Everyone criticizes Nintendo’s treatment of Star Fox, but who exactly is the audience for Star Fox? Last year, Japanese gamers were asked in a survey about what their top ten favorite Nintendo franchises were. Star Fox was not listed anywhere in the top ten for males or females. In fact, more women in Japan prefer Pikmin over Star Fox, and males preferred F-Zero over it as well. The “Mother” franchise hasn’t released a new installment since 2006, but the franchise was ranked at number 7 for Japanese men.
The shoot em’ up genre began life in the arcades with games like Space Invaders and Space Harrier. If someone enjoyed an arcade game, they were later influenced to purchase the home console version. Unfortunately, the technology of home consoles began to rival arcades, and this forced many arcades to eventually close down. The demand and interest for shoot em’ ups was weakened, and the genre became increasingly niche by the mid 90’s.
The original Star Fox capitalized on shoot em’ ups at the height of the genre’s popularity. When the shoot em’ up fad was over, the Star Fox franchise became a lost chicken with its head cut off. This isn’t any different from how skateboarding games and music games (Guitar Hero, Rock Band) were once popular trends that eventually faded away.
Star Fox isn’t relevant today because the gameplay never offered anything original to begin with. Maybe it deserves credit for improving on existing formulas, but its contributions to the genre have been vastly overrated. Parappa the Rapper contributed more brand new ideas to the rhythm music genre than Star Fox has contributed to rail-shooters and shoot em’ ups.
1993’s Star Fox (SNES) was a compilation of the best ideas from 1991’s Starblade, 1988’s Galaxy Force II, 1986’s Silpheed, 1985’s Space Harrier, and 1983’s Star Wars (Atari). In fact, Argonaut’s previous railshooter “Starglider” was heavily inspired by the gameplay in 1983’s Star Wars for Atari. According to Dylan Cuthbert, Argonaut’s 1992 Game Boy title “X” was influenced by F-18 interceptor (Amiga) and Tau Ceti (ZX Spectrum).
From SNES through GameCube, Star Fox imitated whatever was trendy or popular at the moment. When Zelda (N64) and large 3D adventure games became popular, Shigeru Miyamoto added Star Fox to a game with Zelda gameplay called “Dinosaur Planet”. Toward the end of the GameCube era, third person action games were gaining popularity, and Nintendo needed to appeal to young adults. To appeal to an older demographic, Namco added on-foot third person shooter levels to Star Fox Assault.
Games like “X” and “Star Fox” are hailed for their technical achievements on weaker hardware, but how did their gameplay “reinvent” the genre? How many brand new gameplay ideas did Star Fox introduce to the genre that Starblade, Galaxy Force II, and After Burner II didn’t already introduce? Maybe one? Maybe two if you want to be really, really generous.
Would Star Fox (SNES) still be remembered if it was published by Sega or Namco instead of Nintendo?
The graphics of Sega’s Galaxy Force II were way ahead of their time for a late 1980’s arcade game, but most people won’t acknowledge it for its technical achievements. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston both owned arcade machines of Galaxy Force II, and yet most gamers still don’t remember this game. It can’t be because it’s a bad game since Nintendo Life gave the 3DS version an 8 out of 10, and it’s currently scoring a 77 on Metacritic.
If you stripped away the talking animals, would Star Fox’s gameplay be anymore appealing than “Sin and Punishment: Star Successor” or the flying sections in “Kid Icarus: Uprising”?
Contrary to popular belief, Star Fox is not an easy franchise to reboot. The franchise is too hardcore to appeal as a family game like “Mario Kart”, “New Super Mario Bros”, and “Wii Sports”. It struggles to appeal to the Titanfall/Gears of War audience because it has talking animals for protagonists. Star Fox struggles to attract small children because the characters aren’t drawn cutesy and adorable like Yoshi, Kirby, or Animal Crossing. Nobody plays Star Fox at competitive tournaments like Super Smash Bros or Pokemon. It lacks Japanese appeal like Monster Hunter, Persona, Dragon Quest, Fire Emblem, etc.
I don’t blame Nintendo for running out of ideas on how to properly reboot Star Fox.
Star Fox Can’t Sell Without Gimmicky Technology
The Star Fox franchise sells best when it’s the first game to introduce gimmicky technology. When Star Fox isn’t the first to introduce gimmicky technology, it becomes just another rail shooter to throw on the pile.
In the early 1990’s, there was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding the Super FX chip for SNES. The original Star Fox is a glorified tech demo that sold four million units because it was the FIRST SNES game to use the Super FX chip. Before 1993, if you wanted to see more games pushing smooth 3D polygon graphics then you had to visit the arcades. The first Donkey Kong Country and the original Star Fox share some similarities with each other. Neither game reinvented their respective genres with innovative gameplay, but they blew everyone away with their graphics.
Timing is everything, and Star Fox was released at the right time when there was a huge debate about “Mode 7” versus “Blast processing”. No matter how fun the original Star Fox was, it wouldn’t have sold four million units if it weren’t for all of the hype surrounding the new graphics technology. Let’s pretend, hypothetically, that Stunt Race FX had been the first SNES game to use the Super FX chip. Would Star Fox (SNES) still be viewed as something special? I highly doubt it.
Here’s an SNES advertisement hyping up the SuperFX chip behind Star Fox (Starwing in Europe):
Nintendo didn’t even release “Star Fox 2” on SNES because the excitement for the Super FX chip was gone. The Super FX chip was no longer new or interesting. They needed a new gimmick to sell a Star Fox game, and they found that gimmick on the Nintendo 64. That new gimmick was called rumble.
In 1997, Star Fox 64 was the FIRST console game to support rumble, and Nintendo ran a cross-promotion between the two products. Sega never picked up on rumble with the Saturn, and the PlayStation Dual Shock controller wasn’t released until 1998 in North America and late 1997 in Japan. One of the biggest reasons why Star Fox 64 sold 3 million units worldwide is because it was initially bundled with the rumble pak. It’s similar to why Wii Play sold extremely well because it was bundled with the Wii remote.
The timing is interesting because GoldenEye 007 was released on the same year as Star Fox 64, and it was compatible with the rumble pak. If you wanted to try the Rumble Pak with GoldenEye 007, it made sense to buy Star Fox 64 since it came bundled with it.
How different would sales have been for Star Fox 64 if it wasn’t the first console game to introduce rumble? It definitely wouldn’t have sold 3 million units if the rumble pak wasn’t bundled with the game. The inclusion of the rumble pak made gamers more forgiving of Star Fox 64’s short length.
Let’s look at later examples of the series.
Star Fox Command was NOT the first game to show off the Nintendo DS touchscreen. Therefore, most people weren’t excited about Star Fox Command using the touchscreen. “Star Fox 64 3D” was NOT the first game to show off 3DS’s stereoscopic effects and gyroscope motion controls. By the time Star Fox 64 3D released, we had already seen stereoscopic effects and gyroscope controls in games like “Ocarina of Time 3D” and “Steel Diver”.
Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault didn’t introduce any new pieces of gimmicky technology, and therefore, most people didn’t pay any attention to them.
Based on these observations, Star Fox performs dramatically worse in sales when it’s not the first game to show off a new piece of technology — like N64’s Rumble Pak or SNES’s Super FX chip. Being innovative isn’t enough if you aren’t the first game to introduce those innovations.
Price versus Game Length
There is a belief that the only “proper” or “correct” way to reboot Star Fox is by following the formula and ideas of Star Fox 64. Fans want a rail-shooter for the entire game without any on-foot missions like Star Fox Assault or Star Fox Adventure. They want a game that sticks closely to Star Fox’s roots instead of attempting something experimental or drastically different with the series.
Unfortunately, you can’t sell the traditional Star Fox formula — a short but sweet rail-shooter — to today’s gamers who demand a ridiculous amount of content for their $50-$60.
The main story modes of “Star Fox” and “Star Fox 64” didn’t last much longer than two hours, and they were both originally released at the price of $60-$70. The best Star Fox games were designed as short games that players would replay multiple times to unlock everything. Nowadays, too many gamers care more about a game’s length instead of it’s replay value, and today’s gaming media would absolutely crucify a $50-$60 Star Fox game that is shorter than five hours long without some extremely solid online multi-player.
On June 2013, Avalanche Studios founder Christofer Sundberg was asked why most games are traded in, and he said it’s because today’s modern games are too short.
“I’m sure it’s been an issue but that’s because games have been too short,” said Sundberg. “I mean, when you can play a game through from 8 to 10 hours, I would return the game too, because there’s no reason for players to play it again.”
When eight hour games are considered short, that’s when you know Star Fox has an uphill battle.
For example, Giant Bomb’s Matt Kessler singled out Star Fox 64 3D’s length in his review of the game. Kessler explains, “Star Fox 64 3D is too short and feature-deprived at $40 to satisfy newcomers while missing some of the nostalgic hooks that made its predecessor beloved.” A caption under one of the screenshots in his review reads, “$40 for a two hour game? Can’t let you do that, Star Fox.”
Many reviews tore into the short length of Star Fox Assault for the GameCube. “From a value perspective, you’re dealing with a feature-film’s worth of content for fifty bucks,” said Game Revolution.
Kotaku said Star Fox Command is a lot of fun, but they complained that it was a “touch too short”. GamePro agreed with Kotaku’s criticisms, “The maps are small and cramped and the game is just too short.”
Last month, Game Informer claimed that the core-story mode of “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” could be completed in two hours. Consumers were unhappy that Konami would charge $40 for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions. This sparked a debate about price versus value, and Konami eventually lowered the price from $40 to $30. Many were still unhappy with spending $30 for a core-story mode that lasts over two hours long.
The recent reviews of “South Park: The Stick of Truth” have been mostly positive, but one of the common complaints is that the game is too short. The average length is estimated between 13 to 15 hours if you choose to explore everything without rushing. Most critics will tell you that the game is quite fun, but the length of the game is constantly pointed out as a negative.
During the SNES and N64 days, publishers could easily get away with selling us a five-hour game for $60-$70. Today, people are slightly more educated and informed about their gaming purchases thanks to review aggregators like Metacritic, social networks like Twitter, customer product reviews on Amazon, or major gaming forums like NeoGaf.
Can Star Fox Learn From Donkey Kong?
Shigeru Miyamoto is constantly labeled as “crazy” or “out of touch with gamers” because it was his decision to add Star fox to Rare’s Dinosaur Planet. Trusting Rare to reinvent the Star Fox franchise with Zelda gameplay was no more crazy than having Rare reinvent the Donkey Kong IP with Super Mario World gameplay.
Giving Star Fox an on-foot adventure wasn’t Miyamoto’s mistake. That was a good idea because the action/adventure genre is the only way to broaden Star Fox’s marketing appeal in the long run. Star Fox was on a dead-end street as a railshooter, and the franchise has no future in today’s market if you keep pushing for a “prettier” Star Fox 64. Many Star Fox fans don’t want to hear that, but that is the depressing truth.
Miyamoto’s only real mistake was shoehorning Star Fox into a mediocre game like Dinosaur Planet. The truth is, “Dinosaur Planet” would have still been a mediocre, watered down Zelda, even without the Star Fox IP attached to it. I don’t understand why people believe that Dinosaur Planet would have been some brilliant masterpiece if the Star Fox IP wasn’t shoehorned into it. A watered down Zelda will always be a watered down Zelda.
The ideas behind Star Fox Assault and Star Fox Adventures were good, but even the best ideas can end up with sloppy execution or below average results. Unfortunately, people use those two games as evidence on why Star Fox shouldn’t explore the action/adventure genre more. Yes, Star Fox Adventures sold one million units which is less than Star Fox 64’s three million units, but GameCube’s install base was also significantly smaller than Nintendo 64’s install base.
Star Fox could learn a lot from how Rareware’s “Donkey Kong Country” series reinvented and modernized the ‘Donkey Kong’ intellectual property for a new generation of gamers. The “Country” trilogy made Donkey Kong feel cool and hip again with 90’s kids who were obsessed with cool and edgy mascots like Sonic the Hedgehog and Earthworm Jim. It established Donkey Kong’s universe with an entire family of Kongs, an entire cast of enemies, and a wide selection of animal buddies.
What if ‘Donkey Kong Country’ had never existed? The classic arcade game, “Donkey Kong” would have still remained popular and timeless, but Donkey Kong’s brand (as a whole) would have suffered. Games like “Donkey Kong ’94” and “Mario vs DK” were great, but they wouldn’t be enough to keep Donkey Kong relevant in society. Therefore, the Donkey Kong Country was born, selling 9 million units, and becoming the second highest selling SNES game of all time. “Donkey Kong Country Returns” from Retro Studios was released in 2011 for the Wii, and it sold over 5 million copies.
How does this relate to Star Fox?
Nobody has a problem with Mario having two RPG series (“Paper Mario”, “Mario & Luigi”). Many Wii U owners were cool with Zelda having a Dynasty Warriors spinoff franchise called “Hyrule Warriors”. Nobody complained when Donkey Kong Country ditched the old 80’s arcade gameplay and imitated “Super Mario World”. Everyone loves when Nintendo tries experimental ideas with Kirby like “Kirby Canvas Curse”. There are no complaints when Pokémon gets spinoffs like “Pokémon Snap”.
And yet, for some reason, nobody is cool with the idea of the Star Fox franchise branching out to other genres, or trying something new and experimental. Nobody is cool with the idea of Star Fox broadening its appeal outside of a currently unpopular niche genre (shoot em ups, railshooters) so it can become more marketable. There will never be a large audience for a pure, traditional Star Fox game until there’s a market again for linear shoot-em-up’s and railshooters. As long as games are being sold for $60 a pop, I can’t ever see that genre making a huge comeback in the near future.
If you continue chasing the Star Fox 64 formula, the franchise will continue running into brick walls. Even with online multiplayer, there is still no future in today’s world for a $50 railshooter.