"Eat my laser, Slippy!"
At the recent E3 expo in Atlanta, we were treated with an onslaught of impressive looking new N64 titles, developed both in-house by Nintendo as well as by a plethora of third parties. Now that the dream system has become a reality, it seems as though developers are frantically trying to get a piece of the action. This is a good thing - competition is the mother of high quality.
With such beauties as Turok and Super Mario 64, we have seen what this machine can do. A polygonal monster, the N64 can texture map and z-buffer with the best of 'em. Unfortunately, much of the software hasn't matched the capabilities of the hardware (just take a look at Cruis'n USA or WarGods).
The hype surrounding StarFox 64 is immense. A remake of the SNES classic, it was supposed to be the next big thing for the system. With so many questions surrounding the quality of N64 games, how does StarFox 64 hold up? Well, rather nicely, thank you.
From the brain of contemporary game design guru Shigeru Miyamoto comes the next great N64 title. With gorgeous graphics, solid gameplay, strong replay value and good multi-player support, StarFox 64 serves as a reminder of this machine's power.
You play Fox McCloud, the young and furry leader of the Starfox fighting squadron. Your father James was killed by the hands of the evil mad scientist Andross (why are they always scientists? Why not a brilliantly diabolical tailor? Or a mischievously cunning gardener?...). Having been exiled to the planet Venom, Andross has managed to take control of most of the galaxy. The only hope of stopping his advance lies in the hands, paws, claws, flippers, and whiny voices of the StarFox crew. You are aided by three cuddly little bastards: the wise old Peppy (who flew with your father), the fiery spirited Falco (who fights for freedom), and a bitchy little frog named Slippy (who can't fly and talks too much).
Most of the game takes place behind the controls of an Arwing, the space fighter piloted by Starfox members. You can fly using one of three perspectives - normal (behind ship), zoom out (farther behind ship), and cockpit (in the ship...duh). Unfortunately, the first person cockpit view leaves much to be desired. The view is too narrow and jerky, making it difficult to get your bearings. That leaves the other two view modes which, though being more traditional and a bit outdated, work well with the N64's monster graphic power.
This game looks great. From the smooth polygonal buildings to the gorgeous landscape textures, StarFox 64 is a feast for the eyes. Flying over water (mainly on the first level) demonstrates the attention put into the subtleties of the graphics; reflections and ripple add to the realism, which adds to the experience. Very slick.
Gameplay is simple - blast enemy ships, buildings, robots, and bosses while trying to save your teammates and beat the level. However, Nintendo has never been one to bore. Several interesting twists on the classic arcade shooter bring this game up a few notches.
First off, this is a multiple-path game. Normally, you follow the easy path (outlined in blue on the game map, which looks like a solar system). By fulfilling certain criteria on each level, you can branch out and play on harder levels. While it only takes seven missions to win the game, there are 15 total. Also, you can get medals on each stage by killing enough enemies. This is not easy (though if you get all the medals some cool stuff happens).
Secondly, there is a nice amount of variety. There are two modes of flight - Normal and All Range Mode. Normal is the basic behind the ship blast-o arcade shooter (ala Space Harrier). You can only go forward. In All Range mode, however, you fly around a fixed area (ala the Hoth levels in Shadows of the Empire) blasting away at bosses, fleets of enemy ships, or your friends. This is the more entertaining mode; sort of a cross between Wing Commander and Panzer Dragoon. You can utilize cool maneuvers as well, such as the somersault and the immelman (U-turn).
More cool stuff? How about two other vehicles - the Landmaster tank and the Blue Marine mini-sub. Both have special controls and can only be accessed on certain levels. There's just a lot offered in this game that raises the standard of the genre.
And then there's the Rumble Pack. Since it comes with the game for no additional charge, I can't really chew into this. It connects to the slot where you normally slip a memory card, meaning that all saved games go directly onto the cartridge (like in the old days). Basically, big explosions and thunderous ships make the Rumble Pack wiggle, which in turn makes the whole controller wiggle, which in turn makes YOU wiggle. This is really a pale imitation of force-feedback, but as it doesn't cost any extra, I suppose it's okay. Besides, who doesn't like a good wiggle every now and then?
The game is also quite fun when playing against friends, supporting you and three of your buddies. Using a quad screen split, you all play at the same time against each other. Three is no noticeable loss of framerate or detail in Multi-player mode (except that your screen is only 1/4 the size).
There are, however, certain elements that could have been improved. The game is a bit too short. Even if you sit and explore every path, you're only looking at a few hours worth of time. Also, the character voices are absolutely nauseating. It's hard enough to swallow yet another Nintendo game that turns cute, fuzzy animals into ace pilots/superheroes/snugglywumpus good guys. Having to hear their incessant babbling is very irritating, so much so that we started talking back to them with threats that would put a demented taxidermist to shame.
The biggest problem with Starfox 64 lies not so much in the game itself, but in the genre. This style of game hasn't been much of a force lately, and while this game surpasses nearly all other games of its type, it is still limited to being just a good arcade game. A better first-person perspective would have greatly enhanced the value of the game (I imagined a first-person that would have exceeded the 32-bit masterpiece Wipeout XL).
Overall, I have to say that I'm impressed with Starfox 64. It looks great and plays well, more than I can say for many N64 titles thus far. Though the cost of these games is still just too high for the average gamer, this is a title that is worth the price of admission.