Friday Night Retro: Star Fox 64

by on March 22nd, 2014
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Star Fox 64 was one of the best games of the 64-bit era, and certainly has a special place in my heart. In many ways, it pushed the boundaries on what home-console video games could do, from its revolutionary Rumble Pak, to multiple gameplay paths, and the immense amount of voice-acting dialogue. My father and I wasted hundreds of hours discovering everything about it, and was actually probably better at the game than I was, though I’ll never admit it to him. Let’s not waste any more time, and jump right in.

The plot of Star Fox 64 is a rather basic one. The Lylat System is under attack from an evil monkey-like overlord by the name of Andross, who, like so many others before him, wants to rule the galaxy. When the planet of Corneria comes under attack, General Pepper, head of the armed forces of Corneria, sends out a desperate cry for help to the Star Fox team, our main protagonists. The Star Fox team consists of four anthropomorphic animals: Slippy Toad, a somewhat androgynous mechanic who always seems to get in trouble, Falco Lombardi, an ace pilot with a cocky attitude, Peppy Hare, a veteran pilot with years of experience under his belt, and Fox McCloud, the player controlled leader of the Star Fox team.

These mercenaries fly from planet to planet, turning back the tide of Andross’s forces almost single-handedly, making their way to his home planet of Venom. Along the way, the player has an opportunity to meet one of two friendly characters who will join the Star Fox team: Bill Grey, a close friend of Fox from their days in the Cornerian Flight Academy, or Katt Monroe, a mysterious character who has a very obvious crush on Falco. They will appear to help out the team for two levels, and will even appear in the credits if you discover them.

Also present among the thousands of enemies you will destroy is the Star Wolf team, mercenaries hired by Andross to take care of the Star Fox team. The team consists of Andrew Oikonny, an inexperienced pilot who is the nephew of Andross, Pigma Dengar, a former member of Star Fox who betrayed them, leading to the disappearance/death of Fox’s father, James McCloud, Leon Powalski, a classy but ruthless narcissist, all lead by Wolf O’Donnell. They will show up at least once during your story. All these elements combine to make a rather ordinary plot more attractive by including a series of miniplots and very enjoyable character interactions.

The gameplay of Star Fox 64 is very smooth and efficient. There are two different play modes: Corridor, which sends the Arwing spacecraft straight down a corridor as enemies and obstacles fly out to meet you, and All-Range Mode, in which you are allowed free roam of a small area, usually accompanied by a boss fight. The controls are praised by many as being fluid, and easy to maneuver, with which I would have to agree. In your Arwing spacecraft, you only have access to an upgradeable laser cannon and smart bombs, but the game keeps the somewhat dull weapons system interesting by the variety of enemies, some of which can only be destroyed by shooting it in a certain spot, or during a certain time period. The Arwing is capable of doing a barrel roll which will deflect enemy lasers, a somersault and, in All-Range mode, a U-Turn. You can also boost and brake, which are necessary for avoiding certain obstacles or catching up to enemies. Also available for use are a tank called the Landmaster, and a submarine called the Blue Marine. They follow the same control scheme as the Arwing except that Landmaster hovers instead of somersaulting, and the Blue Marine uses unlimited torpedoes in the absence of smart bombs.

The many gameplay paths will ensure days upon days of replay for the gamer. There are dozens of different paths that the player can take, and the methods for opening these paths vary greatly, from something as simple as destroying a certain number of enemies to something as complicated flipping a number of almost hidden switches. There are also two very difficult to find “warp paths.” One is located on Meteo, in which you must fly through a set of blue rings that careen you out of control the more you fly through, and the other in Sector X, where you must open a series of hatches in your path. Doing so will send you traveling through a hidden warp path which is a very obvious nod to the old arcade game Galaga. Finding them does not give you any special achievement other than knowing you are an amazing flyer, which was certainly enough for me when I discovered them for the first time. All the levels are unique and well-designed, and enjoyable to look at as you fly through them.

In the end, there are two possible ways to end the game based how you entered the final planet Venom. If you discover the easy path through the Bolse space station, you fight off hundreds of Andross’s minions and a boss before you confront a robotic replica of Andross, who dies somewhat anticlimactically. However, if you discover the hard route to Venom through Area 6, you bypass the massive hordes of enemies and head straight for the real Andross after a very difficult fight against an upgraded Star Wolf team. After a quick fight against the robotic Andross, you confront the true Andross, whose lust for power has turned him into nothing more than a giant brain and eyes, which can only be destroyed by shooting a spot on the rear of the brain. After you defeat Andross, he explodes in a desperate attempt to take you with him, but you are saved by none other than Fox’s supposedly dead father, James. He leads you out of the planet moments before it explodes, only to fade into nothing as you reunite with the Star Fox team.

Star Fox 64 includes a multiplayer mode, in which you can face off against your friends in an arena, though the experience gets rather dull after a while, thanks to the lack of options. The game has a few unlockable features as well, such as a library of sounds from the game, and the challenging Expert mode, which can only be unlocked by defeating enough enemies on each level to earn a medal. As the name suggests, Expert mode is more difficult than Normal Mode, with more, smarter enemies standing between you and Andross. Fox gets a pair of awesome shades to wear in Expert mode, but they are purely aesthetic and, sadly, don’t do anything other than make Fox look cooler.

And so, in retrospect, I find that Star Fox 64 was a very solid gameplay experience. It had an engaging storyline, managed to keep the game fresh even after multiple playthroughs, and was the first personal entertainment game to introduce the concept of the Rumble Pak, something that is now considered a standard feature for any game. The many positive features of this game far overshadowed the very few flaws it had, and remains an enjoyable game today, and I hope that the upcoming 3DS version manages to capture the essence of this game when it is released. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go blow up Andross for the 23,746th time again.

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