Star Fox, like so many oddball Nintendo inventions, came out at the right time, with the right novelty. Powered by the 3D-rendering wizardry of the Super FX chip, the Super Nintendo classic was both a technical achievement back in 1993—one of Nintendo’s earliest three-dimensional games—and, perhaps more importantly, genuinely fun.
Even today the 16-bit rail shooter manages to neatly capture what makes Star Fox so charming. Much like in latter games, a ragtag band of mercenary animal pilots take off in angular fighter craft to target lasers and lob smart bombs at incoming bogeys. They soar through scrolling alien worlds, dodge asteroids, and yes, pull off more than a few barrel rolls along the way. Sure, the levels are pieced together from simplistic shapes, and there’s not much finesse to the dogfighting. But answering the call to scramble Arwings is still just as thrilling.
What the original Star Fox invented, Star Fox 64 perfected. Almost 20 years after players fought against the monstrous simian warlord Andross on the Nintendo 64, the adventure is almost undisputedly seen as the best game under the Star Fox banner. It hooked a generation of gamers with flawless aerial combat and quotable banter between wingmen. I didn’t grow up with an N64, and I’m still impressed that a flight shooter with talking animals could grow so iconic.
In hindsight, the game might have been a little too iconic. Star Fox 64 refined its predecessor’s formula so flawlessly, it left little room for sequels to make meaningful improvements. Ever since, Nintendo has struggled to find a comfortable spot for the vintage spaceship combat series in its pantheon. Star Fox Adventures slapped the Star Fox brand onto a competent Zelda clone. Star Fox Assault muddled things up with ho-hum on-foot shooting sections. Star Fox Command made a better impression, but its mix of turn-based strategy and DS touch screen controls shifted it away from what purists expected from a true revival.
Without a 3DS remake of Star Fox 64 to tide fans over in 2011, Nintendo would have gone ten years without releasing a game in the franchise. Now the company pegs Star Fox Zero for the Wii U as a reimagining of that same classic. Though augmented with gyroscopic controls, HD visuals, and vehicle transformations, the latest Star Fox game promises retro appeal, right down to its name.
“The game itself is not a Star Fox ‘4’ or ‘5’, and it’s not a new spinoff. It really is going back to the roots,” producer Shigeru Miyamoto told Time magazine last month. As nice as that sounds, it does signal more than ever that Nintendo’s spacefaring fox is stuck in a loop. When he’s not getting sidetracked into oddball experiments, he’s borrowing from the same playbook, and repeating narrative beats over and over. Fans needn’t forget that Star Fox 64 already retold the events of the original SNES game once before. We can only fight through the warzone on Corneria so many times before it gets old.
And yet, nostalgia for its glory days might be the only thing that can finally put Star Fox back on its proper flight path.
As much as Nintendo loves paying homage to Star Fox’s greatest success, it often seems unwilling to build upon its strong fundamentals. Instead, the company kept heaping new gimmicks on the property, and lost sight of what made Star Fox work to begin with. To save itself, the ace fox needs to relearn his tricks. That means giving fans more of the wonderfully straightforward shooter action the games are known for, but tweaked to fit modern standards while still remaining steeped in tradition. Don’t simply copy Star Fox 64, but use it as a foundation.
Realistically speaking, Star Fox will probably never fully regain all of its lost luster. Its heyday was a time when Nintendo games could still usher in graphical milestones and dominate the market. Much of what made the series legendary back then looks somewhat dated nowadays. At its core, it’s an arcade-style shoot-‘em-up with short levels and anthropomorphic mascot characters. These qualities are vital to making a good Star Fox game, but they also must be mixed and rejuvenated carefully.
Basically, Star Fox Zero needs to be the Star Wars: The Force Awakens of its franchise—a celebration of the past that retreads favorite memories, but also balances nostalgia with innovation. To hit it off, Nintendo is bringing just enough fresh ideas into battle. Returning pilots will relearn their skills thanks to the Wii U’s dual screen setup and motion controls. On top of that, vehicle transformations will give them new options in combat. Fundamentally, though, the game looks like the Star Fox diehard Nintendo fans grew up with, right down to saving your wingmen from getting shot down like chumps.
Coming out on a dying console, Star Fox Zero won’t reshape the game industry like its predecessors, but it can push the series in a favorable direction. Charting a future for Star Fox shouldn’t be as difficult as Nintendo has made it for itself. It already has a winning formula, waiting to be polished for modern systems. All the franchise needs is a steady grip on a familiar flight stick.
Parker Lemke is a writer from Minnesotan who has spent far too much time modding The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. He served in the journalistic trenches of his college newspaper and once interned at a place called Game Informer. You can follow him on Twitter.