Star Fox was a bit of an obsession in my household back in the day. My brother was something of a master — even playing competitively — and while I can’t claim I approached that level of dedication, I always had a soft spot for it.
I returned not too long ago, with the intent of finally conquering so-called “Level 3,” the most difficult route to Venom, and the one I had never been able to see through to its conclusion.
How unexpected, then, that I made it through after only a few tries. From the moment I defeated Andross’ weird metal cat-face form — that battle I’d watched so many times but never taken part in myself — I knew I wanted more. But here I was, for the first time, with no more of Star Fox left undiscovered.
Then I remembered Star Fox 2.
If you didn’t know that was a thing, don’t feel bad. It’s not exactly common knowledge. I couldn’t tell you where I first heard about it, and even though the game has existed as some vague concept in the back of my mind for ages, I never got around to checking it out until now.
See, Star Fox 2 was canned back in 1995 in favor of Star Fox 64, even though it was essentially finished. You can read more about that on Wikipedia or TV Tropes or wherever; point is — a 99% complete version of the game was leaked online, translated, and patched up.
And you can play it.
Now that I’ve played through it a few times, I think I can say without exaggeration that it may be the greatest unreleased game of all time. I’ll reserve my judgment on that one, though, in case Van Buren someday sees the light of day.
That said, it’s not quite what I was expecting, and if you go in looking for more of the same old Star Fox, you may be disappointed. Let’s jump in and I’ll try to explain.
Andross is back. I bet you didn’t see that one coming!
All the original members of team Star Fox also return, plus two newcomers: Miyu and Fay. This time around, instead of all pilots flying off together, you choose who you want to play as. Who you choose determines which model Arwing you’ll be piloting, and each has different attributes. Fox and Falco pilot the classic, middle-of-the-road, bomb-toting version. There’s a shield-heavy juggernaut of an Arwing, complete with deployable repair drone, which goes to Peppy and Slippy, while the new team members’ model is the opposite: small, fast, and with a nose ahead in the weapons department, since it carries the Twin Blaster right from the get-go.
If this is a hard choice for you, you’ll be comforted by the fact that you actually choose two pilots — and you can switch between them at any time from the map screen (or if one is shot down, you resume the game as the other).
In addition to the familiar faces, you’ve got an aesthetic almost unchanged from the first game. It’s still that charming early 3D style of the Super FX chip, all solid-color polygons and low frame-rates. I’m still not sure why the engine only seems to be able to render polygons in shades of grey, blue, and orange, but at this point it’s just one of those little details that makes me smile. The game does seem to have more detailed (and really beautiful) backgrounds than the original, though. They even tried to texture a lot of the objects in the game, but that just makes the early-3D-ness of it all the more obvious; all the textured surfaces tend to have that warbly, jittering effect you see in a lot of 3D games from the mid-90s. Still, I have a soft spot for that stuff too.
The game holds to its arcade-y roots, too. Both it and the original are the type of game you can play from start to finish in under an hour. I tend to seek out the types of games that are long and involved, with worlds I can really sink my teeth into and get immersed in, but actually, the Star Fox experience is a refreshing change from that.
Here’s where it really starts to become obvious how different things are. This is the stage select screen, so to speak. Rather than choosing a set path at the start, like you did in Star Fox, you move freely over this map of the Lylat system, meaning you can do the “stages” in any order.
I’m guessing free movement was something of a mission statement for Star Fox 2, because the stages are opened up in a similar way. The linear stuff from the first game is completely gone. That means more exploration, and more focus generally on finding or destroying things rather than surviving a finely crafted obstacle course. You might lament the change, but just go with it for now. I promise it’s still awesome, just in a different way.
The stages basically fall into two categories: space battles and ground missions.
Andross is actively attacking Corneria this time around, so most battles you fight in space will be your attempts at intercepting missiles and fighter squadrons on their way toward the planet. There’s also the occasional dogfight with one of Andross’ minions or with members of the mercenary team Star Wolf, who he’s hired to take you down. The Star Wolf battles are especially exciting, since their ships are effectively the mirror versions of your own, complete with nasty charge-blasts and barrel rolls to deflect your attacks.
The other type of mission, the ground stages, involve infiltrating an enemy base in order to destroy it and remove a missile battery from the battlefield. You have to activate a number of switches to access the base and then fight your way through a series of corridors and rooms inside. That probably sounds a little difficult for an Arwing, but here’s the thing: in Star Fox 2, the Arwings can morph into a walker form at any time during a ground mission. With the walker, you’ve got way more control over your movement.
It’s also just a ton of fun being able to switch between a sleek space ship and a walking weapons platform with the press of a button.
Another type of mission, the ones where you assault one of Andross’ battleships, combines the two types above, with a short space sequence at the beginning and an interior section just like insides of the planetary bases.
While all this is going on, the game keeps chugging along. Even while you’re down on a planet or held up by Star Wolf, everything on the map keeps moving in real-time, and you’ll be updated by General Pepper about missile launches and any other important changes on the battlefield. Star Wolf mercs can even join in on a stage already in progress. While you’re busy trying to shoot down a bunch of missiles, members of Star Wolf might drop in if they’re close enough and make things even more chaotic. (And the missiles can get away from you in the scuffle!)
Considering the insane ambition of the game, it’s pretty incredible how tight the design is. It all comes down to managing your time and keeping track of multiple threats at once. Speed is the name of the game. You might at first think it’s weird that some encounters are over in seconds, or complain about it being so easy to destroy the reactors at the end of the ground missions, but that’s the point. They’re not bosses. They’re just one kind of objective, and the whole point is that you have to complete these things as fast as possible to get back out there and defend Corneria.
Every second you spend on one mission means you’re not spending that time somewhere else doing some other thing just as vital to the survival of Corneria. It’s all about prioritizing and knowing whether you can take out this base and still get back in time to stop that missile.
Not only is it stupid amounts of fun, since the battle plays out differently each time, there’s a surprising amount of replay value. Not to mention that you’ll find some new thing to love on each run.
The developers packed this game with plenty of brilliant little details, just as icing on the cake. Like how the backgrounds in the space battles change depending on where you are on the map screen, with different colors of nebulae or, if you’re near a planet, that planet hanging out in the distance. How about all the different types of switches, all activated in different ways — most of which are only used once in the game? And then there’s that water planet where you transform into the walker and sink to the ocean floor, complete with (amazingly goofy) swimming animation!
I could go on and on about the little touches that make this game. It’s clear that somebody cared about the product they were making, and it’s a shame it was never officially released. There was love put into this game, and that love comes through in playing it.
So — give it a shot. Just don’t get discouraged by a playthrough on the the Normal difficulty. The Expert setting is really the only challenging one, but the lower levels are good to get yourself acquainted with the way the game works.
Of course, now that I’ve played Star Fox 2, I’ll always long for a Star Fox 3. 64 just wasn’t the same. It feels like something was lost in the translation, and some magic and specialness vanished along the way. Maybe it’s the jump to a less abstract art style on the N64, or the loss of the wildly unique, slick soundtrack. Maybe it’s just that I’m frustrated that Nintendo chose to reboot and overwrite a game they’d made just four years prior.
Whatever my hangup is, I think Star Fox 2 will remain the final flight of Fox McCloud for me.
Well, it ain’t a bad note to go out on.