A fox, a frog, a bird, a rabbit. A planet of good. A planet of evil. Star-fighters, interstellar war, betrayal and evil scientists. A tale of heroism in the face of eternal tragedy. All of these things combined together in 1993 with the most unusual, but imaginative, rail-shooter imaginable. That game that launched in 1993 was Star Fox, and released in Europe as Starwing. How did a fox take the lead role in a brand new game designed to showcase the Super FX chip, a coprocessor that would allow advanced 3D polygons in Nintendo’s new 16-bit console? There are so many questions, and so many answers, but without a doubt there can be no argument over Star Fox’s entry in the Dump.
But let’s travel back in time…
Star Fox owes its existence to MARIO. No, not the fat little plumber we all know and love, this is the MARIO chip, or Mathematical, Argonaut, Rotation & Input/Output that was developed by Argonaut Games. So before we can talk about the Fox, we need to talk about that which powered his adventures.
Super FX Chip
Argonaut Games was founded in 1982 by Jez San, a programmer, who formed the company whilst still a teenager, naming his company after the plucky Argonauts, the crew of the Greek mythical ship, the Argo. The London-based company would make several games for the Amiga and Atari ST, but it was their collaboration with Nintendo that they would be best-remembered for. That collaboration started with the early days of the NES, with Argonaut even showing Nintendo a way of defeating the copyright protection on their new handheld system the Game Boy. However, this was only the first step in their work with Nintendo. Both companies worked together and came up with a prototype game called NesGlider. The game was designed to run on the NES, but would be moved over to the prototype SNES. The game they were designing was ambitious, but realising that the hardware was limited and couldn’t meet the developer’s desires, Jez asked Nintendo if they could develop some new hardware to really push what the game could do. Nintendo agreed and granted Argonaut a rumoured one-million dollars for development of the chip. Jez San hired designers to help with making the chip with the aim to produce true 3D graphics on the console. Because the chip was made after the console was out, it would do something that would not be possible with today’s technology, the enhanced chip, which some said was more powerful than the console itself, was placed inside the game cartridge for the Star Fox game. When the cartridge interfaced with the console most of the processing was done inside of the game cartridge.
However with that sidestep into the history of the Super FX chip, we need to talk about the actual game itself. So on with the Fox.
A Fox Amongst the Stars
First, before any of the game could fly, Nintendo would be importing a team from Argonaut to help them develop their new shooter. That team, comprised of programmers Dylan Cuthbert, Krister Wombell, Giles Goddard and Colin Reed, moved into a small office in Nintendo headquarters and were directly under the control of the legendary game developer and designer, Shigeru Miyamoto.
Miyamoto, known for his view askew approach to making a game, would frustrate the British team by constantly throwing a lot of their work away because it wasn’t enough fun. Miyamoto was a proponent that a game should be fun, everything about it should be fun, and his technique was very different to what the team were used to.
With Argonaut handling the technical aspect of the game, it was Nintendo’s job to provide the design and concept for the settings and the game. One thing Nintendo are well-known for are colourful characters and memorable concepts and that’s what they wanted to deliver with Star Fox.
Star Fox was born out of Japanese folklore. Shigeru Miyamoto, wanted to make a science fiction game, but was opposed to using a human cast as this had been done so many times before. However, it would be a quick walk to a shrine near to the Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine to be precise, a shrine dedicated to the god Inari… who happens to be a fox. Choosing to use the English word ‘fox’ instead of the Japanese word ‘kitsune’, a protagonist was born, well almost.
Fox was designed as a maverick hero. The leader of Star Fox Team, a rag-tag group of mercenaries who are charged with defending the Lylat System in their terrible battle between the stars. Fox, or Fox McCloud to give him his full name, was the son of James McCloud, the original leader of Star Fox Team. James was betrayed by a comrade and killed, and leadership passed to Fox. This was classic backstory for such an archetype, and one that fitted Fox well. Miyamoto was a huge fan of puppet adventures and commissioned puppet versions of Star Fox Team to be created as an homage to these TV series.
Fox would be joined by Falco Lombardi, a renegade pilot and best friend to Fox, Slippy Toad, a frog and friend to Fox, Peppy Hare, a rabbit and survivor of the original Star Fox Team.
Each character’s surname was chosen by Dylan Cuthbert, with the exception of Falco Lombardi, who was designed and named by Takaya Imamura. With the team assembled, this game needed an actual story, and reasons why they were fighting, and in its purest form this is a story of good versus evil.
War in the Stars
Every battle needs a stage to play out in and for Star Fox it was the Lylat System. The Lylat System was a star system comprised of two warring planets; Corneria and Venom. One good, one evil. Andross, a scientist banished from Corneria, fled to Venom, amassed a large army and then declared war on his former home world. Realising that he has little choice, General Pepper, leader of the Corneria defence forces, activates a prototype star-fighter called the Arwing, and with no time to train pilots he’s given no choice but to hire the mercenary Star Fox Team.
This is where the player comes in. Using all their skills, players must fly their ships through the rail shooter across different scenarios, whether it’s a battle in the stars or on the planet. Each game would require the player to fight through waves of different enemies until they reach the level boss, often an overpowered and oversized starship or walker that would require the Star Fox Team to take it down, before moving onto the next one.
One beautiful touch that really separated this game from anything around at the time, was the occasional in-cockpit view the player would be able to enjoy. Although this was primitive by today’s standards, this was the birthing years of 3D graphics, so the ability to be able to play this game in 3D, and also present a view inside of the cockpit was nothing short of phenomenal. If you consider that the only other games capable of doing this at the time were games made for expensive PCs or arcade machines then to see this on a home games console was something no one was expecting.
Primitive, but Effective
The 3D graphics were not the most impressive you would see around, but they were very well executed and the idea to include the chip in the cartridge, basically a plugin hardware upgrade for the SNES was a stroke of genius. The idea would be used by Sega also when they ported their arcade classic Virtua Racing to the Sega Megadrive. Of course the only downside to incorporating an extra chip into the game cartridge was this pushed the price up for the consumer. Star Fox may not have been the first game to use 3D, but it was the first popular game to try the technology on a home console and this was like a starting pistol fired – the race was on to make 3D a reality for home video game players.
Breaking Down the Walls
Despite this breakthrough in technology, Nintendo didn’t push the Super FX chip into too many games. Dirt Racer, Dirt Racer FX, Stunt Race FX, and Vortex were all the games released that used the technology. A shockingly small number when you think that there were over 1757 games released for the system. Nintendo would use an updated version of the chip called the Super FX 2, but the catalogue of games released on this was even smaller: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Winter Gold, and Doom were all that made it out into the wild. Whether it was expense to produce the games or difficulty with the technology as to why more games did not use it is a matter for debate. One thing that should be remembered is that 3D was now here to stay and the gaming industry would never be the same again. Sega’s rival chip, the Sega Virtua Processor, was used for only one game on the Mega Drive, before all other planned games jumped ship to the incoming Sega Saturn, a machine designed with 3D graphics at its heart. The world was no longer flat, it was polygonal.
The game was released in 1993 to much critical acclaim and praise for the use of the new graphics chip. The packaging was even designed to use the puppets Miyamoto had commissioned to give it that old feel of puppet adventure stories. With the four million copies sold of the game, people couldn’t get enough of the maverick Fox and his wayward team of pilots. It scored gold standard marks across the board and a sequel was commissioned. Nintendo had a new hit on its hands and proof that the 16-bit consoles were capable of so much more when used right.
Legacy of the Fox
Star Fox would go on to spawn many more entries in the universe of the Lylat Wars, but Star Fox 2, the original sequel wasn’t amongst them, at least not straight away. The next game released was Star Fox 64 released for the N64 console, a GameCube game called Star Fox: Adventures, developed by Rare Games, Star Fox: Assault, also for the GameCube, Star Fox: Command for the handheld DS, and then a massive ten-year break before Star Fox Zero and Star Fox Guard were released in 2016 for the Wii U. And yes, you may have noticed that Star Fox 2 isn’t anywhere on this list and that’s a story all of its own.
The Fox Strikes Back
Like any popular game that sells well, a sequel is inevitable. This was just the case for Star Fox. A sequel was designed, commissioned, and programmed ready for release in 1996 but then the sequel was abruptly cancelled. The reasoning as explained in an interview by programmer Dylan Cuthbert, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted a clean break with the transition to the N64 console and when being compared to 3D games on the more powerful consoles of the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, Star Fox 2 wouldn’t hold up visually against them. So the game was shelved for well over twenty years.
Return of the Fox
You can’t keep a good fox down and with the surging interest in retro gaming, Nintendo started to re-release their old consoles, now reduced in size and running emulated versions of their software. The first release of the NES Classic Edition sold so well that it was almost guaranteed the SNES would follow, and sure enough it did, released in 2017 with a collection of twenty games… plus one.
That’s right, as an incentive to buy the console Nintendo had included the finished version of Star Fox 2 with the system. All the player had to do was complete the first level of Star Fox and the sequel would be unlocked. Better late than never.
The Fox Awakens
Despite the mauling of Star Fox Zero, Fox’s flying days weren’t quite over. In 2018 at the E3 expo, Ubisoft announced a new game series called Starlink: Battle for Atlas. The game looked a lot like a familiar fox’s game, even down to the gameplay, but then came the shock announcement that the Nintendo Switch version would feature the exclusive cast of Star Fox as playable characters. Fox and company live on, even if it is in a sideways move into another game. The Fox is well and truly alive.
The Last Fox
Perhaps after the release of Starlink, and depending on sales of course, Nintendo will see there is still a passion for Fox and friends and we could very well see Fox flying in his own game all over again. Time will very much tell.
This old fox hasn’t run out of tricks just yet…