Captains Log. Star date: 1997
In 1997, I was 7 years old. I liked video games, but I hadn’t hit my first wave of love with the medium. That would come in the next couple years with the release of Pokemon Red & Blue and Digimon World. I was only slightly aware a thing called the Nintendo 64 existed at the time. The only person I knew with one was my older brother’s friend and they didn’t like having a kid brother tagging along with them much. This means I missed out on the Nintendo games of the time. I got to try a few like Mario 64, Pokemon Stadium, and GoldenEye 007, but many I didn’t even know existed until much later in life. Like Star Fox 64 released in 1997, a game I never heard about until YouTube game reviewers became a thing. All of them praised the game for being a classic and, when I found a copy of the 3DS version on sale, I wanted to try it for myself.
The story of Star Fox 64 is a Nintendo classic. A bad guy (Andross) is doing bad things and it’s up to the good guys (the Star Fox team) to stop him (shoot him with lasers). Small level introductions to give context for what you are doing at any giving time. The Star Fox team is composed of Fox McCloud, Slippy Toad, Peppy Hare, and Falco Lombardi. You will see these characters throughout the levels as they pop up on Fox’s comms device where they can offer tips and tricks, but most often will just yell for help. It’s these small moments that show the characters’ personalities. Slippy always needs help, Falco is a cocky asshole, and Peppy knew Fox’s dad and not much else.
The presentation is solid and has the polish expected from a Nintendo game. While the 3DS version has better graphics across the board, the level design and structure was built around simple geometry that was possible on the N64 and it still works today. Nothing about the levels felt old school or dated like a lot of other 5th generation games tend feel today. The music takes obvious inspiration from sci-fi epics like Star Wars and the compositions are amazing, with songs being able to feel epic and soaring while still only using electronic instruments.
There are minor changes between the N64 to the 3DS versions of Star Fox 64. The 3DS version allows players to use motion controls to aim their sights, which I didn’t use, cut scenes can be skipped after viewing once, and there was a score attack mode added to let players play any level to try to get the best score. Overall, the based game itself is the same in both versions with gameplay being untouched. Which is good for someone like me, where gameplay is the most important aspect of video games.
Controlling Fox as you pilot different vehicles across planets, nebulas, and space stations all while blasting enemies with lasers and narrowing maneuvering through gaps and around obstacles is thrilling. Levels are broken up into on-rail or all-range modes. All-range mode means you are free to pilot your Arwing freely with 360 degrees of movement in any direction. This seems pretty standard until you realize most of the game’s levels are on-rail style, with one path that your ship can head down and your main concern is blowing up enemies and avoiding collisions with the environment. Star Fox 64 is almost a straight reimagining of old arcade shoot em ups like Galaxian or Gradius in 3D in these on-rail levels where enemies emerge and attack in set patterns. Even the levels are quick and action packed like the arcade games, usually only lasting a few minutes at most. Another thing it has in common with those old arcade games is replayability.
When booting up the game, the player is met with the Lylat System, a small solar system with a handful of planets, a sun, an asteroid belt, and some nebulas. A natural first playthrough will see the player just beating the levels and moving on to the next, but this will lock them out of over half the levels. That’s because each level has a secret path that can be found. Sometimes the missions are stated directly by a member of the Star Fox team, like shooting the train switches in Macbeth. Other times, the secret goal is kept hidden from the player, like getting a high enough score in Sector Y or flying through land rings in the Corneria. These additional objectives are great because they encourage exploration and replayability to find, but they also date the game in an interesting way.
I remember those Wild Western days of 90’s video games. The internet was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, meaning secrets in games were not a simple Google search away. Often, you had to rely on friends who might have found them or gaming magazines like Nintendo Power to give hints of what were hidden in the games you played. You probably did not have as many games to play either, lacking disposable income and needing people to buy them for you. It’s in this era where replayability in games was extremely valuable. Playing the same game, or the same section of a game, for hours was common as you slowly peeled away at it. And Star Fox 64 is very much a game of this era. Especially with a lot of the hidden objectives being rather obtuse, it’s easy to imagine kids of the late 90’s spending hours trying to discover everything the game had to offer, eyes glued to a CRT TV, weird M-shaped N64 controller clutched in their hands.
Exploring levels and finding secrets also helps you find power ups. These are additional ammo for your bombs, upgrades to your lasers, and gold rings, collecting three of which will extend your health bar and every three after that gives you a 1 up. These powers up are vital to succeeding at level, most notable Venom 2, the hard version of the last level. This is an all-range level where you must fight it out with Star Wolf, a rival team of mercenaries hired by Andross. It is easily the hardest level in the game, but if you don’t have the full Star Fox team backing you up or fully upgraded levels and health, it is nearly impossible to win. Star Wolf are very quick to evade or shield when shooting at them, so if you are lacking in fire power, your DPS will not be high enough to get ahead of the damage done to you and your teammates. And once all your teammates are down, all of Star Wolf tail you mercilessly, constantly pelting you with lasers and scattering when you u-turn, only to end up behind you again. This level took way more tries than it should have for me to finish and had me swearing into my 3DS the entire time.
Nothing else in Star Fox 64 frustrated me to the extent of Venom 2, but the Landmaster and Blue Marine levels did annoy me. Together, they only make up 3 stages, but they are both so slow, with the Landmaster being a tank and the Blue Marine being a submarine, and both being similar yet different enough from controlling like the Arwing that I wish they would have been replaced with more fast-paced, exhilarating flight levels. The Blue Marine level, Aquas, feels especially pointless. It is the only level with the Blue Marine, which controls exactly like the Arwing but half as slow, and the level is just dark, dank, and unappealing. I would have preferred this level to at least be another Landmaster level and give that playstyle more room to explore ideas. The differing vehicles are meant to add variety, but they control so similarly to the Arwing and are utilized in so few levels, that they never feel fully realized or interesting.
Star Fox 64 is a fun game and rightfully regarded as a classic of the N64. With tight gameplay and an emphasis on replayability, it’s no wonder it is still remembered fondly today. But I’m not sure I would highly recommend it to a modern player. I just can’t see someone going in blind and dedicating the time to find all the hidden paths. Even if they do go through all the different routes, it is still a very short game. You can see everything it has in only a few hours. But maybe that’s a selling point to some. The least I can say is that it’s an interesting little time capsule of the design mentalities of the 5th generation of games, floating cold in space, ready to be cracked open and explored again.