Review by StaplerFahrer

Reviewed: 03/01/05

Don't fly with furries

Ahh, shoot em' ups; who doesn't love em'? There's nothing quite like the rush of hurtling along at hundreds of miles per hour, blasting anything that gets in your sights, and trying to find the one square inch of space on the screen that's not currently occupied by waves of enemy fire. In 1993, Nintendo tried its hand bringing shooters into 3D with the first Star Fox title, utilizing the SuperFX chip to produce crude polygon graphics that up to that point could not be found outside of arcade titles like Namco's Starblade. It was, at its core, a 3D realization of classic top-down shooters such as 1942. The game was an instant success, and a sequel was developed but never saw the light of day (unless you downloaded the incomplete beta ROM floating about the internet, you evil pirate, you). Four years later, Nintendo followed up with Star Fox 64, which is more of a remake than a true sequel. Unfortunately, it lacks nearly everything that made the original a classic title.

One of the selling gimmicks for Star Fox 64 is the Rumble Pack. Essentially, it's just a battery-powered weighted motor that plugs into the Controller Pak slot and provides the player with force feedback. It's a novel concept, but after a while that novelty wears off and you become desensitized to the rather weak jolts it gives out. It also adds even more bulk to the already bulky N64 controller, not to mention the fact that it goes through batteries like there's no tomorrow.

As I mentioned above, Star Fox 64 is not a sequel. The storyline remains the same; the evil scientist Andross launches an all-out invasion against the peaceful planet of Corneria, and it's up to you, Fox McCloud, leader of the mercenary team Star Fox, to send him packing. Of course, the Cornerian army is too weak (and probably too grossly incompetent) to do the job, so your team will be going it alone. Being from Canada, this is a pain I know all too well. The Star Fox team consists of the leader, Fox, the older, Texas-accented Peppy Hare, the squealing Slippy Toad whose voice has proven by psychologists to cause sudden outbursts of psychosis, and Falco, who probably suffers from a bizarre from of dementia that causes him to burst out in sudden renditions of Rock Me Amadeus. Writing decent stories has never been Nintendo's strong point, but Star Fox 64's works well enough for this type of game. We didn't come expecting a dramatic, sweeping "space opera," did we?

The graphics of SF64 are generally well done, with vibrant colors, detailed landscapes, and sharp texturing that rarely suffers from the repetitiveness that plagues so many other N64 titles. The framerate is consistently smooth throughout, with very little, if any, slowdown. However, there are quite a few instances where ugliness rears its, uh, ugly, head. Firstly, the game suffers from a weird dithering effect at a distance, particularly noticeable on darker levels such as Aquas. Secondly, the pyrotechnic FX are absolutely terrible; just try looking at the resulting explosion after defeating a boss and try not to laugh. Aside from these problems, the game is visually superb, but so are many other N64 titles. There is just no way the graphics could ever match the level of innovation seen in the original Star Fox. But one cannot fault Star Fox 64 for that; it's not like there's another dimension to which graphics can be taken.

Sadly, the sound of Star Fox 64 is the Yin to graphics' Yang. The original Star Fox boasted one of the best soundtracks I have ever encountered, such that I can burn it to CD and still get a rush listening to it today. SF64's music, on the other hand, is collection of trite, poorly-synthesized, almost childish melodies that is nothing like the brilliant, triumphant pieces of the original. The reason the music is uniformly poor is that, given the relatively puny capacity of N64 carts, more space was dedicated to the voice samples of your teammates than music. That's right, unlike the mumbling gibberish of the original, your teammates in SF64 actually talk. They warn you of dangers, give you advice (including Peppy's now-infamous "Do a barrel roll!"), cry for help, etc. It's really quite incredible the first time you hear it, but like almost everything else in SF64, it quickly becomes tiresome. The voices themselves are pure cheese; Slippy Toad's in particular will make you long for a sledgehammer to smash your speakers in with, particularly his long, drawn out "Noooooooo!" played whenever you die that made me double over laughter the first time I heard it. To sum up the sound of Star Fox 64, allow me to say that it's best played with the volume turned low or muted altogether.

Now, on to the meat of the game. The flying levels remain much the same as they did in the original, which in turn played almost identical to 2D shoot em ups: almost totally linear in nature, with one or two branches you can take during certain levels. The objective, of course, remains the same: blast everything in sight and try to keep your teammates, being the bullet magnets they are, from getting blown up. Your Arwing is equipped with a limited number of bombs, which will immediately destroy everything on screen in a hellish inferno. It's also equipped with the ability to employ either a short boost or deploy the airbrakes for a brief moment, as well loops and Immelmans, allowing you to avoid several conveniently placed obstacles throughout the game. Once again, hitting the L or R shoulder buttons will put your Arwing into a quick barrel roll, which will deflect enemy shots. Another "feature" of SF64 is the ability to charge up your shots, which can be locked onto enemies and will home in on them once fired. It's a neat gimmick that adds a tiny bit of strategy to what would otherwise be nothing but button mashing. Other options are less useful, such as the ability to play the game for cockpit of your Arwing. It's an interesting idea, but one that makes no sense to use as your field-of-view is greatly reduced, and performing barrel rolls will quickly cause you to become nauseous.

Occasionally, SF64 will try to spice things up with "All Range Mode" where Star Fox 64 departs from its linear nature and allows you the freedom to fly anywhere within the level. The problem is that the All Range levels are tiny compared to those found in, say, Rogue Squadron, so you're stuck flying around the same, dull patch of land blasting anything you see, which gets exceedingly boring after but a few minutes. The second method by which Star Fox 64 attempts to break the monotony of mindless shooting are missions where you ditch your trusty Arwing aircraft for the Landmaster tank or the Blue Marine submersible. However, they don't really change gameplay as much you'd think; they still fire the same laser blasts and bombs, L and R still roll them left and right, and they levels are still "blast everything in sight and then some."

Your progress through the game isn't entirely linear, either. The original Star Fox featured three paths of vary difficulty, and whichever one you choose you were stuck with. Star Fox 64, on the other, will let you branch out in certain points depending on whether certain conditions were met. The endings also vary slightly depending on which path you take, again adding a little variety to game that would otherwise be sleep-inducing.

However, it doesn't take long for Star Fox 64's flaws to become evident. Most noticeably, the game is slow. Primitive as the graphics of the original were, they managed to convey a great sense of speed that really made you feel as though you were hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, with barely enough time to react to the enemies coming at you in waves. Star Fox 64, on the other hand, moves along at a lethargic pace, giving you ample time to leisurely blast everything that stands in your way. The sluggishness becomes even worse in the tank and submarine levels, where if your vehicle moved any slower it'd be going backwards. Certain genres of games don't have to be fast-paced to be entertaining, but in shooters, it's a necessity. Star Fox 64 just doesn't provide with any thrill, rush, surge of adrenaline, or any other sensation that a good shooter should.

The second major problem is that the game is just too damn easy. I'm not expecting R-Type levels of difficulty here, but an experienced gamer should be able to see everything Star Fox 64 has to offer in no more than weekend (or an afternoon if you're like me and have no girlfriend). The only real "challenge" comes in the form of your teammates, who are there to hinder, not help you, as they will pick every opportunity to get chased by an enemy and ask you to help them. Boss battles provided little challenge to the experienced shooter vet, being nothing more than "shoot the flashing weak point" that they thoughtfully built into their spaceships. In short, Star Fox 64 is just too easy to be fun for any amount of time. Your Arwing possess so much shield energy that none of the enemies pose much threat, and shield refills and bombs are so plentiful that you never have to worry about conserving them.

Like many other Nintendo titles, Star Fox purports to give the players additional quests after finishing the game. In this case, each planet has a "medal" that can be won by shooting down enough enemies and not losing any teammates. Needless to say, collecting all the medals is not particularly enjoyable, a fact made worse by SF64's total lack of a save system. If you screw up obtaining the medal for level 6, you'll have to play through levels 1-5 just to get another attempt, something that feels more like work than fun. Your reward for obtaining every single medal is unlocking "Expert Mode," where enemies are more plentiful, and where a single collision will rip one or both wings off your Arwing, causing you to lose all power ups. It adds some much needed challenge to the game, but by this time it's too little too late. Star Fox 64 will likely have exhausted whatever interest you possessed long before then.

The multiplayer mode tries to liven things up a little, but it too feels stale and tired. The few maps available for you to play on are sparse and bare, each having around 20 polygons each (I'm not exaggerating), and offering little, if any opportunity for strategy. Worse still, each player is given a minuscule 1/4 of the screen, even if only two people are playing. Compared to other Nintendo games with thoroughly excellent multiplayer sections like Goldeneye 007 or Mario Kart 64, Star Fox 64 feels decidedly malnourished.

Linear at its core and possessing far too low a difficulty level, Star Fox 64 the kind of game where, once you have finished everything, there's almost no reason to come back, and the cartridge will likely be collecting dust before long. Given the dearth of quality titles on the Nintendo 64, it's worth a look, but don't expect it to be a particularly fulfilling experience.

Rating:   2.5 - Playable

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