‘Star Fox 2’ review

Unearthed after 22 years, 'Star Fox 2' is more fascinating than fun

Nintendo fans have been talking about Star Fox 2 for more than 20 years. The original sequel to the big N’s sci-fi dogfighter foxfighter was meant as a last hurrah for the SNES, but it was shelved shortly before its scheduled release in 1995 to make way for the superior 3D worlds of the Nintendo 64. The decision (and the game) are the stuff of gaming myth: Though Star Fox 2 was never released, people claimed — both truly and not — to have access to builds of the game. It’s a thing collectors might dare to dream of finding at a flea market or a yard sale.

Now, after the all this time, Nintendo has done the unthinkable: It’s published the game for anyone to play. Star Fox 2 is the 21st game loaded onto the SNES Classic Edition, Nintendo’s nostalgic emulator box that compiles the console’s iconic games. Though it is not a classic, it is a product of that bygone era and, in its way, it too may remind older gamers of their old SNES fandom.

So how do you review a game like Star Fox 2? It was made 22 years ago, but it’s also brand-spanking new. Do you compare it to very best games of its original era?

Star Fox 2 is a fascinating piece of retro gaming history.

Star Fox 2 would have been audacious and possibly brilliant in its time: It not only expands on the linear shooting sequences in the original Star Fox with new vehicles and branching paths, but it adds a strategic meta-game to encourage quickness and perfectionism.

In 2017, though, those changes don’t do much to make the game feel fresh. The strategy is too simple, the shooting too repetitive, and the visual are just … frankly, they’re hard to look at. (To be fair, the original Star Fox borders on inscrutable now.) It isn’t something you’ll choose to spend much time with, yet Star Fox 2 is a fascinating piece of retro gaming history, and playing it for the first time is a unique experience any Nintendophile and gaming history nerd should go find.

Open Space

In Star Fox 2, the villainous space emperor Andross has returned to threaten the Lylat system, including Star Fox’ home world Corneria. Unlike the original Star Fox, or even Star Fox 64, which are structured as linear “quests” to defeat Andross, Star Fox 2 is deliberately designed to simulate the emperor’s invasion of the galaxy.

The world map is a battlefield — three rows of planets, with Corneria in one corner and Andross’ base in the other. Your goal is to dismantle his army by destroying his bases on occupied planets and battleships floating in space. You can complete these missions in any order, and when you beat them all, you’ll get a shot at the emperor’s base.

There’s a wrinkle, though: Andross’ army has a goal, too. Aside from killing you, his forces can invade Corneria by wearing down its defenses. Andross’ bases and capital ships dispatch fighter ships and missiles to Corneria, which hurt your home base, causing a percentage counter to rise. If it hits 100 percent, you lose.

This is where the strategy comes in: The world map moves in real-time. Your ship — a tiny icon — flies to different levels, but you can also intercept missiles or fighters, prompting a short dogfight where you shoot them down. As such, level selection becomes a tactical concern: Choosing whether to play offense or defense, and positioning yourself well to do both, are all essential for success.

Time is a factor as well. The invaders move even when you are playing a mission: Take too long on a base mission and you may not have enough time to catch that missile before it hits.

This complexity sounds overwhelming, but it’s only as important as you want it to be. For better or worse, the strategic elements of the game are almost entirely optional.

The strategy layer exists to promote replayability.

You can hop from one base to the next, killing them off rapidly before making your way to the boss. It will leave Corneria close to destruction, but if you don’t get bogged down on too many boss fights, you’ll make it.

Instead, the strategy layer exists to promote replayability. You get a score at the end of each run (win or lose) based on, among other things, how quickly you completed the game and how much damage Corneria received. The game is very short — our “let Corneria burn” run took less than an hour. The game isn’t designed to be completed, so much as it is to be perfected.

Ahead of its time

By contrast, the missions of Star Fox 2 feel very much like the original, albeit with a few new twists and tweaks to mix things up. In the original Star Fox, each mission pushes you down a linear corridor, either in first- or third-person, where you shoot down enemies and dodge obstacles until you reach the end and fight a boss. Star Fox 2’s missions are far more varied. When engaging in dogfights with missiles or other fighters, you dodge around a seemingly vast (but truly tiny) spherical arena until you shoot down your enemies or they shoot you.

Longer base missions generally feature a multi-stage approach, during at least one of which you’ll need to transform your Arwing fighter jet and a two-legged “walker” mech. The mech is truly a gimmick. Its primary tactical function is standing in place: You can trigger floor switches and more easily shoot at stationary turrets with the mech than with a jet that is constantly moving. The game’s last level, its shining moment, features a dungeon with multiple paths, allowing you to choose how to make your way through to Andross.

As an unreleased “missing link” between Star Fox and Star Fox 64, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of the game’s most novel features made their way into the sequel we actually got. Non-linear missions in Star Fox 64 such as Fichina are among its most memorable.

10 minutes of 'Star Fox 2' gameplay from the SNES Classic

Star Fox 64 ditched the mech for a tank, but Star Fox 2 mixes up its gameplay with its pair of vehicles in a similar way. And while Star Fox 64 reverted to a more conservative structure around branching chains of levels, the multi-pathed final dungeon is effectively a prototype for the level structure in the following game, which allowed you to access new areas and more levels by completing unmarked sub-objectives.

As cool as it is to connect the dots among the three games, though, most of Star Fox 2’s missions boil down to rote shooting in bland, polygonal environments. On a mechanical level, there isn’t much variation between bad guys, besides flying and land-based enemies. The game’s very large polygonal designs leave most levels feeling like sparse approximations of generic settings — you can tell the difference between a planet’s surface and the inside of a base because of the gray walls on either side, but there are ultimately few details to distinguish one setting from another.

A new (old) future for the franchise?

Though the visuals and overall simplicity ensure that it doesn’t hold up anymore, Star Fox 2 takes some of the biggest risks the franchise has ever attempted. The success of Star Fox 64, which many fans came to love in its time, forced the series into a bit of a rut: Many of the games that followed, such as the Wii U’s Star Fox Zero, hewed close to that singular success.

Our main takeaway from Star Fox 2, and hopefully Nintendo’s: There’s a lot of room for variation and experimentation in the franchise. If and when Nintendo makes a proper Star Fox sequel for the Switch, we hope it will blend the core flying of Star Fox 64 with some of the more experimental ideas in Star Fox 2. Maybe by looking backwards, Nintendo will move finally the series forward.

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