Star Fox 64 is an on-rails space shooter for the Nintendo 64. It’s more or less a remake of the game Star Fox from the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The basic plot is that, years ago, an evil scientist called Andross tried to take over the part of the galaxy known as the Lylat System. The Star Fox team, headed by James McCloud and including Peppy Hare and Pigma Dengar, were sent to stop his evil plot. They were betrayed by Pigma and Peppy barely escaped. He returned and told the son of James, Fox, about what had happened. A few years later, the evil Andross once again threatens to take over the Lylat System. Fox takes up the mantle as leader of the Star Fox team, along with Peppy Hare, Slippy Toad, and Falco Lombardi, in the hopes to defeat the madman once and for all. All of this is much better explained in the opening narration of the game whenever you start a campaign, so don’t worry too much about missing out on the details.
The gameplay is done in an on-rails fashion. You’re usually in a spaceship flying on planets or through space areas at a rather fixed rate. You shoot down enemy ships, robots, bio-lifeforms, and even certain structures. Your teammates will also fly around and help out from time to time, giving you bits of advice here and there. Flying through silver rings will heal you. Going through three golden rings will increase your life meter for the duration of the level or that life. You can pick up laser upgrades to turn your shots into double shots and then more powerful double shots, but you always have the ability to charge your shots to make them more powerful and allow them to lock-on to enemies. Be careful. If you fly into too many things with your wings you might lose one of them, or both! Losing a wing will reduce your laser to minimum and destabilize your ship, causing it to constantly drift downward. Keep your eye out for those wing repair powerups. You can also pick up and store a limited supply of bombs. They pack a mighty punch, but they don’t grow on trees so use bombs wisely. You can also perform some neat tricks. You can boost or brake for a limited time to adjust your speed and position. This can help you deal with sticky situations. You can also perform a somersault to get behind an enemy on your tail. Sometimes there are just too many projectiles coming at you to dodge. In this case, tap Z or R twice to do a barrel roll. Your ship will spin around and deflect shots for a brief period. Holding one of these buttons can also be used to more properly dodge obstacles and turn sharper.
It’s also quite typical to end the stage with a boss fight. Sometimes you’ll fight them in a similar fashion as flying around the level, except that you maintain a consistent distance from the enemy regardless of your forward motion. Find those weak spots. Other times you’ll be put into a square-shaped battle area and go into all-range mode. In this mode you can fly around freely, as can your enemies and your allies. If you go too far outside of the boundary line you will automatically do a U-turn, though you can also voluntarily do one in this mode at any point if you have the boost gauge full. There are also two other vehicles you can use in specific stages. There’s the Landmaster, a tank that rolls on the ground, and the Blue-Marine, a submarine that goes through the water. The Landmaster cannot do barrel rolls, though it CAN roll out of the way with the double tap of Z or R. Holding both buttons at the same time will allow you to hover for a bit, which is a great way to avoid large, grounded obstacles. Plus you still have the ability to boost and brake. The Blue-Marine is more akin to the main Arwing ship, though it doesn’t move around nearly as swiftly due to the nature of underwater levels. You can boost, break, and perform barrel rolls. The most notable change to this vehicle is that it has unlimited torpedoes. Trust me, you’ll need them.
The game has no inherent difficulty setting. You always start at Corneria and end at Venom. Your path there is decided by your performance in the given levels. There are branching paths, but you must meet certain criteria to achieve these paths. For example, in the first level, Corneria, playing through normally will send you to the asteroid belt. However, if you keep Falco alive and fly under all the arches in the water section, you will be brought an alternate way to a new boss and end up going to Sector Y. You can always select to retry the level at the cost of a life in order to hunt for the secret exits, and if you get the better exit you can always choose to simply go to the easier course on the map screen if you’d prefer. There are essentially three type of routes. Easy, indicated by blue lines, medium, indicated by yellow lines, and hard, indicated by red lines. Your total amount of kills will be tallied up at the end and will serve as your total score. You can input your initials if you make it to the top 10 scores on the board. You can also get a couple of ranking on levels. Getting a certain number of kills and keeping all of your team members alive will reward you with either an orbiting star around the level or, better yet, a medal on the level. Obtaining these goals can earn you some unlockables such as an expert mode and more versus mode content.
Versus mode consists of a few modes and maps for up to four players. There’s a time trial, which is to see how many kills a player can get in a set time limit and having their score reset upon death. There’s a point match, where the first player to get the set amount of kills is the victor. And there’s the good ‘ol Battle Royal which gives everyone one life in a fight to the last man standing… or flying… or rolling…….. you get the idea. Yes, you can unlock different vehicle options from the main game. The standard option at the start is simply the Arwing. You can unlock the Landmaster option as well as the option to run around on foot. Doing so will make you very slow and not allow you to lock-on or charge shots. Depending on the mode you choose, you will have an option of two of three maps. There’s the Corneria map, with roads and buildings around it. There’s also a map of Katina, with the iconic large pyramid in the center. Both can be played with any of the vehicle options. The other map is of Sector Z, with space debris floating about. This map can only be played with Arwings as it is in groundless space. Powerups will appear in these matches, but instead of being forced to U-turn at the edge of the map you will simple roll over to the other side, making it more continuous for smooth fights and less opportunities for exploits.
Beyond that there’s a training mode to get you ready for the game’s mechanics. It’ll run you through a training stage while telling you how to operate the Arwing. It even includes an all-range mode section as well. It’s recommended for newcomers, but thankfully not required. There’s also a sound test and the ability to look at your high scores. There are even a few options for the game. There really isn’t much else to it, though. It’s mostly the main game and multiplayer modes that make up the game.
There’s a lot to like about Star Fox 64. I think it’s pretty visually appealing, especially for coming out so early in the console’s lifespan. It has lots of interesting effects and tons of 3D models all moving around without sacrificing the game’s speed. Not to mention some of the fancy direction with the cinematic elements at the start and end of the levels. The on-rails nature of the game, the high scores, and the rather short length of a playthrough makes it a nice departure from the norm of the system. It’s not an adventure game you need to sink hours into and comb over for long periods of time. It’s a nice little game to blast through in a sitting now and then between other games. I also really like the way there’s not a set difficulty or route. You can choose your path based on your performance as well as your preference. Maybe you want to beat that secret boss or beat that tough challenge, but you don’t want to do the level that would naturally follow. So don’t! Change course to the other. The only real differences it will make are which ending you get and your score. There’s not a ton of pressure to do one thing over another. This means there are a lot of different variants on any given playthrough. It also has some pretty neat music and the overall setting in fictional space is cool. I also found myself really liking all the voice acting. The delivery is good and the lines are super quotable. The sound quality of them is actually pretty good for N64 standards too. Plus, since they are communicating through their radios the whole time, the slight static quality to the sound actually works in the game’s favor. And I’ll also admit I have a ton of nostalgia for the game in general, but that doesn’t keep me from seeing the limitations.
Well, the shorter, more linear nature of the game may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some of the explosions and projectiles are sprite based, so it can be hard to gauge your proximity to them. There’s also a first person view you can do from the cockpit, but this limits your ability to see your wings and surroundings. It’s neat, but it isn’t very practical. There’s also the ability to use the rumble pak, a device that connects to the bottom of your controller that allows it to rumble. It was a new feature at the time and the game came packaged with the pak to really show off what it could do. So there’s lots of stuff that make it rumble, like shots, bumping into things, and especially explosions. The problem is that the rumble pak is really just a novelty. It was cool back then when it was new, but now it’s just a pain. It takes its own batteries to operate, weighs down the controller awkwardly, and doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience. The multiplayer, like with many N64 games, feels tacked on just to advertise that the game supports up to four players, another new idea to consoles of the time. It’s very basic and kind of dull. The levels there are bland and the tiny screen portions make it hard to navigate. It’s nice just to have as an aside, but it will get old incredibly fast. There’s no way to play again computers either. You CAN play a versus match by yourself… to look at the bland level renditions… I guess… but why would want to? Also, story-wise some of the events don’t really make sense depending on the path you take. The most jarring example I found was when I took the hard route the whole way through and fought the second incarnation of the Star Wolf team on Venom. They were all beat up and had new ships as though we had fought before, but I never had the first battle with them. The Landmaster only has two levels that you can use it in. I think they could’ve made more. The same goes for the Blue-Marine, though I really don’t like that level where you use it, and it’s the only level in the game where it appears. Plus, in that level the framerate likes to drop a lot, only further adding to the already slow pace of it. These should’ve maybe been used more or just not used at all, but I guess they feel special when you do get them… even though they aren’t as cool or maneuverable as the Arwing. As cool as the ending sequence is, it could be a bit shorter since the game itself isn’t long enough to warrant it. Though I will say it feels awesome to get that sequence as a reward for beating the game. And don’t even get me started on how annoying it is when your allies need your help shaking off an enemy every five seconds while they won’t even bat an eye when you have bogies on your tail! Yes Falco, you SHOULD be thankful… you FUCK!
So it has some drawbacks, but it also has lots of impressive features for a game of its time that still holds up well today. Star Fox 64 is absolutely a classic that’s essential for Nintendo 64 owners. It’s fast-paced, incredibly polished, and certainly knows what its doing. It’s not perfect. It’s no masterpiece. And it’s clearly just a remake of the SNES title. But Star Fox 64 captures so much charm that you won’t be able to play it without crackin’ a smile. It’s great. It’s easily worth 20 to 30 bucks if you can find. And who knows, maybe I’ll check out that 3DS remake someday. Until then, keep calm and DO A BARREL ROLL!