Welcome to the first in a series of very special reviews, taking a look at every single playable Super FX game. Of course, the most logical place to start would be with the very first game to use the Super FX chip – Starfox.
Name: Starfox / Starwing
Released on: SNES
Year Released: 1993
Starfox’s existence is an interesting one. A Nintendo published release that shared development duties with a small British development house, the game simply wouldn’t have been possible, had co-developers Argonaut Software not had the balls to request that Nintendo help to fund development of a means to improve upon the Super Nintendo’s 3D capabilities. The results of their endeavour, the Super FX chip, is a substantial amount of Starfox’s legacy.
And while that expansion chip was placed at the front and centre of Starfox’s marketing, this is a game that deserves to be considered as more than a tech demo for an impressive 16-bit 3D graphics solution. If you were to strip the polygonal visuals away and replace them with standard sprites, you’d arguably end up with the same experience, that being, a very solid shooter-em-up with a unique viewing perspective.
As for the narrative, it’s a simple space opera, revolving around the fictional Lylat system during a time of war. The mad scientist Andross has taken it on himself to put together an army to take over the entire galaxy, and so the forces of the planet Corneria counter with the deployment of Star Fox – A team of mercenaries headed by ace Arwing pilot, Fox McCloud. Joined by veteran Star Fox team member Peppy Hare, team engineer Slippy Toad and the hotheaded Falco Lombardi, the team are on a critical mission to fight back and rid each of Lylat system’s planets of the Andross threat.
This isn’t one of those games that feature a ton of cutscenes – On the contrary, the events of the game are dictated through introductory text before each level, and the in-game chatter text between your team and occasionally the enemy, to the sound of what can only be described as indecipherable ribbiting. Somehow, these vocalisations are more strange and charming, than irritating, and while each character isn’t as fleshed out as they are in Star Fox 64, there is a good sense that you’re part of a team, especially in the moments where you see their Arwings swoop in to take down an enemy, or retreat from one.
Starfox is a mostly linear experience, although you are given the choice of three different paths that act as difficulty levels, and take you through an entirely different set of planets from Corneria all the way to Venom and the game’s climax. While there are a couple of hidden levels that offer a couple of warps to other difficulty paths, there is not a great deal of openness to the game’s structure, something that would be implemented in later Starfox releases.
Going into the game proper, and it’s an impressive sight to see what was possible on the Super Nintendo, thanks to a cartridge-based enhancement chip. What we see as primitive, untextured polygons now, were an absolute revelation in 1993, and something that rival consoles could only achieve through expensive add-on hardware. However, as impressive as these 3-dimensional visuals were back then, that level of graphics came at a severe cost to the game’s framerate – The stuttery and inconsistent animation doesn’t make Starfox unplayable, but it is a noticeable issue that isn’t limited to this game, but rather most Super FX-enhanced releases in general. However, for a game like this that relies on the occasional quick maneuvers, the jerkiness can lead to some rather frustrating moments at times.
As for other issues, it does feel sometimes like the collision detection is a little off, as I regularly found myself missing enemies with laser fire that I swear I got with a direct hit, and some really irritating occurrences where I was trying to collect powerups and other items, clearly making contact with them but the game not registering that I had picked them up. Thankfully these issues weren’t common enough to spoil the game for me.
None of these minor issues take away from the aesthetics of Starfox’s ships and environments. The Arwing vehicle itself is a simple, great design that has endured over the past two decades for good reason, and while most of the game’s cannon fodder are mostly forgettable clusters of polygons, some of the bosses encountered throughout are cleverly designed and make the most of the polygonal visuals. One particular highlight is a boss that involves flying into a rotating cylindrical room while trying to dodge and destroy wall-mounted laser beams.
In terms of action, Starfox truly brings the sense that you’re taking part in a galactic war. Even with your flight path limited to being on rails, there is so much going on in each level that you’re always kept in a state of alert, ready to await enemy ambushes, deadly environmental hazards, and incredible bursts of acceleration in the most dangerous of areas. It’s down to the player to master the maneuverability of the Arwing craft, making the most of barrel rolls and banking left or right to avoid obstacles, all while focusing firepower on whatever enemy is in the way, and while this is far from being the most chaotic shooter out there, the pace is hectic without being overwhelming. In terms of the game’s pacing, I can’t fault it either in terms of difficulty or the action.
While there isn’t much freedom in terms of level progression, the three difficulty paths offer a nice range of experiences for most players’ abilities, although even the easiest path is challenging. With each path taking around an hour to finish, on paper it sounds like a short game, but that’s far from the truth. The harder routes get tough, and with limited lives and continues, like any good shooter it’s going to take most players more than a few attempts to commit each level to memory and progress without losing too many lives.