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Tech Demo Gone Franchise - The Life of Star Fox

January 31, 2005

by: Lucas DeWoody

Chapter 2 - One Giant Accident

Flair Technology came to Nintendo and Argonaut in mid-1992 with their final design for a chip. It was a RISC-based CPU running at over 11Mhz, far more powerful than the SNES's main CPU, far more powerful than the DSP chip, and even slightly more powerful than the Sega Genesis itself. Other features included very limited texture mapping, and light source shading. It was code-named the Super Mario Chip, but Nintendo wanted to change the name so that it would sound more tech-savvy to the technically inclined people of the world. It was renamed the Super FX Chip. The final design for the chip was actually rushed, and was actually only half the speed which Flair had set out for- an incredible 22 MhZ. They continued to tinker with the chip.



However, we all know that technology is completely worthless without a game to put it to good use. Argonaut was known for their flight games in England, so the team had gone to work on simplistic-looking Starglider, a tech demo to show off the hardware. After some time, they thought they had enough to turn it into a full-fledged game, but as Dylan Cuthbert himself later admitted, the game played like crap. Miyamoto came in to see how the project was coming along, and he was unimpressed to say the least. The game itself was a free-roaming 3D space fighter title, but it ran incredibly slow, even for an FX chip game (only five frames per second). This was unacceptable to Miyamoto. He insisted that the game be scrapped and redesigned from the ground up.

You see, the strengths of Miyamoto's team was game design, and still is today. They were masters of that art, but they didn't have as much programming knowledge as others. They could get the job done, but programming the actual data wasn't their strong suit. Argonaut was filled with master programmers, who were among the first to get involved with 3D polygon-based graphics back in the 80's, but they had no formal experience with game design. They were handed the jobs by their superiors in England and simply told to put it all together. Nintendo had no experience with the FX Chip, but Argonaut's crew were the ones who knew how to squeeze magic out of it. Argonaut needed Nintendo's mastermind game designers to help them create a marketable game, and so it made for a perfect fit. Over the next seven months, the two worked together tirelessly, sometimes pulling 12 hour shifts to get the job done. Miyamoto had them restrict the game to a closed perspective, meaning the game followed a pre-determined path. The aircraft flew in a straight line with the player making course corrections along the way and shooting obstacles as they presented themselves. When time became an issue to get the game completed on schedule, Argonaut created a front-end scripting tool that allowed for programming to become a much easier task for their Nintendo co-workers. Dylan and Giles worked together to create the game's huge and complicated boss machines. Nintendo handled the task of producing the musical score over to in-house composer Hajime Hirasawa. He produced an orchestral score worthy of any movie, and it is still hailed as one of the best soundtracks of the 16-bit generation.

Finally, after all the work was done, the Starglider game's engine and levels were finished, but there was a problem- there was no point to the entire thing. You flew, you blew stuff up, you got a high score. The game needed a story and plot, otherwise it would be nothing but a glorified Galaga in stunning 3D. This is where Miyamoto went to work. On the spot, he pulled out his sketchbook. He starting to just draw ideas as they came to him. He scribbled down pictures of various characters, villains, planets, and all kinds of other stuff. He was trying to come up with some kind of natural hero for the game, but couldn't decide on what to use. He knew he wanted it to be something related to space to convey the feeling that this was an epic war taking place in another galaxy. There was Star Wolf, Star Wing, Star Gunner, Star Fox, Star Sheep, Star Sparrow, Star Hawk, and Lylat Wars. All of this was just too confusing, so Miyamoto stopped to take a walk. He went outside and strolled down the roads of Kyoto for about a mile. Kyoto is a very spiritual place, and there are lots of temples. Shigeru wandered around until he came across the old Fushimi Inari Sanctuary. Here he saw several statues of ancient Japanese gods. One of these is Inari, the Japanese god of Grain. Inari is a fox. This inspired him on which of his ideas to use.



He went back to his office and started a series of familiar characters that we, as Nintendo fans, know all too well. Within minutes, the game was transforming from a glorified tech demo into a fully story driven adventure. In the end, the characters Miyamoto created were as you see them today. Falco Lombardi, the brash, arrogant young pilot who was almost thrown out of the Cornerian air force had it not been for the support of a close friend. Peppy Hare, the aging, but loyal old hare who acted as the team's navigator and for a time served under the current team leader's father. Slippy Toad, the clumsy, but loveable chief technician who constantly gets into trouble. Last but not least, Fox McCloud, the brave young Captain of the Mercenary group of wingmen. They named the game Star Fox in the US and Japan, and Starwing in Europe. Star Fox was the first console game to use running voice effect and have com-channel commentary during the in-flight missions as well as running commentary from your wingmen in text boxes to accompany the voice effects. The effects were simply voice samples of the programmers that had been processed and blended to sound as though they were speaking an alien language.

And that was it. The game was finished. Nintendo threw their full marketing muscle behind the title. They paid for tons of media coverage, commercials, ran special, dedicated in-store display units, and even produced special tournament versions of the game that were used for a traveling competition called the Star Fox Competition - Weekend Edition which ran to Wal-Mart stores across the country to drive up hype for the game. There were 2000 copies of the cartridge produced, and were available from Nintendo's company store via mail order for a time. They are valuable collectables today. All of this worked, and Star Fox set the world record (at the time) for the most copies of any game pushed in one weekend at a grand total of one million copies. In fact, the game made so much money that it literally game Nintendo the funds to open it's own self sustained European branch (or Nintendo of Europe as we know them today).










Also, Nintendo Power Magazine ran a serial of comics over the year of 1993 that were written and illustrated by Benimaru Jtoh to flesh out the story of the series and let fans see what they were fighting for. The comic was sadly never released as a separate publication, but you can find copies of it floating around the internet. Either that, or just track down a 1993 set of Nintendo Power Magazine. The art, back-stories, and character design was excellent and closely mirrored the official designs of the time.




The success of Star Fox was not ignored by Nintendo. They immediately planned more games to use the Super FX chip. The first of which was an often forgotten and highly under appreciated game that was named Stunt Race FX. After the completion of Star Fox, Giles Goddard and Dylan Cuthbert were split into two separate teams and each worked on separate titles under Nintendo's supervision. Giles and his team went full time into development of Stunt Race, while Dylan went on to produce their first big hit's sequel.....Star Fox 2.

Many people know of Star Fox 2. It's considered one of gaming history's greatest "lost" titles. According to legend, the game was cancelled early on in development, because Nintendo was gearing up for the Nintendo 64 by the time it went into development. This isn't really correct. In reality, the game was 95% complete at the time of cancellation. The only thing it lacked was final bug testing. Nintendo's advertising department had even begun placing Star Fox 2 billboards around major cities when the plug was abruptly pulled. The game was shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1995 in the form of a very early beta. It was at this point, that a lone fan named Shawn J. Freeman attempted to steal the cartridge from a display booth, but the thief was caught before he could even get out of the booth. He was arrested, but charges were dropped the next day. Legend has it that he pirated the ROM and placed it out on the web several years later. Sure enough, Nintendo cancelled the game shortly after E3. The Playstation and Sega Saturn had been released by that time, and Nintendo was preparing for the arrival of their next console, the Nintendo Ultra 64 in 1995. Sadly, the release of the N64 was pushed back to 1996 shortly after Star Fox 2 was canned, and the game never saw the light of day for no reason whatsoever. So this leads to the big question. Was the game truly lost for all eternity? The answer is "no". You see, the game was so close to release, that Nintendo had already sent a few copies out to magazines for early review so they could have it in magazines by release day. Then the plug was pulled, and the magazines were asked to return the cartridges. Some did, and some didn't. At this time, there are known to be eight real copies of Star Fox 2 known to exist in the wild. One turned up at the Classic Gaming Expo several years ago, and went at auction for over $10,000. Yes, they are that rare. Well, it just so happens the person who bought it ripped the ROM and leaked it onto the internet in 2001. But what would become of all the new gameplay ideas that were to be used in Star Fox 2? Would they go to waste, sitting in a locked vault for all eternity?







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Lucas
comments | 376 |
02/17/05
00:02:28
Glad everyone liked the article. In time, we'll get around to al
redfox
comments | 3 |
02/16/05
08:51:37
Starfox Assualt looks pretty cool. I've got to get it.
Zanthy-GCA
comments | 3 |
02/13/05
22:59:40
Actually, Nintendo received about 180 mil USD for Rare, rather th
thegamecubist
comments | 163 |
02/13/05
12:55:30
Absolutley incredible. Good job, Lucas!
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