There’s one reason that Star Fox 64 – known as Lylat Wars in PAL regions – deserves a place in history that has almost nothing to do with the game itself. Arriving bundled with the Rumble Pak accessory, the 1997 space shooter was the first home videogame in the world to feature vibration feedback in the controller. Typical Nintendo: a major hardware innovation, soon to be copied by all the competition, disguised as a bolt-on novelty. In this instance, it may be that the company didn’t fully understand the importance of its own invention. The simplistic Rumble Pak packed a mighty punch, but Sony’s later twin-motor DualShock was far more sophisticated, and Sony’s titles were the ones to really begin to explore rumble’s possibilities for information and immersion. Still, it was an apt debut. The judders, kicks and buzzes of the Pak lent forceful support to the grandstanding showmanship of one of the all-time great videogame rollercoasters.
Even back in 1997, a Nintendo game of its type was a rare treat. The company’s focus on home hardware and Shigeru Miyamoto’s preoccupation with complex virtual spaces had skewed its output away from the scripting and set-piece construction of the on-rails, short-form videogame. When it did try its hand, it excelled: the SNES’s Super FX-accelerated Star Fox was a technical trailblazer, and an excellent design whose multiple routes and squad interaction gave it more replayable breadth, if not depth, than a traditional hardcore shoot ’em up. The Nintendo 64 sequel didn’t discard that formula, but it did embellish it very successfully, and thanks to its extreme polish and more appropriate host machine, it’s dated much better than the ahead-of-its-time 1993 original.
Star Fox’s multiple routes are a straight three-way difficulty choice, but Star Fox 64’s branching, interactive level system is an object lesson in how to unobtrusively structure a short game for long-term satisfaction. Only OutRun’s simple but effective level tree has proved as durable. Star Fox 64’s three threads start and end in the same places, but your route bounces between them according to your performance, how effectively you come to your wingmen’s aid, and your response to events and sub-missions within each level. The mastery of feint, suggestion, secret and surprise that seemed bred into Nintendo’s designers throughout the 1990s comes into play, and an essentially linear experience is made to feel as organic and mutable as one of the company’s more labyrinthine adventures.

The game can be beaten in a couple of hours, but you can spend twice that or more rooting out every permutation and diversion in Star Fox 64’s flexible epic. It’s a surprisingly easy game, an old-school blaster from an alternate world where progression is almost a given – it’s how you do it and where it takes you that counts. Your interest is held by the sheer variation, incident and spectacle of it, its breathless runthrough a mix-and-match sequence of classic Saturday-matinee scenarios: asteroid fields and dogfights, boiling seas of lava, defensive stands, even a train raid in the Landmaster tank that plays out like a bombastic sci-fi western.
A bone of contention for many Star Fox purists is the inclusion of ‘all-range mode’ levels and set-pieces that interrupt the headlong, on-rails charge in favour of free-roaming 3D dogfighting in Fox McCloud’s Arwing fighter. It’s true that they’re usually more frustrating and less exciting than the standard levels, and they break the carefully crafted tempo of the game, but then that’s exactly why they’re there. The reason you keep coming back to Star Fox 64 is that it’s a small game that feels big, and the inclusion of two modes of play is the principal reason for that. And, crucially, all-range mode brings to life the rivalry and aerobatic grace of the head-to-heads with the roguish Star Wolf team, bolstering the series’ simple but strong sense of character. The alternative vehicles are a less significant addition, especially the Blue Marine sub, but the boyish glee to be had in chucking around the Tonka-like Landmaster is huge.
For all the merits of its design, though, Star Fox 64 is, like most games of its genre, a primarily sensory experience. Rez went on to recognise that and rewrite it in an entirely different aesthetic language, but in many ways Star Fox 64 is no less of an audiovisual achievement (and could even be said to be an influence, with its hard-edged, angular, insectoid enemies). From the breezy speech samples to the stirring orchestration, and the effects’ almost melodic capcophony of zaps, booms and trills; from the graceful ship designs and patterns to the corny anthropomorphism and breathtaking sense of scale, it’s an intoxicating, joyous tribute to the kids’ space adventure cartoon. Star Fox 64 is still beautiful, still thrilling, and still one of the slickest, most modern, most sophisticated ways to satisfy that most primal urge in videogaming: to get in a spaceship, shoot aliens, and head for the stars.
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