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Star Fox review
Breaking New Ground and Soaring Away


Nintendo have had quite a few defining games in their career that have helped to shape their games and consoles to what they are today. Mario and Zelda both did it for their respective genres. The SNES, too, had some games that did that. Star Fox is one of them.

The initial trait that separates Star Fox from the various other SNES titles is that it is a game done in 3D. That's nothing impressive now, but the SNES was a console that dealt with 2D graphics. For the SNES, this was ground-breaking. Star Fox made use of a special Super FX chip to render 3D polygons.

By today's standards those polygons were crude and generally lacking in the detail we, as gamers, have come to expect. But as a SNES title it looks amazing. The various models for the Arwings, enemies and bosses have been rendered very well and the detail is solid and varied. They are all animated pretty well too.

Effects are done solidly enough, with laser fire shooting forth, expanding explosions from the bombs and the electricity in some areas. The wireframe effect of the shield also looks really cool. If I have a complaint, it would be that the terrain in the planet levels sometimes looks too bland. While you'll get buildings and plant-life in some places, other areas just don't have a whole lot to look at past the enemy.

Several viewpoints are offered during gameplay, with the actual number depending on the stage being played. In any stage the player can opt for a close behind-ship view and a far off behind-ship view. Both seem to work well enough, although I never felt an actual need to change views. During space missions (like any of the Sector missions) a third cockpit view is offered (not sure why this doesn't exist in planet missions, but whatever). A targeting cursor is offered here but it's rather hard to judge your ship's position so I found it much harder to work with. For some frustrating reason this viewpoint becomes the default view when available, and there's a delay when changing to the behind-ship view that leaves you open to attack while the camera moves back.

The music is a nice collection, with some rather fitting tracks and some quite memorable. That's not to say it is perfect, as some tracks just tend to sink into the background without really adding much. Sound effects are also done fairly well, such as aforementioned explosions blasting out.

There's not a whole lot of actual voice-acting as such. You get a 'Good Luck' before each mission, as well as some talking during the beginning and ending sequences. It's quieter than expected though. The rest of the dialogue is done in 'gibberish', which does at least work better than no sound at all and it is well synched with the onscreen text as it appears.

In terms of a plot, most of it is basically delivered via the game manual. There's not a whole lot in the game itself that tells you what led to all this, but whatever, at least we're told in some way. As for progression, you're the Star Fox team out to take the fight to the enemy forces at Venom. There's not a whole lot of depth to things past the initial backstory, but it does provide some reasoning for going across the Lylat System to blast baddies.

Star Fox is basically a rail shooter. That means that, despite being set in 3D, the Arwing flies along a preset route in each stage. The player is afforded a limited amount of movement by shifting the Arwing around the screen to aim shots and avoid obstacles. The screen does scroll a bit but not much. Focus in the game is not so much on guiding the Arwing to destinations but rather dealing with the huge number of obstacles that will get in your way.

One thing to note is that simply relying on the D-Pad to move isn't ideal here, so it is imperative to use the shoulder buttons. These will tilt the Arwing and allow the ship to move more quickly in that specific direction (hold L to move left faster), although this has the counter-effect of limiting movement in the opposite direction. Typically you're not going to get far without mastering this.

The shoulder buttons possess a second function. Double-tapping either one performs a barrel-roll. More than a flashy move this actually deflects most weapons fire (basically the lasers and plasma bolts). Timing is very important. However, the system does seem a bit flawed. Specifically, barrel-rolling felt unresponsive at times. The game was fine if I tried it while flying straight, but when moving the ship around the screen I found that my ship sometimes failed to roll when I input the command. It's not a massive issue but it did leave to some unnecessary damage. It's definitely not as responsive as later titles would be.

The Arwing also comes equipped with a boost and brake function. Both drain an onscreen boost gauge, although it refills when not in use. These functions are most welcome, especially in areas with moving objects that threaten to slam into your ship.

Enemies pose a big threat, ranging from simple small fliers to tanks, gun towers and even some seriously oversized baddies. Each will have their own way to attack you, whether it is laser fire, homing plasma, missiles or even the good old tactic of ramming you. The general tactics used by them isn't particularly bright, but you'll still have a hard time dealing with their numbers and firepower.

Bosses provide their own level of challenge here. These baddies are typically large and unleash some serious assaults on you. The general attack abilities are the same (lasers, plasmas, ramming etc) but done on a bigger scale. It's not unusual to have multiple missiles and plasmas firing at you at once, and just try dodging such large objects. These are definitely not your average baddie. As with any boss, the aim is to find the weak spot and blast it. Typically the weak spot is the spot(s) flashing between red and yellow. They can be surprisingly difficult to hit at times too, making these real challenges.

Your primary method of attacking is the laser. Your ship starts with a single laser, that can be upgraded twice. Hammering the button is often the key to victory here. The lack of an onscreen targeting cursor is somewhat problematic though, making accurate shooting rather tricky when you have to guess where your ship is aiming.

The Arwing also comes with a limited supply of nova bombs. These bombs have a blast radius and will destroy most standard enemies caught by it. It's fairly useful when dealing with high numbers, or even when there is an enemy you have to take out but obstacles are in the way. Extra bombs can be picked up in the levels.

There's a points system in here too, though it's not quite what you'd expect. unlike other games, you don't get points for each enemy shot down. Instead the game calculates how many enemies you shot down compared to the total number of enemies in that stage and displays it as a precentage. It then multiples the number by 100 and adds that to your score. There's nothing like medals here either, so the incentive is more on the continues you earn at certain point milestones (yeah, not lives, continues). It's certainly an odd way to calculate points. It doesn't really seem better or worse but rather just... different.

The damage system is very well thought out. Your Arwing has a shield gauge that drains as you take damage. Different things cause different amounts of damage, so while laser fire causes little damage, slamming into a building is going to cost you a lot more. That's not the clever part though. The two wings on your craft not only affect the main shield gauge when hit but they also possess their own damage gauges. If a wing receives too much damage then it gets ripped off. Manoeuvrability gets hurt and your lasers get downgraded to the single laser. Wings can be repaired by picking up the laser powerup, but losing a wing is still costly and thus it adds incentive to keep away from trouble. Lost shield energy can be restored by flying through specific rotating rings.

Speaking of which, this game is fairly stingy when it comes to powerups. Later titles in the series would practically bombard you with them, but this game isn't so keen to help you. There are few item pickups in the stages aside from yellow rings (which only restores a rather small amount of shield energy). It's not uncommon to not upgrade the lasers for a good while, especially when you just miss the powerup. This makes losing a wing an even bigger hit.

Fox isn't flying solo in this game though, as he is joined by three other pilots. Falco, Peppy and Slippy join you in every mission. At set points in each stage one of them will fly ahead of you being chased by a generic enemy. It's up to you to shoot that enemy down before your ally is shot down. If you save them then they will stick around for a bit shooting some targets. You have to be careful though, because if you ignore them or fail to shoot the pursuer down then they will lose shield energy. If left for too long they will be taken down and unavailable for the rest of that playthrough. They can sometimes help so that's not advised. Oddly enough, your own laser fire won't damage them, but they'll definitely notice you shooting them. Unlike Fox, their shield energy doesn't refill between missions.

Progress through the different levels isn't as straightforward as playing through every level in order though. Like a lot of games, Star Fox offers a choice of difficulty, labelled in the game as level 1, 2 and 3. These don't just affect the difficulty but will affect the course taken through the game. Regardless of which is chosen, the player will always start on Corneria and finish at Venom. However, the stages played en route depends on the level chosen at the beginning. Titania is only on level 3, while Meteor is only level 1. In addition, even Corneria and Venom will change depending on which level is chosen. This boosts the replay value by encouraging multiple playthroughs to play every stage.

The stages on offer are solid as well. There's a rather significant enemy presence in every stage, but there's also a strong emphasis on dodging obstacles that come in your way. Sector X is a perfect example, as much of your time is spent dodging the space debris that is floating around there. It's also nice to see some variation as you progress in most places. You'll fly past buildings, through valleys and over water.

There's even a couple of hidden stages to reach that offer some interesting, and in some cases downright strange, experiences.

The difficulty seems to be set just right too. The three routes step up in difficulty with each one, and even level 1 route provides a solid challenge while level 3 route will test even those highly skilled players.

Aside from the main game the only other game open is the training mode. This gives you a chance to get used to the handling of the Arwing. Floating rings are set up to guide your ship through, then afterwards the other ships will fly up and you'll get to practice some formation flying (which, despite the presence of a wireframe ship to signify where you should be, is extremely difficult to follow as you can never tell which way they intend to turn). Then the course loops around and starts over. There's a few ground objects to shoot too but generally not much chance to practice actually fighting anything.

Overall this is a very good rail shooter. It's challenging, fun and has a lot of replay value. If you have a SNES you want this game.

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