Star Fox has a problem. It’s a problem faced by many games of its type and era – titles with their arcade roots, siphoning cash from hapless players. Sure, Star Fox was never actually an arcade game – but the games it’s directly derived from were absolutely structured that way, designed primarily to maximize player turnover and revenue.
Today, Star Fox turns 30 – but it’s fair to say that for at least half of that existence, the adventures of Fox McCloud have been a little crap. Or, well – maybe the crap is a little harsh. Let’s call them confused. And the reason; Well, it’s that damn problem described above – it’s a matter of structure.
You see, the best Star Fox games are coming soon. Like I said, they’re structured like arcade games – similar in length to peers like After Burner or Space Harrier, but just as similar in length to things like Time Crisis or House of the Dead. They are designed so that they can be finished in less than an hour, so that even experienced players will be out of the machine in a reasonable amount of time, freeing up the control bridge and coin entry for a new customer. The length was designed to appeal to arcade and laundromat owners first and gamers second – which is a problem in the modern gaming landscape.
Nintendo knows it too. That’s why every Star Fox game since the turn of the millennium has some other trick to slow the pace down and smooth it out. We’ve had Zelda clones, layers of strategy, and of course the dreaded leg segments – if not literally, then in the form of a transforming, walking mech. This material serves to soften the relative brevity of the rail shooting action.
But there is a problem. These things, mostly, are crap. And even when it’s not crap – Star Fox Adventures is pretty good, you know – that’s not what I actually come to Star Fox for. That’s the problem the series has. Even the Landmaster would find himself immovably wedged between this particular pair of rock and hard place.
By the way, this is the exact same problem that plagued Sonic for years. The equation was different – the problem there was the relative speed at which Sonic zips through expensive-to-create environments – but the end result was the same. Alternative pants game modes designed to enhance the experience. Speed is Sonic’s greatest asset – but also his greatest weakness. The same goes for the breakneck pace of Star Fox and other rail shooters. So the filling.
When Star Fox doesn’t get things right, though, it’s magical. The fact that I can say that when only three games in a row have actually followed that path really says something. In particular, Star Fox 64 (Lylat Wars in Europe) is for my money one of the best and most complete gaming packages of all time – but you have to go through it with the understanding that from the time you press start to the credits roll, you’ll be playing only for about an hour at most.
Back in the day, it was fine. games were often short. Star Fox 64 wasn’t anemic though – it had multiplayer, but also hidden portals and triggers, medals to collect, interesting story branches, multiple paths, and a few different permutations of its ending. As a kid, this is how I ended up playing Star Fox 64 like Mario 64 – I played the game over and over again, getting every medal, watching every route, and learning the best ways to melt the levels. I was obsessed with chasing high scores, taking screenshots of the end game screen, scanning them and posting them on forums.
There was a time in my life when I was actually a bit of a SF64 connoisseur, posting some of the highest scores in the world. I knew the game inside out. I played in a trance, my lips tracing the outline of the game’s iconic voiced melodrama as it landed, every beat memorized. Many of these moments still land for the hundredth time, too, due to the highly choreographed nature of on-rail games. Area 6 is still looking material to this day. If you know, you know.
Some people, I know, had the same experience with the now 30 year old original on the SNES. These two games are both magical because of their simplicity (and great music), and they didn’t need any gimmicks to do it.
In the year of our lord 2023, however, it’s somewhat taboo to release a game that lasts a couple of hours – and that’s the problem. I really think it shouldn’t be, as long as users know what they’re getting into, and as long as what’s been created is packed with replay value – and not just in the form of a freeform multiplayer package.
It’s been 30 years – but I still think the basic design that made Star Fox and its immediate successor great can work. Wii U’s Star Fox Zero was plagued by terrible controls and some pretty nasty transformers leg sequences, but at least it managed not to overstay its welcome, clocking in at around five hours. But honestly, I think a really good Star Fox could stand to be even shorter if they wanted to – and for 64, that might even be the secret to its success.
Star Fox must return. Both the first two games in the series should be the standard. Admittedly, if it’s designed right, it’s okay for a game to be short and sweet, like the arcade classics. “Brevity is the soul of wit” and all that, right? OK – I’ve mentioned Shakespeare in an article about Star Fox. It’s definitely time to log off now. Nintendo: make a new one and make it good, yeah? Cheers.