Why have there been so few proper Star Fox sequels after the Super Nintendo and N64 games? The series was known for its peppy animal heroes and its Star Wars-lite approach to space combat, most of which took place in a kind of invisible tunnel, allowing the developers to keep your attention locked forward.
Whisker Squadron, an upcoming game from indie developer Flippfly, hopes to pick up where Star Fox left off, even though the designer himself doesn’t know why Nintendo never went back to the franchise.
“I remember reading an article a while back that said Nintendo was disappointed with the performance of the Star Fox franchise in Japan, but it seems like there’s been a pretty engaged fanbase for a long time,” game developer Aaron San Fillipo told Polygon. “I know they’ve made some followup games, but it seems like nothing has topped the fan’s love for the original SNES Star Fox and then Star Fox 64. I hope Nintendo keeps trying!”
Flippfly had already developed and released a game in 2013 called Race the Sun that looked and felt a great deal like Star Fox, and one day San Fillipo’s love of the original games led him to to post a tweet that inadvertently gave Whisker Squadron life. The developer pitched the idea of a mash-up between Race the Sun and Star Fox, promising he would make a prototype of this game if his tweet earned 200 likes.
Ok I probably shouldn't tempt myself like this, but is this a mashup you'd like to see? If I get 200 likes on this tweet, I will drop everything I'm doing and spend a few days making a StarFox-inspired prototype with the Race The Sun engine. pic.twitter.com/qzFfQnReKt— Aaron San Filippo (@AeornFlippout) March 29, 2020
It got 527 likes, which isn’t exactly going viral, but it was enough to show there was interest. He spent a week making the prototype, and soon it became his full-time project. That was back in March of 2020, and the team has been busy ever since.
Now, thankfully, fans can play a very early version of the game for themselves.
Building on a classic
Flippfly released a demo of Whisker Squadron for the current Steam Festival. While the game is still early in production and its current lack of optimization means that it often runs at the same frame rate as the original Star Fox, it was clear that San Fillippo and company managed to capture at least the basic look and feel of the original game.
“I think the toughest thing has been finding our own identity with this game apart from its obvious inspirations,” San Fillippo told Polygon. “We really want to take this to new and interesting places using procedural generation and more tactical choices that you’ll make with each run. We even have procedurally-generated bosses, which I think is virtually unheard of in video games. So on one hand, we want to fill that void and give Star Fox fans something they’ll love, but we’re not shying away from trying new things, and it’s tough to describe that goal succinctly.”
He put it like this: He’ll be happy if Whisker Squadron has the same relationship to Star Fox that Spelunky has to Super Mario Bros.
What’s clear from my time with the demo is that the fundamentals are there. The ships look and move like something you’d see in an updated Star Fox game, and the combat evokes the same cross of Star Wars-style runs through giant capitol ships and Zaxxon-inspired runs across a planet’s surface or through space. The demo is more of a proof of concept than a solid look at what the game will be like at launch, but that proof of concept is really all I needed.
Once you get the basics of what made Star Fox so much fun working at this level, you have a strong base on which to build the world you’d like to make. It helps that the basics of Star Fox, from the flight mechanics to the yapping, excitable animals, are cool as hell. All the more so if you grew up with the originals.
“We’re really just getting started with the world design, and what you see in the demo from the first half of the game are the more ‘traditional’ elements,’ San Fillipo explained. “In the final game, you can expect to see us explore more crazy, abstract environments and evocative procedural generation. We also have some concepts for environments and enemies that our concept artist Jin has made, and I’m really excited to see that all come together in the coming months.”
Not the only studio hoping to capture the magic
While the lack of proper Star Fox sequels from Nintendo remains upsetting to fans of the series, San Fillipo also realizes that this leaves a window open for indie devs to offer the sorts of games Nintendo doesn’t seem to want to make.
Finishing Whisker Squadron is something of a dream for San Fillipo, who has loved Star Fox since he was a kid. He sent over a picture of some fan-art of the original game that he drew when he was a child, and described how his parents would get game rentals from time to time.
“We even made a VHS recording of my dad playing Star Fox, and then I watched it obsessively until the next time I could play,” he said.
Whisker Squadron is slated for a 2021 release, which gives the studio plenty of time to continue mastering the basics while adding new ideas that push the genre forward. The good news is that Whisker Squadron’s demo, even in the game’s early state, goes a long way towards capturing what made the original Super Nintendo Star Fox so magical.
If this is where the game is starting in the public eye, I can’t wait to see where it ends up.