On March 26, 1993, Nintendo released an on-rails shooter called Star Fox for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The game followed the exploits of an anthropomorphic fox named Fox McCloud and his team of ace pilots as they raced through the galaxy on a quest to save their home planet from the machinations of an evil ape. An extra graphics chip built into the game cartridge allowed Star Fox to produce unprecedented 3D visuals, which set Star Fox apart from the rest of the console market. Nintendo’s new space shooter was heralded a resounding success, and the industry speculated that this was just the beginning for Nintendo’s hot new property.
Nintendo had already begun work on a sequel, and over the course of two years the studio developed a game that improved on the original in several significant ways. As the project’s hype continued to build, some speculated it would be the biggest release of 1995. Then, weeks before its anticipated launch, Nintendo pulled the plug.
[Editor's Note: This feature first appeared in Game Informer Magazine issue 293.]
A Star Is Born
Dylan Cuthbert couldn’t afford many games as a kid, so he decided to make his own. Using programing magazines and his familiy’s Sinclair ZX81 home computer, Cuthbert began designing his own computer games when he was only nine. By the time he was 17, Cuthbert had landed a programing job at Argonaut Games and was working on experimental 3D rendering software. Nintendo took notice and offered to fly him out to Japan for a demonstration.
Nintendo was so impressed with Cuthbert’s programming chops that the publishing giant continued to invite Cuthbert back to its Entertainment Analysis & Development offices – the birthplace for games like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda.
“I came from the 1980s English games industry which had great ideas but lower quality overall game design,” Cuthbert says. “Star Fox taught me how to iterate fast and also how to fix tools or even invent new tools. Nintendo had this way of making sure a title had all its elements in place before the game released. They would make sure the ending was as thrilling as the opening of the game.”
All this work paid off once Nintendo finally launched Cuthbert’s top-secret project: Star Fox. The console market hadn’t seen anything like Star Fox back in 1993, and the title was an overnight success.
Building A Space Epic
The Super Nintendo wasn’t designed with 3D gaming in mind. The only way Cuthbert and the rest of the programmers at Argonaut could pull off the sophisticated computations needed to generate 3D environments on the SNES was by embedding an additional coprocessor into the Star Fox game cart. This chip, called the Super FX, was more powerful than the SNES system itself.
Nintendo didn’t rest on its laurels; the FX chip the team planned to use for Star Fox 2 was more than twice as fast as the original. To get the best performance out of the original Super FX Chip, the team limited Star Fox’s design so it was an on-rails shooter. With the added power of the second-generation FX chip, Nintendo created a series of open environments where players could fly in any direction.
Under the watchful wing of Nintendo designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Katsuya Eguchi (best known as the creator of Animal Crossing), the Star Fox 2 team designed a series of aerial dogfights in deep space and above hostile alien planets. However, Nintendo also wanted to bring the action a little closer to the ground, so Cuthbert helped develop a system that would allow Fox’s Arwing to transform into a walking mech, which would be used during a few light platforming sequences.
“We were all willing to experiment with new ideas and not just repeat the original game,” Cuthbert says. “Miyamoto has always said Star Fox is an experimental platform. In Star Fox 2 all kinds of ideas were thrown into the mix…There was a game called Star Luster from the 1980s that had repetitive generative gameplay with ‘encounters.’ [Star Fox 2 director Katsuya Eguchi] loved that game and played it constantly for new ideas.”
Inspired by the random encounters in Star Luster, Nintendo designed a new strategic layer for Star Fox 2 where players would move their Arwing’s across a giant galactic map to defend planets from invasions and participate in randomly generated space battles. This would play out differently every time a player booted up the game.
To further improve replayability, Nintendo designed six playable characters, all with unique ships, abilities, and statistics. Familiar faces like Fox, Falco, Peppy, and Slippy returned, and Nintendo added new female cast members to the mix: Miyu, a tomboyish lynx, and Fay, a female dog with a red bow. A team of rival mercenaries led by the ace pilot Wolf helped round out the new cast.
After two years of programing and design, Star Fox 2 looked ready for a summer 1995 release, and hype was building. During the 1995 CES, a man was arrested for trying to steal an early demo build of the game from Nintendo’s booth.
Unfortunately, the industry had changed a great deal since the release of the first Star Fox. Just months after the launch of the original Star Fox, id Software’s Doom released and ignited a fervor for 3D gaming. By the summer of 1995, both Sony and Sega had announced power ful new 32-bit consoles that were capable of rendering 3D visuals that made Star Fox look like a relic. The PlayStation was set to launch in North America in September of 1995, and Nintendo worried Star Fox 2 would be measured unfairly against Sony’s new hardware and games like Twisted Metal and Rayman.
In a 2011 Iwata Asks interview, Miyamoto reflected on the moment. “We had quite a script for Star Fox 2 and had it running…but other companies’ game consoles were using polygons all over the place. We didn’t think we could catch up even if we stuck this expensive chip in the cartridge, so we rethought it.”
By some accounts, Star Fox 2 was 100-per cent complete when Nintendo made the unprecedented decision to cancel the project. The publisher quietly shifted development away from Star Fox 2, recycling a few ideas for a new Star Fox project on the then-unreleased Nintendo 64 console. Nintendo’s official Star Fox sequel would remain locked away in Nintendo vaults for more than 20 years.
Back From The Brink
Over the years, many of Star Fox 2’s concepts seeped into other games in the series. From a story perspective, Star Fox 64 was essentially a reboot of the original game, but it revived some of Star Fox 2’s characters, such as Star Wolf, and made good on Star Fox 2’s promise of open environments. Meanwhile, Star Fox 2’s strategy layer was eventually incorporated into the DS game Star Fox Command, and the transforming Arwing walker was finally introduced to the series in Star Fox Zero. However, fans couldn’t shake their desire to play Nintendo’s unreleased sequel.
By the late ‘90s, a group of hackers had pieced together an early test build of Star Fox 2. This version of the game was very buggy and a poor representation of Nintendo’s work. However, a few years later, a near final version of the Japanese build of the game leaked online, and an underground community slowly worked to translate it for a Western audience. Still, Cuthbert believes this version of the game falls short of the official version.
“Quite a long way I think,” Cuthbert says. “I mean, the basic parts are there, but there is an adage in game development, ‘The last 10 percent is 90 percent of the game,’ and the ROM is missing that last 10 percent of iteration -and -refinement.”
Then in June, seemingly out of the blue, Nintendo announced that Star Fox 2 would finally get an official release as part of the SNES Classic Edition.
“Two years of my life vindicated!” Cuthbert says. “I’m just glad everyone can finally get a chance to see all the stuff we put into the game.”
Star Fox 2 relied on experimental technology and pushed Nintendo’s 16-bit console to new limits. We will never know how influential Star Fox 2 would have been had it released in 1995, but it managed to influence several projects after it was cancelled. Its antiquated visuals are no longer impressive, but the twisted tale of its cancellation and resurrection makes its eventual release all the sweeter.
For an extensive rundown of the SNES Classic be sure to read our full review of the console here.