For console gamers, the mid-1990s played host to one of the biggest shifts the industry has ever seen. In the space of a few years, the major video companies moved away from 2D visuals and made the dive into the third dimension. In retrospect, it was probably more of a belly flop. The early years of 3D were ofte clumsy at best and, looking back, it can be hard to believe there was a time where gamers looked at the era’s ugly textures and crude polygons with awe. Silly as it seems now though, it’s a feeling I very much had myself.
I can still remember the first time I had that experience. I was walking into the electronics section of a Canadian Wal-Mart. Arriving at that section however, I was met by something that immediately enthralled my imagination: a Nintendo 64 display. At first, I could only look at the thing. Another boy was already using it and, being the timid sort, I didn’t have it in me to try and interject. Even just staring over their shoulders though, I was amazed by what I was seeing. The screen depicted a chaotic cityscape filled with robots and alien fighters. Fighting these invaders, the boy holding the controller was piloting a white and blue starfighter that zoomed around the screen spewing bombs and green lasers.
He wasn’t very good. After a few minutes, a stray laser struck his already damaged fighter which then crashed to the ground, prompting a scream from one of terror from one of his wingmen. Put off by his defeat, he retreated to find his parents, leaving me to try the game myself. Just as I took the trident-shaped controller into my hands the demo reset and returned to the title screen. “Star Fox 64” I read aloud, pressing the bright red start button. “Good luck,” a robotic voice said as I entered the opening mission. “I won’t need it,” I thought haughtily back.
It turns out I did. The first time I played Star Fox 64 I was just as terrible as the boy before me. Unlike him however, I wasn’t put off by my failure. When I died tried again. And then again. And then one more time until my father finally had to pry me away from the machine to go home. Terrible as I was, I was too captivated by what I was seeing to care about losing. After years of playing games restricted to two dimensions, I was witnessing something filled with glorious, cinematic 3D. Nevermind that the visuals were blocky and crude by modern standards. At the time it felt bigger, better and like nothing I’d seen before.
When I finally got my own N64, Star Fox 64 was the first game I bought. And then, when I got my second N64 (the first one was stolen), I wasted little time replacing it. In the years since, it’s remained one of my absolute favorites. Every secret, every strategy, every moment; it’s etched into my brain so deeply that few other games could really compare. That being said, thinking about it again recently, I found myself wondering how well it actually holds up. It had been years since the last time I took it for a spin and, while a part of me was inclined to believe it was still an object of perfection, I was curious to see if it was still as good as I remembered.
In the simplest of terms, the answer is yes. After multiple playthroughs and hours more spent fighting my way through the war-torn Lylat System, I can say without any doubts that Star Fox 64 remains and excellent and unequivocal classic.
Taking place in the aforementioned Lylat System, the game drops you into the boots of Fox McCloud, a talking bipedal fox who leads the titular fighter squadron Star Fox. At the game’s start, the planet Corneria is being invaded by the armies of Andross, an evil scientist who has transformed the rest of the solar system into a polluted wasteland. With his forces being overwhelmed, Corneria’s General Pepper sends a distress call to Fox who launches with his allies Peppy Hare, Slippy Toad and Falco Lombardi to put an end to Andross once and for all.
If the cast of talking woodland creatures hasn’t made it clear, Star Fox 64 is very much kid friendly. There’s plenty of violence to be sure, but it’s all fairly PG and focused mostly on spaceships blowing up other spaceships. One concern I had returning to the game is that the kid-friendliness would annoy me (I’ve grown quite grim in my old age). I was pleasantly surprised however to find that most of the characters (except for Slippy) are still quite likable and that the writing (except where it involves Slippy) is still good. The game is filled with cliches galore, but there aren’t that many cringe-worthy moments and the story, generic as it is, has a sincerity about it that’s infectious. It’s just a fun, good-natured space adventure.
I’m also a big fan of the way it’s told and how it can vary depending on how you play the game. The basic tale is the same no matter what. You start at Corneria and then fight your way across the Lylat System until you reach the planet Venom and defeat Andross. Depending on what path you take however, you can meet different characters and glean details about the characters and plot that you’d miss if you just struck to the most basic route.
If I had to peg one thing as being Star Fox 64‘s greatest strength, it would be the diversity of its levels and the way it makes you earn to right to access them. There are 16 in total and you can only access seven in a single playthrough. Unlocking all of them requires you to perform special actions to open up alternate routes, boss battles and even fancy warp zones. This structure adds a ton of replay value to the game, which is good since a complete start-to-finish playthrough can be as short as half an hour. Add in a score-based medal system and an unlockable hard mode and you have a title that’s a lot deeper than you might assume at first glance.
The levels themselves are also impressively diverse. At their most basic they’re split into two types. Most levels will have you flying your starfighter on-rails shooting down enemies and avoiding obstacles as they come. Others will put you in more open, free-range environments where you can fly in any direction. What’s remarkable are the lengths Nintendo went to make even missions of the same type feel different. Most every level has something unique about it, whether it’s a mechanic, an environmental obstacle or a clever boss. One level, for instance, might have you trying to destroy a massive mothership before it can blow up a Cornerian base. Then, in the next stage, you’ll find yourself skimming the surface of the sun blowing up magma monsters while your shields persistently drain from the heat. Looking over the map of missions, I can’t think of a single one that feels lazy.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that they’re all perfect. Some stages are undeniably more fun than others and there are ideas that don’t work as well as the developers were likely hoping. The stages focused on piloting alternate vehicles (a tank and a submarine) aren’t anywhere near as much fun as the other thirteen levels where you’re flying around in your starfighter, the cooler than cool Arwing. Even those aren’t without their charms though and I’m hardly going to begrudge the game for trying different things.
Put shortly, Star Fox 64 is one of those games that’s just aged wonderfully well. While the visuals are obviously dated, that’s about the only thing that is. The controls still feel good, the characters are lovable and the gameplay is insanely fun. I’d also dare you to try and not have a blast shooting your friends down with the split screen multiplayer. It’s a title that you could release right now (or in 2011) and it would feel just as good as it did back in 1996. Does it have the same oomph that it did when 3D was young and kids like myself were catching their first glimpse of it in big box electronics departments? Maybe not. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time though and I’d heartily recommend you give it a try if you haven’t already. Both the original N64 game and the 3DS remake are excellent options.