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Throwback Thursday - Star Fox 2 (1995)
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:13pm 06/07/17 | Comments
Throwback Thursday is a column here on AusGamers where Kosta opens up the proverbial gaming industry attic, has a poke around, and amongst the photos of game developers posing in front of exotic cars, finds dusty copies of games from a different time – and plays them!

An entire playthrough of the unreleased Star Fox 2

The Game: Star Fox 2
The Year: 1995 (Unrealeased)
The Developer: Nintendo/Argonaut Games
The System: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)

Recently Nintendo revealed plans to release the next instalment in its line of Classic Mini portable consoles -- with the SNES Classic Mini slated for launch later this year. Alongside the small palm-sized form factor, HDMI compatibility, and a number of classic pre-loaded games, perhaps the biggest revelation to come from the announcement was the fact that it would feature 1995’s Star Fox 2 as part of its 20-plus Super Nintendo library.

Except that 1995 never saw the release of Star Fox 2 for the Super Nintendo. With the game’s launch cancelled because the Nintendo 64 was right around the corner, Nintendo didn’t want to put a spotlight on two very different forms of 3D gaming tech. Especially when one was beginning to look quite dated. Which means that for the past twenty years Star Fox 2 (or, as it would have been called in Australia Starwing 2) has been considered one of the industry’s most well-known lost-gems.

Pretty tiny huh? Well, this isn’t the SNES Classic Mini but a Mini SNES

As the successor to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the Super Nintendo was never meant to be more than a console that played the latest and greatest 2D titles. Its conception, design, and release occurred during the transition from 1989 to the year 1990. This was a time when a home console’s power was measured in bits, and the Super Nintendo had 16 of them -- double that of the NES. Add in the vastly improved colour-output capabilities of the system, and the extra 16-bit processing power not only allowed developers to visually improve on what had come before, but also introduce new ground-breaking 2D designs to players around the world.

Think of the difference between The Legend of Zelda on the NES and The Legend of Zelda: A Link on the Super Nintendo. Metroid versus Super Metroid, Excitebike versus F-Zero, and the evolution of series like Contra and Mega Man. The list goes on, and the Super Nintendo quickly established itself as the premiere platform for 2D gaming – and in that sense, one of the greatest consoles of all time.

But, as time moved on from 1990 to that period that we now know as the early ‘90s, an industry-wide obsession with 3D graphics began to take hold. And that’s real 3D graphics, with polygons and textures and huge environments to explore. In designing the Super Nintendo, the technical team in Japan left room for developers to incorporate addition hardware into the game cartridges themselves -- much like they did with the NES. But on a larger scale. This led to many different implementations over the years, with probably the most famous being the Super FX chip designed by Argonaut Games.

As it was known in Australia. If it were up to us we’d call it a Chuzwaza

In many ways, the Super FX chip was the Super Nintendo’s answer to the onslaught of oncoming 3D games, the PC market, and all of the additional Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis) hardware add-ons that were being released at the time. Sitting comfortably next to game data as part of a Super Nintendo cartridge, the Super FX chip introduced a RISC processor that could be used for any number of functions, including the rendering of 3D polygons. By no means a lot of polygons, but just enough to be technically impressive. In a partnership with Nintendo, Argonaut Games showcased the new technology with the release of 1993’s Star Fox – or as it was known in Australia, Starwing.

Compared to other high-profile 3D games at the time, Star Fox may not look all that great today. Or even then for that matter. But, for a console that was a fraction of the cost of an expensive home computer, it was a revelation. And sparked a string of Super FX powered releases that included the likes of racing games and even a somewhat respectable port of Doom. Thanks to the input of Nintendo’s impeccable track record when it comes to game design, Star Fox is still surprisingly playable today. Even if it runs at an average of 10-15 frames-per-second and looks quite old. Like the Millennium Falcon before it, Star Fox might not look like much -- but it’s got it where it counts.

With the shift to 3D gaming and 3D specific hardware for home consoles, as the early ‘90s became the mid ‘90s Nintendo shifted its focus to the all-3D, all-the-time, Nintendo 64. So, when work wrapped up on a Star Fox sequel, the decision was made to cancel the game months out from release. And instead, move onto the more visually impressive work being done with the N64. Star Fox 2 was to be another joint development endeavour between Nintendo and Argonaut Games, with the creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, stating since that a lot of the technology developed for Star Fox 2 made its way into Super Mario 64.

Thanks for the tip dog with a cute red bow that can fly a spaceship

Playing through a just about final version of Star Fox 2 it’s easy to see the ambition and scope that would inform many of Nintendo’s earliest N64 efforts. Being able to freely rotate and move around a 3D environment, as opposed to the on-rails approach of the first game, offers up an entirely different feel. The openness also informs the presentation and design which is set around series villain Andross mounting an attack on Fox McCloud’s home world of Corneria. Players are presented with a map of the planet and nearby celestial objects, and are then tasked with reacting to oncoming missile attacks, battleships, and eventually planetary bases and Andross himself.

Thanks to the additional clock-speed and power of the Super FX 2 chip, Star Fox 2 is able to even handle transitions from outdoor to indoor environments. Plus, level and encounter design that gives players the ability to seamlessly turn their Arwing into a walker in a Transformers-like fashion. Add in dogfights, difficulty options, different characters with varying stats to choose from, and a scoring system based on time, and Star Fox 2 is the perfect game for those looking for both a challenge and leaderboard bragging rights. That’s, if it was released in 1995.

A 3D game like Star Fox 2 for the Super Nintendo is impressive, but compared to the likes of Star Fox 64 (which again went under a different name in Australia, this time Lylat Wars) which came out in 1997 it’s clear to see why it never saw a release. Like the original it only manages to maintain a frame-rate in the range of 10-15 fps, with the added clock speed of the Super FX 2 chip utilised for the bigger environments, free-roam abilities, and a few new 2D effects. Like the original, and Star Fox 64, it’s also a short experience and can be beaten on the Normal difficulty in about half an hour.

The Lylat System, under attack by the evil giant floating monkey head Andross

As per word from those that worked on the game, the SNES Classic Mini version of Star Fox 2 will be one that has undergone additional polish from Nintendo’s in-house testing team. The current version of the game readily available to play via ROM is rumoured to be from the Japanese retail release that never happened. The fact that everyone will get to see a final version of the game twenty years after its original planned release date, on a device that will emulate Super Nintendo hardware, is quite the treat. And once and for all fill that missing gap between Star Fox and Star Fox 64 – an arguably superior game that just so happens to implement quite a few of the new systems that first appeared here.

Throwback Rating:

Best Forgotten / A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless

Previous Throwbacks: