After collecting 21 years of dust laying around the Nintendo archives, Star Fox 2 finally achieved liftoff. But while the relic of a bygone age has garnered a variety of responses since its release on the SNES Classic a few short weeks ago — from “woefully dated” to “wonderfully inventive” — the actual gristle and bone beneath the name has mostly escaped scrutiny. To this end, Polygon sat down with the one-time programmer behind the Fox, Dylan Cuthbert — now president of Q-Games — to discuss the climate of the studio within Nintendo, the tech that powered the game and what it’s like to see your hard work cast into the world after two decades spent underground.
Development time: Around 3 years
By Cuthbert’s recollection, the team rolled onto development of Star Fox 2 before the original game came out in Japan, and the sequel gradually grew from a by-the-numbers follow-up to a wholesale reinvention of the corridor-shooter concept. “Our map system was completely new and functioned in ‘zones’ — some of our earlier experiments had the player completing gated zones as they moved throughout a world,” says Cuthbert. “We scaled this down a bit and used the system on the space stations for the different rooms.”
Number of traditional corridor-shooting levels in Star Fox 2: 0
Longtime fans of the franchise who assume that the sequel is mostly similar to the original will find themselves in for a rude surprise. Outside of a handful of mandatory linear sequences in Star Destroyer-esque carriers, the combat in 2 gives you full freedom of movement to flip and blast, which can prove disorienting at first. Later games would dub this approach “all-range mode,” and it remains one of the few elements that the franchise took from the unreleased game. According to Cuthbert, this mode was a “key goal” for Star Fox 2, as it was originally intended for the first game but abandoned due to the technical challenge. “We just started experimenting with the kind of things we left out of the original,” he says. “The main thing was all-range camera and movement.”
Budget: Irrelevant/not a factor
By Cuthbert’s reckoning, there was very rarely any discussion of the budget for the game, despite its reliance on expensive, cutting-edge tech. “I don’t think Nintendo at that point worked like that, anyway — I think they just decided what they wanted to make and then they made it, no matter how long it [took] and no matter how many re-takes it [needed]. Miyamoto has that famous quote attributed to him — ‘a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad’ — and it seemed to work for them.” Even if Nintendo had proved more cost-conscious at that point, Cuthbert says that the team was small enough that it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Average length of a normal playthrough: 40 minutes
This comes from self-reported times on the backlog-tracking site HowLongtoBeat.com, so it’s not based on comprehensive data, but it tracks with my first few playthroughs of the game. For comparison’s sake, a bare-bones playthrough of the original comes in at one and a half hours, and 64 clocks in at two hours. Still, the variable nature of the game — when combined with the strategic elements that the later entries in the series mostly lack — gives it a depth more comparable to a run-based game like a roguelike than the other games in its parent franchise.
Current world-record speedrun: 11 minutes, 40 seconds
Some have criticized Star Fox 2 for its short playtime, and, with the right play style the game can end very quickly, as demonstrated by this world-record time for the Normal difficulty. Inaugurated by noted speedrunner zallard1 — who also holds similar records for both 64 and the beta version of 2 — the route relies on pinpoint strategy and a dash of luck, as enemies, bosses and levels appear randomly in each playthrough. Since the game has only been out in the wild for a few weeks, it’s fair to assume there’s room for improvement, but probably not much. (The world record for the beta is currently 10m 20s, but not all the systems in the final release are fully implemented, and they’re thus treated like two different games for speedrunning purposes.)
Maximum number of players: 1
According to Cuthbert, a two-player mode was another one of the “key features” that the team ultimately had to scrap due to hardware limitations. You select two pilots at the beginning of each run, but you only play as one at a time. Since the SNES struggles to render just one Arwing in the third-person view at an acceptable framerate, it’s easy to see why this was cut. Star Fox 64 featured a two-player mode, but it was strictly competitive. It wasn’t until Star Fox Zero that the series finally got a cooperative mode, and even then it was compromised.
Playable characters: 6
Star Fox 2 features two new playable characters, a lynx named Miyu and a dog named Fay, in addition to the original team of Fox, Falco, Slippy and Peppy. “We had a ton of freedom on the team,” Cuthbert says. “Pretty much anything I came up with would end up in the game, just as with the original. I named a bunch of characters in both, for example.” Each character has different stats that correspond to different styles of play — some are faster, and some have more health. Miyu and Fay were never featured in Star Fox follow-ups — owing to 2’s dubious canonical status prior to its official release — though some fans argue that aspects of each character manifested themselves in later games. For example, a dog pilot named Bill Gray comes to help out the team during a Independence Day-inspired scenario in Star Fox 64.
Number of planets: 6
The number of planets you’re required to save varies by playthrough and difficulty level, with Expert generally requiring all six. Most of these levels appeared in one form or another in both the original Fox and its sequels, though they vary in appearance and setting, with the planet Fortuna in 2 giving the player a boss fight against a water creature rather than the jaunt through the jungle seen in the original game.
Maximum internet speed: 56k
Cuthbert fondly recalls the time he spend developing the game at Nintendo EAD: “We had networked PCs by that point which was a godsend," says Cuthbert. "We also used a desktop OS called DesqView/X that let us run multiple DOS consoles simultaneously, as well as apps such as Mosaic for very fledgling-era internet — we had a 56k dial up modem in the corner of the room. I borrowed some space on a unix server in Kyodai that my professor friends had root access on, got them to install a HTTP daemon and then created one of the very first web pages in the Kansai region.”
Average framerate: ~20 frames per second
There’s no getting around it — the suboptimal framerate of Star Fox 2 remains the biggest hurdle for modern gamers to overcome. While five years might not seem very lengthy of a console cycle compared to the decade-long advent of the 360 and the PS3, the technology that powered the SNES was considered very dated by the time the game was ready to go out the door. “I would have liked a better framerate for Star Fox 2,” says Cuthbert, “but the limits of the FX Chip at the SNES itself — as it still had to deal with the memory transfer and game object processing — were quite apparent at that point. We concentrated on making the gameplay as original and interesting as possible.”
Core power-ups: 3
The type of special weapon your craft will have depends on your character choice, though you can later pick up all the different types on the battlefield. They include a smart bomb, a shield and a shield recharge — in my experience, the bomb is by far the most useful. There’s also a pickup that allows your charge shot to home in on your enemies, a la Star Fox 64. In the beta, this was the default ability of Miyu and Fay, but it was unfathomably powerful.
Polygons drawn: As many as possible
From Cuthbert’s recollections, it’s clear that this was the foremost technical challenge with Star Fox 2 — the SNES simply wasn’t built for 3D. “Drawing enough polygons was the biggest issue,” he says. “I remember moving a whole chunk of code to run in parallel with the FX chip — the FX chip could basically run alongside the native 65816 if you put your code and data into RAM and didn’t access the ROM bus. This gave us a bit of a speed up for Fox 2 so we could do a few more complex calculations.”
Version of the SuperFX chip that powers the game: 2
Like Star Fox before it, Star Fox 2 would have relied on an onboard co-processing chip to help the struggling SNES with 3D graphics. While the name SuperFX 2 might come off as impressive, as far as Cuthbert was concerned, it was more of a salve than a cure. “It simply gave us a bit more of a boost," he says. "The scaled sprites ran a lot faster on it, for example.”
Number of Pepper Medals in the game: 52
These medals are the main collectibles in Star Fox 2 outside of weapon and shield pick-ups. In the leaked beta, collecting all of them did nothing; in the SNES Classic version, gathering all of them will spawn a secret area for you to gather power-ups from. This is one of the main reasons why there are two speedrunning categories for the game, as this “Secret Base” — accessible only in a New Game + — gives you an immense amount of firepower when compared to a normal playthrough.
Difficulty settings: 3
Unlike many difficulty settings of today, both “hard” and “expert” mode drastically change the makeup of Star Fox 2, forcing you into a more protracted struggle with Andross, with an Expert mode run taking me over an hour and change to beat after several abortive attempts. Since this hardest difficulty is the only real way to play all the levels, in a sense, it’s the true Star Fox 2 experience, for better or worse.
Number of games in Argonaut’s Nintendo contract: 3
Once Cuthbert’s original employer Argonaut managed to produce the first SuperFX chip, it signed a three-game contract with Nintendo. The first was Star Fox, the second was Wild Trax and the third would have been — and eventually was — Fox 2. “Parts of the Mario Kart team started working with Giles Goddard on Wild Trax, and I was assigned Nintendo programmers to train up in 3D game development for Fox 2,” says Cuthbert. “Once the game was cancelled, I applied for a job at Sony because Argonaut’s contract with Nintendo was up and I couldn’t work in EAD thanks to a non-poaching agreement that had been put in place after [Goddard] quit Argonaut to work at Nintendo when he finished Wild Trax.”
Price of Star Fox 2 if it had been released in 1996, adjusted for inflation: $94.37
This assumes that Star Fox 2 would have been released for $59.99, the same price point as Star Fox 1. Though it’s a great reminder that we live in a historically cheap time for retail games — at their base price, anyway — the cost of manufacturing was significantly higher for cartridge-based games back then, owing to their expensive ROM chips. And that’s not taking into account the SuperFX 2 co-processor that would have come within the cartridge, which would have significantly increased the price paid by Nintendo.
Price of a SNES Classic: $79.99
That’s the MSRP, though as of writing, prices on eBay run the gamut from around $130 all the way up to $200. The SNES Classic remains the only way to play the final version of Star Fox 2 legally.
Time from end of development to release: 21 years
When it came down to it, among other factors, Nintendo decided Star Fox 2 looked too dated to release in 1996. Cuthbert recalls hearing about the cancellation: "I was disappointed, but the reasoning made sense," he says. "We had a PlayStation in the office at Nintendo and the 3D was simply a whole generation ahead. There was no point fighting that at that point.” But, now that the game has finally seen the light of day, he’s happy that his work is finally being appreciated: “I think it’s really rather amazing they did it. I had given up hope completely that anyone would be able to play it, so it makes me really happy that they now can!"
Rating that Cuthbert gives it: 10
When asked this question, Cuthbert couldn’t help but laugh. “I don’t think you can ask any developer to rate their own game," he says. "I give it a 10, of course!”