Super NES Mini Countdown: #16 | Star Fox

Miyamoto's obstinance and Argonaut's happenstance brought the future to 1993.

Nintendo's Super NES Classic Edition mini-console arrives at the end of the month, and the Retronauts writing team has voted to rank the 20 classic games on the mini. Unlike last year's Classic NES Edition, the Super NES mini doesn't have a single dud on it, so think of this as a countdown from good to great. In at #16 is Star Fox (known as Starwing in Europe), the classic rail shooter that launched Nintendo into gaming's final frontier.

Previous entries:

16. Star Fox

Dev.: Nintendo EAD/Argonaut Software
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Rail shooter
Release date: Feb. 1993 [JP] Mar. 1993 [U.S.] Jun. 1993 [EU]

What makes Star Fox a worthy inclusion?

1. Out of this dimension

Star Fox is a symbol of the Super NES's versatility and wide range of appeal, extending not only to a diverse set of genres but also to entirely foreign modes of presentation and gameplay. In a time when console games were universally limited to 2D bitmap graphics, Nintendo partnered with British developer Argonaut to introduce the polygonal structures and 3D spaces employed in high-end European computer games to the world stage. With graphics consisting of primitive geometric shapes, a frame rate that gets up to 20 FPS in its best moments, and scope limited to auto-scrolling down narrow courses of enemies and obstacles, Star Fox may not be the smoothest ride by modern standards; back in 1993, though, it offered players a unique opportunity to test run the games of the future. Even Sega, who had been eating Nintendo's lunch with their aggressive marketing of the Genesis and its enigmatically impressive "blast processing," had nothing to answer Star Fox (and immediately went under the gun to figure out a home port of Virtua Racing). There was simply nothing else like it in the mainstream sphere.

2. Playing with Super FX power

The Super NES as designed wasn't actually capable of the giant leap in technology that Star Fox represented, requiring Argonaut to engineer an additional coprocessor, the Super FX chip, that would augment the system's capabilities from its position in the game cartridge. Once they laid that groundwork with Star Fox, Super FX allowed Nintendo to position the Super NES as a rudimentary 3D machine on top of everything else it had to offer, breathing new life into the system's later years. Sadly, accurately reproducing the Super FX's functionality has proved a sticky wicket for writers of emulators—including Nintendo themselves, who have never rereleased any Super FX titles in any format such as Virtual Console. The Super NES Classic Edition is their first time doing so, which, after years and years of nothing, seems to indicate they've finally got a working solution. And Star Fox is the most natural choice to take advantage of it.

3. Whimsy meets wizardry

As the product of the combined efforts of Nintendo and Argonaut, Star Fox embodies a unique blend of each company's strengths. Argonaut provided the technical know-how that made Star Fox possible, but their previous 3D titles such as Starglider II (released for a number of European computers, primarily the Amiga and Atari ST), were somewhat staid in their presentation, intentionally aiming for a hard sci-fi aesthetic. While Star Fox owes much of its look and feel to these games, Nintendo went in and piled their trademark creative charm atop Argonaut's functional foundation. The bosses are bursting with personality, the environments feel distinct, and they're all set to an absolutely marvelous synth-orchestral soundtrack. The characters are all funny animals, as evinced by the bloodhound in aviators who briefs you on each stage—not to mention your three wingmen, who fly alongside you and deliver color commentary with memorably garbled voices.

4. Got it in one

In the years since the original game's release, Star Fox has become one of Nintendo's trademark series, although it's had arguably had more downs than ups due to producer Shigeru Miyamoto's insistence that each installment continue to break new ground rather than iterate on the founding formula. Many fans feel a little iteration would be just fine—that the concept of a carefully designed rail shooter with alternate paths, zany dialogue, and beautiful music is compelling enough to prop up more games like the first one. As it is, our only options are Star Fox 64 (which was developed close enough to the source that its additions actually added) and the original game. For that reason, Star Fox is essential both as a Super NES standby and as comfort food for fans of the series.

5. The straight man

Star Fox 2, which Nintendo is releasing for the first time since its cancellation over twenty years ago, is set to serve as the crown jewel of the Super NES Classic. While it's an excellent game in its own right (at least, the pre-release ROM leaked so many years ago was, and the finished version is said to be even better), it's also a dramatically different game from Star Fox. Had it been released as planned, it would have kicked off the series' trend of radical departures good and proper with its real-time strategy elements, free-roaming gameplay, and trading game length for randomization and replayability. To that end, it's useful to have the first Star Fox around simply to provide context for Star Fox 2's divergences.

Interesting facts about Star Fox

1. Life finds a way

Although Star Fox debuted roughly halfway through the Super NES's life cycle, the wheels of its creation began turning before the system had even been released. In 1990, Shigeru Miyamoto was already anticipating working on his first 3D game and wanted to apply his ideas to Pilotwings, but Nintendo's hardware division insisted that he'd have to put his dreams on hold, as the specs they had settled on simply weren't capable of pushing 3D graphics. Fortunately for Miyamoto, Nintendo was approached at a Consumer Electronics Show that same year by Argonaut, who rather brazenly broke the ice by showing off how they'd circumvented the Game Boy's anti-piracy protection. Fortunately, the stunt paid off, and Nintendo agreed to sign the checks if Argonaut would use their powers for good rather than evil. Two years alone were spent engineering the Super FX chip that would make the Super NES a 3D-capable machine.

2. Ungoogleable

Although Star Fox was the first 3D Nintendo game to be conceived, it was not the first to be released. That honor goes to X, also co-developed by Argonaut and released on the humble Game Boy in 1992. X was based on a 3D Game Boy tech demo created by Dylan Cuthbert as another means to woo Nintendo, which they later built up into a full game (see Jeremy's Game Boy Works episode on it here). Either due to technical limitations or because Miyamoto wasn't attached to this one, X came out more like Argonaut's previous works. As in Starglider, the polygon models are mere wireframes, and the action is viewed in a first-person view through a cockpit choked with meters, counters, and monitors that take up much of the screen, both limiting the area that needs to draw the 3D graphics and obviating the need to draw the player's vehicle. On the other hand, X features the free movement and dual ground- and air-based gameplay that wouldn't be incorporated into Star Fox until its second game, as well as complexities like fuel management. While X was only released in Japan, Nintendo planned a localized version called Lunar Chase before ultimately cancelling it, so look forward to it popping up on the eventual Game Boy Classic Edition.

3. Thank god for foxes

In the earliest stages of planning Star Fox, Miyamoto drew inspiration from Fushimi Inari-taisha, Japan's head shrine to the Shinto fox god Inari, which is located near Nintendo's headquarters in Kyoto. The shrine grounds feature paths lined with thousands of torii gates, and while thinking up a flying game, Miyamoto imagined a fox swooping through the torii in succession. It was with this image in mind that he then asked the game's character designer, Takaya Imamura, to make the cast animals rather than humans. Not only was this the origin of Star Fox's funny animal setting, but flying under arches became a recurring motif in the series' level design—all because of Inari and torii!

4. I'm surrounded by animals!

As revealed in a recent interview on Nintendo's Japanese site, Imamura secretly based Star Fox's main cast on his co-workers at Nintendo. Fox was the "fox-faced Miyamoto"; Falco was Tsuyoshi Watanabe, the main polygon modeler, whose nose "stuck out like a beak"; Peppy was Katsuya Eguchi, the game's director, with his "rabbit-like mouth"; and Slippy was assistant director Yoichi Yamada, who "has eyes like a frog." Imamura also based the game's antagonist, Andross, on someone at Nintendo, but he wouldn't say whom—only that this person was his boss at the time, which seems to point to the late Hiroshi Yamauchi.

5. Drawing a contrast

Star Fox was the subject of an eleven-part comic printed in Nintendo Power magazine throughout 1993, featuring brilliant artwork by Benimaru Itoh. Unlike their Super Metroid comic, which introduced a backstory for Samus that would go on to be incorporated into Metroid's canon, the Star Fox comic presents many plot points that were never picked up by the games. These include Fox's team starting as planetside Robin Hood types before getting recruited to fly their signature Arwings; Fox's long-lost father James appearing as a crewman of an extradimensional starship resembling a giant whale (contextualizing both the black hole and the space whale that shows up in one stage of the game); and Andross being raised by pigs and nursing an obsession with Fox's dead mother, whom he accidentally killed with a car bomb meant for James. It's pretty bonkers stuff, and all the sadder that it's never been collected into a single tome.

6. Have a super weekend

In 1993, Nintendo held a special contest called Super Star Fox Weekend (or Starwing Official Competition in Europe), hosted in toy stores around the world. Participants played a modified version of the game and were rewarded based on how many points they scored within the time limit. Prizes included commemorative shirts and jackets, and in America, the grand prize winner was offered the choice between a cool fifteen thousand dollars (close to $25,500 in 2017 money) or a trip for four to London, Paris, Sydney, or Tokyo. The next year, a number of the cartridges used in the competition were sold to Nintendo Power subscribers through their mail order catalogue. Only about two thousand of these cartridges are said to exist, and their going price on the collectors market is as ridiculous as you'd expect. The Super Weekend version would have been a nice curio to include on the Super NES Classic, but as long as we're finally getting Star Fox 2, you won't see me complaining.