April 11, 2007 - Anthropomorphic animals, flying through space, dogfighting enemy ships and robots on their way to a final confrontation against a diabolically evil scientist gorilla. You've got to love the world of Star Fox. Not required, though, is a love of all the series' games. Star Fox is a Nintendo franchise that has been hit and miss over the years. A technically impressive SNES title launched the brand in 1993, demonstrating that 3D could be done even on a 16-bit machine – hit. In the GameCube era, two titles from non-first-party developers proved to be underwhelming – miss. And last year on the DS, touch control and a complete elimination of on-rails levels marked the franchise's portable debut – kind of a hit. That one's debatable.
But there's really no debating this one. This title, Star Fox 64, is a surefire smash. When it arrived on the Nintendo 64 in the summer of 1997, it blew gamers of the day away with its tight control, immersive presentation and comical style. It became one of the greatest games in the N64 library, and is still the best game in the Star Fox franchise.
Star Fox 64 is a fully 3D, on-rails shooter. You take command of aircraft pilot Fox McCloud, and set out across forced-scrolling levels full of enemies and obstacles. The Arwing, Fox's signature ship, is easy to handle. You can soar up, down, left and right across the screen as the environment scrolls toward you. You can boost forward with temporary bursts of speed, hit the brakes to avoid traps, and, famously, do barrel rolls to deflect enemy fire.
Some levels change up the formula, though, allowing you to enter a free-roaming all-range mode that eliminates the forced-scrolling on-rails aspects and gives you more complete control. Mixing things up, too, is a change of vehicle that occurs on a few occasions – in two of the game's levels, you drive a tank instead of flying the Arwing, and in one underwater world you pilot a submarine instead.
Success in Star Fox comes from skillfully choosing your path to progress – achieving in-level goals opens up more choices for stage advancement on the in-between mission map screen – and blasting as many baddies as possible in each level. Keeping your wingmen alive and racking up a sky-high kill count will win you medals, eventually unlocking extras hidden in the game.
Star Fox 64 was a blast back in '97 – and now it's back. Ready and able to redeem Fox fans' faith in the franchise, the game has arrived on the Wii's Virtual Console in nearly complete form. Only nearly complete, of course, because rumble got the ax.
When Star Fox 64 shipped in cartridge form almost 10 years ago, it came in an oversized box – packaged along with the game was Nintendo's newest peripheral, the Rumble Pak. We take it for granted now, since it's become so common. But force feedback had never been done before, one decade ago, and Nintendo's introduction of the tactile technology was groundbreaking. A little gyro motor, inside the Pak, plugged into the back of the N64 controller, reacted to on-screen events like explosions and collisions by physically vibrating the pad in your hands. It was unheard of – and it was cool.
Rumble technology was immediately copied by the competition and became an industry staple very quickly – and all thanks to Star Fox 64, the innovative idea's showcase game. But there's no rumble on the Virtual Console. The showcase is shuttered.
The lack of rumble in this version of Star Fox 64 is saddening, but difficult to quantify. On one hand, the game's perfectly playable without it, and new players will never know the difference. On the other hand, it's damaging to the nostalgia factor for the game.
Kind of like Slippy's voice. It's entirely possible that, in the past decade, Star Fox fans have managed to block out the memories of the amphibian wingman's cringe-worthy cries. But be prepared for a quick reminder, as "Fox, get this guy off me!" rings out, once more, loud and clear.
It's actually a major positive for the title – Nintendo is a company that's never fully embraced voice acting for its characters, but made a rare and impressive exception for this release. All of the characters speak out audibly, and every line of dialogue in the game is distinctly heard. Complaints are still raised that voice acting should come to modern titles, the most recent debate focusing on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Referencing the work found here in SF64, 10 years ago, can only help fuel that fire.
I could go on talking about Star Fox 64 for days. The simple verdict, though, is that it's a great game. It remains a great game even after 10 years, and even with the removal of rumble support. Force feedback wasn't the title's only innovation. History has made this title more important for other reasons – like its notable inclusion of voice acting – and its fun factor is still in Nintendo's top tier. Investing 1000 Wii Points here would be a wise and highly recommended course of action. (You know you want to do a barrel roll.)