Its Star Fox’s 30th birthday, which is cause for celebration. Well, we’re choosing to celebrate its North American birthday, since its the middle one, but still.
Star Fox is thirty years old. This is an unconscionable fate for a game whose attitude to time was one of light disdain. When it arrived on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, in 1993, it seemed to point its nose cone into the wormhole of chronology and warp it all about. With the nagging inevitability of the PlayStation still a year away, Nintendo had gone to England in search of extra firepower and ferried back a couple of answers. One was Donkey Kong Country, from Rare, which used pre-rendered graphics. (The rubbery motions of its leading ape recalled those of the original rarefied Kong, beating his chest and scraping the sky.) The other was Star Fox, which was armed with the Super FX chip, and its scorching payload of 256 Kilobytes of RAM. This came courtesy of Argonaut Software and was soldered into every cartridge. The result was a storm of polygons, scattering like paper and stirring into shapes and ships.
If it felt like the future then, it was partly because it made you think your SNES were about to rattle, like the dashboard of a rocket, and burst or burn up with the effort. Even now, playing on the Switch (the game is included in the online subscription catalogue), the frame rate starts to crawl. And it’s just as well, too. The wonder of Star Fox is that its action is wedded to the tech that powers it with such visible results. There always appears to be two battles going on in every scene: one entailing the bushy efforts of Fox McCloud, prowling the vacuums in his Arwing, and the other between the SNES and the laws of thermodynamics.
This is why the later Star Fox games feel as if they have lost something. Star Fox 64 (or Lylat Wars, as it was called in Europe) had the oomph of the Nintendo 64 behind it; it lounged in the brushed-chrome smoothness of its graphics, instead of launching through the comfort barrier and causing the console to break into a sweat. Go back to the original, and you will find Fox exactly where he needs to be: right on the edge, pressing his snout against the limits, pressurised by the notion of slowing down. There are times when it all looks like a bad dream, as though Fox had been drugged into euphoria by all the dogfights. Look at the final boss: a giant, white-panelled face with fire behind the eyes, as all of space starts to bruise and ripple into a purple-brown slurry.
What plot could possibly keep pace with that? No writer is listed in the credits, but we do have a director, Katsuya Eguchi, and Shigeru Miyamoto is down as both producer and designer – along with “shape designer” Tsuyoshi Watanabe, who I suspect got most of his ideas after taking a crash course in origami. Supposedly, Miyamoto was inspired by a couple of sources: Star Wars, with its X-Wings and its crisp blurts of laser, but also, staying true to the Miyamoto legend, his walks outside the Nintendo headquarters, in Kyoto. He frequented the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine and was quite taken by the ranks of Senbon Torii gates that bowered the pathways – hence the arches that you zoom through in the game – while the figure of the hero sprang from the shrine’s Kitsune statues.
Not the least of Miyamoto’s gifts as a game-maker is his ability to stare at the world and pluck out its most playable ideas. He based The Legend of Zelda on little more than basic myths – fair maidens and fouled-up lands, swords wedged into stone and prised free – but he earthed it with his own experience of wandering around the caves near his boyhood home. (Is that why so many of Miyamoto’s games knock you backwards with such a spiritual thump, because they are rooted in a kind of daily, domestic soil, from which magic can so easily bloom?) With Star Fox, we get a good helping of the mythic; check out the Monarch Dodora, a two-headed dragon with wings like knives and a lashing tail. The characters, meanwhile, are like something from a fable. Fox is joined by Slippy Toad, a mechanic with a mile-wide grin and a goggling stare; Falco Lombardi, a purple-feathered hothead of impeckable flying skill; and Peppy Hare, the veteran with upstanding ears and a greying pelt.
What grounds Star Fox perhaps, and stops it from spinning into the wayward or the whacky, is the squadron of British programmers from Argonaut: Dylan Cuthbert, all of eighteen years old at the time, flanked by Giles Goddard and Krister Wombell. “With the tools we have today, designers adjust the cameras. But back then, camera work was part of the programmer’s job… In those days, a programmer’s sense for things made a difference as to the outcome.” Said Satoru Iwata, in an Iwata Asks featuring Goddard himself, and you could sum up the power of the game’s set pieces with that useful phrase: a sense for things. Cuthbert and his fellow-aces coded out the arc of every barrel roll, and the red mist of every explosion, but each scene coheres with a director’s understanding – a feeling that, more than a ship, you are piloting a camera, flying a curve through the heat and glare of real drama.
Star Fox was plainly Nintendo’s most cinematic game. (It was closely followed, on the SNES, by Super Metroid, which opened in a bluish gloom, amid shots of machines and scattered bodies, and immediately staked a claim on your nerves.) Begin Star Fox in the morning, with a coffee, and I guarantee that you will be swept along to the credits just before lunch. It’s rare that a game holds your attention – and just plain holds you, depositing you snugly from one spectacle to the next – with such ease and snap. It wasn’t until the second mission, Sector X, in which we are sucked into the cockpit and peep out through the glass in first person, that I noticed a crosshair appear onscreen. In the first mission, where you see Fox’s Arwing from the outside, you aim by lining up your flight path with a foe, reliant on not much more than a feel for the target: a sense for things.
The echo here, once again, is of Star Wars, and of the Force-fuelled notion of navigating by instinct. The Rogue Squadron series took wing five years on from Star Fox, in 1998, and offered much the same thrills but with a lick of dusty Lucas paint. Both series, however, ran into the same obstacle: where do you go once you’ve left the ground behind, and you aren’t pulled by the gravity of a good story? The answer in both cases, like a child after a fairground ride, is: Again! Again! In Rogue Squadron, that meant the same handful of set pieces retold, and touched up with better graphics: weaving tow cables around the feet of an AT-AT as it clomps through the snow; or hunkering down in the cream canyons of the Death Star.
For Nintendo’s series, it meant the same game being remade. Hence, in Star Fox 64, the opening level of Corneria, all placid waters and lawn-like sweeps of green, a sumptuous update on the bald textures of the original. Thence to Star Fox Zero, on the Wii U, where veterans – perhaps in possession of a greying pelt of their own – could hare along through the same scene remade again, relishing the added spray as the Arwings skim the bay, savouring the enhanced rustle and crunch of the foliage as they recall their salad days on the SNES. For Fox McCloud and his pals, there has never been anything else.
This is why they looked so out of their element in Star Fox Adventures. I happen to love that game (the last that Rare made for Nintendo, and originally meant to be something else, before the familiar trappings were airlifted into place), but something about Fox seemed tired. He certainly looked the part; his fur had been shampooed to a glossy fuzz, thanks to the Nintendo GameCube, but every time his Arwing came down in each new area, you felt he wasn’t so much landing as being marooned. No, he belongs up there in the firmament, where it’s tough to breathe and even tougher to leave.
If there is one upshot to the inertia that has dampened the series, it is that the rust of years has yet to eat into its hull. The visuals may have been boosted and buffed with each new entry, but the raw pleasures are unchanged. Star Fox is now what it was then – a glimpse of the future, quaking with promise, and as good as it would ever get.