Franchise Festival #21: Star Fox

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be using the boost to chase down the history of Star Fox. Year of release indicates the North American version.

Sources include USGamer’s series retrospective, The Gaming Historian’s series of brief documentaries on each entry, and a few interesting features by Retro Gamer, Nintendo Life, Unseen64 and Reading Between.


The story of Star Fox is paradoxically one of innovation and an unwillingness to move away from the series’ early successes.

The franchise was born of a rare (for the time) collaboration between Japanese tech giant Nintendo and a small British game developer called Argonaut. Argonaut had been founded in 1982 by Jez San and developed games throughout the 1980s before coming to Nintendo’s attention by ingeniously defeating the formerly unbreakable copyright protection on the Game Boy portable console. Humorously, this only came to Nintendo’s attention because Jez San showed it to the most senior manager present at Nintendo’s  Consumer Electronic Show booth; amazing the company with his knowledge of programming and effectively convincing them that Argonaut could develop 3D games for the characteristically reserved Nintendo, San’s company was awarded a contract.

A still from 1992’s X, highly reminiscent of Argonaut’s work the following year on Star Fox.

Unfortunately, development of 3D games for consoles in the early 1990s seemed to be something of a pipe dream. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System had been designed with only 2D titles in mind, and the Game Boy could not even display colors. Argonaut managed to get around this by developing a chip inserted onto game cartridges which dramatically augmented the console’s processing power. By designing specific games with this capacity in mind, Argonaut and Nintendo could release cutting edge content; X would go on to be Nintendo’s first 3D game, and indeed the first three-dimensional game created for a portable system, when it launched as a Japan-exclusive Game Boy title in 1992.


Star Fox (1993)

The design of Star Fox was heavily influenced by Argonaut’s earlier 3D space flight simulator, a wireframe game called Starflight (1986, Commodore Amiga/Atari ST) that had in turn been influenced by Star Wars. This was almost not the case, as Argonaut initially pitched a land-based 3D tank game before that idea was shot down by Shigeru Miyamoto for being too grounded.

Red arches at Fushimi Inari-taisha.

Miyamoto, in fact, was a key part of the early development stages for Star Fox. While the small British team was working on the technical side of the game, producer Miyamoto was establishing the art direction and character design. Much of this came from a visit by the gaming icon to Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the fox god Inari – series protagonist Fox McCloud was inspired by Inari, while the gameplay mechanic of swooping through archways was inspired by the distinctive red arches lining walking paths at the temple. Miyamoto’s love of puppets in general, and the television series Thunderbirds in particular, led to the rather peculiar supplementary character art for the game. Once the lead character had been established, the development team drew the supporting cast of anthropomorphic animals from Japanese mythology as well – Falco the falcon, Peppy the hare and Pigma the pig are all significant figures in the country’s folklore. Even the game’s central conflict between a dog general named Pepper and an evil monkey scientist named Andross was inspired by a Japanese idiom: “fighting like dogs and monkeys.”

Andross, apparently a monkey.

Though much of the creative influence is oriented towards folklore, the game’s narrative and setting is thoroughly futuristic. At the start of the story, Fox McCloud has replaced his father on Star Fox, a team of spaceship fighter pilots consisting of Falco, Peppy, and Slippy the toad. They intend to stop the sinister Andross from taking over their home planet of Corneria; after being banished from Corneria for his ethically dubious experiments, Andross formed a fleet and conquered most of the galaxy’s nearby planets while also apparently killing Fox’s father. The arc of the narrative sees the player controlling Fox’s Arwing, an agile spaceship, as the team frees planet after planet in the Lylat System from Andross’ control. Eventually, Fox takes the fight to Andross himself on the desolate planet Venom.

Slippy giving critical advice on the game’s opening Corneria mission.

The visual design and gameplay mechanics are the primary attraction, of course. Argonaut’s SuperFX chip proved to be a major boon to the game’s development, permitting polygonal graphics on a console designed entirely around sprites. The Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 programming had permitted scaling sprites on a level not possible in earlier hardware, but all of these still needed to be hand-animated and consequently were not usable for a fully 3D game. Super FX, on the other hand, dramatically enhanced the console’s processing power and allowed it to display roughly textured polygons without animating or scaling them by hand. With this major technological leap, creating a three-dimensional space shooter on consoles was possible for the first time in the medium’s history. These cutting edge visuals are crude by modern standards, and the frame rate is choppy at 15 frames per second (compared to the 60fps of contemporary platformers or the 30fps of 1997’s Star Fox 64), but they were eye-opening to fans who had known only the flat, pixellated worlds of 1980s and 1990s console gaming.

A map of the Lylat System, which functions as the level select screen. Note that three distinct routes are available; the player must play the game three times to experience all stages.

Star Fox was a massive success when it released in 1993. Even being awkwardly renamed Starwing in European markets (due to the potential for a lawsuit by German company StarVox) couldn’t slow the title’s sales performance. Nintendo had a hit on their hands and rapidly sought to capitalize on it by developing a sequel on the same hardware.


Star Fox 2 (2017)

Though it was published significantly later, Star Fox 2 actually began production three days before the release of the franchise debut and would be completed by 1995. It was projected to be the last great Super Nintendo game and a finished version was even playable at the 1995 Consumer Electronics Show. Unfortunately, the game would be unceremoniously canceled in early 1996 and would become one of the medium’s most notorious unreleased works prior to its surprise reappearance in 2017 on the SNES Classic mini-console.

An image of the CES 1995 booth.

After the critical and commercial success of Star Fox, Nintendo wanted to do more than simply pump out a straightforward sequel with new levels on the template established by its predecessor. Star Fox 2’s visual design would remain almost identical to the first game, as there was little room for technical improvement on the already cutting-edge polygonal models without moving to new hardware, but the creative team was urged by Shigeru Miyamoto to experiment with new gameplay.

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An innovative boss fight in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, made possible by the Super FX2 chip.

To that end, the primary Argonaut staff member working on the project moved to Japan for a closer working relationship with Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters. Dylan Cuthbert, ambitious and experienced after having pushed the Super Nintendo’s limits in 1993, explained to Nintendo leadership that the only way to offer new modes of gameplay without compromising the series’ already-iconic visual design would be the development of a new iteration of the Super FX chip. Dubbed the Super FX2, this cartridge attachment made possible even greater technical feats on the aging 16-bit hardware; the beloved Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island is one of the only implementations of the Super FX2, and it remains one of the visual peaks of its generation.

A realtime map of the Lylat System.

Having had a new chip backed by Nintendo, the Star Fox 2 development team still needed to iterate on the gameplay of the first title. They did this in a handful of key ways, much to the delight of Shigeru Miyamoto. The game is no longer a straightforward series of levels standing between Fox McCloud’s home base on Corneria and Andross’ stronghold on Venom; instead, the player has access to a interface depicting a full galaxy of planets and must choose each subsequent level based on the real-time movement of enemy fleets around the galaxy. Without checking enemy movements by carefully prioritizing missions, the player can lose the entire game by having Corneria fall to enemy invasion. This integration of roguelike elements would have been considered revolutionary at the time, even as it fits in well with modern game design.

An interior level featuring the Walker.

The second key new gameplay element is the addition of all-range mode. All levels in Star Fox had consisted of an on-rails trip through constantly scrolling corridors (this was largely an illusion that consisted of a regularly scrolling floor texture that suggested momentum). The greater processing power afforded by the Super FX2 chip permitted Star Fox 2 to offer large-scale open battlefields. The player could navigate in 360 degrees around a large contiguous space in all-range mode, opening up play to the kinds of dogfights only formerly encountered in realistic PC flight simulators. At the same time, interior combat sections were enhanced through the introduction of the Walker. This was a transformation of Fox’s Arwing from its standard fighter jet design to a bird-like bipedal machine.

Star Wolf.

While the mechanics went through a major expansion, a handful of new characters were also introduced. The most important addition is Star Wolf, an enemy team composed of  Wolf (a wolf, naturally), Leon (a chameleon), Pigma (the pig who had betrayed Fox’s father), and Algy (a primate). These foes challenge Star Fox several times throughout the narrative in closely pitched battles, and had originally been intended to appear in the first title. Meanwhile, the Star Fox team is also enhanced by the addition of two new members, a lynx named Miyu and a dog named Fay. Though Star Wolf would go on to become a series fixture, Miyu and Fay would sadly not reappear in any later games.

Namco’s Ace Combat, a 1995 launch title for the Sony PlayStation, would have made Star Fox 2 feel dated at release.

In the end, of course, Star Fox 2 was abandoned. To the development team’s great disappointment, Nintendo opted to cut the title as a result of the shifting console landscape in the mid-1990s. According to an interview published to coincide with the 2017 release of Star Fox 2 on the SNES Classic, the decision came down to the high cost of producing cartridges with the Super FX2 chip and the fact that the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn had been released in 1995; with the ascent of more powerful consoles, the novelty of crude 16-bit polygons would be stripped from the Star Fox series and make Nintendo look outdated rather than cutting edge. Two short years had radically altered what consumers expected in their virtual worlds, and Star Fox would need to adapt or be left behind.

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Star Fox 64 (1997)

Luckily for fans, Star Fox adapted to the times with what is still considered to be the strongest entry in the series. Star Fox 64 would launch on the Nintendo 64 to widespread critical acclaim in 1997. Argonaut was cut free, as the new console natively supported complex textured polygons, and the new game was developed entirely in-house under Shigeru Miyamoto. Many of the ideas originally programmed into Star Fox 2 would be experienced by fans for the first time in this revolutionary space shooter.

Another jaunt through a significantly more fleshed out Corneria.

In particular, Star Fox 64 includes all-range mode and a slightly updated Star Wolf (Algy has been traded for an alternate primate, Andross’ nephew Andrew). These are functionally identical to how they performed in Star Fox 2. Surprisingly, the multiplayer mode of Star Fox 2 – cut before the final build, and consequently absent in the eventual SNES Classic release – is a key feature of Star Fox 64. The game emphasizes its single-player campaign, but four-person couch multiplayer was one of the selling points of the Nintendo 64 and Star Fox 64 delivered on this potential. Up to four players can engage one another in dogfights across a handful of areas drawn from the planets which appear in the single-player mode. Not content to present standard air combat alone, the development team managed to include tank and on-foot battle options as well!

Multiplayer mode, featuring two player in Arwings (left), one player in a Landmaster (upper-right), and one player on-foot (lower-right).

These alternatives to the Arwing are not confined to multiplayer. In the single-player campaign, the player finds Fox piloting the Landmaster tank and the Blue-Marine submarine. In spite of these new vehicle options, Star Fox 64‘s narrative is surprisingly backwards-facing. It is effectively a full remake of the first Star Fox game with new features and dramatically enhanced visual design. Shigeru Miyamoto has stated that it is the true realization of what his staff intended to produce on the Super Nintendo. With this in mind, players primarily encounter environments and enemies drawn directly from the game’s 16-bit predecessor. The final boss is again Andross, still rendered as a massive floating head in space.

Andross really filled in between Star Fox and Star Fox 64.

In contrast to its position as an enhanced remake, more or less, Star Fox 64 would have one major revolutionary contribution to the wider world of games development – a small device called the Rumble Pak was packaged with all launch copies of Nintendo’s new title. This device plugged into the back of the Nintendo 64 controller and, when powered by a couple of AAA batteries, would produce force feedback in sync with events transpiring on-screen. If Fox’s Arwing takes a hit, the player feels his or her controller buzz. If Fox fires torpedos from the Blue-Marine, the Rumble Pak similarly jostles the player’s input device. The Rumble Pak could easily have become a long-forgotten gimmick, but instead became standard across the following decades of console peripheral development after Sony followed suit with a PlayStation controller called the DualShock.

At the same time as it innovated on controller feedback, Star Fox 64 featured more voice acting than any of its contemporaries. Over four megabytes of compressed speech data is included, providing a greater level of interaction for all of the game’s main characters. These audio clips are limited by modern standards, but many became beloved catchphrases among Star Fox 64‘s impressionable young fans. Among these, “Do a barrel roll” and “Hey Einstein, I’m on your side” remain some of this writer’s favorites.

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The cover for Star Fox 64 3D.

With such a hit on their hands, it’s a bit surprising that Nintendo opted to move in very different directions over the decade ahead. By 2010, fans would be clamoring for a return to the reliable charms of Star Fox 64. Happily, a remake of the game would be released during the first year of the Nintendo 3DS’ life cycle; in the spirit of its predecessors, it manages to be a remake while still offering novelty – Shigeru Miyamoto insisted upon the inclusion of strong stereoscopic 3D and optional motion controls as the game moved through development. The latter of these remains a largely imprecise, unsuccessful experiment but the former would prove to be one of the most effective uses of Nintendo’s unique portable console over its following seven years on the market.

Star Fox Adventures_crop

Star Fox Adventures (2002)

Star Fox 64 proved to be a critical darling and commercial blockbuster, but the road to the next title in the series would again be a winding one rather than a matter of simple iteration. After two games developed in collaboration with Argonaut and one fully worked up in-house by Nintendo EAD, Nintendo reached out to one of its most celebrated partners for the next title in the franchise.

Rare was a British game development studio that had been publishing content since the 1980s. It had risen to prominence, however, through the development of the Donkey Kong Country series in the 1990s. After that, it had won acclaim by becoming the most consistent second-party studio releasing content on the Nintendo 64 – its library on that platform alone included Goldeneye: 007 (1997), Diddy Kong Racing (1997), Banjo-Kazooie (1998), and Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001), among others. As the fifth console generation was winding down and the sixth generation of hardware had begun to grow in popularity at the turn of the millennium, Rare sought to extend its reach still further and publish a magnum opus which would double as the Nintendo 64’s swan song.

Playing as Krystal in Dinosaur Planet.

Dinosaur Planet was planned as an epic adventure game set on a planet populated by anthropomorphic dinosaurs and primitive mammalian creatures. Players would have taken on the roles of Sabre and Krystal, two protagonists with distinct abilities who could be switched between at certain locations according to the player’s will. They had unique but interlinked stories, both oriented around defeating a maniacal despot named General Scales. Midway through development, though, the game took an unexpected twist.

A still of General Scales from a Dinosaur Planet promotional clip.

Shigeru Miyamoto, who had remained relatively hands-off as the title’s producer, was shown early footage and came to the conclusion that Sabre’s similarity of appearance to Fox McCloud might make this a good opportunity to use the popular Star Fox license. Amid some disagreements on the development team, Rare agreed and redesigned the game to fit into pre-existing elements of the Star Fox universe. Sabre was dropped entirely, Krystal became a non-player character, and Andross was clumsily grafted onto the narrative as the manipulator of General Scales. At the same time, a handful of rudimentary Arwing flight sequences were added to ease the transition away from Star Fox’s former exclusive dedication to space shooter mechanics.

A once-again redesigned Andross.

A 2012 NintendoLife interview with the game’s lead software engineer, Phil Tossell, sheds some light on how the project evolved. As Dinosaur Planet became Star Fox Adventures, it also shifted development from the Nintendo 64 hardware to Nintendo’s new GameCube console. The game retained its epic scope, and the significantly enhanced processing power of the GameCube proved a major boon to cinematic narrative sequences. For better or for worse, its latter half of development was influenced heavily by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). This made it fit more easily into the gameplay conventions that action- adventure fans had come to expect after playing the seminal Nintendo 64 classic, but mitigated the new game’s unique identity.

A battle sequence highly reminiscent of Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda titles.

At the time of its 2002 release, shortly after the GameCube’s debut, Star Fox Adventures was widely praised. It was a commercial success too, quickly selling 200,000 units in Japan alone. Fans appreciated the stellar art direction, an improvement on the already-superlative style Rare had established during the previous generation and, seemingly, a look at what they would be producing throughout the GameCube’s life cycle.

Exploring a lovely area.

Sadly, Star Fox Adventures proved to be the last of the games produced during the fruitful decade of Nintendo and Rare’s partnership. One day after the North American release of the new GameCube game, Rare was purchased by Microsoft and ceased production on any software for Nintendo consoles in favor of Microsoft’s Xbox platform. This would be a sore spot for fans, who had come to see Rare as the most reliable developer on Nintendo hardware aside from the Japanese juggernaut itself, as well as Rare staff who would have less freedom under their new ownership; Nintendo had historically owned only 49% of Rare’s stock, ensuring it could be overruled by the British studio in the event of a disagreement, but Microsoft now owned 52%. This new arrangement would be disastrous for Rare’s reputation in the decade ahead, as it was increasingly required to produce content for the Xbox 360’s much-maligned Kinect accessory rather than iterating upon the strong shooter and platformer designs that had made the company a household name during the 1990s.

Krystal imprisoned in Star Fox Adventures, a far cry from her active hero role in Dinosaur Planet.

With regard to Star Fox Adventures, the game’s legacy would be tainted by this troubled development cycle. The seams in the game’s design would become apparent to fans over time, as it is quite clearly a distinct IP with Star Fox characters and scenarios draped awkwardly across it. The narrative, which would have been an exciting masterpiece on the Nintendo 64, already feels a bit dated in 2002. Krystal, a strong protagonist in the unreleased Dinosaur Planet beta, is often relegated to the roles of Fox’s love interest and damsel in distress during the events of Star Fox Adventures. Finally, the “collectathon” elements that had once been celebrated in Rare’s platformers before growing unwieldy in Donkey Kong 64 (1999) and Banjo-Tooie (2000) would render portions of the game a tedious slog. In spite of these issues, Star Fox Adventures remains celebrated for its art direction – not an easy feat for a game which began development on the previous hardware generation!


Star Fox Assault (2005)

The Star Fox franchise’s history of collaborative development would continue in Star Fox Assault. This time, the new entry in Nintendo’s IP was developed by Namco, a venerable Japanese developer originally founded in 1955 as Nakamura Seisakusho. The studio was a natural fit, as it had been producing titles in the esteemed Ace Combat flight simulator series since 1992.

space sequence
A classic space battle.

To the extent that Star Fox Assault is a flight simulator, then, it is successful. After dramatically breaking away from series tradition with Star Fox Adventures, Nintendo wanted the next game to return to the format that had made early series entries so successful; again, we encounter this franchise’s peculiar paradox of simultaneously moving forward and backward. As would be the trend in the coming years, the flight fundamentals are strong but the game falls short in the areas in which it tries to innovate.

An on-foot shooter sequence.

This takes the form, in Star Fox Assault, of lengthy land-based sections. These “search and destroy” sequences make up about 70% of the playtime, but feature the game’s less effective mechanics. Fox can travel across impressively massive landscapes using the Arwing, but must use the Landmaster tank or travel on-foot to complete a series of objectives. Both of these modes of locomotion are slow, and the on-foot sections are marred by poor AI and a first-person shooter control scheme from the previous console grafted onto third-person exploration; players need to hold down a button to aim, and can’t move while doing so. Numerous other shooters had already made the transition to the dual-stick movement and aiming mechanics that would become standard throughout the 2000s, but one suspects Namco’s lack of familiarity with that genre led to its antiquated design choices.

Krystal joins the Star Fox team!

With regard to its plot, Star Fox Assault is one of only two games that significantly move the narrative past the ending of the original Star Fox. The Star Fox team, newly augmented by the addition of Star Fox Adventures’ Krystal, is in the process of mopping up the remnants of Andross’ fleet when they are attacked by an asteroid-sized robot insect called an aparoid. This kicks off a race to fight the new hive-mind threat before it takes over the Lylat System. As with preceding titles, the plot is simple but effective. Unfortunately, it suffers from a darker tone than earlier games – from the halfway point to the story’s conclusion, neither the enemies nor the Star Fox team crack wise in the way that fans had come to expect.

Taking down an aparoid on Fortuna.

The multiplayer mode, surprisingly, may be the most effective element of Star Fox Assault. It is very similar to Star Fox 64, as players can take on up to three of their friends on a single console. Levels are numerous, and new vehicles and weapons are unlocked over time. Interestingly, the game was originally intended to focus almost exclusively on its multiplayer content – early footage shown off at E3 2003 depicted the game as a multiplayer first-person shooter, but it was roundly booed by attendees. It seems that the game underwent significant changes following this presentation, evolving into the hybrid space shooter/third-person shooter that would be released on the GameCube in 2005.


Star Fox Command (2006)

For the first time since the ill-fated Star Fox 2, Dylan Cuthbert would again be a key creative voice behind Star Fox. The Argonaut alum had been a lead programmer on Star Fox and Star Fox 2 before going on to establish Q Games in 2001. It seems that Nintendo was ready to look even more closely at its past successes after several poorly received series entries.

Determining the next battle on the turn-based map screen.

To that end, the Nintendo DS’ Star Fox Command re-purposes more than a few ideas from the (at this time) unreleased Star Fox 2. Characters include the Star Wolf team and game portions between standard flight missions are quite similar to the map sequences in the abandoned game, though these focus on a single planet rather than moving around the galaxy. Additionally, map selection is accomplished using a turn-based system rather than the real-time system in Star Fox 2. Surprisingly, the all-range mode which would have debuted in Star Fox 2 is the only method of engaging enemies in this game – after arriving at his or her destination, chosen from the turn-based map screen, the player character engages enemies in open aerial battlefields rather than the on-rails sequences encountered in earlier games.

An all-range battle. Note the radar that takes up the DS’ bottom screen.

In a major upset to series tradition, Fox is not the only controllable character. He is joined by Falco, Krystal, Slippy, Peppy, Wolf, Panther, Leon, Amanda (Slippy’s fiancée), Lucy Hare (Peppy’s daughter), Bill Grey, Katt Monroe, Dash Bowman (Andross’ grandson) and James McCloud. These playable characters are opposed by the ghost of Andross, who commands a robotic fleet that arises from the seas of the planet Venom. The large character roster contributes a sense of grandeur to the proceedings, and that scope is reflected in the fact that nine alternate endings exist; these depend upon the player’s choices during the game. Some of these are quite humorous, and they represent the latest developments in the series’ timeline at the time of writing. It’s possible that the character roster is made feasible by the elimination of the franchise’s characteristic voice acting; characters speak gibberish as they had in the original Star Fox.

An ending sequence in which Fox and Falco “enter the high-speed world of G-Zero Grand Prix racing.”

In addition to the shift towards numerous controllable characters, Star Fox Command iterated upon the series in a few other key ways. Two of these hinge on hardware novelties, as earlier games had done. The less important (if more amusing) of these hardware features is the ability of the player to record his or her voice and have it reassembled into the game’s gibberish language using the DS’ microphone. The more important feature made possible by the DS’ unique hardware is an entirely new input mechanism: players control their character’s Arwing using stylus touch controls rather than a joystick. This is likely the result of the DS only having directional buttons, and the perceived need for greater precision than directional buttons allow.  The result unfortunately falls short of fans’ expectations, as the stylus is still less precise than previous games’ joystick controls had been.

Even Slippy gets to shine.

The relationship between Nintendo and Q Games was highly successful. Star Fox Command was the most universally praised title in the series since 1997’s Star Fox 64, even if it had some minor flaws. The two studios would go on to produce a remake of Star Fox 64 on the 3DS in 2011, but ten years would pass before another new Star Fox was released.


Star Fox Zero (2016)

After seven years without word on a sequel to Star Fox Command, fans were thrilled when a prototype for the next Star Fox debuted at E3 2014. The following year, Nintendo returned to E3 with a playable version of the game and a humorous video featuring the most recognizable faces of the company – Satoru Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Reggie Fils-Aime – depicted as puppets in the style of the original Star Fox promotional art. Less appealing was the game demonstration, where the two paradoxical elements of the Star Fox series would come crashing together: the new game would simultaneously be another retelling of the original game’s narrative while also offering a genuinely surprising new control scheme based on the Wii U GamePad.

From left to right, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata, and Nintendo Developer Shigeru Miyamoto.

The game would be released in 2016 to widespread audience frustration. Its pedigree was unimpeachable, having been developed primarily by Platinum Games (Bayonetta, The Wonderful 101), but the gameplay fell dramatically short of expectations. In particular, players are required to manage simultaneous viewing perspectives on the television and GamePad – the former depicts the series’ conventional third-person view from behind the Arwing while the latter depicts a first-person cockpit view. The television perspective is critical for navigation, but precise aiming is handled entirely on the GamePad. This is a bold innovation, and one that marries software and hardware better than most titles on the ill-fated Wii U, but has too high a barrier to entry for most players.

Cockpit view on the GamePad.

At the same time, new vehicles are introduced for the first time in the series. Many levels are pulled directly from Star Fox 64, but new sections hinge on the application of two new transports. The first is the Walker, re-purposed here from Star Fox 2, which emphasizes platforming and corridor shooting mechanics. The second, more controversial new vehicle is the Gyrocopter. This small piece of flying tech is used within ship interiors during stealth sequences, and requires the additional use of a remote-controlled hacking robot. The latter vehicle, in particular, was derided by players for contrasting badly with the more standard flight sections.

The Walker is back!

Multiplayer has again been overhauled. The last console entry in the series, Star Fox Assault, represented a return to the successful four-player battles of Star Fox 64, but Star Fox Zero abandons this approach. Instead, the only multiplayer mode available is a cooperative method of playing the single-player campaign. Two players can take on the two roles in one Arwing, as one navigates using a standard controller on the television screen and the other targets enemies on the GamePad. Like the game more generally, this is an interesting reinvention that falls short of what fans had been hoping for.

Once more we pass through the archways of Corneria.

After such a long wait, Star Fox Zero represented a major disappointment for players. It may become a cult classic someday, as it has a dedicated group of fans who found the unique control scheme an innovative new twist on the series’ formula, but the contemporary critical consensus was overwhelmingly negative.


Spinoffs and Unreleased Games

The Star Fox series has been described by Shigeru Miyamoto as highly adaptable to different gameplay styles, so full spinoffs have been few and far between. What might be considered a spinoff for another franchise – especially something as far-removed from the series’ origins as Star Fox Adventures – is simply a part of the Star Fox core catalog. Still, a handful of oddities exist.

I am so excited I found a picture of the Star Fox watch online.

The first debuted shortly after the initial release of Star Fox on the SNES. Nintendo collaborated with Nelsonic, the first American company to release electronic game watches in the mid-1980s, and the cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s. The result was a small digital watch with which players could take on four rudimentary on-rails shooter levels. These are a far cry from the polygons produced by Argonaut for the console release, but are an amusing diversion nonetheless. Fans could find them at the bottom of Kellogg’s cereal boxes for a promotional period, though the watches would eventually be sold on their own.

Sure it looks cool now, but imagine that picture coming from a heavy red box strapped to your head.

The most notorious of the unreleased games in the Star Fox library had been Star Fox 2, but this was finally rectified with the title’s belated release on the SNES Classic in 2017. There is still one, even more mysterious Star Fox project that went unreleased in the mid-1990s, however. A version of Star Fox for the Virtual Boy was shown off at E3 1995 and the Consumer Electronics Show later that year. While audiences were able to view the game on a large screen by viewing it through 3D glasses, rather than experiencing it using the console’s standard red headset, no playable build was present. Commentators have speculated that it was likely a cinematic test demo, rather than an actual game in development, as no Star Fox title was ever released on the short-lived Virtual Boy hardware. The only available documentation on it at this point is a brief clip recorded by an attendee at one of the aforementioned events.

A decade later, a Star Fox game was in production for arcades but was subsequently abandoned. This seems to have been in development alongside Star Fox Assault in the early 2000s, but little other information is known about it. A title in the series was then in development for the Wii, but the assets for this project were eventually shifted to Wii U and became Star Fox Zero; it’s hard to imagine what a game so dependent on the GamePad would have been like on the Wii U’s predecessor.

The television perspective on a boss battle in Star Fox Guard. Only the central view permits direct interaction by firing lasers – players use an overhead view on the GamePad to swap between the cameras.

Finally, a new spinoff in the series was released for the Wii U alongside Star Fox Zero in 2016. Titled Star Fox Guard, it was originally a Wii U prototype called Project Guard before having the Star Fox IP applied to it. This game sees the player taking on the role of Slippy as he manages his uncle’s various mining operations throughout the Lylat System. The gameplay is, surprisingly, a first-person tower defense game that relies on access to two screens simultaneously. The GamePad displays an overhead view of guns mounted through each facility, and the television displays the video feed from a camera mounted on each gun; players select a camera by tapping it on the GamePad and can then manually operate it and fire upon invading robots. The key to success is managing waves of opponents by carefully placing the cameras prior to beginning and rapidly swapping between them depending on each enemy’s position. It lacks a multiplayer mode, but is engaging to play with spectators given the dual-screen interface.

An early still of Project Guard from E3 2014 which resembles the final game.

No future Star Fox games have been announced as of 2018. The poor performance of Star Fox Zero may have slowed the series’ momentum, but crossovers are yet ongoing: Fox McCloud remains one of the most popular characters in Nintendo’s massive Super Smash Brothers franchise and will be featured as a playable character in Ubisoft’s upcoming space shooter, Starlink. Most tantalizingly, rumors began circulating in 2018 about a Star Fox racing game made by Retro Studios in the style of Diddy Kong Racing.

In spite of setbacks over the past two decades, Star Fox remains a beloved series. Through highs and lows, the franchise has maintained its paradoxical approach of experimentation and tradition. It is hard not to wonder what surprising innovations we might encounter in future entries.

How about you? Which are your favorite and least favorite Star Fox games? How about characters? What about your favorite or least favorite vehicle? Do you have much experience with the games’ multiplayer modes? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Let’s discuss below!

Next week we’ll be diving into BioShock. Please be sure to join us at 9:00 AM EST!