Saturday, 23 February 2013

Starwing (SNES)

Starwing Star Fox SNES title screen
Now that's how you do a title screen.

On February 21st 1993, Nintendo released in Japan a game so advanced that it came with its own own on-board RISC co-processor and so revolutionary that it introduced true 3D shaded-polygon gameplay to console gamers for the first time (probably). Anyway, that game was called Star Fox (except for in the countries where it was called Starwing), and seeing as it's just turned 20 years old I figured it'd be a good time to give it a look.

I can't say I haven't played this one before, especially as there's screenshots I've taken from it scattered across the site, but I can say that I haven't really played it properly. I've never last much longer than the first level before I got distracted by something and turned it off.

I know I say I never read the manual in that box of rules on the right side of the site, but c'mon look at this thing! That isn't CGI, those are real tangible physical models. Apparently producer Shigeru Miyamoto is a fan of classic British Supermarionation action series Thunderbirds, and wanted to bring a bit of that 'puppets and models' style to the game.

He's probably a fan of Star Wars too, looking at this X-Wing inspired space fighter. They've even used the Star Wars standard naming system for it: calling it an Arwing because it looks like the letter A from above.

I gotta admit, this is still my favourite Arwing design from the Star Fox series and it's so weird that they apparently built a movie quality model of the thing just to show it off in the manual. They even kept it true to the low polygon game model, so those big pointy wings are held on by the tiniest little joint.

THE STATE OF 3D AT THE DAWN OF '93.

Virtua Racing (Arcade)
For a good few decades, arcade machines were the undisputed pioneers of graphics technology and back in February 1993 you wouldn't find much out there more impressive than Virtua Racing running on a Sega Model 1 board. It had no texture mapping or even basic Gouraud shading, but it could move those blank polygon blocks around the screen blazingly fast. This was basically the Crysis 3 of '92, graphically speaking.

X-Wing (MS-DOS)
Meanwhile Star Wars fans with expensive PCs were running out to buy brand new cutting-edge space dogfighting simulator X-Wing. Some of them probably bought a joystick too while they were there, as that was the done thing at the time. It was truly another era.

It's not exactly Virtua Racing in the visual department and that Star Destroyer in the background seems to have been rendered in three shades of blue, but the models are reasonably detailed and the draw distance is pretty massive. 

(I decided to be lazy and grab this screenshot with a mouse by the way and holy crap it was awkward. It controls surprisingly well with a modern analogue controller though, which just makes me more depressed that they never made TIE Fighter 2.)

Epic (Amiga)
Meanwhile on the cheaper 16-bit gaming computers like the Amiga and Atari, you could expect graphics a little bit like this. It looks reasonably good by comparison in this screen shot, but there's isn't exactly much going on here. I honestly doubt you'd ever get a game as advanced as X-Wing running well on one of these systems.

The first wave of 3D consoles like the Atari Jaguar, 3DO and CD-32 would arrive later in the year (then crash and burn soon after), but current machines like the Genesis/Mega Drive and the SNES were only designed for throwing sprites around and scrolling backgrounds. They were masters of slick 2D graphics and the SNES had even managed some clever fake 3D using Mode 7 for games like Pilotwings and Super Mario Kart. But when it came to polygons they just couldn't even turn up to the match, never mind compete.

That is until someone had the bright idea to include the advanced 3D processor inside the game cartridge itself! Using SuperFX graphics technology designed by the geniuses responsible for Starglider 2, Nintendo managed to get graphics like this running slick on their SNES an entire year before Sega could produce a rival chip (and two years before their 32X add-on).

Well okay it may not be absolutely silky smooth, but the game's definitely way more than fast enough to be playable, even if all I'm doing right now is flying through hoops. It's not Perfect Dark slow, that's for sure. I'm here because I decided to choose the Training mode before playing the main game as I wanted to get the hang of how the plane steered before giving the aliens a chance to shoot my wings off, but it seems to have been unnecessary as I apparently have a natural gift for flying. I'm effortlessly acing every ring here. I feel like I could even take on Superman 64!


10 SECONDS LATER.


Come on you guys, can you slow down a little? Or perhaps we could just stop doing turns altogether? Man, I'm never getting my fighter lined up with that ghost. I'm just glad the game's about shooting things, not formation flying, or I'd be truly fucked.

Obviously I need more training. But I'm bored of not being shot at so I'm quitting out and starting up the game proper.

Star Fox Starwing level select map screen animated
It seems I get three different routes to choose from, each with its own set of unique stages and a different difficulty level. Only giving me 5-6 stages per route seems a bit stingy, but it's possible that some of them are split into sub-levels.
Right, I'm going to go with the level 1 path, as it seems like a sensible place to start. Plus space armadas are cool. Hey, I just noticed that someone took the time to pixel a little picture of Fox McCloud grinning in his cockpit up there on the top left. Pointless details are the best details.

I was only planning to use a single screenshot from this sequence, but it really has to be seen in motion to make any sense (that's the excuse I'm going with anyway). Notice how the Arwings have lost the cockpit from the title screen model by the way.

No idea why these people have to fly through a narrow mile-long underground tunnel just to launch their spaceships, but it looks cool so I'll just go with it. I'm just glad I'm not the one steering it during this bit, or else I'd probably drift just a little too close to one of the walls and end up rebounding across the tunnel in a cloud of smoke and flames and important bits of Arwing.

Oh damn I forgot how good this Corneria stage music is (not to be confused with Coneria in Final Fantasy.) It's all electric guitars, orchestra hits and hot-blooded heroism.

I love how the first thing I get to do isn't fight off a wave of fights, but fly through some arches. It's not an objective. it's not part of any tutorial and I don't even get points for doing it (at least I don't think I do); my froggy wingman just decides to show off and if I feel like it I can follow him. It's nice to play a game that understands that it's meant to be a toy for the player, not just a series of challenges.

Man, there's no crosshair in this! I can't believe they decided it wasn't important to let the player know where his lasers are going to end up in a game based around shooting things. It's not a massive problem as I can just keep firing and then adjust my aim, but it's such a weird design choice.

Oh look, there's Slippy the frog trying to get my attention on the radio. 'Did you see me?' he asks! With that face mate I'll be seeing you in my nightmares.

He'll be there, staring at me with those creepy bulging eyes. Like a doll's eyes. I do like that he's wearing a trucker cap and a turtleneck though.

Wait, that's not a turtleneck, he's wearing some kind of purple beaded necklace. Man that frog is weird.


MEANWHILE, ON THE AMIGA.


Epic (Amiga)
Star Fox may have been amazing and innovative to console owners, but computer gamers had seen it all before. Space shooter Epic came out for Amiga and Atari ST machines a whole year before Star Fox and despite the lack of gradient on the floor, or detail in the sky, you can clearly see that this is much more... oh fuck it, to be honest this game is incredibly tedious and empty.  

Star Fox may basically be a rail shooter, but at least that means it's focused: you're led straight through all the interesting stuff through a predetermined corridor of action. Epic just leaves you to wander around the battlefield, looking for something to do.

Aquaventura (Amiga)
This is a problem I've noticed with a lot of pre-Star Fox 3D shooters I've been playing actually: they give you a lot of freedom to roam around but everywhere you go is just as boring as where you left. Oh look it's some kind of radar installation thing, should I shoot it maybe? There, I shot it, I guess I'll just... fly somewhere else now I guess.

Star Fox on the other hand always points you in the direction of danger and forces you to decide whether you're going shoot it or dodge it. The Amiga and Atari hardware couldn't match Star Fox's SuperFX chip and I'm starting to get the impression that none of their 3D spaceship shooters could match Star Fox's design.

Hah, I found a dual laser pick-up just kind of floating there in the city for no reason and now my firepower is far more formidable. These evil blue pillars stood no chance, that's for sure.

Though you know, I'm starting to think that maybe these were more of the 'dodging' kind of obstacles rather than the 'shooting' kind. I mean I am in my own city, right? There's no chance they could be buildings as they're way too small, but maybe they're monuments or broadcast towers or something.

You there, the robot with the pillar, are you stealing the thing or setting it up here? Oh fuck it I'm just shooting him as well. We may never solve the mystery of the blue pillars, but I'm pretty sure that these robots are pure evil.

Not so much of a smart ass now are you froggy? Hang on I'll just shoot this walker in the distance then I'll swing down to help you out. Though without a crosshair, chances are I'll end up inflicting as much damage to poor Slippy as I do to the enemy tailing him. But Arwings have shields and enemies don't, so it'll all work out in the end. He'll forgive me.

The characters all have voices when they talk by the way, though they've done the Sims/Knights of the Old Republic trick of having them all speaking a alien language so they can reuse the same sound clip over and over and pretend they're saying something new.

Eventually I reached the end of the level, the enemies flew away and a boss appeared to take me on by himself, as is traditional for shoot 'em ups. It's very Space Harrier in fact. You can tell he's serious business because they've taken away all the buildings to give him more polygons.

As boss fights go this is actually pretty well done, more like something you'd see in a classic 2D shooter than any of the 3D shooters released up to this point (that I've seen). He moves between different modes, indicated by which area of the ship opens up, each with a different flashing weak point and attacks for me to avoid. He even switches between multiple forms as the battle goes on, as I blast huge chunks off him.

Oh shit, I wasn't expecting that to come bouncing across the floor at me. Things have a surprising amount of 'weight' in this somehow. This fighter launch pod might only be made from a handful of shaded polygons, but the thing feels like it'll utterly wreck me if I don't barrel roll the fuck out of the way.

After I shot all his pieces off he started flying around in my face and getting all aggressive, but I soon burned through the last of his health bar, leaving team Star Fox free to form up, fly into space, and leave Planet Corneria behind. Time to go take the fight to the... wait, who are we even fighting? I don't think the game's even said yet.


STAGE 2 - ASTEROID BELT.

Starwing Arwing cockpit
Damn, I can't believe they went to the trouble of modelling his entire cockpit (complete with a little bit of texture mapping!) when it only appears for two seconds when I'm switching views. By the time I've moved to first person view and get control back, the cockpit's entirely disappeared.

Well it's nice to have a crosshair this time, but the game's starting to lose some of its charm for me now. I'm starting to remember why I always used to quit at this point. I mean I'm basically just shooting pop up targets, and dodging asteroids kinda got old way back in Wing Commander.

Star Fox blue alien pilot ejects out of spaceship in asteroids
I do have to give the game 500 bonus points though for having the occasional enemy pilot eject into space in front of you... only to realise that they forgot to wear a space suit. Oh bad luck you poor fellow.


STAGE 3 - THE ANDROSS SPACE ARMADA.

I'm back in space again for the third stage, apparently to destroy battleship energy cores according to the briefing text, though I mostly seem to be shooting the little fighters and dodging the enemy bullets like always. It's getting a bit repetitive really.

Wow I just realised that is the mid-way point of the game. Or at least the mid-way point of this path through the game.

Oh hang on, this is new. Slippy, did you set my fighter's autopilot to send me right into a wall? Because I told you before that I didn't mean to shoot you all those times, I was aiming for the guy chasing you! It's your own damn fault for getting into the same trouble on every single stage anyway.

Oh, it turns out that it was a large door that opened up into the ship's main Long Pointless Corridor Full of Death Traps. I assumed it was meant to be the ship's fighter launch tube at first, but then I discovered that it's lined with sliding columns trying to crush me and doors I need to shoot open.

Fuck, there goes the port wing (and my port laser). See, I told you if I was left to fly down one of these tunnels by myself I'd end up bouncing off the walls in a shower of debris.

Uh, I'm shooting flashing white energy bolts as fast as I can, but that power core doesn't seem to want to blow up and it's kinda directly in my way. Am I shooting the wrong thing maybe?

Well fuck, ramming the core didn't work out so well. Now I'm kinda exploding and the ship's exploding and everything's generally going to shit. Perhaps I was supposed to use one of those bombs I've been stockpiling.

Hey I just noticed some more texture mapping on those walls there. They're throwing it in where they can.

Well I blew up, but it's fine because I had an extra life. I honestly couldn't tell you if I had to repeat the level afterwards or not though, as I seemed to be doing the same things over and over again anyway.

Alright, time to deal with multi-stage boss fight #3.

Or not...

This time I have to fight a power core boss instead of a spaceship, slowly chipping away at these power emitters each time I get the chance. The room rotates anti-clockwise a bit, giving me an opportunity to fire at the emitters as they come around, but then it stops and spins clockwise instead and I have to dodge the beams, fast. It just doesn't seem to want to explode and honestly the process is boring the hell out of me.

This is all George Lucas's fault you know. I bet the idea of actually flying through a spaceship to destroy the energy core from the inside was first introduced to the world by Return of the Jedi. Though I'm curious to see if anyone can prove otherwise in the comments.


STAGE 4 - THE BATTLE BASE METEOR.

Hey I'm back on a planet again for level 4, kind of, and oh look Peppy's gotten himself in trouble again. My wingmen take it in turns to get chased around once per stage it seems. Well I'll help out if I can mate, but I honestly don't know what I'm meant to be shooting at here.


LATER.


R.I.P. Peppy. I just wasn't quick enough to save him. Still, at least Falco and Slippy are still around to cheer me up and help keep up morale.


STAGE 5 - VENOM: THE FINAL GOAL.

Alright, I'm at the final goal already! The enemy general Andross is apparently in hiding here and I need to find him and bring him back to Corneria to face justice. Oh wait I misread that, I actually need to 'find his core brain and destroy it!!' With two exclamation marks. Holy shit General Pepper doesn't fuck around.

By the way, have you ever noticed how General Pepper looks like a dog version of Sergeant Pepper crossed with a dog version of M. Bison? Sorry, I'm tired.

Alright, this is starting to get tricky now. I'm really struggling to dodge all the bullets on screen, while simultaneously trying to face towards the thing shooting them so I can destroy it. I miss the good old days, where I was happily flying though arches on a bright sunny day with my frog buddy, snowy mountains in the background...

Crap, there goes the last of my shields. One that's gone it's all over.

Starwing game over screen
Oh shit, it's those giant hands from the Smash Bros. games and they've teamed up with monkey Dracula's head! Or maybe this is Andross, it's a mystery. Story isn't exactly the game's strong point.

Starwing continue screen
Aww I've made Fox sad now. I earned a couple of continues along the way by getting a decent score on those levels where I didn't get Peppy killed, but do I even want to continue? I'm gonna have to say... no, because I've had enough of the game for now. I'm tired and bored, possibly bored because I'm tired, but who knows? Maybe someday I'll actually finish Star Fox, but it won't be today. Shame the game doesn't have saves really.


I think it's safe to say that Star Fox/Starwing is an important piece of gaming history; it may have come out about a decade too late to invent the 3D space shooter, but it definitely helped drag console gaming into the 3D era and 3D game design up along with it.

Annoyingly though my concentration started to drift as soon as I got off Corneria and I'm not sure why. Nothing really got on my nerves or pissed me off, the game just sort of carried on doing what it was doing until I got tired of it. I guess you can only fly straight forward for so long before you start to miss all those other directions you used to take for granted. I'll give it a gold star anyway though, because even if I never finish the game, there's isn't a chance I won't play that first stage again at some point.



If you have any opinions about all that stuff I just said, Star Fox, or the site in general, please feel free to leave a comment.

1 comment:

  1. You were VERY close to the end there. I recommend checking out Star Fox 2. It was never released, but thanks to the magic of emulation it's playable.

    I could be mistaken, but I feel like Andross (the giant ape on the game over screen) is modeled after Cornelius from Planet of the Apes. ...which, now that I think about it, might also be the source of the name Corneria. Whoaaaa.

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