Starfox 2: The SFX Chip Strikes Back

By Rich Stanton on at

After completing Starfox 2, there was a strange moment. The credits began to roll and, because this is a Nintendo game from the 90s, the first name was the game's executive producer: Hiroshi Yamauchi. The title is honorific, really, because Yamauchi wasn't involved in the day-to-day development of Nintendo's software. But I can't tell you how many times I saw that job title combined with that name as a kid.

Finishing a Nintendo game in 2017 and seeing it again... it's funny how the minor details can evoke an era. This is a big part of the reason we're all interested in SNES Classic Minis, of course, even if the eject button doesn't work. People are often sniffy about nostalgia but there's nothing wrong with fond memories and, in this case, finally discovering a 'lost' video game. I adored Starfox and remember reading about the upcoming Starfox 2 in games magazines, the fantastical 100-word writeups next to a few grainy screenshots the size of postage stamps.

That grainy filter and the haze of memory matters, because things that are never released acquire a semi-mythical status. If they are eventually unearthed, rarely does the reality match up. Starfox 2 is a game made for a 16-bit console, using the raw power of the SFX chip (I had to say it; those were the days!), and naturally, over 20 years later it does look its age. This is a technology-led industry and, even though you know the constraints under which this was made, and what you should be measuring it against, it's hard to get back in the mindset of being wowed by SNES games.

Though not impossible. The SNES Classic Mini makes you unlock Starfox 2 by playing through the first level of Starfox, which acts as a useful primer as well as the most obvious comparison point. It brings home some of the sequel's ambition: the original game's visuals are almost abstract, enemies formed from glowing geometric shapes and endless untextured cuboids representing buildings or what have you.

Starfox 2 has the same stylistic basis but makes leaps in representing giant battle cruisers and enemy ships, and has at least one standout technical feat in the form of the Mirage Dragon. This is a beautifully animated cross between a snake and a spaceship that undulates in the void, occasionally unleashing a death ray from its mouth. It really looks spectacular. My only disappointment was that two carefully placed shots to the mouth blew it up in three seconds.

That time isn't unusual. Starfox 2 does away with the linear end-to-end levels of the original game in favour of individual enemy encounters and small but open 3D environments. Some aspects of this are great; members of the nefarious Star Wolf fly around the galaxy map trying to intercept you, and when they do there's a first-person dogfight. The galaxy map itself, which is used to navigate between objectives, shows what's happening in 'real-time' as you make tactical choices, with Andross actively attacking your home base of Corneria as you dash around destroying his armadas.

But encounters, particularly with generic enemy ships, are often over in seconds. The bosses are absolute tomato cans, simply there to take a beating. The missions to take down giant enemy carriers are disappointingly short and simple. The planet base segments are built around quickfire switches between the Arwing (flight mode) and a ground-based robot form that moves more sluggishly. While the robot form is fun enough, it's nowhere near as satisfying as Arwing combat and movement, and it does make some interiors (where it's more or less mandatory) feel like a drag.

What's happening here is that Starfox 2 has a structure that, at the time, must have seemed like a great idea. This is a game all about replay. That was a quality at the time it was made, but now almost works against it. I played on Normal and, without dying once, finished the game in around 40 minutes. What Starfox 2 now expects me to do is to play on Hard mode, try different combinations of pilots (you have six to choose from, and two can be active at any one time), ferret out the secrets and better my final ranking. You can't criticise the game for that, not least because this is a well thought-out way of evolving Starfox's multi-route structure. But I'm not going to be doing it.

When Starfox 2 was made, this was a game of boldness and invention — I certainly can't think of anything comparable at the time, and it's no surprise that Starfox 64 cherry-picked the best ideas. This game may never have been released until now, but it was still influential. These days? The framerate and chugging camera pans can really turn you off, the walker sections aren't as good as the flying stuff, and the mini-encounters feel like they're over before they begin. The shortness of each encounter gives the game a real sense of pace, but also makes it seem slighter than it is.

It's a strange thing, really. Imagine making a game like this, something that was ahead of the curve at the time in terms of design, and then just seeing it put aside and unreleased. It finally sees the light of day decades later, when the medium has moved on enormously. It's a genuine surprise how original Starfox 2 is, and it's easy to imagine how amazing it might have seemed at the time.

In 2017? I'll say this for Starfox 2. I nearly always regret going back to games that are beyond a certain age. Often, it's better to leave them in the rose-tinted memory than see the reality. With these 'lost' titles, that feeling's even more acute: how could anything measure up to those hopes of youth? But I enjoyed Starfox 2, and in things like the Mirage Dragon you can still sense, faint though it may be, that sprinkling of magic dust. Nothing ever lives up to the legend, of course. But at least I know that back then, if not now, Starfox 2 would have got damn close.