I was always a Star Fox kid. While the plurality of my childhood friends relished in the epic majesty of side quest-stuffed Nintendo franchises like The Legend of Zelda (not a diss, mind you), I invested far more gameplay hours into a certain quick-fix rail-shooter with anthropomorphized animals in combat vehicles defending the Lylat System against the giant floating head of an evil monkey mastermind. Ever since the original Star Fox 64 was released back in 1997, Shigeru Miyamoto openly stated that, graphically, his initial vision for Star Fox 64 was significantly limited by the processing power of the generation’s technology. Sure, looking back on the game now reveals many a polygon in need of refurbishing, but at the time, admittedly, embarking on one’s virgin flight into a smoldering Corneria City was quite the sight to behold—and personally, something I will never forget.
Fourteen years later, with Nintendo EAD beginning to secure a firm grip on the graphical prowess of the 3DS (earlier this year, with co-developer Grezzo, they released the now-definitive way to play through Link’s inaugural Nintendo 64 adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D), the pioneering vision Mr. Miyamoto and company had for Star Fox 64 has finally become fully realized, and the bulk of the game’s core enjoyment factors remain intact by way of a total visual and audio retooling (most of the same voice actors even return to re-record their corny yet timeless dialogue). Ironically, unlike the aforementioned Ocarina of Time remake, it’s the handheld configuration of the 3DS itself that hinders Star Fox 64 3D from becoming the ultimate manner in which to experience the game.
Being someone who, until quite recently, still took a feather duster to his Nintendo 64 every now and again to boot up the classic title (there’s really no need to pay $10 for the Wii’s so-so Virtual Console version), my knee-jerk reaction to the 3DS’s reconstruction of it was that maneuvering the Arwing, Blue Marine, and Landmaster Tank was, frankly, kind of a pain in the ass on my first few treks through a war-torn, puppet-populated galaxy. The flight-pad layout of the Nintendo 64’s controller allowed for the game’s three methods of intergalactic combat to handle like a dream (if Star Fox 64 wasn’t damn-near the most instantaneously playable game on the system, I don’t know what was), but the more compact, geographically flush design of the 3DS presents two primary problems that take some getting used to in order to eventually look past and enjoy the great wonderment of space dog-fighting to its fullest extent. Firstly, the small, occasionally flimsy, and awkwardly placed shoulder buttons on the 3DS (in relation to the shooting/bomb-release/breaking commands—A/B/X/Y, respectively) cause the player’s quickness in executing laser-deflecting barrel rolls to slow down considerably. In the game’s more difficult later levels and modes, barrel rolling becomes something that must be done constantly in order to survive (literally, nonstop) and the clumsy composition of the control scheme in this respect results in greater, life-threatening gaps in defense from enemy fire.
The other major control issue with Star Fox 64 3D’s fundamental playability is the size and motility of the system’s circle pad. Whereas the N64’s rotatable control lever resembled something of a miniature joystick, complete with a raised surface for effective thumb-gripping, the 3DS’s circle pad is smaller, essentially grip-less, and less flexible in terms of how far it can move either vertically or horizontally. With largely any other type of game, this wouldn’t be a point of concern, but with an agile rail-shooter where rapid, diagonally screen-crossing spatial movements are a constant necessity, the brief flicks of the circle pad fail to mirror the graceful, intuitive flux exhibited by the game’s decade-and-a-half-year-old blueprint.
Those control indiscretions aside, everything else about Star Fox 64 3D is precisely at the stage of acute artistry that it should be for a 2011 handheld remake. The game is simply gorgeous, one-upping the already excellent Ocarina of Time 3D in that department by a sizable margin. From the star-speckled, mech-stormed space fleet of nebulous Sector Y, to the lava-engulfed choke-point Solar, every cell of animation shimmers with gloss that becomes even more crisp when 3D is turned on (albeit in moderation; crank the dial up too much and your eyes just might melt from overexposure).
One of the most stunning visual improvements is the game’s drastically updated water physics. The immersed submarine mission on Aquas is decidedly brighter and more lifelike; the surrounding H2O actually bears the weight of a massive ocean, whereas the original game’s 2D bubbles jettisoning from the Blue Marine and its surroundings caused the level to pale in comparison to its sky-set and land-based counterparts. My favorite planet is and always has been the pollution-afflicted Zoness, and its 3DS rebuilding marvelously modifies its contaminated emerald waves to a jaw-dropping degree (when I first entered the level, the 10-year-old within me let out a squeal of unimpeachable nostalgic delectation). The game’s menus have also been completely overhauled, exhibiting a much more aesthetically pleasing interface than the barebones, gray-barred option screens of the original. Another noteworthy addition is a mid-route save option that allows the player to avoid having to start from Corneria when they opt to take a break prior to reaching Venom—boss Andross’s homeworld and the game’s final level.
Star Fox 64’s mutliplayer scenarios were typically hit or miss (Goldeneye 007’s release around the same time rendered almost all N64 four-player experiences temporarily obsolete), and while the 3DS reimagining does an exemplary job of fine-tuning the mode to a substantial extent with better level designs, further situational options and deeper group interactivity (once friend IDs are recorded through a one-cartridge Download Play setup, you can view your comrades’ saved mugshots as you attempt to shoot them down—a ceaselessly amusing perk, I assure you), the absence of online play is a huge disappointment. Needless to say, the mechanics of the Star Fox series are ideal for Wi-Fi competitions, so the fact that Q-Games dropped the ball in that department borders on unforgivable. It’s only my unbreakable bond to the original game coupled with the workmanlike luster and welcome bells and whistles, like controlling your vessel with the 3DS’s gyroscope capability, installed within this remake that manage to save it from being a true disappointment.
My hopes for Star Fox 64 3D revealing itself as a frontrunner for the most spectacular handheld remake of all time have been dashed by, seemingly, aspects that could have been ironed out with minimal extraneous effort on the part of the design team. Nevertheless, the masterful formula of Star Fox 64 is something that not even the most careless of developers could bungle. If you’ve never played the original, this is your best option over the Wii’s shoddy port. If you’re like me, though, you’ll keep a Nintendo 64 in working condition for whenever the nostalgia-induced urge to throwdown on Andross boils over.