Friday 14 February 2020

SNES Review - Star Fox 2 (Game 182)

For years this space based tactical shooter had been a lost curio after its dramatic cancellation. But in the PlayStation era, was out dated graphics the real reason ‘Star Fox 2’ was shelved?

Developed by Nintendo / Argonaut Software
Published by Nintendo
Released in 2017

When you write about old games, there’s always the struggle between nostalgia and objectivity. Should a game be reviewed within the context of the time of its release, or compared to other things you could be playing today? Something that was once pioneering will now look trait and dated, but does that lessen its worth or historical significance? The true classics don’t age and can’t be eclipsed. However, for the most part, advancing technology (and a greater understanding of what makes good games great) leads to many to modern titles simply being better than the mediocre games of yesteryear. A game that was comparatively good decades ago, may not be good today because there’s so much more to compare it against.

However how do we view old games that are only now available (legally) for the first time? Should we play them comparing them to titles that would have come out at the point of cancellation? Alternatively do we criticise them for not measuring up to either expectations or currently available alternatives?

‘Star Fox 2’ is really a fan favourite game that’s been robbed of “fan favourite” status. It’s an ambitious game cancelled before it got a chance to gain a following. However, it’s also a game that sadly doesn’t measure up to the expectations heaped upon it.

‘Star Fox’(or ‘Star Wing’ in Europe) had been a huge critical and commercial success for Nintendo. After selling over four million copies, a follow up was inevitable. Co-developed by Nintendo EAD in Japan and Britain’s Argonaut Software, ‘Star Fox 2’ was intended to be the third title in their three game Nintendo exclusivity deal.  Dylan Cuthbert served as both the designer and lead programmer on the sequel, working alongside a largely Japanese team. Overseeing work was the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto and ‘animal crossing’ creator Katsuya Eguchi became the project director. However, According to Edge magazine, complications lead to two years of development, which meant ‘Star Fox 2’ would come to market far later than anticipated. Despite the game being shown at the 1995 CES (where a man was arrested for attempting to steal the demo cartridge from Nintendo’s booth) the game was cancelled. The “fully completed and QA’d” Japanese version quietly shelved, presumed never to see the light of day.

‘Star Fox’ is of course best known for its polygon based 3D graphics, made possible by the on-cart Super FX chip. For the sequel, the team decided early on to use the enhanced Super FX 2 chip, which had been initially developed for ‘Yoshi’s Island’.  This upgraded chip could manipulate more on-screen polygons, scale larger sprites simultaneously, and texture mapped a twice the speed of the original Super FX. This extra processing power allowed for something the original ‘Star Fox’ lacked: free-roaming 3D environments.  ‘Star Fox’ was limited to on rails shooting due to the restrictions of the original super FX chip, despite the original intention for it to play similarly to the Amiga’s ‘Hunter’. “The series was never intended to be limited to linear 3D scrolling stages” Acknowledges Cuthbert. “I’m glad we could do that with the sequel”. However, explore-able 3D environments weren’t they only gameplay addition introduced in ‘Star Fox 2’. 

Miyamoto suggested that the ‘Star Fox’ series should be seen as an opportunity to embrace new gameplay concepts; a Developer’s “test bed”. “We were all willing to experiment with new ideas and not just repeat the original game,” Cuthbert remembers. “Miyamoto has always said ‘Star Fox’ is an experimental platform [so] In ‘Star Fox 2’ all kinds of ideas were thrown into the mix”. This creative freedom notably inspired the three-dimensional platforming sequences, often cited as being inspiration for a specific system-selling N64 game. “ Bear in mind, this is a long time before ‘Super Mario 64’ and  Shigeru Miyamoto was very interested in this part of the game” rightfully boats Cuthbert. “Some of the platforming experiments we did definitely gave Miyamoto the confidence he needed. At one point we had slopes and rotating platforms, switches and things that really did feel like Mario in 3D."

As Fox McCloud’s Arwing star ship is no longer locked to a pre-determined path, Director Eguchi wanted to foreground exploration over constant shooting. Evidently he played the NES game ‘Star Luster’ and ‘Elite’ for inspiration. Along with the inclusion of more random enemy encounters it was felt tactical planning would make the game feel less arcade like.
In the first ‘Star Fox’ players simply chose between three paths across a star system. Once picked, you couldn’t change the order you’d visit the various planets and this selection really only determined the game’s difficulty. For ‘Star Fox 2’ players still  moved across a map defending planets from enemies , but now they had much more control over the specific route taken. It was designed to play out differently each gameplay session, with enemy encounters between planets entirely random. Similarly more gameplay variety was introduced by the addition of new characters and different ships. Before, a player would simply play with Fox and his team, with all the pilots in identical crafts. Now there is a choice between six playable characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

The objective of the game is to destroy all enemy forces present on the map while preventing the total destruction of planet Corneria. To achieve this, a player will have to intercept fighters and incoming missiles, while also dealing with the sources of these attacks. Running in real time, when a player takes an action, the clock starts counting and enemies will perform actions as well. This time constraint encourages you to think quickly and tactically, managing Resources to best deal with multiple threats. Frequently you’ll need to gauge if it’s best to advance across the Lylat system or return to base to defend against foes getting that bit too close to Corneria.  In this way,’ Star Fox 2’ can easily be compared to many real-time strategy games.

When one of the player’s two onscreen ships comes into contact with a battleship or captured planet, the game shifts into gameplay that’s more familiar to a player of the original ‘Star Fox’. Viewed from either behind the ship or from a first person perspective, frantic shooting of everything on screen ensues. When an objective is met, you’ll gain access to the innards of a battle ship or enemy base. From here the shield generator can be destroyed and the location is considered liberated.

Interrupting your journey across the Lylat system are Star Wolf who you’ll meet randomly. Like the exploration of planets and battleships, dogfights take place within a confined but freely accessible area. The L and R buttons are no longer limited to performing the infamous barrel rolls. Now they rotate the camera and in so doing alter the direction in which your flying. Targeting fast moving opponents initially feels excessively difficult. Aiming using the D-pad while also trying to control the ship is incredibly hard. But once you have mastery of the lock on facility, space duals feel genuinely exciting.
Confrontations with missiles fired towards Cornelia are very similar to these Star Wolf duels, as are boss fights. Here a large and impressive Foe will need to be downed by shooting its flashing weak points. It’s similar to the prequel of course; with the significant difference that now you can fly around the boss. Missions are far shorter in this sequel, but they’re also more varied. It’s no longer a case of just shooting and dodging as was the case in the first game, now you’ll need to activate switches and time manoeuvres. For any mission with a floor you’ll also have the ability to transform into a walker, in a manner similar to that seen in ‘Vortex’. But this felt largely just an aesthetic change as the gameplay feels identical no matter which state your machine is in. 

Once the player has cleared all enemy forces present on the star system map, you’ll get the chance to take on Andross, a familiar foe for anyone accustomed to the series.

It’s a far more ambitious and imaginative sequel, that, while remaining true to the essence of the original expands greatly on it. However beyond allowing for free movement around an environment it’s difficult to see how much the Super FX chip has added to the visuals. Some surfaces have textures mapped to them but most are still a solid colour. Level backgrounds are more detailed but floors are still largely empty. Frequently you’ll fly around an empty stage looking for mission objectives, with no enemies opposing you. There are significantly noticeable frame rate issues too, which only makes the imprecise aiming all the more hit and miss.

 The music is equally disappointing, lacking the appeal of the original. The strident grandiosity seems to have vanished, with magic simply just bubbling away in the background. Decades after playing the first game I can still hum the themes to the Cornelia and Venom stages. However, despite playing ‘Star Fox 2’ for a dozen hours I can’t recall any of its new music. The game’s charm is absent, primarily because you don’t really interact with your team mates. You’re always accompanied by a partner, but there’s no sense of camaraderie like there was in the first game. There is a sense that ‘Star Fox 2’ is trying to be more epic; a sci-fi feature film rather than a Saturday morning cartoon.

‘Star Fox 2’ is technically superior to a prequel that pushed the SNES beyond its capabilities. It’s a huge, a no doubt expensive achievement that would have sold based on the strength of its name alone. So, it’s logical to ask why Nintendo shelved it. The problem was that the industry had changed a great deal since the release of the original ‘Star Fox’, and visuals that once looked unbelievable now looked almost archaic, even with the extra flourishes bought by the improved Super FX 2 chip.  Just months after the launch of the original 'Star Fox', id Software’s ‘Doom’ released with texture mapped walls far more impressive than the blocky objects seen in Nintendo’s space shooter. More intimidating was the impending launch of The PlayStation, as Sony’s 32 bit powerhouse was built from the ground up to manipulate 3D models. Miyamoto was convinced the launch of ‘Star Fox 2’ would be an embarrassment to Nintendo. “We had quite a script for ‘Star Fox 2’ and had it running…but other companies’ game consoles were using polygons all over the place. We didn’t think we could catch up even if we stuck this expensive chip in the cartridge, so we rethought it.” The company quietly shelved ‘Star Fox 2’ and took note of a few ideas to later use in a new ‘Star Fox’ project on the then-unannounced N64 console. “We kind of knew that the quality of 3D we had in ‘Star Fox 2’ – and with the Super FX chip in general – had been surpassed” Recalls Cuthbert. “Nintendo thought [‘Star Fox 2’] should be forgotten”.

The gaming community however didn’t forget of its existence and in the late ‘90s, a group of hackers pieced together a version of ‘Star Fox 2’ based on a leaked prototype. It was buggy and a poor representation of Nintendo’s work. Dylan Cuthbert was frustrated that it was this incomplete early version of ‘Star Fox 2’ that the public had gravitated towards. “I mean, the basic parts are there, but there is an adage in game development, ‘The last 10% is 90% of the game,’ and the ROM is missing that last 10% of iteration -and - refinement.” As the ROM became burnt to cartridges and sold in reproduction boxes, Cuthbert was convinced that’s this was all the public would ever get their hands on. "The legal problems regarding the now-defunct Argonaut Software are probably a nightmare," Cuthbert said at the time. "Never say never though! The fully complete Japanese ROM at least does exist." Remarkably it was this that Nintendo used as the basis of their official ‘Star Fox 2’ 2017 release when it announced that the previously “lost game” would be included with the SNES Classic Console. According to Miyamoto, “The Super NES Classic Edition system’s producer said he wanted to include it. He said it had been through debugging and was a complete game, so it would be a waste not to put it out in the world”. After more than two decades polygon designer Tsuyoshi Watanabe wasn’t keen on his early work finally seeing the light of day. “To be honest, it’s embarrassing! It’s like having an old diary suddenly appear and be exposed in public!” But for Dylan Cuthbert it was fantastic news. “I found out about it on Twitter—it was one of the greatest days of my life” he said. “Two years of my life vindicated! [...] I’m just glad everyone can finally get a chance to see all the stuff we put into the game.”

The release of ‘Star Fox 2’ on the Switch has bought the game to an even larger audience but ignoring the fascinating history, can a modern player enjoy it? After all, it’s just as easy to download games like ‘Star Link: Battle for Atlas’ from the eShop. This modern space shooter even includes ‘Star Fox’ ships and characters existing in HD worlds and contemporary gameplay. The reality is, ‘Star Fox 2’ May have simply been cancelled because it’s not very good, and certainly not as good as the prequel. The normal difficulty is too easy, and at 45 minutes too short. Hard difficulties add some challenge but even those can be bested in a few hours. It’s telling that the released sequel ‘Star Fox 64’ (‘Lylat wars’ in Europe) returned to on-rails levels, only reserving the free movement sections for dog fights and bosses. This combination plays to the strengths of both styles and makes for a far better game than ‘Star Fox 2’.  “We really tried to maintain the feel of ‘Star Fox’. Even though there isn't any rail shooting in the game, you still feel like you're playing ‘Star Fox’” game director Dylan Cuthbert once said.” A lot of people do expect there to be rail shooting [...] the pace of the game needs to match the player, so it's up to you to decide if you want to play a quick game or a long game. It's a different style of game”. Cuthbert would later go on to direct ‘Star Fox Command’ on the Nintendo DS console. According to this game’s producer Takaya Imamura, it’s essentially a remake.  "A game called 'Star Fox 2', which was not actually released, once existed. In that game, there was a strategic system, which we thought suitable for Nintendo DS. That is how we started the project." “We resurrected a lot of ideas for Star Fox Command on the Nintendo DS," Cuthbert reveals. "That was a direct request from Shigeru Miyamoto [...] He thought it was a big shame he couldn't release ‘Star Fox 2’ back in the day and basically wanted us to push more in that direction." Nintendo’s sales pitch describes game play in ‘Star Fox Command ‘that’ll be very familiar to anyone that’s played ‘Star Fox 2’. “Star Fox Command introduces a new turn-based strategy element to the long-running saga of Fox McCloud and co. Before each thrilling 3D dogfight, you can now plot your ships' flight paths simply by drawing on the touch screen”. ‘Star Fox Command’ is the far better game, which really shows that Cuthbert’s ambitions were hampered by the limitations of the SNES at the time.

‘Star Fox 2’ is a game that shouldn’t be played by anyone not fascinated by its history, unless they really want to say “yep, Nintendo were right to cancel this’. The best bits of it were cannibalised in later games, and significantly improved upon. Its eventual release has given retro gamers a rare chance to collectively experience a retro game without rose tinted glasses, and without nostalgia glossing over the cracks you have no choice but to see what’s really there.

Not only does ‘Star Fox 2’ not favourably compare to modern equivalents, but it doesn’t even compare favourably to its prequel.

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