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You remember the days when the vague expression of three dimensions in a video game, no matter how badly rendered or textured, seemed impressive? Sure, the perspective had been tinkered with by early Atari games like Labyrinth, and even fleshed out into gorgeous reality in games like Myst, but those were stationary images, so as life-like as they seemed at the time, what you were looking at was an interactive slide-show.
3D games were just a virtual dream, an implausible feat with the technical capabilities of the consoles at the time. That’s when Argonaut Software introduced the Super FX chip, the first 3D accelerator of its kind, and Star Fox – another brainchild of the genius that was and is Shigeru Miyamoto – was its highly-touted test subject.
Star Fox was a very arcade-like experience, a rail-shooter that pit you, Fox McCloud, and your team of anthroporphic Arwing pilots against the disembodied space simian Andross and his intergalactic empire. A map screen carried you across five or six stages before your final confrontation with Andross on the planet Venom. Though technically you could breeze through the game in an hour or two, Star Fox held a ton of replay value.
Being an arcade experience, amassing a killer score was your ever-existing goal, demanding that you take to the stars more than once. Also, the fact that different playable routes to the final fight offered different levels and even more challenge extended a single-player offering that otherwise seemed short-lived.
What would have been run-of-the-mill gameplay was unique in that now the genre had leapt into the third dimension. Advancing through levels mainly consisted of the same routine: Shoot down a hoard of incoming hostile frigates, avoid their waves of missiles and laser blasts, dodge environmental obstacles like girders and pillars, and defeat a boss at the end of the stage. Most foes were highlighted by some sort of blinking light, so the solution to one’s troubles was always ‘shoot, shoot, and shoot some more’.
You had your teammates at your side, which was initially a nice comfort, but they were more prone to calling for aid than dealing it out (Slippy will more than once grind your gears in his absolute incompetence as a star pilot). As well, as is the genre standard, blasted bad guys would often leave behind ammo and health, but picking them up was a mission unto itself.
The controls in Star Fox were mostly haphazard. While the 3D world, rail-shooter or not, allowed a feeling of freedom that had yet to be seen on the consoles, the most vexing tribulation was its prejudiced hit detection. Avoiding starcraft and energy rounds was a chore; if they got close, you were taking a hit. On the flip side, if you wanted to pick up a gold ring or a missile power-up, you had to be on the mark, pixel for pixel. The Arwing’s response wasn’t 100% responsive either, especially when a chaotic screen caused the framerate to dip. That said, the basic maneuvers of Fox’s fighter were solid, barrel rolls and speed adjustments emphasising the 3D landscape and providing one of the most exhilirating space shooter experiences ever, one that felt oddly reminiscent.
That feeling of familiarity was probably because the tone of the game was apparent in homage. From the opening intro of a giant cruiser slowly careening overhead, to the obviously tributary sequences involving blowing up space stations from the inside, to the graphical effect of entering light speed, to the very style and name of your own vessel – the Arwing – it’s safe to assume that Nintendo and Argonaut were giving their nod to George Lucas’ Star Wars. Even the music was sort of evocative of that classic John Williams score.
As sketchy as its visuals may seem today, the use of pre-rendered polygons was a major turn in the evolution of gaming.
But the graphics of Star Fox were its its lasting legacy. As sketchy as its visuals may seem today, the use of pre-rendered polygons was a major turn in the evolution of gaming. Suddently, the epic vaccuum of outer space felt as enormous as it looked. Small specks at the edge of your screen no longer felt like small specks; they were identifiable as massive carriers and cruisers looming in the distance. Asteroids raced towards your cockpit, and the fireworks of a thousand lasers littered the landscape.
Bear in mind, graphical ingenuity here comes at the cost of detail. Hardware acceleration enabled a 3D experience, yes, but it wasn’t the job of the Super FX to populate its polygons with rich quality. That’s where Star Fox feels slightly dated today, as some of the worlds don’t feel as alive as they could have been with better texturing. Plains are plain… to be plain.
Nonetheless, Star Fox was a surreal sample of things to come. People looked on in awe at what was in many ways a virtual reality, the game’s depth and distance distilling in the medium a sense of newfound gravity. It hit home to many players that photorealism was the future of the industry. That might sound a little heavy in its own right, but was it any more silly for people to leap out of their seats in the late 1800’s when the first films of trains speeding toward the screen were shown? The game initiated a flagship franchise that satisfied the insatiable hunger for ‘Star Wars’-styled space shooters, and its jump-in arcade gameplay was the retrospective counter to balance its futuristic presentation. A planned sequel was tossed in the bin, but no matter, for the series was soon to make its next graphical leap in a brand new, 64-bit cockpit.