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Tech Demo Gone Franchise - The Life of Star Fox

January 31, 2005

by: Lucas DeWoody

Chapter 4 - A Rare Trip out of the Cockpit

In very late 1999, the Nintendo second party developer Rareware filed for a trademark on the name Dinosaur Planet. This was to be their final project for the Nintendo 64 after Banjo Tooie before moving on to Nintendo's next console codenamed Dolphin (Gamecube). Rare had been secretly working on this title and used every bit of their technical knowledge of the Nintendo 64 hardware to its fullest extent. Rare had thought up an entire back-story to the game, and created a new world for it. Here is the original concept art that was printed in Nintendo Power Magazine's 2000 E3 coverage.

The game had been revealed, and was apparently closer to completion than Rare had been letting on. They planned on releasing it in the fourth quarter of 2000. Dinosaur Planet was a tremendous undertaking for Rare. It was put on full display at E3 2000 alongside Conker's Bad Fur Day, so everyone knew the game existed. It was going to be the largest cartridge released for the N64 clocking in at a grand total of 512Mb. Stores like Gamestop and Best Buy had already begun taking pre-orders for the title. As the game got closer and closer to release, people began to suspect something had gone wrong. There had been no advertising, no magazine write-ups, no previews, no nothing. The game had all but dried up. Sure enough, just as the game had gone through final bug testing, it was pulled back. Apparently Nintendo had noticed that Sabre, the main character, looked an awful lot like Fox McCloud. You see, Nintendo around this time had begun very early development on a Star Fox adventure game that took place on an unspecified planet in the Lylat System. The title hadn't even gotten to playable status yet, so everything was still pretty much in the air. Nintendo wanted to get the title out in time for the Gamecube's launch, but it didn't look like that was going to happen, so they had begun shopping around for a complete, or near-complete project that could be converted into what they needed. Since Rare was a second party, Nintendo had considerable influence on them, and basically pressured them into converting the game into Star Fox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet. The executives at Rare were split on the decision. Some were for it, and others were completely against the decision. Either way, Nintendo pulling the title had caused them to miss their launch window for that Christmas, and there wasn't any feasible way to market the game in the next year because the N64 was at the end of its lifecycle. Dinosaur Planet was officially least in that form.

The relationship between Nintendo and Rare was becoming extremely stressed at this point. Rare was distinctly insulted because Nintendo hadn't put any advertising effort into their last project, Conker's Bad Fur Day, because it was basically a game that stood in complete contrast to the image Nintendo was trying to portray at the time. The game received almost no publicity whatsoever because of its protagonist: a "cussing, drinking, pissing" squirrel that made sex jokes aplenty. The only advertising it got was an MTV spot that had to be aired past 10:00PM because of the extreme sexual references, and a one-page ad in Playboy Magazine. Nintendo of Europe refused to publish the game at all, and forced Rare to find another publisher. They went to THQ. As a result, the game didn't sell well in any region. Rumors had begun surfacing that Rare wanted to abandon their relationship with Nintendo and that the Stamper brothers (Rare's founders) wanted to sell the company and retire. At this point, Rare cancelled all other Gamecube projects including Kameo: Elements of Power, Donkey Kong Racing, Perfect Dark Zero, and the oft-rumored Banjo Threeie.

Nintendo had wanted the now renamed Star Fox Adventures as a Gamecube launch title, but it was now 2002 and the Gamecube had been around for six months. New titles were getting sparse, just like after the N64's launch; it was not a good image to be projecting. Nintendo had some big guns prepared for the fall including Super Mario Sunshine, Metroid Prime, and Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. They decided that Adventures should be moved into this calendar lineup. However, there was a drawback to this bold power play- almost nothing of value had been released that year (except Sonic Adventure 2: Battle), and now everything was hitting at the same time, thus making Nintendo compete against itself. Wind Waker was delayed until March 2003. The official reason for the delay was “translation issues”, yet it’s likely it was moved to the following year to keep from overshadowing the already saturated holiday season.

Speaking from a graphical standpoint, Star Fox Adventures is a masterpiece. Rare managed to pull off full "fur shading" which allowed the characters to have colored wire frame fur that could blow in the wind, and move with their faces and tails, an ability Microsoft claimed only the Xbox could accomplish. It added an extreme degree of realism and naturalness in character movement that no other game had achieved at the time (only few have to this day). The cinema scenes that fleshed out the story were choreographed with the animators and musicians to create a movie-like level of depth. The music was 80% ported over from the N64 version of Dinosaur Planet and enhanced in a few places to allow for the Gamecube's extra sound chip. The other 20% was newly composed to be streamed from the disc via live recordings during cinema scenes. All of this was composed by David Wise of Donkey Kong Country fame. The gameplay was like a modified version of The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time. Some people complained about this, while others enjoyed it fully. All in all, it was a departure from Rare’s recent portfolio of games like Donkey Kong 64, which were mostly extensive, yet well-done, item quests.

Many people wonder why Falco doesn't come back until the very end of Adventures. Why was he missing in the first place? From a technical standpoint, there just wasn't enough development time to work him into the story. From a creative standpoint, Nintendo of Japan's artists went to work and created and entire 43-page comic that was included with the game to describe the story of what happened between Star Fox 64 and Star Fox Adventures. Sadly, it wasn't created until after the US release of the game since the Japanese release was some time later. Luckily, it has been translated by a group of fans. You can find their fan-subbed version at

With the Stamper brothers eager to make a hefty pile of money, Rare planned to sell their 51% stake in the company to the highest bidder (Nintendo owned the other 49%, but Rare still had the controlling stake, meaning whoever they sold to got mostly full control of business affairs). The highest bidder turned out to be Microsoft. They wanted Rare to produce titles for them that were the same caliber as the ones they produced for Nintendo. Thus far, the fruits of Microsoft’s investment have yet to be seen. A date was set in September for the transfer of funds- just one day after Star Fox Adventures' release. This meant, that if the title was late by a day and missed its contractual release day, its fate would be under Microsoft's control. Because it used the Star Fox license, Microsoft couldn't have done anything with it without Nintendo's permission since they owned the copyrights on the characters, but the game program and engine would belong to Microsoft. This would pretty much render the entire game useless to both. Obviously Microsoft couldn't publish it, but they would have full power to cancel the game to weaken their competitor. When this became known throughout the company, it became a mad rush to finish the title in time. Lot's of people wonder why the final boss fight is just a repeat of Star Fox 64, and the politics of the situation go a long way towards explaining why; it is rumored that Nintendo even dispatched extra staff to help Rare’s development team finish the game on time. Rare's developers made their deadline and all rights associated to the game became Nintendo's. The sale then went through, and Rare became Microsoft's property. Nintendo sold them the remaining stock since it was worthless to them, and made a killing on the deal (over $500 million).

But the fight was far from over. Over the next year, Nintendo and Rare would wind up in court several times to dispute which corporation owned the franchises that Rare had been developing over the years. They were claiming squatter’s rights, of sorts, on titles like the Donkey Kong series, and now Star Fox. Nintendo and Rare were in a mess. Nintendo proved that they obviously owned Star Fox and DK, but Rare owned the rights to lots of the original characters they had developed over the years. Without them, each series would be devolved to the point it was before Rare began working on them. Luckily, Nintendo owned a ton of Rare's original properties since they had been Rare's publisher (Banjo-Kazooie, Conker ect.). To end it, a trade of copyrights was made. Nintendo got everything tied to any property they previously owned, and Rare got everything else. Humorously, Microsoft wound up paying the legal fees. In the deal, Nintendo got all characters associated with Dinosaur Planet (Krystal, General Scales, Tricky, etc.), and all the "Kong" characters created by Rare from the Donkey Kong Country series and beyond.

But even while all this was going on, Nintendo was making preparations for the future. Rare was gone and they were never coming back, so Nintendo needed to find a new home for Star Fox. Even before relations with Rare began to fall apart, they had been planning a new home for the Star Fox franchise. Utilizing their new Triforce partnership, Nintendo asked Japanese publisher Namco if they would like to develop the next Star Fox title. They gladly accepted the honor to work with Nintendo, and preparations began. The original idea was that the game would follow in the footsteps of F-Zero GX and be released as a home version for Gamecube, and an Arcade version for the Triforce arcade hardware, which was a joint platform co-developed between Nintendo, Namco, and Sega.

Nintendo originally planned the game to follow up after Star Fox 64 in storyline simply because they didn't expect to get the rights to the Dinosaur Planet characters from Rare. Luckily, their legal department managed to swing another miracle, and plans for the game's single player adventure had to be completely scrapped and restarted. As a result, this promotional poster (shown above) is the only known image of what would've been the Arcade version of the game. All of this is probably one of the main reasons why the multiplayer mode was the only thing shown at E3 2003, because the single player game was back in development since Namco could now continue down the path that Rare's Dinosaur Planet had begun. Because of the new setback in development time, the game was pushed back over a year, and the arcade version was dropped. Instead, the game would be turned into a fully story-driven space shooting adventure with some ground-based combat elements worked into the structure of its design. The single player game would eventually make its video debut during Reggie Fils-Aime's stupendous E3 2004 Media Press Conference, and would be fully playable on the show floor the next day. It showed the world that Namco had finally brought the Star Fox franchise back together, and fans could continue on in what is widely considered one of the longest running and most celebrated space shooters in all of gaming. But even then, the game had no name. At first, it was known simply as Star Fox for Triforce. A year later it was changed to Star Fox Armada since the game's focus had been shifted to the story, but then was quickly changed again simply to Star Fox 2. That decision tended to confuse hardcore fans who knew of the original Star Fox 2, which had been dropped back in 1995. Then at E3 2004, they just simply called it Starfox - Coming this Fall, basically conveying to fans that they had no idea what they were going to name this game.

After one last name change, Namco's Star Fox Assault finally hit shelves in February of 2005. Originally the title was planned for release in time for the Christmas season of 2004, but due to fan requests, Namco attempted to delay the title to implement a LAN mode. Doing so, however, would have required a complete overhaul of the multiplayer engine, and thus the option was dropped. Fans had waited long enough for a new flight adventure in the true Star Fox style, and Namco was not willing to risk another E3 showing, since it had already been present at two of them.

That brings us to the present. No one knows what the future holds for Star Fox. Perhaps we will see online multiplayer on the DS, or maybe we will discover an entire new way to play the series on Nintendo's upcoming Revolution. No one really knows, but that's what makes it exciting. But before we close, there's one more little oddball fact sitting in the Star Fox closet. Some people may have noticed that there was an old game released in the early 80's for the Atari 2600 called Starfox. You may see it floating around flea markets and such. It has no relation to the Star Fox you know. Atari created the game and neglected to copyright it since it was just one of the many generic titles released in those days. Had they copyrighted it, this history might have been radically different. I hope after reading this history, you will decide to go out and buy Star Fox Assault. If it's anything like the past titles, fans will be in for one wild ride. Over its thirteen-year history, Star Fox has seen many developers come and go, and has passed through a lot of hands, each adding something more than the last. Perhaps this is why it has evolved into the franchise we know today. It began as a controlled accident, and transformed into a certified space opera. Perhaps the series will remain the prototype for new innovations long into the future, and perhaps that’s what has defined the series: forever pushing new frontiers at the speed of an Arwing.

Lucas DeWoody is one of the most in-depth industry historians in online journalism. His articles, found exclusively at the Advanced Media Network, focus on a different franchise or facet of the industry every month.

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comments | 376 |
Glad everyone liked the article. In time, we'll get around to al
comments | 3 |
Starfox Assualt looks pretty cool. I've got to get it.
comments | 3 |
Actually, Nintendo received about 180 mil USD for Rare, rather th
comments | 163 |
Absolutley incredible. Good job, Lucas!
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