Thursday, 20 June 2013

Classic Retro Game - Starfox (Super Nintendo) a Super-FX masterpiece

As Starfox is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, I thought it was high time I went back to this classic title and give it the thorough playthrough it deserves.

I am now writing this mere moments after launching my last remaining smart bomb deep into Andross' smug face and putting an end to his reign of terror once and for all. Destroying Andross, and beating Starfox, is something I have shamefully failed to do in the 20 years since I first set eyes on its mind-blowing faux-3D worlds. But after releasing my sweaty grip from the controller and watching the end credits, I can finally tick another classic SNES game off of my 'To-beat' list. A list that has recently seen Super Castlevania 4, Zelda : A Link To The Past, Pilotwings, and now Starfox struck off it.

The iconic launch into the games first world, Corneria. I can hear the epic 
soundtrack in my head just looking at it!

As if you didn't know already, Starfox is a third person perspective blaster which puts you in the boots of the furry hero, Fox McCloud. Along for the ride are three animal pals; a rabbit named Peppy, a toad called Slippy and a Falcon, imaginatively titled Falco (though his full name is the much more amusing Falco Lombadi, which sounds likes either a cheap cocktail or an Italian pornstar). With your crew in tow, you set off on a mission to take down the evil Andross, an evil ape-like being with a bad attitude, who is being a huge pain in the arse for some reason or another.

Slippy performing to his usual low standards.Honestly, 
how did he pass flight training?

Taking to the skies in your Arwing ship, you must blast the living daylights out of anything that dares get in your way - from gigantic robots and airborne foes to stationary targets that fire ground to air missiles. Many obstacles in the game, such as rotating shapes, closing doors and most large buildings cannot be destroyed, and instead must be avoided. Thankfully not only is Fox's craft extremely manoeuvrable but can also fly on its side by holding the appropriate shoulder button, allowing access through particularly narrow gaps. You can also use your thrusters to either speed up or slow down, a useful tool for getting through a last minute closing door, or stopping an inevitable collision with a falling pillar. Even better is the barrel roll which sends the craft into a nifty spin, and is useful for dodging approaching missiles or laser fire - as well as making you look extremely cool in the process.

Fox will have to face off against many huge boss machines. 
Don't panic though, all have a weak spot!

When you begin your mission you can choose one of three different paths to take through the game, each one offering differing stages and a different difficulty level. This adds a great deal of replayability to proceedings and will have you coming back to try a new path after the end credits roll. Many levels start with a first person perspective with a cross hair on screen that is moved around using the D-pad. These sections add variety and are great fun, playing a lot like Atari's Star Wars arcade machine released the same year. You can go back to the third person view with a tap of the select button, but these stages play best from the eyes of Fox himself.

The first person sections are great fun, and really feel like a Star Wars game.

Your crack team of fluffy, feathered, and slimy buddies aren't just there for moral support either. Nope, they get stuck into the thick of the action just like you. Unfortunately their efforts are fairly dire, with Slippy in particular spending the majority of his screen time being chased by an adversary. Destroying said pursuer grants you a thanks, which is more than you get from the miserable Falco, who basically tells you to piss off (well, mind your own business, but the sentiment is the same) when you assist him. If you are fairly incompetent at the game then you may actually see one of your team-mates killed in action, a definitive end to their combat tour of duty as they don't reappear for the rest of the game. War is hell folks.

The remaining shields of your team mates are tallied up at the end of each stage.

Starfox is mostly remembered due to its pioneering visual style. Back in 1993 the sort of 3D seen here was unimaginable on the 16-bit Super Nintendo. That is, until the talented boffins at Argonaut Software designed the Super-FX chip, a coprocessor that could be included in the game cartridge to give the SNES some extra 'whomph' under the bonnet, enabling it to simulate 3D. The visuals absolutely blew everyone away at the time and would forever secure Starfox's place in the videogame history books. Of course, it didn't hurt the title's sales figures and popularity that it was also a damn good game. Produced by Nintendo's man with the midas touch, Shigeru 'Super Mario' Miyamoto and featuring an epic soundtrack by Hajime Hirasawa – a soundtrack that still gets remixed by producers and bands to this day – Starfox is an incredibly polished game that didn't just rely on its ground breaking visual techniques to get noticed.

Zooming into the cockpit view

The Super-FX never really lived up to this first initial release, bestowing upon SNES owners such mediocre offerings as Stunt Race FX and Dirt Trax FX. But it did get tweaked, improved and then used in the amazing Yoshi's Island as the Super-FX chip 2, so it isn't all bad. Argonaut also made a sequel, Starfox 2, which was actually completed but was never released due to Nintendo wanting to focus on the up and coming N64 console. This is a real shame as from what I have seen this unreleased follow up looks every bit as good as its predecessor and even tops it in the visual stakes by using an improved Super-FX chip. The ROM can be found online so I suggest you seek it out.

A screenshot of the cancelled sequel

But before you do that, I urge you to take time to revisit (or discover) the 1993 classic that showed that 16-bit consoles could 'do' 3D with as much style as the new generation of 32-bit machines, and provided us with such an enjoyable and memorable start to the franchise - One that's as fun to play today as it ever was.