Star Fox 64 (or Lylat Wars for our European readers) might well be my favorite game on the N64. Everything it did, it did right: smooth play, interesting story bits, blowing sh*t up with bombs and lasers, the works. Even the voices sounded—somehow—legitimate coming out of a fox, a bunny, a frog, and a jackass falcon. But as old as the series is—starting in 1993 makes him just old enough to vote and buy his "first" gun—it's honestly amazing to me that he's been in polygonal 3D for his entire existence. There might be another character or franchise that can claim that title as well, but he's definitely a pioneer that way.
Back on the Super NES/Super FamiCom days, SF64 was a one-of-a-kind experience when games still came in platforming wrappers and pastel smiles. There were other furry heroes of course; it was the generation of fuzzy and freaky abominations, after all (Aero, Sparkster, Earthworm Jim). The thing that separated Fox and his friends from the rest was a sense of drive combined with technical know-how (though Sparkster had some know-how to keep that jetpack in shape, right?). He didn't just have a town, or a world, to worry about; he had an entire solar system to protect. He was even freelance, so a mercenary… sort of. Contract protector, if you will. There's not much cooler than a dude with a space fighter of his own—an Arwing no less, the best of ANY fleet—and a solar system willing to pay him to shoot down anything that moves!
The first game, Star Fox (or Starwing, once again, for our Euro-friends), was pioneering simply for the fact that it was among the first titles in the home console market to push some actual polygons on the screen. It wasn't the first game to use polygons—titles like I Robot in the early 1980s and Sega arcade games like Virtual Fighter beat the beast to the punch—but as far as home consoles went, it was a breakthrough. Hell, it was another way Nintendo beat Sega to the punch by practically minutes by releasing it before Sega let loose Virtual Racing for the Genny!
According to a recent "Iwata Asks" on Nintendo.com, the new recruit Dylan Cuthbert had come on with an amazing enough idea: a 3D Game Boy game. And from an 18-year-old programmer, no less. Nintendo loves 'em young, eh?
Anyway. Nintendo hires on the kid and starts him off with his forte in the form of a space-based shooter. It was something very different from what Nintendo was offering at the time (the era of the cheeky platformer, remember), a product of the new influx of talent and playing with new hardware; the SNES had etched the rough middle of its lifespan. So it's understandable then that, after the success of Fox and friends (damn, unintentional Fox News reference) , the Big N would want to follow it up with something bigger and better; something like Star Fox 2.
What, did you expect SF64 so soon? That was a few years later, when Nintendo scrapped SF2, but not entirely different. A lot of what was designed for SF2 went into the 64 incarnation… most notably, the "All Range Mode" where Fox has a three-dimensional firefight on his hands. With the new chip Nintendo was developing at the time, the Super FX 2, Fox was able to fly anywhere he wanted (until the invisible wall was reached, then he was flipped back instead of just "bang and stuck" like so many 3D games do) and it improve the graphics even further. If it had been finished and seen the light of day, it might well have been the prettiest, most advanced game to be released for the SNES/Super FamiCom.
Instead, it became one of the best-selling N64 games. Any issue that might've happened with the SNES D-pad was gone, thanks to the new analog stick and fully-rendered 3D landscapes. One thing kept was the on-a-track play style. Some areas were completely open for dogfights, but leading up to many of them was a system of straight-forward sections designed to overwhelm a small squad of Arwings. They never did wipe out the SF team, of course; none of the members are dogs, but they could all fight. The story was right, the look was there, the play was fantastic… Star Fox had truly arrived.
Then there was some fallout. For some reason, developers thought that to keep the game fresh and playable, they had to change everything. And so, Star Fox Adventures was brought into the canon; a third-person action/platformer that lead Fox—with a big glow-stick—around a planet that needs saving from dinosaur enemies (a planet named, aptly enough, Dinosaur Planet). It might not have been a terrible game, but it wasn't what Fox fans had been expecting; everything had been flying and firing (or in the case of certain stages of SF64, submarine and tank warfare), not getting too close and bashing baddies with a stick. Still, it sold well enough, and people seemed to enjoy it, but even now I can't bring myself to call it a good next step for the franchise… just too different for my tastes.
He did get back into flight on the Gamecube and DS though, in Star Fox Assault and Command respectively, but so far the series hasn't been able to really regain the notoriety or epic feel that the N64 gave back in 1997. It's been a series that, while taking technology forward to begin with, lost some of its luster in the following years. Games were few and far between, and some thought Fox would be regulated to firing on Jigglypuff and Mr. Game & Watch for the rest of his pixelated days. But if SF643D goes well, we just might see some renewed interest in the license by everyone… hell, maybe he'll even make 3D move forward another notch, make everybody see the true capabilities of the emerging medium.
Eh, probably not. Should be fun as sh*t though in the meantime!