RetroGrade Review #2: Star Fox (SNES — 1993)

Star Fox was an incredible graphical achievement. It was Nintendo’s second production to use three-dimensional graphics, following the release of X on the Gameboy in Japan a year prior, and the studio’s first to incorporate 3-D polygons (X used wireframes). Due to this, the game lacks detail in the texturing department. Still, the lack of texturing is not a concern, and the fact that the buildings are single, solid colors does not matter when you are more worried about weaving in between them and not dying a crashing, explosive death.

On that note, the drive to survive in Star Fox is exponentially higher than in other rail shooters of its time, partly due to just how catastrophically your ship explodes, and partly due to the shielding mechanic that Nintendo included in this game. It is essentially a health bar, which, while not particularly revolutionary, sets Star Fox apart from its contemporary scratch-the-paint-and-die rail shooters. It adds an extra series of emotional experiences as you play through, especially in the intense later levels when you have to worry about every little bit of health you are losing. In addition to the health bar, the Arwing’s wings will break off if they suffer too much damage, leaving the ship lopsided and unable to pick up weapon power-ups.

Nintendo enhances the emotional experience by making Star Fox Team’s four members unique, fun, and, most importantly, relatable. You play as Fox McCloud, an aggressive leader who cares strongly for his teammates, and you are accompanied by those three teammates, each of whom has his own quirks, often offering advice and making pithy comments. As far as impacting gameplay, however, your teammates are frequently a bigger burden than they are a help. Despite this, it is easy to love these characters. And as annoying as it is to constantly have to save Slippy Toad (which makes you wonder exactly how he earned a job on a team with mercenary pilots), you will find yourself risking life and limb and spamming every button you can think to spam (be prepared to catch yourself accidentally pausing the game frequently on Hard play-throughs) in order to keep him alive. The same goes for the unremarkable-but-experienced pilot Peppy Hare. The exception to this rule comes in the form of Falco Lombardi, Star Fox Team’s ace pilot, who spends as much time making snarky remarks as Slippy spends running away from enemies (which, and I can’t stress this enough, is a lot).

The enemies in Star Fox are numerous, and as a result they can start to feel a little repetitive. Still, Star Fox’s cast of enemies truly shines when it comes to the boss battles. Aside from the repetitions of the Attack Carrier, Rock Crusher, and Phantron, each level’s boss fight is unique and presents its own challenges, ranging from relentless onslaughts of smaller enemies, to fast and unpredictable movements, to minuscule weak spots protected by impenetrable armor. Each boss fits the level it appears in, both in terms of setting and context. The game begins on Corneria, a planet being invaded by a military force from the planet Venom, which has worked its way across the solar system to get there. As such, the two bosses are representative of that – the Advance Scout Mother Ship: Attack Carrier and the Ground Supremacy Vehicle: Destructor. Similarly, the Asteroid Belt leads to the Asteroid Destroyer: Rock Crusher (answering how Venom was able to work its forces through an otherwise impassable obstacle), the Space Armada is led by an impossibly large ship called the Planet Bomber that can only be defeated by destroying its well-protected Atomic Core engine, and the Special Close Orbit Robot: Phantron intercepts Star Fox Team as they approach Venom. These are just a few examples but each of the other bosses fits its respective level just as perfectly.

The downside to Star Fox comes in its unreal difficulty curve. The game has three routes to proceed through: Course 1 (Easy), Course 2 (Intermediate), and Course 3 (Hard). As expected, the Easy path is challenging for new players and becomes progressively more difficult with each level. But say, for example, that you complete the Easy course path but struggle on the final boss – if this is the case, you will not survive the second level of the Intermediate path. The same goes for the curve up from Intermediate to Hard. The Easy and Intermediate variations of Corneria are deceptively simple, and the world’s Hard path does not deviate from this trend. The enemies come at you in small numbers, and the boss battle is straight-forward. The second level will wreck you in the realest way, forcing you to attempt to shoot down the enemies that are attacking you and your teammates all while frantically trying to avoid the countless invulnerable obstacles that fly into your path seemingly at random.

The game mode that you might expect to prepare you for these challenges – Training mode – does the opposite. While skill gained in training may eventually be useful (such as improved aiming by “juggling” the targets, shooting them off the ground and continuing to shoot them so they don’t land again), the mode contains a section that requires you to stay in formation with your teammates while they perform a series of maneuvers. These maneuvers range from changing altitude, to banking right and left, to barrel-rolling back and forth. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. The game provides no hints before the team moves, leaving you to play catch-up while your team harps on you for not staying in line with the wireframe Arwing that marks your correct position in the formation. You can only hear, “Fox! Stay in formation!” or, “Fox! Get back in formation!” so many times before the training mode (which should have been designed to boost player confidence and skill) starts to feel degrading and like a chore.

Star Fox, overall, is a fantastic game, but it is not for the faint of heart. In spite of the ground-breaking graphics, lovable and relatable characters, and unique elements in each level, there is a chance that you may only find enjoyment while playing through the Easy course path, and only feel satisfyingly challenged by the Intermediate path. However, if you are the type who likes the grind, the Hard path will be a dream come true. If you pick this game up on an emulator, only do so on one that includes gamepad support. Star Fox does not play well on a keyboard.

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