Why Star Fox Should (And Needs to) Shoot for Different Stars

There’s a long-held belief among fans that there’s only one real Star Fox: Star Fox 64. We don’t want another Star Fox: Adventure, and we don’t want another Star Fox: Assault. We want the intergalactic rail-shooter that got it right, pure and simple, and we want a Star Fox that feels like it never left us. Moreover, all too many of us seem to want a game that digs its claws into its series roots rather than forge its future. This E3, Nintendo’s announced its giving us another go at the stars, but maybe firing up our Arwings is going to take more than a new coat of paint.

What is Star Fox? If history’s proven anything, that’s been difficult to say. From the SNES to the GameCube era, Star Fox’s simply followed the wind of whatever mood was in the air. When The Legend of Zelda led the charge towards large 3D adventure games, the series shoehorned itself into Rare’s Dinosaur Planet. When third person action games like Ratchet & Clank were gaining steam, Nintendo and Namco appealed to on-foot third person shooter levels for Star Fox Assault. When it came to the DS, Star Fox Command was there to shape itself into a strategy game as much as a rail-shooter with branching paths and board-game style tactics in the manner of Fire Emblem.

Since then, Star Fox’s been everything to everyone all while leaving nothing in terms of a legacy beyond its dwindling 90s’ era nostalgia. Star Fox was born riding on the coattails of shoot em’ ups much like Space Invaders and Space Harrier. If someone enjoyed an arcade game, they’d buy the console version to play in their living room away from the lines. Consoles, of course, won that war, and arcade shoot em’ ups dwindled into obscurity by the mid 90’s. The original Star Foxes cashed in on the genre at its peak, and when the fad ended, Star Fox found itself another Tony Hawk or Rock Band without an audience, all thanks to its minimal contributions. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis did more for point-and-click games than Star Fox has for shoot em’ ups and rail-shooters. Maybe it was just that Star Fox did it on weaker hardware.

For that matter, Star Fox ultimately did so on trendier hardware. It’s undeniable that the series’ short-lived success arrived at a time where “Mode 7″ versus “Blast processing” was all the rage, and no matter how fun it was, it wouldn’t have sold four million units if it weren’t for all the hype surrounding its graphics technology. Nintendo didn’t even release Star Fox 2 on SNES because the anticipation for the Super FX chip wasn’t there anymore. So Star Fox 64 followed that pattern, launching with the very first system to support a rumble pak, and Nintendo ran a cross-promotion between the two products. Sega never picked up on rumble with the Saturn, and PlayStation’s Dual Shock controller wasn’t out until 1998 in North America and late 1997 in Japan. Star Fox 64 moved 3 million units worldwide thanks to that bundle and it’s why Wii Play moved Wii-motes. Even if you loved GoldenEye 007‘s rumble feature, you probably bought Star Fox 64‘s rumble bundle first.

It was years later that Shigeru Miyamoto stepped in his ill-fated if not noble attempts to reinvent the series courtesy of Rare’s “Dinosaur Planet” game through Star Fox: Adventures. If the notion was crazy, it was only as much as Retro’s successful moulding of Donkey Kong into a 2D, Super Mario-esque side-scroller. The action/adventure genre was a hot one in 2002, and it was a legitimate way of inviting younger players in with its Legend of Zelda style gameplay. Miyamoto’s only real mistake was implementing a conceptually good Star Fox game into a mediocre one like Dinosaur Planet.

Dinosaur Planet may have been as poorly-designed as it was bound to be, Star Fox or not. While the results spoke for themselves with both Adventures and Star Fox: Assault, the precedent set from them was more damaging in itself. Both titles’ poor sales were used as an excuse for why Star Fox shouldn’t explore the action/adventure genre more like so many of the Super Mario Sunshines of its age, much like so many of its poorly selling system’s talents. Thus, the trend’s continued long into its last two incarnations. Star Fox Command wasn’t the first to showcase the Nintendo DS’s touchscreen functions, nor was its series remake of Star Fox 64 3D the first to show off 3DS’s stereoscopic effects and gyroscope controls. Beaten to the punch by titles like Nintendogs and Ocarina of Time, Star Fox wasn’t hip, and it performed accordingly and unremarkably. Being innovative isn’t enough if you aren’t the first to call dibs on innovation. If you cut out the talking animal heads, would Star Fox 64 really beat Sin and Punishment or Kid Icarus: Uprising?

And who does Star Fox sell itself to? The series is too hardcore to appeal to families growing up on Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. and Wii Sports Resorts, and its furry animals turn off the Battlefield and Call of Duty crowd. Star Fox is animated too realistically to be as adorable as Yoshi, Kirby, or Animal Crossing for little tikes, and nobody holds Star Fox tournaments like Super Smash Bros. or Pokemon. It lacks Japanese sensibilities like the world’s Monster Hunters, Personas, and Dragon Quests. Maybe it’s why the series has so awkwardly pandered to such random age groups, throwing in Slippy Toad’s kiddish whining to Crystal’s sexy vixen persona.

Star Fox sells best when it’s the first to introduce gimmicky technology. When it doesn’t, it’s just another rail shooter. You can’t seem to sell that to today’s gamers hungry for ridiculous amount of content for their $60 worth, and while a 4-5 campaign wasn’t a bad deal for $50-60 in the 90’s, 2014‘s gamers care more about length than replay value. A $50-$60 Star Fox game anywhere near that might die quick death without some excellent (and highly replayable) online multi-player that’s Mario Kart 8 good when Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes was crucified for being completable in two hours time. Despite Konami’s admirable attempts at capturing an immense amount of experimentation and clever stealth options, most will tell you that while it’s fun, its length is a constant negative. Publishers could easily get away with selling a five-hour game for up to $70 back in the day, but the Internet’s educated a lot more gamers about everything their games has to offer before it hits store shelves thanks to Metacritic and NeoGaf.

Hold still and let me love you!

So how to extend Star Fox’s length?  If Nintendo’s tease of the Wii U’s new StarFox is any indication, we’ll at least have flying in our future and one Falco to boot. How long it takes to ship who can say, but it’s safe to say it has to effectively reboot the series entirely from the ground up and branch it with something entirely (and appealingly) new. Kill the rail-shooting, dump the bizarro humanoid character models, open up the combat into a free-roam patrolling around a planet mixing up jungles, deserts, polar caps, you name it. Better yet, connect it with the ground like LucasArts’ late Battlefront III tried to. Create a solid, open-world adventure game that sends you from the ground to the sky in real-time and gives us a meaty story around it to boot for at least a good 20+ hrs. play time.

How to make the it more interesting? If nothing else, one that seems to correlate with Miyamoto’s own vision on making the gamepad more integral, not less. Maybe Star Fox could take a hint from Miyamoto’s two new Project Robot and Project Guard IPs. Throw in more vehicles, more destructible levels, ones that have you literally throwing your weight around. After all, both seemed about as sci-fi as they come. Maybe that moon base was something of the Star Fox kind?

And there’s simply no reason why not in a time when Nintendo’s never been more diverse. Few mind that Mario’s racing karts or bouncing through 3D Worlds, or that Yoshi now has his own yarn game. Yet few are okay with Star Fox taking a chance when chances are all but what shaped its peers’ successes. If Miyamoto-san is the one to believe in it, then now’s the time for it to believe in difference, because there might be no place for a $50 rail-shooter on a $300 system.