Lost in the exciting news this past week that the world would finally see Star Fox 2 was the realization that this week is also the twentieth anniversary of what is arguably the best game in the franchise, Star Fox 64. In a way, that’s kind of a shame, seeing as 64 has served as the standard bearer of the entirety of that particular franchise. Especially for my generation, many of who simply do consider this the first Star Fox game, for better or worse.
Is Star Fox 64 really that good though? For many, yes, it really is. Many Nintendo franchises successfully made the leap to 3D in the N64 era; bringing with them brand new innovations and mechanics that cemented Nintendo’s ability at the time to change with technology and pioneer new ways to game. But Star Fox 64 wasn’t really in that class. Instead, the N64 age gave the designers the chance to build the game they properly wanted in the first place.
The original Star Fox was one of the first games in Nintendo’s slate to attempt to use three-dimensional polygons and processing power most games didn’t attempt to run on the SNES. Even so, backrounds needed to be rendered as more or less splash pages, and finer details were simply out of the game’s scope. In the Nintendo 64, however, was the chance to do the same experiment, but with better tools. So that’s exactly what was decided to do. Pulling ideas from the then canceled Star Fox 2 and combining them with new ambitions and the road map of the original game, Star Fox 64 is one of gaming’s earliest successful re-imaginings.
Giving the Star Fox crew backstories, voiceovers, and personalities as the backbone, 64 significantly expanded the Lylat system to give it life. That liveliness matched the increased detail and unique choice to present characters as puppet-like, giving the entire game a spirit and feel separate from other Nintendo offerings. A great choice, given that the on-rails corridor gameplay that 64 relies upon was already fairly removed from console games at this point. Boy, was it perfect for this game though. There is a particular sense of tension in not being able to completely stop the Arwing, to always have to check your bearings, to constantly be aware of your goals as you’re being pushed towards the end of a mission. It’s quite stressful, but it makes success that much more worthwhile. Certain points can feel unforgettable, such as the showdowns with Star Wolf and the reveal of the true Andross, a fake out even for those who had played the original. All of that was just the core game, with multiple paths, expert mode, and an entertaining multiplayer, 64 was jam-packed with all kinds of strange experimentation for its time.
I would say, however, that all of this goodness makes the existence of the rest of the series fairly ironic. Nintendo has never really been able to figure out what to properly do with this franchise since stumbling upon a pretty much perfect version of the formula. Fox and crew have mostly been regulated to spin offs that have less of their own experimentation, instead feeling more like chasing other ideas as opposed to pioneering them. I don’t know if that comes from a lack of inspiration, or that there hasn’t really be a technological leap justifying that ambition in the same way. The period of time that created the experiment of the original Star Fox and then led directly into a proper realization of that idea doesn’t really happen anymore in game technology. We might be able render prettier than ever, but the pushing from 2D to 3D really does feel like a milestone that can’t be replicated. One only needs to look at Star Fox Zero, itself a remake of 64 that is simply worse in just about every way, to see that. It might be just about time to realize it doesn’t get as good as this.
That might be the greater legacy of Star Fox 64, a game that was so good at what it did, it might have brought the entire franchise to the end of its mission before we even realized it.