I recently purchased a Super Famicom (that's a story for another time), and my boxed copy of Star Fox just came in this week. I have a lot of experience with the later Star Fox titles—especially Star Fox 64—but I had never played more than a few minutes of the very first Star Fox, so I was fortunate enough to boot up this game without the haze of nostalgia clouding my judgement.
This may sound daft in the age of HD remakes and 60 FPS frame rates, but color me impressed. Just the notion that the SNES could crank out 3D polygons in 1993 astounds me—but the fact that it runs and plays as well as it does is a technological wonder. Thinking back on the difficulties the entire games industry had transitioning to 3-dimensional gameplay in the mid-'90s, it amazes me that Shigeru Miyamoto and Katsuya Eguchi were able to build a fun and unique game around such new tech.
Nowadays, the original Star Fox gets a lot of flak for not "holding up," but I never had a Super Nintendo growing up. It was just a few years before my time. Until now, most of my exposure to the library of Nintendo's powerhouse console has come in the form of emulators and videos and the Virtual Console. It's only been recently that I've had the spare cash to shell out on retro consoles, so my first-time experiences with a lot of these games have been genuine and sometimes surprising.
Now, I know I've blabbered on for a bit here, but this isn't really what I wanted to talk about. Star Fox may be a marvel of 16-bit game design, but Star Fox 2 is downright mythic.
Some of you may know this one. The story goes that for the original Star Fox game, Nintendo worked closely with British developer Argonaut to design an arcade-style shooter. Argonaut's founder Jez San presented Nintendo with a prototype based on an NES port of an Amiga game of theirs named Starglider.
San explained to Nintendo that if they wanted anything better than this, they would need to make custom hardware. So, Nintendo signed Argonaut a one-million dollar deal, and the SuperFX chip was born.
For the Super Nintendo, the SuperFX allowed new games to really stretch their legs—Yoshi's Island, for instance, used the SuperFX to render its gigantic boss-characters and multiple foreground and background layers. The chip was so much more powerful than the built-in processor that Argonaut joked that the SNES was just a box to hold the chip.
Argonaut wanted to make a sequel to Starglider, but Nintendo wasn't too fond of its open-exploration gameplay and insisted on the on-rails style that has become a hallmark of the Star Fox series. Miyamoto preferred animal characters over humans for very interesting reasons, and the rest came together exactly as you'd expect.
The original Star Fox is pretty barebones; in retrospect, it looks more like it was made to show off the SuperFX chip than anything else. But, before the release of Star Fox's canonical sequel Star Fox 64 (or Lylat Wars, as it was known in Europe), Nintendo went all-out on a never-released Super Famicom sequel called Star Fox 2, scheduled to drop in 1995.
Star Fox 2 elaborated on every idea in the original Star Fox in stunning ways. The All-Range Mode that made its commercial debute in 64 is there. The Landmaster tank, a transformable walker, and even an overworld map with real-time strategy gameplay elements were all there—and the most damning part of it all is that it was done. It all works! You can buy it on eBay right now (albeit in bootleg form). The game was canned at the very last minute, its key gameplay mechanics (and even some of its programming) cannibalized for titles like Star Fox 64, Star Fox Command, and even Super Mario 64.
I mean, just look at this thing:
In all honesty, Nintendo had every right to dump the game. The dawn of the polygon era was fast approaching, and by 1995, Sony's Playstation and Sega's Saturn were already on the market in Japan. Nintendo had even crammed a brand new chip—the SuperFX 2—into the cartridge, with twice the processing power of the original SuperFX, but they still felt like it would struggle to sell alongside the competing consoles' much more capable hardware. (Which is strange, because Nintendo had a satellite service for the Super Famicom that launched the same year.)
It's tempting to wonder "what if, what if" about this gem of a lost title, but you can play it! It exists! The game had pretty much gone Gold before it was cancelled.
I know if I poked around online, I could find it, but it's hard to resist getting a hard copy for myself...