Thursday, June 26, 2014

Shooter Month: Star Fox

Star Fox*
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Argonaut Games
  • Release: Super NES, March 1993
  • Genre: 3D Action (Flight simulator)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost: Common, US$10-20
*Sold as Star Wing in Europe.

Thus far in Shooter Month, I've focused on the top-down, 2D variety of shoot-em-ups. But in an effort to spice things up, I'm taking this special feature in a new direction -- and an extra dimension. And it's not just any 3D shooter I'm showcasing this time around. Flight simulators have employed simulated 3D graphics for a long time now, but 1993 proved to be a banner year in this field. It was the year in which Nintendo, courtesy of third-party developer Argonaut, brought polygons to one of their home consoles in the form of Star Fox for the Super Nintendo. We all know that the Super NES can do some amazing things with 2D graphics, thanks to techniques involving "Mode 7", but certainly the calculations needed to handle polygons in three-dimensional space would be out of its reach, right? Well, that's why Nintendo and Argonaut developed an additional sub-processor called the Super FX chip, which was built into every copy of the Star Fox Game Pak. It did bump up the sale price of the Game Pak itself, but I suppose we should be thankful that they went down this route, as opposed to developing an expansion console, like the Sega CD or 32X.

In a world -- a solar system, rather -- populated by human-like animals, an army led by Andross, the emperor of the planet Venom, is extending its reach across the rest of the system -- the hard way. The only force who can stop him is Star Fox, a motley, elite fighter-pilot team consisting of four members and their space-capable ships, the Arwings. And that's where you come in. Before starting a new game, you get to set up your control scheme, which includes the option to switch the Up/Down controls. I guess it was pretty neat for them to have thrown that in as an option; perhaps fewer Super NES owners were familiar with flight simulators at the time. After that menu, you choose which of three paths to take in your game, which also serves as a difficulty setting. Each path contains five or six levels, and lasts an hour or less. It's a more linear version of the branching-path system later employed in Star Fox 64, but I like it here. There's more to each of the difficulties than the quantity of enemies and how much damage they take or dish out; but rather, each difficulty is a separate experience. And since there's no medal system, you don't have to play through 6 other levels you've already got medals on just to replay that one level you need.
This screenshot will not prepare you for how poorly Star Fox runs in motion.
But then the game proper starts, and all your expectations are shattered by the first frames of animation. Look, Mr. Super FX chip, if the best you can render in real-time is twenty or so flat-shaded, non-patterned polygons per object, I'm okay with that. But if it takes so much effort that you can only manage that at ten to twenty frames per second, then why even bother? What I'm saying to the rest of you is that the choppy frame rate makes Star Fox painful to look at in motion. And painful to play, too: for some reason, the frame rate makes the movement controls feel a little sluggish and imprecise. Just be thankful they weren't able to fit more obstacles on-screen, or getting through unscathed would be akin to threading the eye of a needle with a car driving on ice. That said, I am genuinely impressed by what they did manage to throw in. For example, one of the bosses can make duplicates of itself and leave after-images of itself in its wake, and one of the later stages forces you to dodge blocks falling from the sky or even forming in mid-air.

The Arwing spacecraft utilises two weapons: a blaster and a limited supply of smart-bombs. The blaster can be upgraded with certain items, adding a much-needed boost to the spaces covered by your shots. Trust me, you'll appreciate the extra coverage, because aiming is a chore. Since most levels lack a targeting reticule, the only way to aim your shots is to adjust based on the last shot you fired. Some levels take place in outer space instead; and in these levels you can press the Select to switch the camera angle in and out of your Arwing's cockpit. Enabling this first-person view displays an aiming cursor, which is a big help for aiming. Except you can only do this in the space stages, not on the planets. Riddle me this, Star Fox: why would you add a convenience which addresses what I'd dare say is a major flaw in the game experience, but only apply it to a select few portions of yourself!? Oh yeah, and it's also possible to break one or both of your Arwing's wings, in which case your blaster goes back down to the base level, and all upgrade items get replaced with wing-repair items until you finally fix the damage. It's bad enough that these upgrades are rare enough as it is, but having to take another step before I can even re-start the process sucks even more.
Helpful target cursors are available... but only on some levels.
I do take other, smaller issues with Star Fox, ones that not even the best of graphical upgrades could address. For example, you share the skies with your wingmen, or rather wing-critters: Peppy the rabbit, Slippy the frog, and Falco the bird. Their radio dialogue isn't accompanied by true voice acting, but looped chattering sound effects which, combined with their relatively uncommon rate of occurrence, aren't nearly as annoying as they could be. But all the same, what little interaction they have with the player doesn't offer them a lot of characterisation. Occasionally they will find themselves chased by a bogey, which you must knock out at your leisure. But my problem with that is: what's my motivation?  They don't do anything for me, and there isn't much penalty if they do get shot down.  And then there's the scoring system: when your points are tallied at the end of each level, you can earn extra lives at certain milestones. But instead of absolute point values for shooting different kinds of enemies, your scores are represented by a percentage of enemies shot down. And I'm pretty sure I've gotten 100%, or an otherwise high percentage, even after having missed a fair number of targets. Are there certain things you're not counting and not telling me, Star Fox? Work with me, please! (Apologies for attempting to reason with an inanimate video game.)

Out of all the sparse entries in the Star Fox series, the majority of the fans' attention seems focused on the follow-up Star Fox 64, and with good reason. I mean, the series' last activity to date was a remake of SF64 on the 3DS. And I cry foul on that account: if any entry deserved a remake on some halfway decent technology, it would be the original. Star Fox 2, its would-be sequel, may have been the most high-profile cancelled video game until Mega Man Legends 3 came along -- or rather, didn't come along. But let's face it -- Nintendo was right to focus on the Nintendo 64. Star Fox may have served as valuable experience for Nintendo in working with 3D graphics, but the finished product just wasn't ready for prime time. Let me put it this way: I'd give it an A for effort, but a D for execution.

+ Ambitious 3D graphics for its time.
+ Creative boss battles.
+ Some of the songs get me pumped.

- Poor frame rate, even with a lack of graphical detail.
- As a result, the game doesn't control well, either.
- Non-intuitive scoring system.

Control: 2 Arwings out of 5
Design: 3 Arwings out of 5
Graphics: 2 Arwings out of 5
Audio: 4 Arwings out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

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