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Star Fox 64 review
A Shining Star


Starfox 64 (Lylat Wars to me) is a space based shooter starring a band of half human half animal pilots, and comes across as one of the best video game experiences the N64 has to offer.

The plotline is pretty simple to understand. Once upon a time some evil scientist called Andross was banished to a planet called Venom. At some point the Starfox team (then led by James McCloud) was sent to Venom to investigate strange activity. The team was betrayed by one of their own, and only Peppy escaped. Later on Venom is stirring with activity once again and the new Starfox team, led by James' son, Fox, is sent to stop Andross. Not that engaging, but we can forget the plot because the gameplay is where it is at.

Most of the game sits you in the cockpit of the Arwing, which is basically the name of the spaceship fighter piloted by the Starfox team. This craft offers a multitude of abilities, although some are dependant on the ship's 'mode' (more on that later). In any case, A is your primary laser, which can be charged for a homing plasma bolt. B fires a smart bomb that kills all generic enemies in the near vicinity, although the supply of these is limited.

The ship is also pretty agile and comes up some nifty mobility features. There are boost and brake buttons on the C buttons. Boosting gives your ship a speed boost while braking slows the ship down (note that actually stopping is impossible). Both of these features are tied to a single boost gauge. This is depleted when either feature is used but it quickly refills when not in use, so it's more there to prevent constant abuse of those functions and works nicely. Flips can also be performed to lose pursuers or to collect power-ups.

The shoulder buttons are used for banking left or right as their primary functions, which allows for faster movement in the appropriate direction or for flying through vertical gaps. Double-tapping either buttons performs a barrel-roll, which also generates a temporary shield while spinning. This shield can deflect laser fire, making it a very important move.

A couple of the game's stages change things up a little with some slightly different vehicles. Aquas hands over the Blue Marine, a submarine for aquatic use. However, there isn't much difference from an Arwing. Smart bombs aren't usable; instead B fires torpedos that act very much like slower moving plasma bolts that the Blue Marine can't do. Flipping is also not possible. A bit too similar though.

The Landmaster tank is a treat though. The action becomes ground based and a lot changes. The offence options are still the same and flipping is once again disabled. However, the tank doesn't have such freedom of movement as the others. Instead it can hover for a short time by holding both shoulder buttons. The tank is also slower and has a heavier feel to it. It's a great change, and I only wish it was used a bit more than a mere two levels.

The Landmaster tank working its way through Titania.

Gameplay in this is basically split into two variants - linear and all range modes. Linear plays very much like the classic 2D scrolling shooters. You ship moves along a set path on the level, possessing limited movement around the screen. It's possible to influence the path you take based on your actions or position (many times the path will split and rejoin throughout these levels). Turning around in this mode is impossible so you have to make the most of your forward movement. Note that any single player mission not featuring the Arwing will be linear based.

This may sound restricting but it's quite a lot of fun. The emphasis is a lot more on fighting enemies and avoiding obstacles, and yet despite this linear nature there are many split points to pay attention to.

All range mode is more recognisable if you're used to the 3D space shooters that normal come around. Full control is handed to the player, allowing them to fly anywhere in the battlefield. This mode isn't used quite as much and the action tends to feel less intense that the linear option but it's a nice change of pace and works well for the boss battles it is used for. It's also worth noting how different objectives can be. Instead of simply shooting anything that moves you might be defending the Great Fox (mothership) from missiles or defending a building from an Independence Day-styled destruction. All range mode is also the mode of choice for the multiplayer, which makes sense.

Most of the levels you're fighting in tend to get filled with enemies. You'll have large groups swarming in as well as the smaller groups of deadlier enemies. There's a significant amount of laser fire going on here (explaining why barrel-rolling is so important). You also face other attack methods like ramming and whirling plasma. Sometimes you'll even find enemies chasing you, requiring a neat flip to pull behind them, ready for some payback.

The stages also tend to be filled with other hazards. The terrain itself can pose its own problem, as structures and debris stand or float in your way as you try to fight enemies off. You'll also come up against traps too that can cause problems. This is troublesome in the Arwing, as too much physical damage can result in losing a wing. It's not a fatal problem but it does hamper your offence and throws the ship off-balance. A neat touch all the same though.

Every stage has a boss waiting for you at the end, although sometimes a route taken will bypass the boss entirely. These tend to be the big boys that will be screen-filling and heavy hitters. It's mostly your typical boss fights though. Find weak spot and shoot weak spot while dodging attacks. The fights are intense though.

Fighting the boss at the end of the hard route on Corneria.

Starwolf deserves their own special mention though. This group of baddies pilot ships similar to your own and will be a boss fight that you cannot avoid regardless of which route you take through the game. Since they have similar abilities fighting them is a very cool experience as they turn, twist and flip around to evade you. Even more interesting is how each team member will specifically target a certain member of your team.

Speaking of which, Fox isn't flying these missions alone. Your fellow pilots Falco, Peppy and Slippy join you in battle, but it's not as awesome as it sounds. See, your partners are incompetent. Many times through the campaign you will find your team mates in trouble, usually being chased by a group of enemies and requiring you save them. It does sound great in order to provide some extra challenge but I wish these guys could do some things for themselves instead of being this game's version of the damsels in distress.

The only real exception to this is Slippy, who does manage to get in trouble an awful lot but makes it for things by providing a display of the boss' remaining health when fighting a boss. If Slippy has been forced to withdraw (yeah, you partners don't die but rather withdraw for a couple of levels when they take too much damage) then you don't get the display.

Picking up powerup items is another integral part of gameplay. Your Arwing starts with basic single lasers but can upgrade them to twin and then hyper; each offering more offence power than the last. Smart bombs can also be picked up. Rings are there for your health gauge. Silver rings restore health, three gold rings extends the health gauge for that level while another three gold rings while the health gauge is extended adds an extra life. Wing repair fixes the Arwing's wings if damaged, and will only appear if needed in place of a laser powerup.

Powerups aren't just handed to you though. They tend to be hidden or need to be earned in some way, such as blasting open gates or destroying targets. Sometimes you get a call from ROB64, whereby responding with a press of C-Right will gain a powerup for your ship.

Point scoring is greatly encouraged in Starfox 64. A score is kept as you play and hitting point targets on levels earns you medals (in addition to all your wingmen surviving). Group scoring is way better here, where charged plasma bolts take out multiple targets in a single hit. This will cause the singular points from each enemy to be counter and an extra hit bonus based on how many enemies were caught by the attack. Smart bomb blasts don't offer a hit bonus though.

Further hit bonuses can be earned by defeating certain enemies or destroying non-enemy targets too. In addition, doing certain tasks like flying through a certain gap or defeating a group of enemies quickly can trigger extra enemies to appear. Strange how the game makes the player to want more enemies but it works.

If I have a complaint about the scoring system it's the way the game saves high scores. The game saves the top ten overall scores, which also accounts for each level played in each of those playthroughs. However, it doesn't save the highest score for each individual level, which would have been nice.

I've already mentioned how the paths within the levels can split and merge throughout gameplay, but this also extends to which levels you play. There are fifteen levels in all (one level has two variants depending on which route you take), but you'll only play through seven levels on any single given playthrough. The game starts you on Corneria, but your next level almost always depends on the actions taken in the previous. In Corneria if you save Falco and then fly through all the stone arches you will taken a different path and will head to Sector Y, otherwise you'll take the standard path and head to Meteo. A nice feature is that if you meet the conditions for the harder path then you can actually choose whether to take it or to take the easier path for your next level destination.

This feature really stacks up the replay value, as you'll be required to tackle missions in alternative ways and can have rather varied playthroughs. In this the game also offers a sort of difficulty setting. Planets along the bottom path are considered easy, middle planets are medium and the upper planets are hard.

The planet screen that shows the player's current path.

Earning the medal on Venom opens up the expert setting. This ups the enemy count slightly but the more dramatic effect involves increased damage taken and more fragile wings, to the point where a single collision will rip your Arwing wing off instantly. It provides a solid challenge to gamers.

A few other modes are offered in addition to the single player campaign. Training mode is simply designed to allow the player to get used to the controls. You are started off in linear mode, where the goal is to fly through rings. You are required to use basically every technique possible in this mode to get them all. At the end you are sent into All Range Mode, where you practice shooting down an endless supply of enemy ships. Hang around long enough and a Stafwolf ship appears too.

Versus sounds like the more interesting option, but alas it falls well short of what a multiplayer experience should be. Each player is automatically assigned a pilot according to their player number (P1 has Fox, P2 has Falco, P3 has Peppy, P4 has Slippy), although this has no effect on ability. After this you pick a game mode and level.

There's the standard deathmatch option where you aim to score the most points by shooting down your rivals. A similar mode simply substitutes point scoring for lives, in a last pilot flying wins. The last mode throws in a bunch of computer controlled drone ships, with the aim being to shoot down more than the opposition.

Powerups exist here too, but in a more limited form. There is one twin laser and one smart bomb at any one time. These don't regenerate until a player has relinquished them, so it does add a little 'rush' to things.

Vehicle options are nice with a little work. At first you only get to pick out the Arwing, but by earning medals in the single player you can also pick out the Landmaster tank and the multiplayer-exclusive On Foot option. The landmaster tank is basically the same as the single player option except this version is allowed twin lasers. On Foot is a whole different experience. It's the only option that can remain perfectly still. Running is done by holding a button down, since aiming is still handled by the analogue stick. It's a shame you have to actually unlock these options though.

Unfortunately, despite all these options the multiplayer option completely fails, and we have the atrocious level design to thank for that. The game only offers a mere three versus levels to play on, and only allows for a choice between two of these three in any given game mode. The lack of choice isn't the issue though. These levels are just terrible. They are way too big and lacking in hazards. There's only really a maximum of four active players, and so with such large levels it can actually take a while to even find anyone. The stages themselves are also relatively bland. A few structures do not make for interesting stages, but that's all you get.

The view can also be an issue here. A quarter of the screen doesn't offer a particularly good view of the action, and you can often find your Arwing blocking a key part of the action off. This is less problematic when using the Landmaster or On Foot options though.

The visuals on offer here are pretty good. The vehicle designs look good and the environments have been created well enough. There are also some very nice special effects being thrown around the screen. It's amazing to see the game keep up a fast enough frame rate as well with all the action happening onscreen. The actual character models (except Andross) look a little lacking in detail though.

The sounds presented are excellent. The music is great, with the background tracks being very memorable while doing a solid job of supporting the onscreen action. The music of Area 6 in particular sticks in my mind. The sound effects also do a nice job here, with all the laser fire and explosions going on.

Voice acting is also in here, and it's great. The game offers both English and a gibberish-sounding variant that is meant to be their language. The Lylat language is certainly amusing but no doubt you'll soon turn to English. The voice cast have done a good job here, with the voices fitting well with the characters. Most of the work is for the Starfox team and General Pepper but you'll also get a few others, like Starwolf and a few enemy generals.

Starfox 64 (Lylat Wars) is easily one excellent game. The single player simply has so much replay value to it. It's the kind of game you can dive into for a quick blast and challenging enough to keep gamers occupied. Just ignore the versus mode.

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