Quick - let’s go back to 1996, release this then, and rewrite history.
I’ve kept using the same word to describe Star Fox 2 to people: weird. Star Fox 2, the 1996 Super Nintendo game that’s finally seeing release 21 years later, is very weird and is in a lot of ways very unlike any other entry in the nearly 25-year-old series. This is a daring, risky space-faring adventure that manages to totally shift what a Star Fox game is while still staying true to the core ideas of the original Super Nintendo debut. After spending time with Star Fox 2 on the Super NES Classic, I’ve come to realize that the series is worse off for not having this come out as originally intended, because Star Fox 2 is definitely the most interesting Fox McCloud adventure and might also be the best one to boot.
While the original and some successors presented distinct levels with three branching paths, the sequel removes that binary progression. A beginning, middle, and end is still built into the progress, but how you get to those points is entirely up to you. That helps make it maybe the most replayable entry in the series. When it begins, you pick two pilots out of a roster six deep (the core four and newcomers Fay and Miyu) and then start in outer space near Corneria. This overworld map lets you move your duo around however you like, engaging in space with errant fighters and missiles hurtling towards Corneria or touching down on planets or battle cruisers to destroy Andross’ growing forces. All of this can be done in almost any order, but risks are involved no matter what you do because the time is always ticking. When you’re in a planet or base, enemy missiles and fighters can still move in space, introducing a degree of real-time strategy. If fighters and missiles do too much damage to Corneria, the game is over. Alternatively, if both of your pilots fall in battles, your playthrough ends as well. Health keeps up from battle to battle and the only way to regenerate is to return to your base or use special items.
The default Normal difficulty setting is woefully misnamed, as it would be better off to call it “Easy mode,” as it borders on being a mere tutorial. In my first try, I beat Normal in about a half hour, and subsequent runs would get as low of 20-25 minutes. The complexity is upped in Hard and the unlockable Expert mode, which is where the game shines, adding in significant roguelike inspirations. All three difficulties might share some levels, but each one is done in a different way, making them diverse. The more challenging modes require deft management of resources as you have to figure out ways to move around the overworld efficiently and defending Corneria while making sure progress is being made to take down planets and bases so you can get to Andross.
The more deliberate levels aren’t of the rail-shooter variety that made the series famous. Instead, each one is primarily an all-range mode segment where switching between Arwing and Walker is integral. The Walker, first shown to the world in this reality in Star Fox Zero, is on full display here and used to press switches and explore dungeon-like bases. The bases don’t really get that complex until Expert mode, but they weirdly feel like proto-3D Zelda dungeons, as you have to defeat enemies, hit switches, and unlock doors to uncover a boss, all in 3D space. You even have a map to look at during each one, too.
The bosses are for the most part all great, making for frantic space battles and ground scuffles. Some of the bosses have been seen and improved upon in later Star Fox games, so the core drawback here is that the series has been iterated upon in the past 20 years. The dogfight battles with Star Wolf, making their series debuts (sort of?) here, are tense affairs, made more challenging by the seeming lack of a lock-on for your charge shot (which was available in the leaked beta but doesn’t seem to have made it into the final version).
Gameplay aside, it’s impressive this even runs at all on SNES hardware. Some issues with slowdown and clipping pop up every now and then, but it runs better or at least equal to its predecessor with a whole lot more going on at once. The music, very much in line what was in the original, is excellent, shining brightest when the tunes are pumping on planets and you’re trying like hell to get your mission done and back out in space to defend Corneria.
What makes all of Star Fox 2 work so well is the apparent procedural design of Hard and Expert modes. With so many different ideas and elements coalescing into one dense space overworld, so many distinctive things can happen during a playthrough. I’ve had moments where I’ve had to jump from one boss battle right to a dogfight with Star Wolf’s Pigma because of what the map dealt me that time. I’ve frantically run around different planets trying to knock out their missiles before they get launched so that way I wouldn’t have to contend with multiple strikes heading towards Corneria at once. The inclusion of the persistent timer emphasizes expediency in a way that dramatically increases the tension in a way I’ve rarely felt in the series. Star Fox 2 is, in spite of its taxing of the SNES hardware, brilliant.
Going into Star Fox 2, I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard whispers of the beta over the years but mostly stayed away from checking it out in any major way. After getting my hands on it after so long, I’m earnestly crestfallen that this didn’t come out as originally intended. This is a daring, unique game that is a little rough around the edges in the modern context, but still holds up as a long lost classic Nintendo game. Despite missing out on two decades of nostalgia, Star Fox 2 is every bit as essential as the majority of the SNES Classic’s library and the world of Nintendo is better for having this game out in the wild for all to play.