After acquiring Star Fox 64 from local retailer and stream partner Live Action Games, I found myself stunned at just how well this twenty-seven year old game stood up. Soon after, I took time to replay the whole Star Fox series. I couldn’t tell you why or how in the slightest — we go by vibes here. And this February, we were vibing with Star Fox. The series has a strong foundation... until around the mid 2000s.

Before we get to dunking on the, uh odder games in the series though, I thought it’d be best to start from the beginning.

Star Fox (A.K.A. Starwing)

Star Fox absolutely revolutionized a genre, bringing a bullet hell style game into the third dimension — and, quite frankly, pushed an older piece of hardware beyond its capabilities to do so.

As the story goes, the inspiration for Star Fox came from Miyamoto’s visits to the Fushimi Inari shrine in Japan. Walking through the gates was the impetus for the “corridor style” shooter, and, well... It's a fox shrine. The rest is easy enough to put together.

However, when lead programmer Jez San was presented with the idea of a 3D space shooter on the SNES, he made it quite clear the SNES was already doing the best it could. Enter the “Super FX” chip, a piece of hardware in every Star Fox cartridge designed to do the bulk of the work.

I must confess, these days the game does not impress like it once did. The poor thing chugs along at ten frames a second, and that's when there aren't a billion things on screen. But in historical context, seeing this sort of gameplay on the SNES was mind blowing.

The story here is mostly told through the instruction manual. Curiously, in the original, team Star Fox didn’t even own their own Arwings. General Pepper of the Corneria army developed them, but didn’t have time to train any pilots. So he hires a mercenary unit to fly them and save his galaxy. Does this make any sense? At all? Why do these four mercs know how to fly this experimental spacecraft no one’s seen?

Who cares? Stop asking questions, start shooting.

Fox and the team mostly communicate through dopey sound effects. Every now and then your squadmates get chased and need a save. If they get taken out, they’re down for the rest of the game — but honestly, you’ll hardly notice. They barely ever help. At most, they sometimes throw a bomb or health ring your way for the trouble.

At the onset, you pick one of three routes to Venom: easy, medium, or hard. There’s no opportunities to deviate from the path, aside from one weird trick where you go off course and fight a slot machine.

Once you win the jackpot, it's actually game over. The credits roll, and team Star Fox gets lost in space and time forever. Dark.

Aside from the slot machine, no matter what route you pick, it all ends with Andross — who, despite appearing like a monkey in his broadcasts, is a polyhedral silver face straight out of a bad 80’s music video.

The original Star Fox was very cool for its time, but the mere existence of the Super FX chip speaks to just how far Nintendo pushed a 3 MHz processor and 64 KB of RAM. To put it bluntly, The first Star Fox feels like a framework, a prototype. The ideas at play were simply too ambitious and far outstripped the available hardware.

Star Fox 64 (A.K.A. Lylat Wars)

When the team revisited the Star Fox concept on a piece of hardware capable of rendering all these lofty ideas, the real magic happened.

There’s a few alterations to the SNES story here. Team Star Fox are still mercenaries, but they actually own their own equipment. They also have their own flagship, the Great Fox, piloted by an Android named ROB (a reference to the original NES assistant). We also now have some lore. Some rock hard backstory. Fox McCloud’s father was also a former famous pilot, who went missing five years ago during the last battle against Andross. Peppy, your rabbit wingman, once flew alongside him. This will become apparent quickly, as he references your father on just about every occasion.

The entire crew’s personalities are more refined compared to the original. Falco is an egotistical hotshot, Peppy is the level-headed tactician, and Slippy is an absolute fuck up. Just a trash frog. But, he also designed and developed all your tech, including the Arwing, so good for him.

In one other major change from the original, if someone on your crew goes down, they’re only temporarily out. ROB spends one mission fixing up their Arwing, and they rejoin you after. Aside from missing out on quips during a stage, you still won’t really notice when they’re gone... until Star Wolf shows up and you’re hounded by four ships at once.

Multiple paths still exist, but they’re handled adaptively now. Instead of picking a route, success or failure determines the next destination. Sometimes this requires some kind of trick on the stage itself, and other times you simply need to perform a task within a certain amount of time or rack up enough kills.

Despite the on-rails nature of the gameplay, Star Fox 64 is absolutely full of repalibility. Depending on the route you take, you’ll see entirely different bosses, new characters, and even specialized vehicles. If you never end up on the hard route, for example, you’ll never see the Blue-Marine.

And you might also never meet Katt, Falco’s old friend who is here to remind you at all times she is a woman. If the pink ship, pink background, pink indicator, and flitty music doesn’t tip you off, don’t worry — she’ll just tell you. And Falco.

Mechanically, Star Fox 64 introduced several novel concepts to the series. First off, you can lock on and fire a homing shot, which is a godsend in a game this frantic. It’s not quite like Panzer Dragoon where you can fire off a whole barrage, but a well placed shot eliminates multiple targets. You'll even be rewarded with additional points for destroying multiple ships with one expertly placed charge shot.

The original had a boost and brake system, but Star Fox 64 takes the G-diffuser to new levels with U-turns and loops. The loops turn the tables on any tailing foes. U-turns, meanwhile, are only possible in All Range Mode, a new type of stage where instead of flying in a specific direction you’re given a square field to navigate.

We also have an actual resolution this time! The original Star Fox just rolled credits and called it a day. This time team Star Fox gets a medal ceremony, then runs around in front of a sunset for a while.

And, of course, Genral Pepper has to pay up. Despite my best efforts, I can't even crack 100,000 dollars. Saving your whole galaxy for under 100k seems like an absolute steal, but Pepper complains anyway.

All these years later Star Fox 64 is still a treat — and, in my estimation, is the best in series. This is largely because Star Fox 64 lets Star Fox be fucking Star Fox. Now you might think that’s tautological, but we’re about to explore why, surprisingly, its not.

As the Star Fox series continued, it seemed ashamed to just be a good 3D evolution of the bullet hell genre. Now it had to innovate, but the ways the series chose to innovate were... curious.

And by curious, I mean bad. Well, mostly bad.

Let’s start with the very next game...

Star Fox Adventures

I mean, you barely need me to spell this one out, right? Just look at the screenshot. For anyone who's played this weird side story of a Star Fox game, it will not surprise you to learn it began life as a completely unrelated N64 game called “Dinosaur Planet.” At the same time Rare began working on a version of said game we would never see, Miyamoto requested the next Star Fox game be an action adventure platformer instead of a shooter. Once Nintendo got a look at Dinosaur Planet and noted some similarities in character designs, Rare got the greenlight to slap Star Fox on it, and also rebuild for the Gamecube.

The end result is a Star Fox game that throws out its entire legacy for an (admittedly decent) Zelda-esque game. It’s fine, but not recognizable as Star Fox. You do get a handful of Arwing missions, but it's painfully clear they weren’t the focus of development.


If you saw these out of context, you might think it's a homebrewed fan project. And if it was, it would be impressive... but it's not. They mostly exist to take the story to a new location, not unlike the Gummi Ship rides in Kingdom Hearts. A brief two or three minute detour before you return to the real game.

In the interest of fairness this entry is still beloved among Star Fox fans, but there's no denying it abandoned the series' existing framework. The next handheld entry took us back to the skies.

Star Fox Command

This one comes the closest to what I would’ve liked from a Star Fox sequel. The entire crew is now playable and then some. The cast is extensive this time around, featuring not only the main cast but an assortment of side characters and new crewmates. Their Arwings have a handful of differentiation, such as blaster styles and G-diffuser capabilities. Some ships handle on a dime, and some are beefy tanks. Much like the earlier games in the series, we also have a collection of different routes available. And this time, each route actually has a different ending entirely — the image above comes from one where Falco and Fox become successful racers after retirement. The endings are largely determined by which characters join your journey, which also means you'll get to swap between a bunch of different Arwings during missions too.

Too bad in order to control this assorted cast, you have to scribble on a goddamn screen.

Command is split between two modes — an RTS style plotting game where you draw out the paths your crew will take, and a mode where you take direct control of said ship once it encounters an objective. During the battle section, your buttons do surprisingly little. Barrel rolling? Scribble fast on the left or right side of the screen. Aiming? Slide your stylus up and down. It’s a pain in the ass, makes precision aiming hard as hell, and underutilizes almost every button on the device.

That said, I won’t deny I found aspects of this one enjoyable. The endings run the gamut from touching to absurd, the varied Arwings make it fun to replay, and the command sections get creative on how to complicate your ability to draw a line. It’s a solid game, but the dreadful controls hold it back from greatness.

Star Fox Assault

This one hurts the most.

Star Fox Assault starts strong. Flying the ship feels good, everything looks great, you’re blastin’ lasers in space. It’s Star Fox, baby. We’re back.

And then this bullshit happens.

You are going to spend the majority of the game on foot. If it looks promising, I regret to inform you it is not. As a gimmick for the N64 multiplayer, running around on the ground was fine. As a primary means of combat for a full single player game? Not so much. Enemies spawn off screen and blast you in the back. The grounded dodge roll feels funky and slow, and Fox often gets tagged with a stray hit when invincibility frames run out at the tail end. You do get access to the Landmaster thankfully, but it feels nowhere near as good to control as its N64 counterpart.

Of extra special insult is the “wing missions.” Instead of flying your own Arwing, Fox hangs out on the wing of a different Arwing and shoots things. All the fun of Star Fox, but without being able to move. Joy. Every single one of these goes on for way longer than it ought to, and your wingman flies about as fast as a kite in a light breeze.

The greatest tragedy of Assault is it could’ve had it all, but yet again, Star Fox tosses out what put it on the map for a bunch of gimmicky nonsense. And what’s worse, this entry throws out alternate routes too. This also means you can’t even try to avoid the bullshit ground missions, because they’re always going to be there. Waiting.

There’s a taste of greatness in Assault. But only a taste.

Star Fox Zero

You’ve got to be kidding me.

We waited for this one. Nintendo teased it repeatedly at the end of many a Direct showcase. No ground missions, no weird gimmicks, no Zelda UI. Just some good old fashioned space blasting. The footage looked absolutely amazing.

Too bad it controls like garbage though, because guess what? The only way to precisely aim is to use the gyroscope inside your Wii U gamepad.

What. The fuck.

Why? Why? There’s two joysticks on the controller. AND BUTTONS! So many buttons! But no, the only way to fly this time is to fling the tablet around the living room like you’re keeping an eye out for homicidal pizza-themed animatronics.

To add insult to injury, Star Fox Zero does feature co-op... in that one person flies and one person aims. But the aimer still has to use the Wii U pad (or a Wiimote) because of course they do. And while I’m at it, doesn’t this co-op mode feel kind of like a self-report? Isn’t it like saying “we made the controls so byzantine and torturous it requires two people to manage it?”

To further rub salt in those wounds, Star Fox Zero brings back ground missions. They aren’t quite as bad in terms of controls... but thematically, they are somehow stupider. I mean, real dumb.

Yeah, that right there? That’s the Arwing. Every now and then your wings morph into chicken legs and you march around the interior of a giant space station. A station so big, in fact, you probably could’ve just flown through it.

But no. Instead, we get chicken leg Arwings.

Mercifully, Star Fox Zero doesn’t pull out the chicken Arwing often, and it even gives you the opportunity to swap between the two forms on the fly. Thus, it’s not the most offensive thing in Star Fox Zero.

No, that honor goes to the Gyrowing. This detestable VTOL vehicle is forced upon you on two occasions, and every single time is too many. It generates no forward momentum of its own, and has an obnoxious little robot you’ll lower down on a tether the size of a bendy straw. And, for your first full-fledged mission with this hovering death trap, you’ll do it all in stealth. That’s right, this Star Fox game has a stealth mission.

In the interest of fairness, I do have some nice things to say about Star Fox Zero. Actually controlling the Arwing feels great. The right stick controls your boosters, which gives you way more precision over boosts and breaks. It also looks incredibly sleek, even by today’s standards. During the normal missions, there’s plenty of fun to be had, and the motion controls are easy enough to manage during the standard corridor sections.

But then you’ll switch to “targeting mode,” where the Arwing moves sideways at all times and the only way to aim is to look at the gamepad and tilt like a goddamn pinball machine. This game just can’t help but step all over its best parts with terrible ideas. I hate it. I hate it so much.

Nothing drives the nail in the coffin quite like the final stage. Here, you’re required to fight Andross and dodge lasers — which is all well and good, except you can only tell where the lasers are by looking at the gamepad. And, once you’re finally in the showdown with Andross, the only way to target him is with motion controls; Just turning the ship won’t get the reticle high enough. After certain attacks, he’ll swap your ship between Walker or Arwing mode, making an already disorienting fight downright dizzying. There’s neat ideas in this final conflict, but the motion controls and forced ship swapping turns it into a wide awake nightmare.

Much like Command, this entry is full of great ideas ruined by an adherence to byzantine control schemes. For every stage I enjoyed, there was another I prayed would end. If this game were re-released on the Switch without lousy motion controls, I would recommend it immediately. If it were released in the same state, I’d say the same thing I’ll say now: stay away. The handful of good missions are not worth the agony.

Star Fox Guard

This is a fucking tower defense game.

Listen, it’s fine — it uses the Wii U gamepad pretty well, but it's barely a Star Fox game. Though, at this point, there’s more outliers than originals, so what even is a Star Fox game now? Who cares? Bring on the Star Fox dating sim next or whatever.

If we turn to critical reception at the times of release, it's easy to see the downward trend after Adventures. Star Fox and Star Fox 64 took home high scores across the board, but from Command onward, review scores averaged out. In terms of sales, those also dropped off significantly — but to be fair, Star Fox Zero released on a console that sold abysmally too. If everyone who bought a Wii U also bought Star Fox Zero, it still would've only sold 3 million worldwide at the time (in the first month, Zero barely sold 25k).

So, after this disappointing tour of Star Fox history, it’s time to look forward. Some day, at some time, Nintendo will return to the Star Fox IP. I’m sure of it. When that day comes, here’s my wishlist.

1. No More Gimmicks

Please just let me fly an Arwing. Please oh please. God, please. I don’t want to have to wiggle a remote, scribble on a screen, or rotate a fucking tablet like a grandparent asking their grandkid how to open facebook. I just want to move a joystick and press a button to shoot.

2. Refine The Wheel Before Reinventing It

This one feels like the obvious answer all along, right? What if instead of three paths, we had five? Six? Or, what if you chose at the start of each mission who takes an Arwing and who takes a Landmaster? Maybe you even pick who you control, and their Arwing and Landmaster have unique properties. Now in addition to new routes, you also have new vehicles to experiment with. What kept you coming back to the first two Star Fox games was the variation in each run. I want things to improve replayability — for choices you make in previous worlds to come back in a later one, for mission failures to be a possibility again, for curiosity to be rewarded with a new path through a planet.

All of this would’ve been much preferred over a thousand new ways to fly our ship poorly.

3. More Optionality, Less Length

This one ties into the previous point. The appeal of Star Fox 64 is its brevity. The game is exactly as long as it needs to be to feel like the last great counteroffensive in a prolonged war. You can save the entire Lylat system in a breezy hour and a half at most, and that’s excellent. For some reason, every subsequent Star Fox game thought the best answer was to make sequels longer. Assault lost all variation, but racked up a seven hour run time. Zero retained some alternate paths, but these simply change how levels end instead of changing your course towards Venom entirely.

Star Fox ought to be a game you can beat in one sitting, but each time you do, there’s an opportunity to see and experience new things. During the development of Star Fox 64, a particular route was dubbed the “Miyamoto route,” because it was his favorite during playtesting. There’s not really any such thing as “favorite” now. Reducing twenty five potential paths to Venom down to one is an absolute tragedy that demonstrates a misunderstanding of what made the series appealing to begin with.

There is another world — an unlikely, yet tragic one — where we never get another good Star Fox game. If such tragedy is the bygone conclusion here, I'm happy to report we'll always have Star Fox 64. This game (and its 3DS re-release) is still just as exceptional as launch day, and just like its Super FX powered predecessor, its a powerful testament to just how far Nintendo could stretch 4 MB of RAM and a 93 MHz processor. Just once, we had the right people, in the right place, with the right hardware, at the right time.

Maybe we'll never see a good Star Fox again, but at least, even if only once in the whole series, Nintendo captured lightning in a bottle.

If purchasing an N64 or a 3DS is out of the question in 2024, Star Fox 64 is also available on the Nintendo Switch expansion pack.