Whatever Happened To Star Fox 2?
Argonauts polygon pushing SuperFX Chip was an unrivalled success story of British innovation and design, which in collaboration with Nintendo resulted in the development of Starfox.
With Shigeru Miyamoto again taking control for the announced sequel, hopes were high for another grand space adventure. Late in development however, with Nintendo’s next generation N64 on the horizon the project was frustratingly cancelled. With exclusive developer insights into its demise we suit up and delve deeper.
When Starfox was released in 1993 the Super FX-enhanced game immediately impressed gamers with its stunning visuals, gripping gameplay and operatic storyline.
SNES owners duly lapped it up and while it can now be picked up for next to nothing, special editions like the Starwing Super Weekend Competition cartridge still sell for outrageous prices on the likes of eBay.
With its gorgeous panoramic landscapes and dynamic screen-filling boss-encounters it should have come as no surprise that Nintendo decided to plough ahead with development on a sequel, and this time it was going to make good with the few faults that the original game had suffered from – namely it’s on-rails design.
As Starfox 2 lead programmer Dylan Cuthbert points out, Starfox 2 was to be vastly different. “The Starfox franchise has never really been about shooting-on-rails, it’s always been about giving the player a fun new 3D sci-fi experience,” he insists.
“It was originally put on rails simply because we didn’t have the CPU power to populate a full 3D arena in enough detail.” The second generation SuperFX chip was set to change all that and would provide the means to create a rich 3-Dimensional environment for the exciting and promising sequel.
Slowly, but ever so surely, a trickle of information and screenshots began to reach the media, with early prototype carts hitting tradeshows such as the LA-based videogame mecca E3.
Sadly, with all the excitement generated by the introduction of the new 32-bit consoles, interest in Starfox 2 began to wane and by the 1995 CES (Consumer Electronic Show) Nintendo’s sequel looked set to become another lost gaming relic.
Planet Cannons were a tactical element to the game.
That was until an anonymous source approached key members of the emulation community, most noticeably one known as ‘The Dumper’. “I was contacted discreetly by someone who had a non-working copy of what most people today refer to as the Starfox 2 Final Beta ROM,” he explains.
“This was not a ROM dump but an image from one of the development environments of the game that had been found somewhere.” Unfortunately, emulation of the ROM proved ropey at best, “this person thought that perhaps the reason it wasn’t working was that emulation of the SuperFX chip wasn’t complete and maybe I could help get it working,” ‘The Dumper continues.’
“It only took a short time looking at the image to realise that a section was actually absent. An internal header in the middle of the ROM containing data such as the name, part number, checksums – it was this part that was missing.”
Inspired by the discovery of Starfox 2, emulation of the SuperFX chip advanced to the point where the ROM is playable in both ZSNES and Snes9x, although not without some drawbacks.
For the best tactile feel and with the correct expertise it’s possible to create working Starfox 2 carts, something ‘The Dumper’ pleads guilty to: “The game looked so cool that I just had to build a proper cartridge for it.
“Of course, for a normal game this would have been relatively easy, but with Starfox 2 this was no small undertaking. Luckily, the new assembly did all fit under the hood of a standard SNES cart. I plugged it into my SNES, flicked on the power and BAM, Starfox 2!”
Through Emulation the Final Beta ROM opens with the Nintendo logo ablaze, with the camera panning across to the Corneria space-armada being torn apart by, the enemy, the Mirage Dragon.
Summoned into service once again, Team Starfox warp their mothership into action where the menu screen greets you and the mission gets underway.
Starfox 2, while impressive, couldn’t compete with the 64-bit consoles on the market.
It has three difficulty settings: Normal, Hard and Expert, each offering a varying level of challenge. Opting for the Normal mode presents you with two motherships from Andross’ fleet called Cannon Betrayers and an equal number of planetary bases to defeat.
Select the Expert level and Team Starfox is confronted with four Cannon Betrayers and three bases with a greater variety of enemies – from mine layers, to missiles of exotic design to destroy, before moving onto the final battle with Andross.
The variation in each level is not limited to an increase in enemy numbers, however, as the environment/puzzles become more diverse. A challenge mastered in normal mode becomes quite a different beast on the expert setting.
After selecting a difficulty level you’ll discover two new members of Team Starfox, Miyu and Fay, each character offering different strengths and weaknesses through the various craft they fly.
They show variations in speed/agility, shield strength and possess an assortment of special weapons. After selecting one pilot along with a wingman you’re shown the map screen where you learn that defending Corneria from the invading forces is your primary mission.
Here an element of strategy is introduced: do you destroy the base firing the missiles or the Cannon Betrayer launching waves of fighter squadrons? This is where Starfox 2 really shines – even during battle sequences time is a crucial factor Take too long in a dogfight and that missile which had started two systems away can get uncomfortably close…
This evolving interplay of time and strategy is key to the gameplay of Starfox 2 and was intended to offer a level of replayability – as Dylan elaborates, “In the real version, the timing and appearance of enemies was completely random.
“The point of Starfox 2 was for you to replay the same mission repeatedly but to get a different experience each time – thus increasing the play-time enormously.” Surprise is all part of the gameplay as demonstrated in the Final Beta ROM.
New features were abundant in Starfox 2. It’s a shame the world never properly got their hands on it.
Dealing with a squadron of enemy fighters the action can be interrupted by any number of factors, including Team Starwolf warping into the arena or the troublesome Mirage Dragon appearing, amongst a host of other unscripted events!
From a cockpit perspective space-warfare is frantic and engaging, drawing you deeper into the Starfox universe, with battle-chatter and reports popping up onto the HUD.
The HUD is designed to avoid interference with gameplay. Contributing little to skirmishes the wingman acts as a form of in-game tutor advising you in tactical play or briefing the current mission.
Outside of battle sequences the wingman can be interchanged for the main pilot bringing a fresh ship into proceedings and a different skill-set depending who you selected at the start.
The freedom offered during dogfights is a welcome departure from the original and includes the option to morph into a walking Mech during land-based assaults.
These ground levels introduce a basic but effective puzzle element, where you will need to explore the play area to activate switches or destroy shields before entering the base.
Then you’ll be navigating a typical corridor-style maze in pursuit of the core, which must be destroyed to liberate the planet from Andross’ occupation and to stop the launch of further missiles destined for Corneria.
Dylan gives his insight, “There was a lot of experimentation that went into Starfox 2 where we had a robot walker and platforms you could jump onto and between. Collision detection was quite advanced for the time.
New characters, each with tactical playstyles, meant there was an element of player choice involved.
“We tried out a great many ideas; there were probably three or four versions of the arena-based play until we decided on the main type, and then we re-used the ideas from our experiments in the dungeons – ie. the base part of the stage.”
This shift in gameplay was a conscious decision for the sequel: “There were a few bosses built into the dungeons, but they were more gimmicky or puzzle-based than before; that part of the game had similarities to Zelda.
“Starfox 2 was less of a shooting game in comparison to all the bosses in the original Starfox which were shooting-game type bosses”.
With the explosive on-screen action and from the first rumblings of the Cannon Betrayers engines you know Starfox 2 is going to be an audio/visual spectacle.
As gameplay shifts from menus and map-screens to battle scenarios, the music plays seamlessly and even offers audio cues, including a well implemented frenetic tone of urgency following any damage to Corneria.
The trend of audio association continues with intrusions of Team Starwolf, to the deployment of the devastating Planet Cannons. The composition is flawless from the introductory sequence to the ending credits; everything fits perfectly and truly suits the space opera that is Starfox 2.
Revolutionary to the SNES, Starfox 2 couldn’t compete with the new 3D games at that time. Dylan reflects, “The rate at which 3D technology was developing was just too fast.
“Whilst we were making Starfox 2 the PlayStation and Saturn had launched. Nintendo didn’t want to show themselves up releasing a game with inferior 3D, especially as the original Starfox had been leagues ahead of the competition.”
Whilst it’s common knowledge that certain elements made it over to the N64 reincarnation of the series in Starfox 64 (Lylat Wars in Europe), probably less well known is the fact Starfox 2 provided vital experience for the production of 3D games.
Even random enemies would appear to assault the Starfox team.
Dylan adds, “Miyamoto and Eguchi wanted to experiment with a deeper platformer/Zelda like experience. A lot of the experimentation we did for Starfox 2 helped Miyamoto form ideas for Mario 64.”
While solace can be taken in the fact it helped mould one of the greatest games ever created in Mario 64, it’s a shame that the masses never got to enjoy Starfox 2.
A true realisation of the SuperFX chip’s power, it was far superior to the original, combining typical Starfox action with an RTS element that was poised to invigorate the franchise.
As Argonauts SuperFX technology opened up new possibilities it also sealed the fate for the doomed Starfox 2 project, confronted with 3D visuals from other consoles outstripping that of the augmented SNES.
Thanks to the continued support of the emulation community from projects such as Aeon Genesis, it’s possible to get a glimpse at these hidden gems and enjoy the gaming experience as it was intended to be.
The Starfox 2 Final Beta ROM feels and plays like a finished game and can easily be found on-line if one were so inclined. Both ZSNES and Snes9x are happy to play the ROM; alternatively you could build your own Starfox 2 prototype cartridge where it’s reported to run without fault on the original hardware!
Well worth further investigation, the game never fails to surprise and is one of the few gaming relics to be unearthed and given a new lease of life.