With Star Fox Zero, which was formally unveiled at E3 2015 two weeks ago, Nintendo has an interesting problem: They've already made what is arguably the perfect Star Fox game.
It was eighteen years ago this week that we all lined up to buy Star Fox 64, a game that had been created in part to be a true showcase of the Nintendo 64's technical abilities. In addition to being one of the best-looking console games available at that time, it was fully voiced, temporarily silencing the critics who argued that the Nintendo 64 had been hobbled by its reliance on cartridges. And, of course, it gave us force feedback via the Rumble Pak, a feature that would become so ingrained that fans nearly rioted when Sony tried to remove it from the PlayStation 3's first controller.
Star Fox 64 was a runaway success, aided in part by the lack of software on the Nintendo 64—a problem that would later become an epidemic on Nintendo platforms. It sold some 300,000 copies in its first week on U.S. shelves, which was impressive for the time, seemingly cementing it as one of Nintendo's top franchises going forward.
Like most kids that summer, I did not own a Nintendo 64 or a copy of Star Fox 64. Instead, I trekked to my friend's houses to play through the campaign, steadily earning medals and working to top each other's high scores. The multiplayer was less impactful, being quickly replaced by Goldeneye as the Nintendo 64's primary party game when it was released the next month, but the campaign was gold.
Star Fox 64 was one of the first games of that console generation to leave me absolutely floored by its visual splendor, the other being Wave Race 64. Even today, you can still see all the little touches that were designed to emphasize its graphical fidelity. There's the first moment that the screen fades into the Star Fox team flying gracefully over Corneria, each pilot plainly visible in the cockpit (nevermind that you can really only see their heads). There's the moment shortly before fighting Corneria's alternate boss where you can gracefully skim over the water. And then as you continue, there are the crashing asteroids at Meteos, the giant waves of lava at Solar, and the floating debris field at Sector X, each setpiece more impressive than the last.
The biggest and best of them was Katina, which was essentially a straight copy of the climactic battle from Independence Day, which had been released the summer before. There had been a middling licensed shooter released in tandem with the movie, but it was Star Fox 64 that ultimately captured the excitement of shooting the saucer's core before it could destroy the friendly base.
Star Fox 64 was in many ways the forerunner to today's triple-A extravaganzas, offering a light, relatively easy to experience story that borrowed heavily from the likes of Return of the Jedi and Independence Day. Like most people, I was able to beat it on my first try, which was surprising given how hard the original game was. But after the credits rolled, there were more planets to unlock, medals to earn, and an expert mode, which really was quite difficult to beat. It was a very contained experience that could be easily completed in an hour, but its surplus of routes and challenges made each run a very different experience.
Star Fox 64 ended up making a huge impression on me that summer, and it's held up remarkably well since. In the years that followed, I would happily quote the cheesy dialogue with my friends ("Make way for Katt!") and reminisce about stages like Area 6, which is still one of the best pure shooter levels I've ever had the pleasure of playing. I even picked up an N64 in 2003 just so that I could own Star Fox 64 myself. Not even Ocarina of Time retains as fond a place in my heart as Star Fox 64.
I assumed that it was just the beginning, and that we would be getting even better Star Fox games on the GameCube and beyond. Instead, it was more or less the end.
I shouldn't have to rehash Star Fox's rather troubled history since Star Fox 64. As the Nintendo 64 became the GameCube, and then the Wii, Nintendo alternately farmed out the series to other developers or ignored it entirely. It sequels and spinoffs have included an action-adventure game, a subpar sequel from Namco, and a rather bizarre shooter/strategy hybrid for the Nintendo DS that is better-known for its fan-fiction-like endings than its actual gameplay.
Its decline appears to be a product of Nintendo not knowing where to take the series next. The original Star Fox and its sequel were created specifically to take advantage of the novelty of polygonal graphics; but with such visuals having long since become the standard, Nintendo has turned to a succession of ill-fitting gimmicks. Even Star Fox Assault, which was actually a great rail shooter, was ultimately derailed by its gimmicky on-foot missions (and Dinosaur Planet, which has been Star Fox's bane since the ill-conceived Star Fox Adventures).
Even more than, though, Star Fox's succession of developers have struggled to come up with a suitable follow-up to Fox's war against Andross. The Lylat System, once a grand stage, has become like a prison for the series, with every game rehashing Corneria, Meteos, and the rest. And the villains have suffered, too, with the primary antagonists mostly being lame remnants like Pigma Dengar and Oikonny. Even Star Wolf ultimately went soft and turned to the light in Star Fox Assault and Star Fox Command.
Nintendo's latest effort, Star Fox Zero, appears to be more of the same. The main demo takes place on Corneria, which is more or less a rehash of the first level from Star Fox 64; Pigma is once again a primary antagonist, and the action is built around a gimmicky lock-on system that utilizes the Wii U's gamepad (though Nintendo says the gyro controls can be turned off, thank god). Cast as a tribute to Star Fox 64, it comes off as more of a weak imitation.
Granted, it's not entirely fair to judge a game entirely on one E3 demo—god knows I've been wrong about E3 demos before—but it doesn't do a lot to suggest that Star Fox Zero will live up to the legacy of the first two games. If anything, the new lock-on system seems to actively detract from the core of the once rock-solid shooting, making the always slightly awkward all-range mode even moreso. It wants to play on our fond memories for the original Star Fox 64 while introducing some interesting new ideas, and yet, it manages to do none of these things... at least so far. That, ultimately, has been the story of Star Fox since 1997.
When it comes to Star Fox, Nintendo's seems dogged by the notion that they've already created the perfect shooter, and that they have to do something more with the sequel. But in trying to justify a new game in the series, they are only getting further away from what made Star Fox 64 so great in the first place.
When I used to lay around dreaming of a Star Fox 64 sequel, I didn't dream of fiddly second screen mechanics. I dreamt of a vastly expanded setting, with multiple new planets to visit, new enemies to fight, and battlefields that were vastly larger than before. I never thought that Nintendo needed to alter the mechanics, because outside of the limited scope of the all-range mode, I thought those mechanics were pretty much perfect. I never imagined that Nintendo would go out and effectively try and reinvent the wheel, or in this case, the Arwing.
And yet, here we are, with Nintendo seemingly desperate to justify the existence of a new Star Fox game. If that's the case, then they should look no further than Bayonetta 2, which gets by purely on the fact that it's a fantastically well-designed action game. It has a few new mechanics, but they augment rather than detract from the core of the gameplay. Otherwise, Bayonetta 2 is memorable because it's beautiful, it's fun, and it has some of this generation's best action setpieces.
And really, that's all I want out of a Star Fox sequel. Innovation is nice, but so is a well-executed, well-designed shooter. Star Fox 64 has held up as well as it has not because of any particular technical gimmick, but because it's an amazing game. Nintendo and Platinum would do well to remember that as they forge ahead with their latest attempt to build on the legacy of a classic series. Yes, they've already created what is arguably the perfect Star Fox game; but after eighteen years, there's plenty of room for improvement.