The Nintendo 64 was the console of dichotomy. There was a huge, gaping divide between the haves (say, Ocarina of Time) and the have-nots (say, Superman 64). One game most industry fans would put in the “have” column is Starfox 64, the simple tale of an animal and his animal crew taking on other animals in space. Checkpoint takes a look back at the furry galactic drama, and we discuss what made such a simple concept work so damn well.
Going off the Rails on a Crazy Arwing
Shaun: At it’s core, SF64 is a basic on-the-rails shooter, but its level designs are so excellent and diverse that every stage is unique and addictive in its own way. Between all the action taking place onscreen and the numerous emblems and secret shortcuts, SF64 was actually a very deep experience.
Chris: There were plenty of rail shooters in the 2-D era that were pretty good, both on systems and in the arcade. But Starfox 64, while essentially a remake of the SNES one, is definitely deep. There hadn’t been a rail shooter with that much replay value before.
Lee: And really, it wasn’t House of the Dead style. You didn’t have to stay in one place and take it from a zombie. Fox McCloud had an entire screen to maneuver around on, and that added depth to the game.
Shaun: I would replay the same paths multiple times just to get the best score possible, which I think I got once or twice. High scores really revolve around the ability to charge shots, and deploy them at the correct times at the correct targets. Well placed shots could take down whole fleets of oncoming enemies, resulting in high multipliers. And because your ship is on the rails, you really only have one chance per stage to get the shot right. It’s surprisingly complex and addictive.
Chris: I think that added to the tension. That and your partners on the intercom, which added a much-needed sense of urgency. But yeah, if you missed a couple key spots, Slippy’s ship was going in the docking bay. And then you were down a wingman.
Shaun: No one cares about Slippy though. At times, I shot him down myself so I didn’t have to listen to him talk.
Chris: Everything about the level design kept you coming back for more. Secrets, warps, shaving off seconds on your time, getting the most points, plowing through the critical spots more efficiently (especially in Corneria, the first level)…
Lee: I never played for the score. It was about shooting bad guys in space as a fox. It is hard to top that concept. What could be better than cuddly creatures tearing a hole through an enemy armada?
Shaun: The pacing was very dynamic. Some levels included huge wage of lava that had to be dodged, or meteors flying at the windshield. In other levels, Fox would drive the Landmaster. And, of course, the best levels of the game, free for all flight in a showdown to the death with Star Wolf.
Chris: Absolutely. And while I enjoy the first showdown more, the one just outside Venom is definitely the best because it’s probably the hardest mission in the game. That or Sector Z. You go in there against Wolf and Co. with the basic lasers or a wing clipped, and you’re going to have a hell of a time.
Shaun: Those battles were just epic. There’s not a whole lot of story in SF64, but what they have is actually quite good, and it gives the fights a great context.
Chris: Simple, but effective. Your father is deaaaaaaaaad. Another crew betrayed him. The galaxy needs your help. Your crew may or may not help you. Are you a bad enough dude to save the president?
Lee: I was never a big fan of the dogfight levels. You just stayed and fought in one area. There really wasn’t a stunning environment to play through. I preferred the scrolling stages. Dodging pillars, fighting head-on, etc. That kept me coming back for more.
Chris: I’d agree with that if there were more than a handful of those dogfights. As it is, I think it’s a great break to the pacing and the frantic action makes for some of the better moments in the game. The stage with Bill is a particularly good one, and he’s actually a dog.
Shaun: Another aspect of the game done really well is the boss battles. Not only is each one unique in form, but the bosses themselves are memorable.
Chris: If nothing else, the bosses are a good peak for each level. After a while when you learn their weaknesses, it’s not quite as good, but they’re still fun.
Shaun: My question is how have we gone this long, especially in a section talking about gameplay, without bringing up barrel rolling? It was a fundamental part of the controls, as you were a dead fox if you didn’t master them, but…it’s barrel rolling.
Chris: Really, it only succeeded because Peppy sold you on it so hard, and because it was so effective. There’s a couple times where they bust out the old-school 2-D hundreds of lasers attack, but instead of just dying and putting in more quarters, you have a way out besides miraculous dodging.
Shaun: It’s like SF64′s legacy. But yeah, Peppy’s insistence on Fox doing one is probably more responsible for that.
Lee: Yeah, you had to use all of Peppy’s wisdom if you wanted to make it through the game un-dead. Boosting, barrel rolling, and getting help from others was emphasized in this game. In fact, I don’t think I have played another game with such a great emphasis on midair maneuvers.
Chris: Peppy’s wisdom was more useful than Zelda’s. Although that doesn’t take much. Dumb broad.
Shaun: All these mechanics really helped Starfox become an all-time classic. It feels and plays better than the technologically superior Rogue Squadron games, despite the obvious limitations in horsepower.
Let’s Go Team
Shaun: I don’t really know what to say about the characters. Important? Yes. Iconic? Undoubtedly so. Annoying? As all hell.
Lee: Well, let’s start with the title characters. “Star Fox” was the name of a four creature mercenary team. They travel the system looking for jobs to pay for whatever it is they do in their downtime (hopefully it doesn’t have anything to do with conventions). Fox McCloud is the leader of the team.
Chris: Thank you, Wikipedia.
Chris: Even though we’d consider these guys stereotypes now, the balance worked pretty well. The leader who plays it straight, the grizzled veteran, the cocky loner, and the dumbass frog.
Shaun: Ah, the dumbass frog. Most. Common. Archetype.
Lee: Haven’t you ever played Chrono Trigger?
Chris: Think about it. Slippy, Frogger…uh…French people…
Shaun: Slippy is definitely a huge metaphor for French people.
Chris: Because of his demeanor or his name?
Lee: You know, I thought those cigarettes were just decorative.
Shaun: The cast works, and you can’t say they were not entertaining, but…there were times I would rather shoot them down then listen to their quips.
Chris: Yeah, every now and then they’d become a bit bothersome. Each of them had their own way to be grating, although only one infuriated based on existence. And it didn’t help when they were constantly in need of help. But it never mattered. You’d think from talking about it that this dynamic was horrible, but somehow it all worked perfectly.
Shaun: I would say their dialogue is equal parts hilarious and grating. But worth it for the hilarious.
Lee: I think the inability to escape their constant quibbling was what made it more hilarious. You are trying to take on a giant boss and a little frog’s head pops on the screen and says, “FOX, we are out of toilet paper!” or something else equally ridiculous.
Shaun: Those animal parents should probably get a little more creative in naming their children. You name your falcon son Falco? Even worse, the titular fox is named…Fox? If this is the standard, there must be 5 million Fox’s in this animal kingdom. In space.
Chris: Right. I mean, his dad’s name is James. There are acceptable alternatives in the family. Then again, James was dumb enough to trust a fat pig and get himself killed, so…
Lee: That’s what you get when you give up and don’t trust your instincts.
Shaun: God, that pig was fat.
Chris: YOU CAN’T BEAT ME…I’VE GOT A FATTER SHIP. Er, better. Better.
Chris: I also like that Star Wolf’s team was made up of the exact opposite of yours, pretty much. Again, you’d think this would be cliched, but it just works. An evil rival dude, a mercenary, the cousin of the final boss, and … some gecko.
Between the Lines
Shaun: We already touched on the bosses, but something should be said for Andross. He managed to be pretty terrifying for a disembodied head.
Chris: Yeah, and the fact that he can melt his face and turn into a robot is kinda disturbing.
Lee: It was kind of disappointing, too. Great, another evil robot overlord in space. Who didn’t see that coming? That’s what robots do. They wait for humans to develop better space travel, take it over, and build an empire in the far reaches of some dark system.
Chris: Nobody ever really explained Andross, but it was okay because the game implied he was evil and the terrorists have to die. Still, I’m not sure how a floating severed head could A) take over the galaxy, or B) reproduce.
Shaun: He’s Andross, guys. He just is. We cannot comprehend his greatness. Or his origin story. He has powers that we simply can’t understand, powers that can only be breached by a fox flying a spaceship.
Lee: Well, Chris, I can help you with the second question. You see, the papa head does a barrel roll for the mama head. Then, he uses the boost to get through. Once there, he trusts his instincts until he releases cocky little freaks. Then he tells the mama head her father helped him like that too.
Chris: GEE, I’VE BEEN SAVED BY (a) FOX. HOW SWELL.
Lee: The papa head needs to remember to use bombs wisely.
Shaun: I was going to make a comment about nothing being able to survive a fox in a spaceship, but then…what do I say to that?
Chris: Right. And sometimes you can try a somersault.
Shaun: You got your sexual innuendos in my Starfox, and I don’t know what to do about it.
Lee: SHAUN, THEY’RE ON ME. I’M GETTING CARELESS.
Chris: Well, half the dialogue is innuendo, after all.
Shaun: Yeah, of course. There’s a lot of sexy going on between Slippy and Peppy.
Chris: TAKE CARE OF THE GUY BEHIND ME, FOX
Chris: SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE G-DIFFUSER
Lee: YOU’VE BECOME SO STRONG
Shaun: Great. Really great. Good job guys.
Chris: IT’S FOOLISH TO COME AGAINST ME
Lee: USE THE BRAKE
Chris: MAKE WAY FOR KAT
Shaun: I would if I could. How do you guys remember this much stuff? I remember, like, three lines, not “it’s foolish to come against me.”
Chris: Because I love this game and all of the lines in it. I can probably do half of it just off memory.
Chris: Anyway. Considering the flops that have happened since SF64 (although Command was okay), the series needs to head back to its roots, right?
Shaun: Definitely. I don’t know what’s so hard about staying faithful to a formula that garnered so much success in the past, but I want a sequel to SF64 much in the same vein as its predecessors. For the love of God, keep Fox in the ship.
Chris: I don’t know if it’s ever going to be possible to recapture the same corny but fitting dialogue, but they certainly haven’t tried very hard. I just don’t understand why Nintendo seems so intent on ruining some of its flagship franchises. Why oh why is it so hard to make another good rail shooter? Why has it taken 300 years to get a Kid Icarus sequel? Why does Sonic suck so muc– wait. That’s not their fault.
Shaun: Well, that’s my problem; it’s one thing to abandon it if you tried it and it failed, but why just drop it cold? The humor, the gameplay — it all went out the window.
Lee: Yeah, they should make a Star Fox 65 with the same voice cast and the same lines as the original game. It should include the same levels, upgrades, enemies and bosses as well. Meh, might as well just play the original.
Chris: Hell, I’d probably play that. Uptick the graphics, include a couple new challenges, bring back the original voices — hell, I’d buy that in a heartbeat. I mean, there were a few stages in Assault that didn’t suck, but it wasn’t enough to redeem the whole game. Not by a long shot.
Shaun: They could do a sequel some real justice, but instead, we are stuck with Fox swinging a pole with a another fox who is trying to sexy, which is very creepy.
Lee: Not sure she was a fox, but I get your point. Adventures was not a game that made us look forward to more Star Fox. However, it did succeed in making us want to play the original.
Shaun: And while it seems natural to include some kind of Wii remote motion control in a sequel, I hope it is kept to a minimum. Shaking to perform a non-critical air maneuver is acceptable. Navigating the Wii-mote like a spaceship is most certainly not. It’s more like the worst idea ever.
Chris: Waggling to do a barrel roll is unacceptable. You press Z or R twice. I don’t care if those buttons aren’t on a Wiimote. Z or R twice. That’s it.
Shaun: Of course, but that’s a critical move. It’s like the most critical. But you could shake it for…something. Kind of like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
Lee: I can see us pointing at the screen to launch a bomb at a certain enemy. That would be acceptable.
Chris: I’m just petrified of the idea because shaking it for a barrel roll seems like the perfect fit in Nintendo’s stupid motion control world, doesn’t it?
Lee: Shake it to throw the blue toad to his god forsaken final demise in a pit of spikes filled with lava?
Shaun: As organic as it is for Metroid to control by aiming the remote at the screen, this feature really prevented me from playing through Corruption. I just didn’t like it, and I hope they don’t try to do the same thing for SF.
Lee: Myes, very organic.
Shaun: Do you mean throw the blue toad in lava, or shake the remote to have the blue toad save the day. Twice.
Chris: So basically, we want a brand new game that’s exactly like Starfox 64. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to how great that game was or how bad its follow-ups have been, but either way it works.
Shaun: Well, pretty much. I’m fine with innovation, but yes, it needs to follow the formula established in Star Fox 64. Include new ways to shake up the pacing, new abilities, blah blah blah, but don’t reinvent it at this point. SF is definitely one of NIntendo’s franchises that does not need to be radically changed. One true sequel would be nice.
Lee: Starfox 64 may never be duplicated. Let’s not forget, we were different people when we first played it. There might be something we can’t get back from those halcyon days when everything was magical and talking animals kicking ass in space was good gaming.
Shaun: Maybe, but I would hope they would at least try.
Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.