Since Star Fox Zero is coming to the Wii U next month, I figure I'd take this opportunity to review my favorite game in the Star Fox series. Star Fox 64, known in Europe and Australia as Lylat Wars, is an on-rails shooter video game published and developed by Nintendo for the Nintendo 64. It was originally released in Japan on April 27, 1997, North America on June 30, 1997, Europe and Australia on October 20, 1997, and Korea in 1997. The game later got a remake on the Nintendo 3DS in 2011. This is the second game in the Star Fox series, following the original Star Fox on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which came out in 1993. However, Star Fox 64 is a reboot of the first game and not technically a sequel. There was going to be a Star Fox 2 for the SNES, but it was canceled. Many of the features and scenarios from Star Fox 2 made their way into Star Fox 64, though. At the time of its initial release, Star Fox 64 garnered critical acclaim and became one of the best selling N64 games in 1997, bested only by Mario Kart 64. Star Fox 64 certainly deserves the acclaim, because it's easily one of the best games on the N64. It's also just one of the best games, period. The SNES original, while good, doesn't even come close.
Set on a collection of planets in the Lylat system, the story of Star Fox 64 begins with a scientist named Andross. A once brilliant scientist, Andross is driven mad and nearly brings his home planet of Corneria to extinction with biological weapons. Due to this treasonous action, General Pepper exiled Andross to the remote planet of Venom. Five years later, some suspicious activity was detected on Venom, prompting Pepper to take notice. Pepper then hired a team of mercenaries known as Star Fox, which consisted of James McCloud, Peppy Hare, and Pigma Dengar, to investigate matters. Things don't go well, as when the three arrive at Venom, Pigma betrays the team, causing James and Peppy to be captured by Andross. Peppy manages to escape and tells the sordid tale to James' son, Fox McCloud. Some years later, Andross launches an interstellar assault on the Lylat system. Pepper once again enlists aid from the Star Fox team, now consisting of Fox, Peppy, Falco Lombardi, and Slippy Toad. It's now up to Fox to avenge his father and save the Lylat system.
For an N64 game, Star Fox 64 looks good. Part of the reason for this is simply due to what's being rendered on screen. You see, a big issue with the N64's early 3-D graphics is that the polygon count is quite low, leading to unnaturally triangular looking models. That just so happens to work perfectly for Star Fox 64, though, because most of what's being shown on screen consists of space aircraft, which are supposed to be triangular. It's a match made in heaven. Some of the effects also look rather impressive, like the reflective water in the opening stage of the game, or the boiling lava in the fire stage. Enemy ships also explode into a bunch of shrapnel when you blow them up, which is super satisfying to see. When compared to most N64 games, the graphics in Star Fox 64 have aged really well. Apparently, Star Fox 64 has located the Fountain of Youth.
Another technological milestone this game achieved is the voice acting. This was one of the first home console games to be fully voice acted; practically every line of dialogue is verbally spoken by a presumably human voice actor. Prior to the start of each mission, General Pepper will explain the mission objective, and sometimes he'll have some banter with Fox. While on a mission, your team members and some enemies will speak to you in real time. This makes you more invested in the action, plus it gives the game a more cinematic feel. Additionally, you're still playing the game while the dialogue happens, meaning you aren't forced to wait around for the characters to stop talking. If you already know all the dialogue or don't care, you can simply ignore it and continue on your merry way. In the rare event that there's a cut scene, it's always short and snappy, so they never waste too much of your time. The quality of the voice acting and writing isn't half bad, either. Much of the dialogue is very quotable, as there are a lot of funny one-liners, like the infamous "do a barrel roll!" None of this has a direct impact on the game play, but it does make the game more fun to play.
During its initial release, Star Fox 64 came packaged with an accessory known as the Rumble Pak. This revolutionary device attaches to an N64 controller to do as its name implies and provide rumble functionality. What that means is that the controller will vibrate while you play the game, giving you force feedback. The vibrations would occur during certain situations, like when you activate your thrusters or take damage. Feeling the rumble as you witness massive explosions happen within the game is downright exhilarating, as it provides an unexpected form of ecstasy. There was nothing quite like this on home consoles at the time. The game certainly isn't any worse without the rumble feature, but it does add to the experience. However, one drawback to the Rumble Pak is that it requires two AAA batteries, which is slightly inconvenient. It's worth it, though. Ever since the Rumble Pak was released, rumble functionality has become a standard feature in most game controllers. That's all thanks to Star Fox 64.
For the vast majority of the game, you'll be piloting an Arwing. It's basically like a fighter jet, except it can go into outer space. You use the analog stick to both aim and move, and press buttons to do other things, like fire your lasers. Holding down the A button will allow you to charge your laser, enabling you to shoot a homing shot that explodes upon impact, doing a little bit of splash damage to nearby targets. The B button, on the other hand, shoots out a bomb that does major damage to enemies. Certain power-ups will replenish your bombs and upgrade your lasers. You use the C buttons to boost, break, do a somersault, do a U-turn, and change the camera to a cockpit view. Pressing the Z and R buttons will tilt the Arwing left and right. If you press either of these buttons twice in a row, you'll do a barrel roll that can deflect enemy fire. Aiming and moving around is a breeze, and while it may seem complex at first, the controls are actually simple and intuitive. The analog stick is also a huge asset, as it allows for far greater precision when aiming at targets than a d-pad would. Considering you'll be aiming at targets for most of the game, that's a big deal.
In addition to the Arwing, you're able to pilot a few other vehicles. There's the Landmaster, a tank that is the master of land travel, and the Blue-Marine, a submarine capable of undersea travel. The controls work pretty similarly for all of them, but there are some minor differences. For instance, the Landmaster is mostly restricted to ground movement, but it can use its thrusters to hover in the air for a brief period of time. As for the Blue-Marine, it can shoot special homing missiles instead of lasers. Which vehicle you control depends on what stage you're currently on. There is only one stage in the whole game where the Blue-Marine is usable, but the Landmaster gets a little more time to shine. It's a good thing these alternate vehicles don't show up too often, though, because that scarcity is precisely what makes them special. With all these vehicles, you'll be traveling across land, sky, and sea. That adds variety to the game and you know what they say: variety is the spice of life.
Being that it's an on-rails shooter, most of the stages in Star Fox 64 consist of you moving forward on a straight path, unable to turn away from your destiny. You're able to move your vehicle around the screen to avoid enemy attacks and the like, but that's about it. Every mission either takes place on a different planet or somewhere in the middle of outer space. The average stage contains lots of heart pumping action, as you dodge past enemy lasers while firing a volley of your own. A few stages have interesting gimmicks, like the aforementioned fire stage will slowly damage your Arwing due to the extreme heat, and you have to shoot down rocks to reveal items to recover yourself. Then there's a stage where you use the Landmaster to trail an enemy supply train, and you destroy it in a slow, satisfying manner, one piece at a time. Even though the whole game consists of shooting and dodging, it never gets old, because the action is varied enough to remain engaging until the ending credits.
Occasionally, certain missions will set the Arwing to All-Range Mode, which lets you break away from the rails to fly wherever you want. You'll sometimes do this during boss fights, too. The game play changes a bit here, as you'll be able to do things you aren't normally able to do, like circle around a target, or chase after a specific enemy. Controlling yourself during All-Range Mode can be challenging, as you still constantly move forward at a steady pace, and will have to make sharp turns or use the U-turn if you miss a desired target. It's during these missions where you may encounter the Star Wolf team, the antagonistic counterpart to team Star Fox. These are arguably the most enjoyable parts of the game, as you get the opportunity to partake in intense dogfights against foes with similar capabilities to your own. There's just something incredibly satisfying about taking out a Star Wolf member. All-Range Mode doesn't happen often, but it's always a treat when it does. Plus, its infrequent use prevents it from ever getting stale.
At the end of almost every stage, you'll go up against a boss. The bosses are usually large enemy ships with multiple segments to them, but sometimes they'll be gigantic alien creatures. A typical boss fight will consist of you dodging attacks until the boss reveals its weak spots, at which point, you'll fire away to do massive damage. The weak points are sometimes hidden in creative ways that also make logical sense, like a carrier that opens up a hatch to launch additional enemy ships, but in doing so, also exposes its weakness. Figuring out the weak points tends to be simple, because they are frequently represented by spots that flash wildly. Don't think every boss is a simple matter of shooting at flashy spots, though. There's one that can only be damaged by bombs; if you run out, you'll have to resupply by blowing up the boss' bullets. Another boss is a giant golem that you chase down a never ending corridor, and he smashes the walls to cause pillars to pop in your way. Also, one of the bosses is a freaking Gundam, more or less. If that's not cool, then I don't know what is.
One of the game's coolest features is the branching paths system. Depending on how you complete certain missions, you may change the path you take on the map and go to different stages. Most missions have a standard objective and a slightly more secretive objective. The standard objective is usually just to make it to the end and beat the boss, but the special objectives have different requirements. For example, if you manage to save Falco on the first mission and then fly through a series of rings, he'll lead you down a secret path to fight an alternate boss. Another mission has you avoiding searchlights, and depending on whether you succeed or fail, you'll go to different stages. If you fail to beat one of the bosses fast enough, Slippy's ship will sustain damage and crash land onto a nearby planet, forcing you to do a special rescue mission. Generally, completing the harder objectives will put you on the path towards the harder stages, but failing them will send you to an easier route. You'll have to complete the game a few times in order to play every stage. There's enough flexibility in this system to allow players to explore a different route every time they play the game, adding copious amounts of replay value. This is a spectacular concept, as it gives the game more freedom and depth without detracting from its lightning fast pacing.
Your fellow wingmen will fly alongside you during most portions of the game, supporting you in different ways. Peppy gives you tips, Falco sometimes locates alternate paths, and Slippy scans bosses to reveal their life meters. They may also assist you in other ways, like shooting down some enemies. Sometimes, some of your companions will be under attack, and they'll call for help. If you neglect them during these times of need, they may take damage, and with enough punishment, they'll eventually be out of commission. Whenever that happens, you'll no longer have their aid, plus you'll miss out on their potential dialogue. Therefore, keeping your comrades alive actually matters in this game. Fallen allies will receive repairs in between missions and eventually be back in the saddle again, but you'll have to go without them until then. The only thing that makes this system a bit less impressive is the fact that much of it is scripted. Still, it's a cool concept that further engrosses the player into the game, as it presents the illusion that your actions have a greater impact on the game's world. You could also be a jerk and shoot down your own team members. They'll even complain about it, too.
Every time you blast an enemy into smithereens, you get a point. What's the point of all those points, though? Well, if you get enough of them in a particular stage, you'll be awarded a medal. There is one medal per stage, and you have to be very adept at killing enemies to get them all. One technique that is absolutely vital to obtaining medals is the charge shot; if you kill multiple enemies with a single blast, you'll earn bonus points. Acquiring every medal in the game will unlock expert mode, which is, unsurprisingly, much harder than the regular mode. There are also a whole slew of new medals to earn in expert mode, in the event that you want to challenge yourself even further. Medals are there for those that find the normal game too easy and want an additional challenge. They can be completely ignored if you're not into this sort of thing, though.
Up to four players can challenge each other to a dogfight in Star Fox 64's versus mode. You can play a point match, battle royal, or a time trial. Point matches have all players kill each other to accrue points, and the first one to reach a certain amount of points wins. Battle royal is a standard match of survival, with the last one standing being crowned the victor. In a time trial, all players compete to see who can kill the most enemies before the end of the time limit. With the exception of battle royal, players will continue to come back from the dead until the match is over. Initially, players can only use Arwings in the multiplayer, but it's possible to unlock the Landmaster by gathering medals in the single player. You can even unlock the ability for players to fight each other with bazookas while on foot! If the stage allows it, each player can choose their own vehicle. The single player is the main star of the show in Star Fox 64, but the multiplayer is surprisingly entertaining, so don't underestimate it.
Smooth graphics, glorious voice acting, cinematic action, stellar stages, cool bosses, branching paths, and it's all polished to a gleam; these are all the things that make Star Fox 64 a fantastic game. It's even got a decent multiplayer mode attached to it, too. The only real issue is that the game is a little on the short and easy side, but that can be remedied by checking out all the paths and playing expert mode. Star Fox 64 is a remarkable game on its own and a reasonable contender for the best game in the series. At the very least, this is the best Star Fox game in my book. Nobody reads my books, but still. I'd even go as far as to say that this is one of the best on-rails shooters of all time. Yes, it's that good.
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