levels and gunning down a bunch of spaceships along the way is fun in the style the game does present to you. It balances its challenge well enough and gives you quite a bit to do and a few different ways to play through it, but almost everything comes with the caveat that this game could be so much clearer visually if it hadn’t prioritized looking interesting over playing the best it could.
And so, I give Star Fox for the Super Nintendo…
A GOOD rating. Star Fox has a good formula, one that survives contact with visuals that are more ambitious than they are functional, but if it had focused on the functionality of the visuals rather than pushing the envelope, a lot of its niggling issues could have been erased and replaced with elements that would make this a Great game. That’s partly why later titles in the series do much better with the formula, as they have systems to back up their gameplay style, but Star Fox was doing what it could with its hardware and came out with a product that is still enjoyable even if sometimes its hard to tell what the game is showing you.
All in all, Star Fox is a good start to an amazing series, and while its first outing wasn’t the best, it did show the strong potential of the series with some satisfying space shooting and an interesting little solar system to travel through.