It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Star Fox 64 my favorite Nintendo 64 game, both back when it was the new hotness and today as a retro favorite. For those who weren’t alive at the time, this glorious title first launched in North America on June 30, 1997 during the first sweaty summer of the Nintendo 64’s availability.
It’s actually this first summer of the Nintendo 64 that I hold the most dearly in my memory, much more so than the later ones after the console found its footing. There is no question that the Nintendo 64 would see better days with the likes of Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark and Ocarina of Time later in life, but I spent that summer at my grandparent’s house and couldn’t stop playing my cousins’ consoles jumping from house to house.
Returning home later that fall, Final Fantasy VII came out, and I was convinced I needed a PlayStation, a revelation which soon became a reality. So for my sentimentality, the Nintendo 64’s life span only extends from Super Mario 64 to Goldeneye 007 as I quickly found myself swept up in the CD revolution. Super Mario 64, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, Mario Kart 64, Wave Race 64, Goldeneye 007, a dash of Mischief Makers, and of course, Star Fox 64. Doesn’t get more nostalgic on the Nintendo 64 than that.
Small disclaimer here: I never played Star Fox on the Super Nintendo, and I still haven’t to this day.
When playing Nintendo 64 with my cousins, of course we went head to head on Goldeneye 007. However, it was Star Fox 64 that I found myself playing the most. I remember being captivated by its voice samples, including the immortal “Do a barrel roll” back before it became a meme and the complete sense of world building that it had. It was very uncommon for a sci-fi game with anthropomorphic creatures this side of Bucky O’Hare to have such a universe built around its core story, and every element of this game fell into place. It all made sense.
Of course there are four evil pilots, counterparts to our heroes! Of course monkeys are the villains! Of course, levels are ripped straight from the Hollywood big screen! Independence Day was released the previous summer in 1996, right smack in the middle of this game’s development, and Nintendo had no problem blatantly copying the film’s climactic aerial battle for its mission on the planet Katina. Star Wars was also getting a second life at the time thanks to the Special Edition rereleases, and yoink, Empire Strikes Back inspired asteroid field levels! Why not?
The opening stage of Corneria also remains one of my all time favorite video game levels. It not only perfectly portrays the effects of battle on a civilian world in ways that other flight games simply can’t anymore, it immediately sets the tone for other obstacles and choices that must be made in the game. Falco needs to be saved from his own arrogance, and failing to do so knocks him out of contention for level two. Slippy too has to be rescued at least twice. You can memorize this level from beginning to end a hundred times over, and that’s still not enough because Nintendo Power leaks that it has a secret exit, shadows of Super Mario World.
From this realization, the whole game opens anew! For such a memorable game, Star Fox 64 only takes an hour or so to beat. That’s where multiple paths come in. With no set direct way to get to the villainous Andross, the game can be completed in a seemingly infinite number of ways when exploiting different secrets and goals. You realize there is a difference between “Mission Accomplished” and “Mission Complete,” the latter of which tells you there is still more to be done.
You hear schoolyard rumors of a tank and a submarine level, which you just have to experience on your own! Before the Internet told you the fastest way to get there, the only way to go about it was to try and perfect a level, over and over and over, unless you had the power, Nintendo Power! I snagged up the strategy guide for free when resubscribing, so I was one of the cool kids who knew all the tricks.
Some might argue that its primitive 3D models or occasional drop in framerate hold Star Fox 64 back, but that’s an argument I don’t buy with any game, especially Star Fox 64. It’s just as much fun today as it was 18 years ago, and it’s about as perfect as a game of its genre can get. Perfect controls, perfect presentation, perfect design choices in regards to mission objectives, medals, and multiple paths. Nintendo nailed the bulls-eye with this one so perfectly that it is too afraid to even create its own follow-up.
Another reason Star Fox 64 remains such a Goliath of a fan favorite is because Nintendo has supremely failed to create a proper follow-up. Since it launched, the series has seen nothing but sidesteps and miscues. Rare released Star Fox Adventures on the GameCube, a subpar Zelda clone. Namco bogged the rail shooting down with pointless foot battles in Star Fox Assault, an attempt to move in on Halo’s multiplayer revolution. Q-Games’ weird strategy shooter hybrid Star Fox Command Mission tried to write complex new rules and ultimately fell off the map. Using the DS’ stylus to control the Arwing didn’t help either.
In fact, the only truly successful Star Fox game to follow in the wake of Star Fox 64 was its own Nintendo 3DS remake, which also comes up short for a few reasons. One of them being that it replaced the voice samples, one of Star Fox 64’s most endearing qualities.
Even today, Nintendo once again seems to be taking Star Fox down a similar treacherous path. Star Fox Zero showed off a few decent rail shooting levels in its E3 2015 trailer, which got me pumped in the same way that Adventure’s and Assault’s first levels did. However, Joey’s own hands-on impressions stated that the dual-screen really leaves a lot to be desired, and further demonstrations showed off boring levels where drones slowly drop R.O.B. robots that must crawl through holes.
I mean, what IS that?! Nobody wants to play that in a Star Fox game! How in the holy name of Miyamoto did that idea make it off the cutting room floor?
18 years of making misguided sidesteps with gimmicks hasn’t taught the Big N a thing about what made Star Fox 64 so magical. It’s about the universe. It’s about the branching levels and seamless controls. It’s about blasting through firefights and rolling our eyes at the secretly corny characters as they save one another’s backs. It’s not about touch screens, collectathons, headshots, and dual screen controls. It’s about pure game design shooting through to its very core.
It’s worth pointing out that both Star Fox and Star Fox 64 were created to show off this new gimmick called “3D” back when developers were still learning how to properly display polygons. I mean, the Super Nintendo displaying such graphics still blows my mind. However much Nintendo meant for this to be the selling point of these games though, it’s not why we remember them.
I recently wrote an opinion piece on why Nintendo is not releasing a classically styled Metroid game, and it’s because it feels it needs to reinvent the wheel with every single game it makes. No Metroid game will ever be released in a world where an entire indie subgenre of 2D action platforming plays just like it, and no Metroid Prime game will ever be released while Nintendo feels it is not enough of a gamer changer.
The same can be said for a pure follow-up to Star Fox 64. Nintendo has no interest in revisiting what made this masterpiece so perfect back then and why it has aged so flawlessly to this date because *yawn* it’s done that game before. Instead, it would rather use the series as an excuse to show off its gimmicks, be experimental, sell controllers, and ultimately provide us with a game that won’t come close to obtaining the same immortality.
Star Fox, Metroid, and a good many other classic Nintendo franchises, F-Zero especially, have suffered from Nintendo’s refusal to just make great games. Nintendo deserves all the praise in the world for pushing boundaries and finding ways to keep Mario and Legend of Zelda relevant release after release in this day and age. However, there needs to be more of a balance, and franchises shouldn’t be forgotten and mistreated if such a way can’t be found.
Star Fox 64 still being the best game in its series a full 18 years later is testament to that.