Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 15, Star Fox 64/3D

Hey, guess what happens to one of Nintendo's all-time greats when it gets a proper update that respects the source material?

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

While writing up the feature for this project on Star Fox Zero (number 78), I emphasized that I was not a major Star Fox guy. What I meant by that is that I’m not someone who is all-in on the franchise as a whole, who is excited about every entry in the series and enjoys them all, who likes to use Star Fox characters in Smash Bros. or whatever. I like Star Fox games plenty, that’s true enough, but “like” is usually how I feel about them. Good games, some of them (significantly) better than the others.

Star Fox 64, though? And its remastered sibling, Star Fox 64 3D? Those are fantastic slices of arcade-influenced gaming. They aren’t burdened by technological limitations like the pair of Super Nintendo Star Fox games — as admittedly impressive as they were for the time — nor have they been saddled with trying to further diversify the gameplay with a plethora of vehicles and too many moments that aren’t just you flying around in an Arwing racking up kills. Star Fox 64 is one of the absolute best games Nintendo has ever created, and the 3D iteration not only helped to prove that the core gameplay of this Nintendo 64 gem still held up, but it’s also better than the original in every way.

Like with F-Zero, Wario Land, and Kid Icarus, too, Star Fox is in the bucket of Nintendo franchises that they kind of just forget about unless someone else pitches them a game. Nintendo made Star Fox 64 by themselves, and then were never again the lead developer for a Star Fox title. I would buy that they ran out of great ideas to differentiate other Star Fox titles from the zenith that 64 represents — Zero is the lone post-64 Star Fox on the list, in part because it’s the only one that includes a fundamental change to the series that I embraced even if others found it less appealing— so they’re constantly waiting around for someone else to bring something new around.

Shigeru Miyamoto’s lack of emphasis on story in his design philosophy probably plays a role in this to a degree. Zero, for all that’s different about it, acts as a reboot of Star Fox 64, which itself is a reboot of the original Star Fox, developed on hardware that could better handle the full scope of that game’s ambition. Miyamoto designed and produced Star Fox 64, just as he did the original SNES game, and he was heavily involved in Zero, too: if a Star Fox is going to head somewhere different, it might need to be fully handed off to someone willing to try to differentiate via story and all that could bring with it in terms of enemies and locations and design, because otherwise, different versions of the same core game are what we’ll continue to get.

Anyway, Star Fox Assault, the sequel to 64, was a Namco production for the GameCube. The aforementioned Star Fox Zero was a PlatinumGames’ project. Star Fox Command on the Nintendo DS was developed by Q-Games, which you might know more for their PixelJunk series and maybe even a slew of wonderful DSiWare games. Q-Games was founded by Dylan Cuthbert, who had previously worked for Argonaut Games, which developed not just Star Fox and Star Fox 2 on the SNES, but also the Japan-exclusive X for the Game Boy. They were tasked with developing Star Fox alongside Nintendo back in the early 90s because of X, which was published by Nintendo, after early versions of it blew them away because of what it managed on the handheld.

X, in short, was a 3D title on the Game Boy. Yes, 3D gameplay on the 8-bit, green-tinted Game Boy: X, where you drove a starship from a first-person perspective inside of a 3D space and through tunnels, was Cuthbert’s project, and is the reason you may so closely associate him with Star Fox. The game impressed Nintendo so much that they were all-in on the idea of Argonaut developing the Super FX chip to allow the SNES to achieve a more robust 3D gameplay on its more powerful, 16-bit hardware, and that in turn resulted in Star Fox (and the canceled, then revived decades later, Star Fox 2). I bring up Argonaut and Cuthbert and Q-Games here not just as a short history lesson for the Star Fox franchise, but because it was Cuthbert’s Q-Games that got the call to port Star Fox 64 to the Nintendo 3DS, giving us Star Fox 64 3D. Since Cuthbert didn’t get a chance to work on the original version of the game, there’s something neat about Nintendo going back to the guy who allowed the series to exist in the first place to take his turn on the most celebrated entry of the bunch.

There is a real respect for the source material of Star Fox 64 in the 3D iteration, with the game playing out exactly the same way, albeit with some different button placements, if you want it to: there is a 3DS mode with some subtle-ish changes that optimize missions a bit for the handheld, and an N64 mode that exactly replicates the original. The only real difference in that mode this time around is that the game is a stunner to look at. The only Nintendo games that might benefit more from the boosted visuals of the system’s 3D slider are the pair of Legend of Zelda remakes, and more likely we’re talking about a three-way tie here.

Like with Sega’s 3DS ports of fellow rail shooters Space Harrier and Galaxy Force II, the system’s 3D effect adds depth that actively improves the Star Fox gameplay experience and your ability to aim at foes and obstacles in your path. It’s much easier to place where these foes — flying at you in a 3D space while you move on a 2D plane with your reticule partially obscured by your own ship — are with this additional depth, and if you better know where they are and will be, it’s also a lot easier to accurately fire on them. For this reason, it’s a shame the 3DS isn’t the system that got the Panzer Dragoon remakes, too, but hey, you can’t have everything. I just named three classic rail shooters whose definitive home editions are on the 3DS, don’t get greedy.

If you want to play Star Fox 64 3D using the 3DS’ gyroscopic motion controls to aim, then go for it. The circle pad (listen, it beats calling it an analog nub) is perfectly suited to flying the ship and aiming, though, and everything has been optimized in a way for the 3DS button layout that actually makes the whole thing work a bit better and more intuitively than the default N64 arrangement (and exponentially better than either Virtual Console release of Star Fox 64, which awkwardly relied on a right analog stick in place of C button presses). Don’t feel like you’re being forced into using a mode you might not want, as there are options, and good ones. There are moments in some games where gyroscopic aiming is preferable to the original, but Star Fox 64, which benefits so much from the 3D slider cranked to the max setting, is not one of those games for me, since firing dozens of shots at oncoming enemies flying at you from various locations is a lot different than trying to zero in for one good, accurate shot from a bow or hookshot.

My favorite change to the gameplay in the 3DS release of Star Fox 64 comes with the removal of the secondary first-person viewpoint in favor of one that pulls back on the camera. While the first-person view was useful enough for zeroing in on a target you were struggling to get a beat on in the original game, the added depth via the 3D slider helps replicate that utility without the need to change your viewpoint. And the camera zooming out is far more effective and useful than the first-person view ever was, as it allows you to see what’s happening around your Arwing to a greater degree in all-range mode, where you will often be dogfighting or looping around a smaller area. While Star Fox 64’s dogfighting is nowhere the level of Zero’s in quality — Zero made this list in no small part due to its best-in-series dogfighting — being able to pull back the camera like this greatly enhances the experience when compared to Star Fox 64’s version of those stages. It’s not that the N64 fights against Star Wolf and his evilly-voiced wingmates are bad or anything. It’s just that the 3DS versions are superior.

You could be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much to Star Fox 64. You would be wrong, but understandably so. At least back in the mid-90s when it released, we were much more used to arcade games that took 30 minutes or an hour to finish a playthrough of, and understood that seeing the credits wasn’t the same as mastering a game. In the present, well, we’ve got a bit of a shoot-em-up and arcade revival thing going on, but it’s still more fringe than the scene was in 1997, when Nintendo was confident in releasing a first-party game expected to be a system seller that would take you less than an hour to “beat,” and were right to do so: Star Fox 64 sold four million copies on a console with just 33 million lifetime sales.

Compare that to the one million copies of the undeniably superior Star Fox 64 3D, released on a system with more than twice as many consoles out in the wild: it was just a different time, and the shoot-em-up/arcade scene hadn’t come back as strongly by 2011 as it has today. The games media industry then was far too in the throes of “this game is too short to be worth your time” and “why isn’t there online multiplayer” and “where is the brand new content in this re-release of a game that came out before a number of Nintendo 3DS owners were even born” to recognize what it was they had in their hands and properly contextualize and recommend it to the rest of us.

The joy of Star Fox 64 and its 3D remaster is in the replaying. You can beat Star Fox 64 even if you outright suck at the game. You’ve got some extra lives to play with, and earning new ones isn’t particularly difficult, so your chances of defeating Andross and saving the Lylat system are pretty high. Your chances of doing it while being awarded medals for actually doing a killer job of it are low, though. You also can’t physically reach every level in the game in a single playthrough: Star Fox 64 is all about hidden bosses and hidden paths, and it takes repetition and exploration to discover them all, as well as a little bit of luck. You won’t find nearly everything the game has to offer after a dozen runs, never mind one.

Take the hidden path in the first level, for instance, which you can watch in the above embedded video. You have to successfully defeat the enemies chasing after your wingmate, Falco, and then you have to impress him with your flying, too, by making your way under a series of arches. Only after you have pulled off both of those feats — and it is very easy to not go under all of the arches, because of the lure of enemies to shoot and items to collect — will Falco suggest you follow him through a waterfall that will lead you to a different level-end boss and a different followup stage. This is one of the easier hidden paths to figure out and to then successfully reach. There are going to be hidden paths you have discovered that take much more practice to actually get to, such as the warps.

Sometimes, you’ll want those hidden paths in order to discover the non-default stages, but you also need to play the basic runs again and again, as well. Otherwise, you’re not going to earn the medals that prove you’ve actually mastered Star Fox 64’s gameplay. Each enemy you defeat is worth a certain score: defeating multiple enemies at once by charging up your guns to fire a homing explosive round can get you more than the standard one point, and certain foes and obstacles are just inherently worth more than that, too. It’ll take practice for you to be able to clear enough enemies in a single run to earn a medal in that stage, as they are not placed in such a way where you can easily get to them all. You need to make decisions on how you’ll defeat enemies, as well as which enemies you’re going to gun for. Make the right calls to maximize points, and you’ll get a medal… so long as you also didn’t lose any of your wingmen during the stage.

Each run takes under an hour to complete, which is a positive, not a negative. You want to learn the ins and outs of each stage, replay them to complete them in different ways to unlock different subsequent worlds, and if there was six hours of campaign here, you’d never finish. And not in a satisfactory way, either. Star Fox 64 has 25 possible paths for you to take, two different final levels and final boss encounters, and multiple difficulty levels. Certain paths are tougher than others, for one, as detailed at the Star Fox wiki page: one through six are considered easy, 7-19 are more of a medium difficulty, and the final six listed are the ones where the most difficult challenges all laid out in a row. Getting medals on those paths can be truly difficult, since even if you survive, your wingmen all have to make it, too: and decisions you make, about which enemies to prioritize and whether or not you successfully shoot them down, can decide whether or not Slippy, Falco, and Peppy actually make it to the end of a stage alongside you.

You get the choice of returning to a previous stage or a previously unlocked alternate path after completing a level, which helps with being able to zero in on the stages in which you don’t yet have a medal or giving it another go in order to avoid losing a wingman this time around. The former decision will cost you an extra life, but shifting where you progress to is free.

And then there is the actual more difficult version of the game, not just the more difficult paths. If you manage to get a medal on every one of the planets, you’ll unlock expert mode. The levels have the same layout on expert, but there are more enemies, tougher enemies, and smarter enemies, too. The medals on normal mean a lot more than just showing you’re pretty good at Star Fox 64: you need to earn them to even get to the stages that’ll prove you’re much, much better than that at the game.

All of this takes time. A lot of time. Much more than the hour it takes to see the credits, too much time to be complaining about how there isn’t an online multiplayer mode everyone would forget about after the servers shut down in a few years, anyway, while memories of the single-player campaign live on. You have to want to spend all of this time with Star Fox 64 (3D) in order for the game to be rated as highly as I have it, sure, but the game is also worth that time and effort. And that’s about all that matters. I played about two dozen more runs than I needed to for the purpose of ranking the game and taking notes for this feature, because I couldn’t put it down 10 years after its re-release, which came 14 years after the original. I’m probably going to publish this and then go play another run, because why wouldn’t I? I’ve still got some hard-earned medals to acquire.

Sure, Star Fox 64 doesn’t build on its narrative with each repeated play like the much more modern Hades does, but otherwise, similar concepts are in place. You play, you learn, you react on that new knowledge, and you discover more and more of the game, which in turn broadens and improves your experience with it. Each Star Fox 64 runs builds on the last, even if they’re less directly connected than in something like Hades (I should point out that there is no “something like” Hades, really, there’s just Hades). Star Fox 64 was a stunning achievement back in 1997, the rare, for Nintendo, kind of game that reminds you that they did have roots in the arcade and understand exactly what is necessary to create games that compel you like those do. The 2011 remaster is even better, and now, 10 years later, the whole thing still qualifies as one of the 15 best games Nintendo has ever produced. Where’s the online multiplayer, my ass.

If Nintendo never actually produces another Star Fox game after the critical and commercial disappointment of Zero, the series will still be worth remembering and revisiting because of Star Fox 64. They need to make sure there is always access to this game, or updates when necessary or appropriate like with the 3DS release, but that’s fine. Not every series needs to be mined to oblivion. Sometimes, you just get it right, and there isn’t always somewhere else to go or worth going. Star Fox 64 exists, whether a Star Fox Switch or whatever ever does, and that’s not such a bad thing to have to grapple with.

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