Nintendo Power started advertising Super FX technology in 1993.
It was a graphics chip that was installed into the latest SNES cartridges, and it increased the number of polygons that could be rendered on a 16-bit system. Prior to the Super FX Chip, the majority of games were 2D sidescrollers. The Super FX chip ushered in a 3D era of gaming that is now the norm.
The rendered graphics look awful by today’s standards, but they was groundbreaking over twenty years ago. We marveled at the blocky immersiveness of it all—Nintendo told us that we were a hop, a skip, and a jump away from virtual reality.
Then, the Virtual Boy flopped in 1995, and we forgot all about that pipe dream. Only recently (via prototypes such as the Oculus Rift) has technology emerged to create a true, virtual experience—with ‘tracking’ that corresponds with head movement.
Of all the Super FX games to be released, StarFox was the most popular and critically acclaimed. The game starred as an anthropomorphic fox named Fox McCloud, protector of the Lylat System, and co-starred his flight teammates—Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad. On the surface, with its cutesy protagonists (your boss was a bulldog in a general’s uniform), StarFox seemed like a child’s game. Its appearance, however, belied its complexity—underneath that fur and those big eyes was a fun, but difficult space shooter—one that I still struggle to master, over 20 years later.
The first time I played StarFox was at Toys ‘R’ Us. It was the display demo in the video game section of the store, and it was the first time that I tried gaming on a three-dimensional plane. In an attempt to make the experience more ‘virtual,’ Nintendo reversed the controls, making control pad seem like a clutch. When you pushed Down, the Arwing veered upwards, and when you pressed Up, the Arwing veered downwards.
This has become a standard control scheme since, but to a nine-year-old in 1993, it was confusing as hell. Side scroller after side scroller taught me that ‘up’ meant ‘up’ and ‘down’ meant ‘down’—I found myself dying, multiple times. This motivated me to practice—I bought StarFox at Funcoland (remember that place?) at a discount price, and I spent months afterwards trying to beat it.
Your ultimate goal was to fly to the planet Venom and defeat Andross, an evil ape (I know, stay with us). There were three different paths you could take to Venom—one easy, one medium, and one hard—each with its own planets and enemies. I tended to focus on the easy path—it was all I could do to stay alive.
You had two weapons at your disposal: a laser and a nova bomb. The laser was fairly weak, but on the first level, there was a neat trick to equip yourself with a double laser—you followed Slippy through the first four arches, and the power-up would materialize underneath the fifth arch. This made the gameplay a lot easier, though you would be downgraded to your single laser if you died, even once. The nova bomb was much more powerful than the laser—it cleared the screen of most smaller enemies, and was extremely effective during the boss fight at the end of each level.
You also had defensive moves—thrusters which could speed you through difficult parts of the level, and retro rockets, which could slow you down to avoid obstacles. Lastly, you could barrel roll to deflect enemies’ weaker attacks. How does that make sense? Don’t think about it too much.
Level 2 went through an asteroid belt, and those asteroids came hurtling at you. The grey ones were indestructible, but the gold ones could be blasted out of your way, if need be. Near the end of the level, you fought missile-wielding enemies, who drained a fifth of your life per hit.
It was also during Level 2 that you realized an awful truth—your three AI companions, Peppy, Slippy, and Falco, were completely useless. Whenever they took out an enemy, it was always a peripheral enemy that wouldn’t have bothered you anyway. Instead, 90% of the time, you were the one saving them from certain death. Thanks for nothing, guys. Especially Slippy—hat amphibian was an absolute shit magnet for trouble.
Level 3 was my favorite—you took out a Space Armada, by yourself. To do so, you had to travel inside the enemy ships and destroy their cores, “Return of the Jedi” style. The zoom effect when entering one of these ships was absolutely epic—you got swept up in the excitement as your Arwing picked up speed. The music only added to this excitement—it had this incredible brass instrumentation, accompanied by tom-tom drums, that drove you from one conquered ship to the next.
So, after the success of StarFox, Nintendo knew they had a franchise on their hands—they originally planned on releasing a sequel, StarFox 2, on the SNES, but instead, they decided to reboot the whole series on the Nintendo 64. So, even though they had already announced it in Nintendo Power, complete with exclusive preview photos, the sequel was scrapped.
StarFox 64, released on the Nintendo 64 in 1997, was a huge success, and it innovated the Rumble Pak, a controller attachment that vibrated to coincide with the action. It’s an industry standard issue now, but back then, a vibrating controller? It was a wild experiment that many people thought would never work.
The ensuing years were not kind to the StarFox series. The GameCube games were a wash, and Fox was relegated to a Super Smash character on the Wii, rather than the star of his own franchise. Then, at E3 this year, Miyamoto himself announced that a new Starfox game would be released on the Wii U in 2015—complete with motion controls. Let’s hope that finally, we have a space adventure that will live up to the original.