Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Star Fox 64

Star Fox 64 belongs to a genre I've hardly dabbled in, yet remain fascinated by: shoot-'em-ups. What was once a popular, omnipresent form of play has since been relegated to a niche following, overshadowed by the likes of AAA development and online gaming. Yet while people just aren't willing to put down money in the face of bigger, meatier experiences, shoot-'em-ups and rail shooters remain as intense as ever for those dedicated to the genre.

And yet despite my limited experience, would it be so bold if I were to claim Star Fox 64 is the greatest of them all? Perhaps it's just my bias speaking, and I'd be lying if the air-shooting sections in Kid Icarus: Uprising hadn't already surpassed it in both difficulty and design, but nearly twenty years of endlessly replaying this game will do that to you. It is, at the very least, one of the very best "pick up and play" games I have ever encountered: every run ends in less than a hour, I regularly shift routes in every playthrough, and I've practically memorized every line of dialogue, be it the cries of hapless wingmate Slippy Toad or the crusty train driver of Macbeth.

Even today, it has yet to grow old, but why? Like Super Mario 64 before it, Star Fox 64 is a full-fledged showcase of what the N64 can do. Oh, yes, I could point out the seams in the skyboxes, and maybe the Rumble Pak lacks the same thrilling punch it had back in 1997, but that the gameplay still holds up to this day is what matters. Beyond its bullet point of being the first Nintendo game to feature extensive voice acting, the likes of an elaborate scoring system that depends not just on your mastery of the shooting system's intricacies, but of the routes you embark on is endlessly fascinating to me. No longer are we limited to a route based our choice of difficulty (as per the original Star Fox for Super Nintendo), but we're encouraged to chart courses of mingling toughness.

This isn't done by the mere press of a button, either; you must work for it. Hidden trails and warps for your Arwing fighter to soar through are strewn across the planets of the Lylat System, and while they're not always thoroughly hidden, there's always a sense of accomplishment in that you, as a player, had successfully guided the Star Fox team into another course. For instance, the game doesn't always rely on extra passageways: if you fail to defend the bases at Katina or Fortuna, you can forget about heading to Solar.

You can, of course, retry, and while it prods at our egos that we do so, we're ever more grateful it allows such an option rather than committing an even worse sin: wasting our time. There's a delicious freedom to it all, and while it sadly lacks the option to replay any mission you'd like (a feature added to its 2011 3DS remake), it doesn't really matter when the entire game's great fun, or even that long. If anything, I find the anticipation of reaching certain planets only heightens their experiences. In particular, there's Macbeth, where you gradually destroy The Forever Train while piloting the Landmaster Tank; Zoness, a toxic ocean that requires swift destruction of incoming search lights, and Sector Y, an armada-filled battleground with shogun robots and one very obvious (but fun!) A New Hope reference. If the careful player plays their cards correctly, they can reach all three in one playthrough.

Naturally, there's more to Star Fox 64 than routes. For one, there's shooting. Lots of shooting. Good shoot-'em-ups provide countless options to rack up the highest score, and Star Fox 64 is no exception. Even now I juggle my split-second decisions in the opening level of Corneria: naturally, I know the hidden route achieved by flying under the stone arches leads to a higher score (and Sector Y, should I choose to go there), but what about everything else before then? Catching more than one enemy fighter in a charge shot acquires more points, so even now I aim my shots towards land-based units just as an air-bound one swoops down from the sky. It's harder than it sounds, but I know it's doable.

This is not to say Star Fox 64 is an overly difficult campaign in itself; really, any retro shoot-'em-up can give it a run for its money in that area, as I can practically storm through it on autopilot. It's how I choose to play that provides an enticing challenge, as I can either aim for a new total high score or improve a kill count for any single planet (and even then, there's an unlockable Extra Mode if I desire a tougher challenge. Venom is just nasty).

I could go on, such as how every enemy is expertly telegraphed, the intensity of the Star Wolf dogfights and  how much fun it is to bomb things, but it'd all just feed into my ultimate point of how some of Nintendo's best games deeply respect the creed of "easy to learn, hard to master", and Star Fox 64 is among their company. However, while I still to this day aim for bigger and better scores, I am hardly any such example of said creed. Really, I suspect that it's framed just perfectly enough within its presentation that ultimately appeals to me. The story and world operate like a distilled Star Wars (albeit with an anthromorphic population), never intruding upon gameplay progression but instead as a form of accompaniment. Being distilled Star Wars means it's presented with typical camp and cheese, yet it's never bloated to the point where I can't take it seriously.

Case in point: the voice acting, which is largely comprised of local, unknown talent. Not "bad" talent, mind, but mainly actors you'd see in your downtown theater or whose voice talents are largely reserved for radio, audiobooks and commercials. Perfect for the short, memorable quips of Mario and his friends, but let it be known voice direction has always been the NOA Treehouse's Achilles' heel, and that can prove to be largely disastrous in dialogue-heavy games. Later examples like Metroid: Other M and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance attest to this, but in what's nothing less than a miracle, you'd hardly know it from Star Fox 64.

See, it'd be all too easy to cite nostalgia as the reason why, but it wasn't until the game's 3DS remake that I realized the secret sauce: it's all performed genuinely. This isn't a case of the directors and voice actors obnoxiously doubling down on the camp present in the game's script, nor is it a case of the latter coming in to deliver half-hearted performances for what they--and perhaps the directors involved-- perceive to be another dinky children's computer game. No, this is the result of a circle of individuals who came together to produce a living, breathing sci-fi adventure, who understand that this is a world that requires a delicate balance in tone; it's not nearly as raw as Metroid or Fire Emblem, but not nearly as squeaky clean as Super Mario or Kirby. A world where a fox seeks to avenge his father, a falcon can be brash and cocky, a hare gives sagely advice, and a frog can be endearingly clumsy.

Fox McCloud (Mike West), the team leader, is oddly the member with the least number of lines, but that's no excuse for West to get sloppy; he's played as the youthful leader, but he's performed seriously enough so that lines like "Let's rock and roll!" don't come across as overly comic. Meanwhile, through some careful guidance from the Japanese development team, Falco Lombardi (Bill Johns) is successfully played as the Han Solo to Fox's Luke Skywalker: quick to bark at Fox for his mistakes, but sets his sass aside for moments of true camaraderie...even if it's bitter sarcasm ("Gee, I've been saved by Fox, how swell").

Of course, the real star is Rick May's Peppy Hare, and I'm not just saying that because his words of wisdom ("Do a barrel roll!") have been repeated on internet forums everywhere since 1997. Even with a slight Southern accent, he's portrayed as the most grounded character (as it should be, considering he's the veteran who laid witness to Fox's father's death). I said earlier that Star Fox 64 never gets raw, yet it's amazing how his passionate cries for help tiptoe on that line; check out how he screams "What's taking you so long, Fox?!?" when chased by an enemy fighter.

The villains are no slouch, either: the delicious British accents for Jock Blaney's Wolf  and Jay Green's Leon are easily the highlight of the opposing Star Wolf team, although I'm particularly fond of Pigma Dengar's  whiny jackassery. Meanwhile, the delicious cheese of the various bosses are infinitely quotable in themselves, particularly Sector Y's Shogun ("COCKY LITTLE FREAKS!") and the Macbeth train driver ("Step on da gas!"). There's also Andross (Rick May), the big bad whose synthesized voice continues to haunt me with one line: the echo of his thundering giggle that pervades the final battle.

 The only weak link I can spot is Lyssa Browne's Slippy Toad, and it's not that she does the job poorly as it that she's, well, miscast. A recent all-cast interview reveals she was directed to channel the voice of a boy, but that's clearly not what we have here: it's a voice very much that of a woman, and it's caused no shortage of gender confusion (for the record, Slippy is male). And yet, I cannot bring myself to hate her performance. She's miscast, yes, but nostalgia be damned! Her performance is just as genuine as the rest, and it's become just as much a cherished part of Star Fox 64 as anything else.

Let's not forget the music, either. Legendary game composer Koji Kondo, who did sound effects for the original Star Fox, promotes himself to composing the game's peripheral pieces (as in, the opening/title themes, menu, game over, etc.). The main theme--a recurring motif which became the series theme from hereon--is more of a military march than the grand orchestra of Star Fox's SNES days. While it's a song that's proven its compatibility for orchestra in future appearances, that it hues closer to a Saturday Morning action cartoon is what reigns in the game's tonal balance.

We see the motif repeat in the ending theme, but though the (also great) Level Clear theme takes most of the spotlight, it's actually host to one of my favorite Nintendo ending/credits sequences. Yes, the awkward dialogue between Fox and General Pepper is hilariously abrupt, but it never interrupts the catharsis of the final two scenes: the Star Fox Team triumphantly sprinting across rocky terrain as the Great Fox mothership slowly soars into the setting sun, ending the credits with a percussion-filled choir. Be for it for the purposes of a nostalgic revisit, the thrill of a high-score run or simply playing for pleasure, I'm hard-pressed to think of many game endings this rewarding. (As an aside, I've found it's grown ever more powerful since former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, whose credit as Executive Producer covers the sun right as the choir kicks in, passed away in 2013).

This isn't necessarily a surprising direction, as such prestige rolls back to the Menu Theme, a favorite of mine which I've written about before. Echoing that of a museum, it's one of my favorite Nintendo menu themes in that it always compels me to sit down and reflect on a journey I've taken hundreds of times. Be it before I've even started a new campaign or when I'm entering a new score at the end, it successfully frames Star Fox 64 as the vindicated sci-fi tale it wants to be, as evidenced by how it segues into the "military briefing" style of the Prologue/Map theme.

But let us not heap all the praise on Kondo, for Hajime Wakai is the game's leading composer. His debut work for Nintendo, Wakai helms the game's levels to varying success. That's not to knock on his composition skills; everything from the Fortuna/Sector Z theme to the dream-like Warp zones expertly capture dogfight battlegrounds and the mystery of space. No, it's the sound quality where things tend to slip a little. I'm not sure why it's mainly just on Wakai's end while Kondo's pieces are stronger in this area (especially when Kondo had similar fumbles in Zelda: Ocarina of Time), but regardless, it's worth an  analysis.

Corneria is a great example in showing Star Fox 64's instrumentation falters in one area: percussion. Not the booming ones from the aforementioned credits, but the lighter kind meant to accompany the main tune. It's pitifully tinny, and it's particularly dreadful when there's no actual tune to mask it. One can also spot this in the fast-paced Star Wolf theme.

Here's the good news, though: much of this weakness are in the beginning percussion, and you tend to forget about as the main tune kicks in. What's actually bizarre is that I hardly notice this when playing it, as it's drowned out by the Arwing engines and the superb voice work before I have a chance to notice. Here, examples like the theme for Sector Y and Solar, where the percussion briefly carries the opening segment, are obscured by the onscreen action.

Of course, this isn't a problem for themes like Venom where it springs out the gate with a different instrument. Percussion's vital here too, but the other instruments at work ensure the song--a nightmare-ish dive into the world that killed Fox's father--capture the player instantly. For the record, even though this plays in the route that leads to the false ending, this song alone is why I actually prefer this version of Venom to the hard path one.

Really, if I must name one flaw from a design standpoint, it's the multiplayer. There can be some fun mined from it, sure, but there's no getting around that it's woefully barebones. I could certainly envision a multiplayer mode with Star Fox 64's engine being a grand ol' time, but certainly not with only two stages and the barest of environmental interaction. Not even the novelty of opting to have your character walk around with bazookas can salvage it from mediocrity.

But let us not tarry on such blemishes. Let it be known that while I enjoyed the divisive follow-ups to the Star Fox brand (barring Rare's adventure-based turd), none of them have a patch on what I, once again, personally deem to be the very finest of its genre. There's no half-baked gimmicks jumbling out a mess of ideas; no repetitive concepts overshadowing a tried-and-true gameplay model. It's simply Star Fox 64: a game with lightning-fast pacing confined to an afternoon's delight. It remains not just one of the Nintendo 64's best, but an exemplary standard of the aerial combat fighter.

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