A Glance at the Past: Star Fox 2 (SNES Classic)

Star Fox 2 is a game with an interesting history. Originally developed as the immediate sequel to Star Fox on the SNES, the Nintendo 64 was approaching at the same time, bringing with it much better polygonal graphics than the ones the Star Fox series was using on the old piece of hardware. Although the game was almost complete, Nintendo decided to cancel Star Fox 2 to focus on the newer system, leaving a game that was almost done unreleased. For years, Star Fox 2 was just an interesting bit of history, but then an almost complete copy of it was leaked online. I have to admit, I was tempted to check it out… but then Nintendo decided to finally finish the game, releasing a feature complete version of Star Fox 2 as part of the SNES Classic. I had been thinking I had no need to get the SNES Classic, just like I was able to pass up the NES Classic because I already owned most the games on it… but putting Star Fox 2 on there made it a necessary purchase.

Before taking a look at Star Fox 2 though, I decided to go and beat the original Star Fox game for the SNES. It was a good game, yes, but after playing it, I wasn’t expecting much out of Star Fox 2. I figured it would be a bit more of the same, learning from the first game and improving upon some of its issues, but I expected that it would be more like a midpoint between Star Fox and Star Fox 64 quality wise. Needless to say, I was surprised when I turned on the game and found it had an entirely different structure than those two games, its style matching the DS title Star Fox Command more than any other game in the series but seeming to do what Command was attempting much better nearly ten years earlier.

Star Fox 2’s plot is a direct sequel to the original game’s. Rising up after his defeat at the hands of the Star Fox team, Andross has decided to turn the entirety of his military might onto the singular goal of wiping out the planet Corneria. The Star Fox team are contacted to come to its defense, Fox, Slippy, Peppy, and Falco gaining two new members this time in the form of Miyu the lynx and Fay the dog. These two new ladies also play into this game’s ability to make the Star Fox team actually sort of matter. Each character now has their own personal Arwing type, with Fox and Falco being all-arounders, Slippy and Peppy focusing on higher health, and Miyu and Fay focusing on higher speed. When you start the game, you get to pick two characters, one to play as to start and one that you can swap out with while on the map screen. You don’t see the others outside of cutscenes, but having two different characters you can swap between leads to some interesting planning. The main reason you’ll probably swap characters is because one is low on health, but you can also try and pick the pilot who is best for the level ahead. Another nifty use for the feature is to store the wider selection of special weapons across two characters and pick who is best for the mission based on what weapon they have in storage. The pilots still have minimal personality, showing perhaps even less of it than in the first game, but the enemy Star Wolf team you encounter at least adds a bit of character to a game that otherwise only has Andross laughing at you from time to time or General Pepper freaking out about the incoming attacks on Corneria.

The gameplay itself is a big shift away from Star Fox 1’s structure. First of all, rather than there being multiple paths as the form of difficulty, this game straight up gives you the classic difficulty options of Normal, Hard, and Expert, but they each add more content that they shift around to make them all worth playing through. If played through from Normal to Hard to Expert, the game also does a great job of training you up to that hardest difficulty, Normal acclimating you to the game’s mechanics and Hard teaching you the all too important skill of management. You see, since Star Fox 2 doesn’t use the path system, it instead opens the Lylat System up to free travel. Andross will set up a few missile bases on planets, send large battle cruisers out through space, and send out enemies that have special purposes such as hunting you down or taking over the satellite that otherwise helps shoot down enemies. All of these will be targeting Corneria in some way, and your goal is to go to each place and take them down all while balancing Corneria’s health. Letting a missile strike it or allowing one of the cruisers to fire its enormous lasers at it will wear it down, so you have to figure out your priorities and attack intelligently. For the most part, I found that as long as you are careful and smart you won’t be put in situations where you can’t stop something from attacking Corneria, but it can get hectic. Thankfully, its hectic in the way that gets your blood pumping rather than frustrating you.

The removal of the path system also plays into Star Fox 2’s huge improvements on the core gameplay as well. Since you are no longer flying an Arwing through long courses, the game instead gives you more diverse challenges with fewer but more challenging enemies. The shooting has been improved incredibly, as now you have a reticle for your laser in both first person mode and third person. Your ship being on screen is no longer a bother, and I was able to enjoy both modes equally because I could finally target things properly! The game also adds a third mode, where the Arwing can turn into a chicken walker shape and walk around areas. This mode’s controls start off a little odd before they become second nature, and I found it the most fun mode of the three. Most of the more interesting tasks to perform are given to the chicken walker mode, but that’s not to say the Arwing isn’t fun in the air. You can charge your laser now, although its inaccurate on anything that even moves in the slightest, but the best thing about shooting at things now… is you can tell where they are!

Star Fox 1’s enemies were mostly variations on orbs that easily disappeared into blurry messes that you couldn’t hit reliably if they were a bit too far away. Star Fox 2’s shift away from linear paths allows it to fix this issue in many ways. Battles are usually set up with only with a few foes, each planet, enemy, or object on the map throwing only a few targets at you at a time but making them stronger or more complex than the basic enemies that make for good level filler. Because the screen isn’t being filled with a bunch of small enemies, Star Fox 2 makes large opponents with distinct shapes that you can see even at a distance. The enemy ships still have strange shapes sometimes, but they’re more whimsical, usually denote some unique function, and you can usually tell what they’re up to. They do still disappear if they’re a little too far away, but the game will put a handy indicator on the screen to help you fly towards your target, a task made easier by removing restrictions on your ability to boost and brake. There are still a few visibility issues besides that, mainly coming in the form of the Star Wolf dogfights. At certain points in the game you fight the rival Star Wolf team who fly counterparts to the Arwing. Being counterparts, they have the ability to spin to reflect lasers just like you can, but they’re so often far away from you and thus you can’t tell if they’re spinning, turning these dogfights into overly long back and forths. This might not be too much of an issue if the game also didn’t have a running timer. Things can happen while you’re in levels, such as missiles flying towards Corneria in real time, and while no level demands too much time, it does add a bit of a nagging quality to any foe that takes a bit long to fight. Some enemies you need to beat to progress will even have moments of complete invincibility! The timer also determines how well you’re graded at the end, but I was happy to see the grading system make its appearance in Star Fox 2!

Star Fox 64 and Assault both had rating systems to earn medals and unlockables, and Star Fox 2 has this as well. Levels have hidden Pepper Medals that you can pick up, and even if you aren’t angling to collect them all, they serve as a full heal so they’re worth picking up if you find them along the way. You also get rated on how well you did when you beat the game, Expert mode unlocked by doing well enough on Hard and some nice bonuses unlocked for finding all the Pepper Medals or scoring high enough on Expert Mode. It adds a bit of replayability to the game, something that was helped a bit already by the fact that Andross’s approach to destroying Corneria is a bit different between playthroughs. Even when you’re going to areas that seem like they would be similar since they’re planets or missiles that you’ve faced on other difficulties, you’ll often be given something new to face and take down. Star Fox 2 doesn’t skimp on variety, and it makes the Lylat System fun to explore even though you are repelling an entire army while doing so.

THE VERDICT: Star Fox 2 not only improved on the problems of its predecessor, but it completely changed the gameplay to give it a distinctive feel and one that is far more fitting for its graphical style. The simple polygonal shapes aren’t so bad looking now that the game goes for larger enemies with quality designs rather than making as many enemy types as it can to fill space. Combat has been improved because of this, and you can actually pick up items now that the game properly detects when you are moving into an item. Your crew is even made more useful by having different spacecraft types and being able to shift between them on the fly. Still, the graphics do hold it back in a few key moments, such as making the Star Wolf dogfights, which could have been the game’s most interesting moment, into slogs since you can’t see your opponent very well.

And so, I give Star Fox 2 for the SNES Classic Edition…

A GREAT rating. Changing the gameplay style was a master stroke in making the SNES a viable place for the 3D graphics Star Fox was trying to pull off. The visibility issues still can’t be ignored when fighting smaller enemies, but the greater presence of bigger enemies with better designs makes things both more interesting and properly challenging fights. A variety of challenges within the levels coupled with the greater task of protecting Corneria from a bombardment of incoming attackers makes for a wonderful mixture that balances high stakes with manageability. That timer does weigh down areas that could have been better without that ticking clock reminding you that you’re wasting time, but the enemies that waste your time are rare or easy to anticipate once you’ve learned the game a bit. The fast pace does mean its a bit easy to go through all the content and be left wanting more, but it at least gives you a good variety with what it does have.

Star Fox 1 felt like a proof of concept, while Star Fox 2 was an incredible evolution of the franchise held back by the system it was being developed for. While I’d not give up Star Fox 64 or Assault for Star Fox 2 made on better hardware, I still think it would have shined so much brighter with graphics that could handle what it was trying to do. It’s a shame Star Fox Command revived the idea poorly, dragging things out across multiple maps instead of giving the snappy and intense action of Star Fox 2’s focused single map screen. Even ignoring how it holds up compared to its predecessor or the future titles in the series, Star Fox 2 offers a game that, while it might not justify the sale of a SNES Classic on its own, certainly could have drawn some more attention to the console on its quality alone even if its novelty of being a cancelled game was stripped away.

At least this settles that the game was cancelled not because it was bad, but because Nintendo was chasing the trend. Chasing the trend was what had birthed the early Star Fox series’s use of 3D graphics, and it was what would kill Star Fox 2 as the Nintendo 64 took precedence over it. However, now that it gets it chance to finally show what it’s got, Star Fox 2 reveals that we’ve been missing out on a great game these past 21 years.

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