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Fading Mr. Fox

by Scott Thompson - September 6, 2011, 12:19 pm EDT
Total comments: 16

A look at Star Fox's diminishing relevance and prospective future.

I don’t think it’s too controversial to state that Star Fox has lost a great deal of its pull. Where once the simple, geometric Arwing and its pilots offered a space opera that was decidedly Nintendo in all the best ways, new entries in the Star Fox series are met with caution if not outright indifference. What happened to Star Fox along the way that tarnished the legacy of the first two games? What can possibly be done to bring this series back to the highest echelon of Nintendo franchises? To answer these questions, we must start at the beginning.

There are two things I always remember about the original Star Fox, and those are that it ran at about 6 frames per second, and that the music was absolutely perfect. The theme for Corneria just captures the awe of what the SNES was doing with Star Fox, and the garbled “good luck” that precedes the first level feels like the developers are speaking directly to you. Though I jest about its performance on the hardware, Star Fox was still unlike anything available for consoles to that point, and it even rivaled the PC’s space shooters, games like X-Wing and Wing Commander. It was also a bold and innovative move for Nintendo, working outside the confines of typical platforming fare while also sapping the hardware for all it was worth, thanks to Argonaut Software and the FX chip.

While Star Fox was a technical marvel, it was with Star Fox 64 that the vision of the game was fully realized.  Basically a retelling of the first game, Star Fox 64 walked a thin line between being a story-driven experience and an arcade shooter. On one hand, the game offered branching paths, whose availability depended on actions the player took in the game; these paths would reveal something different about Fox and his relationship with his squad and his dead father. On the other hand, the game had no save feature whatsoever and kept track of your high score in each level, rewarding you with a medal if you did well enough. The game was insatiably cinematic, drawing inspiration from Star Wars and Independence Day, and featured several memorable set pieces, my favorite of which is the defense of the base on Katina from the enemy mothership.

Somehow, the stars aligned with Star Fox 64, and every aspect of the game just clicks. Our own Nate Andrews offered his opinion on this:

“I can't pinpoint with great specificity just what it was that continually piqued our interest in the game; maybe it was the effortless cool of the name, or the unprecedented smoothness of piloting an Arwing, or the dozens of contentious rounds of multiplayer that'd leave one of us sour for the rest of the day, or the soundtrack, which will remain delightfully seared into my brain for all time. Whatever it was, it kept us coming back -- day after day, week after week, and month after month -- for another crack at Andross, or another memorable multiplayer match.”

There is a debate amongst many, the NWR staff included, concerning which game is the better Star Fox: the SNES original or the N64 reimagining. Regardless of your opinion, after Star Fox 64, it seemed like Fox would be a mainstay among Nintendo’s eclectic cast of mascots, and we all waited patiently for Star Fox’s next space adventure.

Of course, this is where things start to go sour for Star Fox. After five years of waiting, fans were treated to Star Fox Adventures, a Rare game that took Fox out of his cockpit and had him running around beating up things with a staff. Sure, he could still pilot his Arwing during certain sections, but the focus was on the adventure game elements, which, taken on their own, actually weren’t all that bad. Pedro Hernandez elaborates:

"Star Fox Adventures is FAR from the worst game ever made. Despite being a straightforward Zelda clone, it does have its moments of fun and enjoyment. However, considering that this was the first new game since Star Fox 64, and one that took drastic measures in changing the universe, it's understandable why the series isn't as beloved as it used to be.”

I think Pedro is absolutely right. The mechanics are fine, but this isn’t the game that should have followed up Star Fox 64.

I find there are some interesting parallels that can be made here between Star Fox and other games, the most notable involving Nintendo’s other beloved space-faring mascot, Samus. Metroid: Other M is a divisive, middling game that features some of what fans expect from the series, but also a whole heaping helping of stuff no one was ever asking for. Both Other M and Adventures were reviewed well enough, but there is always that caveat that these aren’t the games we were expecting. As we move on, it becomes apparent that Star Fox still hasn’t really recovered from this misstep, and it will be interesting to see if this foretells the immediate future of Metroid.

From Adventures, Nintendo vowed to appease fans with Star Fox Assault, a game that was promised to restore the beloved element of Star Fox: the flying. Yet, the Namco-developed game couldn’t even do that properly, featuring a great number of Landmaster tank and on-foot segments. Worst of all, the controls outside of Arwing were clunky and cumbersome, so much so that these segments began to feel more like a chore. The game was reviewed humbly, but it certainly wasn’t good enough to be the true successor to Star Fox 64. For that reason, a great number of gamers paid it little attention.

With Star Fox struggling to find footing in the traditional, home console market, Nintendo went ahead and moved the series to the DS. This move made sense as: a) handheld games are cheaper to produce and b) the handheld market typically allows for a little more experimentation and creativity. Q-Games designed Star Fox Command and released it a year after Assault. It borrowed ideas from the canceled Star Fox 2, becoming an action/strategy hybrid. Players had to plot the movement of each member of the Fox’s squad across a map, choosing to engage enemies or pick up items while protecting the Great Fox from damage. It functioned surprisingly well, and while I don’t think it should become a mainstay in how Star Fox is played, it marked the first time in nine years that a new play mechanic in Star Fox wasn’t almost universally despised.

However, the game isn’t perfect, and with Command, we have another parallel with a once beloved icon. It had started earlier with Adventures, but in Command it becomes rather evident that the cast of characters has swelled and festered. Much like Sonic the Hedgehog, Star Fox keeps introducing more and more furry companions for Fox to interact with. It wasn’t an issue with Star Fox 64, as these characters were restricted to small cameos in particular levels, but with Command, it has gotten ridiculous. The game has nine different endings, and the plots here reek of soap opera nonsense. “Krystal is in love with Panther and abandons Fox!” “Krystal leaves both squads and becomes a bounty hunter. Years later, Fox runs into her, but doesn’t recognize her!” The whole game features these insufferable themes of love and betrayal, executed with the subtlety of an atomic bomb.

No. Please, no.

Now, here we are today. Star Fox hasn’t come gracefully into this generation, but it’s still around, somewhat battered and muddy. We are on the eve of the re-release of Fox’s greatest adventure, his future still unknown. Though he may have been joking, Miyamoto remarked that this 3DS outing has to be the absolute best in the series, or Star Fox is going on the shelf. That seems odd, though, considering that as long as the game boots up when you turn it on, it should automatically be the best. No, what Star Fox needs is a new start. Something stripped of all the baggage that has accumulated over the past 14 years. Our news editor J.P. Corbran speaks to this point:

“The N64 was the first Nintendo system I ever owned, and Star Fox 64 was one of the two games I bought alongside it. To this day it remains one of my favorite games. It left enough of an impression on me that I've bought every game in the series since then, and even though none of them have lived up to its legacy I really hope Nintendo keeps making them, because Star Fox 64 proves how great the concept can work when it's done right.”

Let Star Fox 64 be the blueprint. Let its impending re-release remind people why they cared about Star Fox in the first place. Make a sequel that exudes the spirit of the first two games but is free of all the extraneous missteps since. If it can’t be done, if Nintendo can’t find a way to make a fun and genuine Star Fox sequel, then perhaps Miyamoto really should put the series to bed. If the games keep featuring clumsy additions and half-baked plots, then Star Fox will only continue its spiral into obscurity.



ThanerosSeptember 06, 2011

IMO Star Fox Command was the best since 64. I'm hoping Nintendo takes the ending..... SPOILERS

With Fox's son as the leader of the new Star Fox team and reinvent the series from that ending.

The reason why the series had so much change in gameplay was to keep it fresh but kinda failed at the process. If we had consecutive Star Fox games that played like original /64 on each platform since it would have gotten old by now.
But at this point Nintendo could release a new game just like the classic and it would be fresh and new again,lol.

EnnerSeptember 06, 2011

I toyed in my thoughts on the idea of a new Star Fox game where they scrapped the animals and replaced them with humans. That won't go over well.

I really want a Star Fox game to be an Ace Combat game in space, but that goes against the arcade score hunt tilts of the first two games. Anyway, I'm sure the Star Fox Armada name is still unused. I would love to fly an Arwing through more massive space fleet battles.

NWR_pap64Pedro Hernandez, Contributing WriterSeptember 06, 2011

I think if Nintendo really does care for Fox and want the series to return to full form, they need to do the following...

1. Make the games themselves: Star Fox was originally conceived by Nintendo themselves. They developed it internally and created the technology behind it all. The reason both this game and 64 worked so well was because it was created by the team that originated the concept, understood the technology and were passionate about it. What does Rare, Namco and even Q-Games know about Star Fox? Nothing. That's why the games after 64 didn't work out, because they were all Star Fox as told by THEM, not Nintendo.

Let's take, for example, Harry Potter. Imagine that JK Rowling just let people use the franchise and she trusted them enough to let them do whatever they wanted. We would have had very mediocre to awful movies, a theme park that isn't Harry Potter and lord knows how many spin-offs and side characters.

But that didn't happen because Rowling supervised and did everything she could to maintain the legacy she created. Nintendo didn't do that with Star Fox. They let Rare, Namco and Q-Games do whatever they wanted with it. That's why Star Fox Adventures feels like a furry story come to life, Assault feels like a inferior rip off of 64, and why Command tells its story like it was pulled out of a fan girl's deviantart account.

2. Drop the gimmicks: Sure, Star Fox had the FX chip which created neat 3D effects, and 64 had the rumble pak which added a lot to the experience. But the games weren't based around those gimmicks, they were complimentary. SDtar Fox could have been a 2D shoot ém up and it still would have been great because the designers created solid and extremely polished gameplay. 64 could have been played without the rumble pak. The fact that the 3DS version is getting good reviews sans the rumble proves that the game still works, and anyone that says that the lack of rumble ruins the game for them are talking out of nostalgic sensibilities.

We don't need Fox the Link wannabe, the on-feet soldier or even the commander, we just need Fox the mercenary that is the leader of a quirky group of friends. While I love character development and do want to see them evolve, they shouldn't rely on soap opera drama or exaggerated character relationships for it to work.

I loved how in 64 you learn a bit about Fox's dad. There are still a couple of details missing about him, like how and why did he show up to save Fox when he defeated Andress, but there was enough information for us to care about him and still ponder about the mystery.

Character development in small doses, through a short conversation in mid battle, small prologues and epilogues that tie everything up. We don't need to learn how old Peppy is or how many grandkids he has. We don't need to learn that Slippy has gotten married or even learn about Fox's relationship with Krystal in "The Young, The Furry and the Beautiful".

In short, if Nintendo wants Fox to return, they need to make the game themselves (or if they insist on handing it over to a second or third party developer they should be supervising the game's development), cut back on gimmicks and focus on the core Star Fox universe rather than expanding it all beyond belief.

Those are my two

Pedro - The head of Q-Games fucking made Star Fox. If anyone knows the series, it's Dylan Cuthbert.

NWR_pap64Pedro Hernandez, Contributing WriterSeptember 06, 2011

Quote from: NWR_Neal

Pedro - The head of Q-Games fucking made Star Fox. If anyone knows the series, it's Dylan Cuthbert.

That's true, I had forgotten about that.

Did Dylan also worked on Command? I take it he must have since Q games did Command, but they also went crazy with the character development gimmick.

Cuthbert directed Command (and 64 3D). I'm not a huge fan of Command, but I don't see it as any kind of red flag of the series going crazy. The ridiculous story was part of the appeal in my book.

Ian SaneSeptember 06, 2011

Pedro mentioned the association of Star Fox with gimmicks.  Were those gimmicks or cutting edge technology.  The Super FX chip sure wasn't a gimmick.  Polygons were the future.  Rumble is a little less important but it became a standard.  It wasn't just some novelty feature that came and went.  Both Star Fox and Star Fox 64 used technology that became standard in the following console generation.

Star Fox at its core is a shmup.  If you made a new Gradius or R-Type game would you ever have the pilot get out of his ship and run around?  No of course not!  That would be utterly stupid!  And yet that's like the naturally tendency of every Star Fox developer since Star Fox 64.  In a way that problem is that Nintendo made a character that was too iconic.  For most shmups the pilot is never even seen.  But Nintendo came up with the creative design of having animals piloting the ship.  It's a cool design so I think hack devs want the player to see the character.  It's like how they always seem to want to get Samus out of the suit.  Perhaps if Nintendo didn't put a beautiful woman in that suit no one would care about doing that.

Anyway the point is that Star Fox is a shmup so it should play like a shmup.  Shmups are not complex and a lot of the appeal is in the simplicity.  There is no real thought required from the player.  Go from point A to point B and along the way shoot the enemies while dodging their fire.  Throw in some secrets, power-ups, bosses and maybe some secret alternate paths and you've got a shmup.  So the second you add any more complexity you are betraying the very design of the gameplay that the player wants in the first place.  No one wants anything more than this from Star Fox.  And if they do, well, they got three shitty games to appeal to their tastes so fuck 'em.  It's time to make some games for the real fans.

I don't think it really matters too much who the developer is provided they get that Star Fox is a shmup.  Though I would prefer a Japanese dev because, seriously, what Western dev has ever made a good shmup?  Treasure is the cliche choice but I really think it would be perfect.  They've shown they can make excellent shmups and in many different styles as well (Ikaruga, Sin & Punishment, Gradius V, Gunstar Heroes - all different types of shmups and all excellent).

TanshinSeptember 06, 2011

Perhaps they could do something like the real SMB2 (eg Lost Levels). Take the original game mechanics that we all love, move them onto modern hardware (WiiU could be excellent for this), and add new and more challenging levels. People will complain about it not being innovative enough, but it would hopefully help retain the loyal players and attract new ones to the series.

RPG_FAN128September 06, 2011

What?  No mention of the fact that Star Fox Adventures was originally being developed as "Dinosaur Planet" for the Nintendo 64 and was not (to public knowledge) planned to be a Star Fox until very...VERY late in it's development?  From this perspective it makes sense why the "Arwing levels" seem very last minute and rushed.  Anything else from the Star Fox canon?  Let's see....um....the final battle?

TJ SpykeSeptember 06, 2011

Actually, I reading near the launch of the GameCube when Star Fox Adventures was announced, magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly mentioned that the game started out development as Dinosaur Planet on the N64. So it was not a secret.

MagicCow64September 06, 2011

The real tragedy of Star Fox Adventures is that you can feel Rare's seething dissatisfaction seething through all of the mismatched elements of the game design. If it was a great game, but bad Starfox fit people wouldn't really have cared (and it might have permanently changed the franchise), but SFA was just achingly mediocre. It reminds me of the first time they aired Pinky, Elmira, and the Brain, the writers inserted "It's what the network wants, why bother to complain" into the opening theme song. It was quickly changed, but you could tell they meant it from how lackluster the show turned out to be.

TJ SpykeSeptember 06, 2011

Quote from: MagicCow64

It reminds me of the first time they aired Pinky, Elmira, and the Brain, the writers inserted "It's what the network wants, why bother to complain" into the opening theme song. It was quickly changed, but you could tell they meant it from how lackluster the show turned out to be.

That's an understatement, the show got canceled after 13 episodes. It wasn't that bad though, and it was funny that the network let them put that line in the theme.

StrawHousePigSeptember 07, 2011

I remember getting Imagic's Star Voyager and just being so utterly content. For the first time I could fly! Through space! I loved that old POS so much. I literally remember my 11 y.o. mind thinking, "This is how video games should be."

Fast forward to Star Fox. This is seriously cool, but the tech hasn't caught up to the concept.

Fast forward to Star Fox 64. This is it. Done! All it can do from here is look smoother.

And apparently get out of the ship... WTF, why is he getting out of the ship?? That's not flying through space! Fuck off, Rare!

Seriously, if it ain't flying through space it ain't worth it. Star Fox is flying around, blasting bad guys. Anything else ruins it. I also have to agree with getting EAD back on this mofo.

Ian SaneSeptember 07, 2011

Quote from: MagicCow64

The real tragedy of Star Fox Adventures is that you can feel Rare's seething dissatisfaction seething through all of the mismatched elements of the game design. If it was a great game, but bad Starfox fit people wouldn't really have cared (and it might have permanently changed the franchise), but SFA was just achingly mediocre.

I often wonder if SFA was permitted to remain as Dinosaur Planet if it would have been a great game.  How much of its mediocrity is due to Rare losing passion in the project because of Nintendo's tinkering?  And if Dinosaur Planet was never a Star Fox game, maybe the series would not have gone downhill.  Maybe if Dinosaur Planet turned out to be an awesome game Nintendo might has thought twice about selling Rare and maybe Rare would not suck today because I think their seperation from Nintendo is largely the reason why they've lost their luster.

SFA marks the end of Star Fox as a great franchise and the end of the Nintendo/Rare golden years.  I wonder if Rare had come up with Dinosaur Planet protaganists that didn't look like foxes if things would have been completely different.

Mop it upSeptember 07, 2011

Quote from: Ian

Maybe if Dinosaur Planet turned out to be an awesome game Nintendo might has thought twice about selling Rare and maybe Rare would not suck today because I think their separation from Nintendo is largely the reason why they've lost their luster.

Rare had been losing employees over the years, so I think the loss of talent is a bigger factor as to why Rare is no longer a very competent developer. This is also probably the main reason why the company was sold off, because Nintendo didn't like the direction they were headed and wanted to sell their share of the company while it was still worth something.

Luigi DudeSeptember 07, 2011

The thing with Rare was Nintendo only owned 49% while the Stamper brothers owned 51%.  The Stampers wanted to sell there 51% to Nintendo, but Nintendo didn't feel Rare was worth the price, and didn't really want to own it 100% since it was a pretty big studio that had some management issues, which Microsoft eventually discovered was a headache to try and get things done because of it.  So the Stampers went on to offer the deal to other companies, and eventually Microsoft became the highest bidder.

Nintendo didn't really sell Rare, they just didn't feel Rare was worth spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep.  Had the Stampers never sold there shares and kept the company, Rare would probably still be a second party to this day.

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