Lylat Wars (1997)
* Known as Star Fox 64 in the United States
Starwing (or Star Fox) for the SNES was a great game, in which you played as a talking fox named… er, Fox, who headed up the Star Fox team of four elite mercenary fighter pilots – the rest of the team being made up of Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and the remarkably less talented fourth member, Slippy Toad. The Star Fox team were tasked with defeating the evil scientist Andross, as he led an invasion of the game’s galaxy, the Lylat System, and gained control of most of its planets. They would complete this task by use of four cutting edge fighter ships, called Arwings.
Starwing was the first 3D game for the SNES, a feat brought about by the engineering of the remarkable Super FX graphics accelerator chip, allowing the game to render polygons and advanced scrolling. This enabled Nintendo and Argonaut Software (co-developers of the game and the Super FX chip) to design the 3D scrolling rail-shooter which introduced Fox McCloud and company to Nintendo’s assortment of characters.
The game had a ‘Corridor’ style of play – that is, the player flew the Arwing ‘into’ the screen, and could not turn around or fly up very high, nor could they veer too much to the left or right. The game’s stages would be based either on planets or in space, and in space you could change camera angles to a first-person perspective. You shot up scores of enemy ships and at the end of each stage was a humongous boss with an even bigger lifebar, ready to swat your little Arwing out of the sky… or out of space.
The player chose one of three paths to Andross’s lair (situated on the planet Venom) at the beginning of the game, and each path had different stages and difficulty levels. The ability to mix things up each time you played was nice, although once you picked a path you were forced to stick with that path for the game’s duration (with two rare exceptions).
The game was much hyped prior to release, with its graphics considered incredible for the time. It received high praise and sold very well, and so a sequel was a foregone conclusion. Work on Star Fox 2 was just about completed in 1995, but the game was hurriedly cancelled. Nintendo, it was revealed, had decided to keep the Star Fox franchise fresh for the new Nintendo 64, which was to be released soon. It was a strange move, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the new Nintendo 64 Star Fox came out anyway. Still, there’s no use in complaining, as 99% completed ROMs of Star Fox 2 have been leaked online and the game is now fully playable – and even translation patched to English. If you’re not staunchly against emulation of unreleased games and have the means, you can take a look online and discover an even more advanced 3D space shooter with strategy elements. Look on eBay and you can even find reproduction SNES cartridges of the game with mock-up manuals and boxes. No great loss there.
With the Nintendo 64, 3D was the new thing, meaning that Starwing’s unique selling point was now commonplace and not very impressive. In fact, although most recognised for the achievements involved in creating polygonic graphics on the SNES, Starwing’s graphics already looked quite dated. To even have those kind of graphics on the SNES came at their own costs: there were large borders on the screen (particularly in the PAL versions, as per usual), the frame-rate wasn’t up to much and if there were a dozen too many polygons in view then the game’s speed dropped even further. Starwing was a successful experiment in both graphics and fun, but gamers and fans of the original now wanted the next step. Would Star Fox 64, dubbed Lylat Wars in Europe and Australia, be up to the task?
It’s a retelling of Starwing’s story, not that it all greatly matters. It’s all succinctly explained at the beginning of each new game, but for completion’s sake: Andross is a scientist of the planet Corneria, who is starting to get up to some pretty questionable stuff and somehow ends up roasting most of the planet and comes near to making Corneria extinct, which is actually quite impressive really. Well, General Pepper finds out about these shenanigans and is none too pleased with the scientist’s devilment. He has Andross banished to the arid planet Venom on the other side of the Lylat System, which is rather extreme; I suppose it would be a bit like consigning history’s villains to Uranus.
But even with these draconian sanctions, Andross doesn’t call it a day there. Five years after banishing the mad scientist, General Pepper “notices strange activity coming from Venom”, perhaps through a massive telescope. He sends the Star Fox team of James McCloud, Peppy Hare and Pigma Dengar out to investigate. Upon getting to Venom, the treacherous Pigma sells the other two out. Greedy as a pig, and so forth. Peppy manages to escape, but James’s fate is left unknown.
A few more years pass, and it seems Andross has been building up a right old army of mooks, as he easily takes over the entire Lylat System while the Cornerian army has its back turned. Not quite financially secure enough to embrace retirement and therefore presumably desperate to hang onto his post as General, General Pepper sends the new Star Fox team headed by Fox McCloud, sone of James, to save Corneria and defeat Andross for good.
Yeah, I think even the game itself explains things better than I ever could.
As a remodelled version of Starwing, Lylat Wars has all kinds of similarities to its big brother: you pilot the Arwing alongside the three other members of the Star Fox team. Your teammates are almost entirely useless in terms of combat and usually require near-constant levels of attention to save their hides from being blasted to pieces, with Slippy infamously being the most high maintenance. It is fairly useful to keep them alive this time, however, as they all provide their own functions (according to the game): keeping Falco around will sometimes enable the Star Fox team to travel alternate routes on stages, although this only really comes into play on the first stage, Corneria (where at one point “ace pilot” Falco can be somehow shot to pieces in seconds if you don’t act quickly enough).
Getting that old codger Peppy out of jail will enable him to keep giving you obvious advice throughout stages, particularly the weakpoints of bosses, which you will have learned off by heart after a few playthroughs anyway. Ironically, Slippy’s ability tends to be the most missed if you decide to neglect his pleas for help (and most players would have every sympathy if you did so): he will show you each boss’s lifebar, so you can see how well you’re doing.
Falco gets it right. Actually, whenever he’s not lambasting you and generally being a pain in the neck, you should listen to Falco. This guy knows.
Keeping the entire team alive can be a troublesome task at times, but it is also necessary if the player wishes to earn medals, which are given out for achieving a certain HIT score in a stage. The HIT score is one of the best new additions to the game from the original: each enemy you destroy is usually worth 1 HIT, although some tougher ones can give a HIT+3 or +5 bonus, with bosses being worth HIT+10 (i.e. 1 HIT + 10 more points, for 11 total) if you defeat them quickly enough. Also, littered throughout the stages are groups of enemies all clustered together. If you charge up your laser (a concept borrowed from Star Fox 2) you can fire a small burst of energy that detonates on impact, with enough splash damage to take out the enemy group, giving you a combo score.
With the action so fast and furious and the enemy groups so numerous it’s not always easy to stay on top of things, no matter how much you’ve played the game. Lylat Wars is a classic example of the type of game that is easy to learn but difficult to master, or at least difficult to keep improving on. Earning medals in the game eventually becomes fairly easy for experienced players, for most stages at least, but the game will keep track of your 10 best scores. And, since the game is a short enough, fun and varied experience each time you play, you will feel compelled to try to top your previous scores. I daresay there aren’t many games that make players care about score, especially after 1990, but Lylat Wars is a short and intensely sweet experience with enough satisfaction derived from shooting down clusters of enemies to compel players to score highly.
It is crucial that a game like this boasts a high level of replay value, as you will play only seven stages each time you start and complete the game. Further, each playthrough begins with the planet Corneria and finishes with Venom, although the former has a small alternate end and the latter has two different stages, even if one of them is a short battle. Unlike Starwing, you do not select one rigid path at the game’s beginning: instead, many stages have two (even three) exits, which can be considered the Easy and Hard paths. There is a Medium path as well, but with most stages having two exits it makes more sense to consider them as being Easy or Hard – go for the ‘Medium’ exits and you’ll find yourself stuck down there, and nowhere near the Hard path stages.
Illustration of the game’s many paths, from Corneria to Venom, excluding the game’s two hidden warps. Higher stages are the Hard path, with the lower ones the Easy path.
The All-Range Mode is another new addition to the range of gameplay, albeit another one that was simply resurrected from the ashes of Star Fox 2. All-Range Mode tends to turn proceedings into a crazed menagerie where your animal buddies are constantly being harassed by the enemy, who become like vicious ringleaders and zookeepers. If Andross and his generals are anything to go by, then these common enemy tyrants are most likely to be monkeys. Why is it always the monkeys that are portrayed as evil? The poor innocent blighters. Monkeys being the closest to human beings, is there some sort of ‘human cruelty to animals’ allegory we’re not being told of?
Being serious, All-Range Mode allows you to turn the Arwing around for the first time, and you can perform a dedicated move to that effect, the U-turn (known in real life as an Immelmann turn). The fighting area turns from the ‘Corridor’ style straight line to a very large square which can fit scores of ships comfortably. This allows for large dogfights and, more commonly, your teammates to allow the perfunctory AI to completely outfox them and get behind them, until you intervene. They will call on Fox and only Fox to help them out, suffering from temporary amnesia such that they forget how to boost, brake, somersault, U-turn – even Peppy doesn’t summon the gumption to ever barrel roll.
Where did this ragtag bunch come from? Apparently Slippy is an old college friend of Fox’s, and was the designer of the Blue-Marine submarine and the Landmaster tank. That’s okay, sometimes it’s just about who you know and not what you know, right? You can really find yourself up against it when seeking employment in the spacefaring mercenary business, I hear. And Peppy has a lot of experience on his side but he is getting on in years. Although being a friend of James McCloud, Fox’s father, Fox probably hasn’t got the heart to make Mr. Hare redundant. But what about Falco? The game’s literature bigs him up as the “ace pilot” of the team, but all he offers is aggravation and bluster to cover his shortcomings! What kind of amateurish team is this?
Fox manages to spot a ginormous enemy munitions train, which looks longer than Route 66, and lies to his team about blowing it up when he is in fact going up and down hills for a laugh.
Whatever about your team’s deficiencies, it all means that you’re more or less on your own throughout the game. To make sure of this, you can let your teammates get shot down or even callously blow them away yourself, something you couldn’t do in Starwing. Unlike in that game however, your teammates don’t die but will merely sit out the next full mission before returning for the stage after that. It’s all of little consequence really, since your teammates are mere distractions to what might as well be a solo mission. Just remember to keep the fools alive if you want a medal – you won’t get one if any of them are forced to leave the fray.
There are actually three vehicles available in the game. For most stages you’ll be using the classic Arwing, but two stages feature the Landmaster tank and another one puts the Star Fox team behind the submersible Blue-Marine. Player opinion on the Landmaster tends to be mixed, more good than bad, and the Blue-Marine fairly negative all round, but I enjoy the variety when it comes. The single player game mercifully doesn’t have any on-foot sections however, something which plagued the GameCube’s Star Fox Assault. As an aside, this game was actually the first to feature on-foot gameplay, although it was merely an unlockable extra for the game’s rudimentary multiplayer mode. Unsurprisingly, it was quite clunky and boring. Simple equation really, would you rather run around after your enemy like a headless chicken or commandeer a deathtank or super advanced fighter?
But having to swap vehicles in the main game is not so bad if the alternatives are up to scratch, and in my opinion they are. The Landmaster is great fun to mess around with, the rolling apocalyptic force of destruction that the little fella is. Obviously it’s not as manoeuvrable as the free-flying Arwing but it is quite quick, especially for a tank, can perform its own version of a barrel roll (more comical than practical in this case) and can even hover for a short time. It’s only got one type of laser, which can’t be upgraded, but you can still charge it and fire smart bombs as usual.
The Blue-Marine is a slow moving craft in a stage which can suffer from its share of slowdown anyway, at least on the Nintendo 64 version of the game. The Blue-Marine can benefit from upgraded lasers but they cannot be charged. In place of smart bombs, you can fire an infinite supply of torpedoes which can be used to score HIT combos on enemy groups. The Aquas stage, the only stage in the game where the submersible craft is used, is so sluggish that the following stage, which returns you to the Arwing, always initially takes my surprise by how quickly the enemies come at me.
The Blue-Marine attracts most of its scorn due to the slowness of the craft and of the entire stage, a poor contrast to the rest of the game’s lively action. But I very much enjoy the idea, even if others don’t. As much as I embrace both of the game’s different vehicles, I think it might have been better to be able to go through these stages with the option of selecting the Arwings as well, even above the planet. It’s just something that would have pleased everybody, but I do think having other vehicles is a cool move. It isn’t obnoxious about seemingly keeping you out of the Arwing as much as possible, unlike Star Fox Assault.
The Arwing fires a single laser, which can be upgraded to twin lasers and then a doubly powerful hyper laser by collecting laser upgrades. As previously mentioned, the laser can be charged up by holding the button for a few moments, to release a shot that can take out clustered enemies. The Arwings can also fire smart bombs with a very large explosive yield, though you only get a limited stock of these and you can find additional bombs throughout the stages. Initially you have a small lifebar which can be extended upon collecting three gold rings, which also recover health (the silver rings only perform the latter task). Apart from the usual damage that the ship sustains, you can also lose one or both of your wings if they take enough of a beating themselves. Losing your wings is a pain, as the Arwing’s buoyancy is hampered and it also downgrades your lasers to the basic single laser. To restore your wings, you’ll need to find a Wing Repair item.
The Planet Katina stage is definitely not an Independence Day rip-off, but is in fact… actually, I won’t insult us both. It even features a character called Bill Grey!
The alternate ways of getting through the game heavily encourages replayability, which the game lives off. Releasing a short game that encourages multiple plays, as in dozens or hundreds, is always a little bit of a gamble, a gamble necessitating the game to have gameplay tight enough to enable it to stay afloat. As it is, Lylat Wars is a success: players, including myself, always find themselves going back to it. I can probably quote every line in the game, I can get medal-earning scores all the way through, I’m usually in position to destroy enemy targets before they even spawn. But I can always do that little bit better, there’s always that one little factor that gets in your way and spoils your score. Games that are easy enough to play and learn the nuances of but give increasingly higher rewards for better displays of skill are rarer than one might think.
It can be a little tedious having to play through the first stage, Corneria, each and every time you turn on the game. What the game could have really benefitted from is a stage select feature, perhaps unlockable after everything else in the game has been done and dusted. Sometimes, the level you want to play might require a half hour session before you get there. In my own personal case, for example, my favourite stage is the planet Zoness, one of the game’s 4th stages. It is a level on the Hard Path, so to get there, you must go from Corneria to Sector Y to Aquas to Zoness. There’s no other way.
That’s three stages that absolutely must be endured before getting there, including the Blue-Marine shake-up of Aquas, capable of rubbing players the wrong way. Area 6, possibly the game’s best stage and favourite of many other players, is the second-to-last stage in the game – also on the Hard Path, and not always straightforward to get to, and needing around 30 minute’s play just to get there. Also, several ways of playing through the game involve travelling to the Solar stage, which is fairly duff. A stage select would have really been ideal in these scenarios, but it’s not a major drawback.
The awkwardly titled 3DS remake of the game, Star Fox 64 3D, does allow you to pick any stage you like and go for higher scores. What’s more, the remake allows you to save your game in the middle of a playthrough and return to it later, a feature distinctly lacking from the Nintendo 64 version. Lylat Wars does possess a battery backup capability, which keeps tracks of your highest scores and how many medals you’ve attained. This battery could have stretched to a save and reload feature at least, which is an omission that must be criticised – you never know what evil real world forces can crop up to prevent you from reaching the end in one go.
That said, this game benefits strongly from being a terrific experience for a period of about 45 minutes to 1 hour, rather than just one or a few occasional stages at a time. But as you can only play 7 out of 16 stages in any one playthrough, and 2 of these must be Corneria and a version of Venom, a bit more flexibility and choice would have been desirable. That way, one would not have to suffer a number of other levels just to have a crack at their favourites once again.
One of Falco’s classically begrudging ways of showing gratitude to Fox. The stern poker face says it all.
One of the game’s other most celebrated features is the delightfully cheesy voice acting. In Starwing there was limited communications, usually transmissions incoming from your horrendous teammates as they get accosted by some of the easiest enemies in the ruddy game. The characters had their own distinct, memorable voice samples (all garbled nonsense, remixed from a voice sample of ‘wing damage’) and Fox himself actually spoke a bit of English at times. There is plenty of chatter present among characters in Lylat Wars, and it’s all fully voice acted. It’s not just the Star Fox team members, but their CO General Pepper, ROB64 (the pilot of the Great Fox, mothership of the Star Fox team), Andross, many of the bosses and the Star Wolf team. Better still, at least in the PAL versions of the game, there is an option to change the voices from English to Lylat, which harkens back to the gibberish spoken by the characters in Starwing. Now each and every line in the game has been given a Lylat version, which is often hysterically funny, particularly the screams and yells of characters – the death scream of the Sector Y boss in particular is golden.
The Star Wolf team, while we’re on that subject, are a team of 4 mercenaries in the employ of Andross who are basically evil Star Fox, and have vendettas against the Star Fox team. The Star Wolf battles are fantastic, highlights of the game – particularly the battle on Venom, where they pilot Wolfen II ships capable of manoeuvring just as well as the Arwings can. The Star Wolf team itself is an element borrowed, yet again, from Star Fox 2. These battles are always frenzied as you try to stave off their well-spoken team leader, Wolf O’Donnell, while bailing out your hapless teammates, who immediately find themselves completely out of their depth. Quelle surprise!
Finally, an afterthought about an afterthought – the game’s multiplayer. It is quite limited and almost entirely forgettable, but it’s present. On a heavily limited number of maps, you play against up to 3 other players in Arwings, and later Landmasters or on-foot, and try to blow each other to bits. It’s pretty impotent, but basic fun, although only for a little while. The 3DS remake features a vastly improved multiplayer, or so I’ve read, but suffers from that classic Nintendo trick of neglecting online play completely. That’s our Nintendo!
The graphics are simple enough and they suffice. They definitely haven’t aged much at all, as other Nintendo 64 games unfortunately have. Not much is ever really garish, nor is anything ever outstanding. It is a basic 3D, of course, but the blocky polygons don’t look so bad when they’re on space battleships and nondescript buildings. Actually I’d consider the game’s graphics some of the easiest on the eyes on the Nintendo 64, which admittedly isn’t saying much, but the game doesn’t try to do too much and is better for it. Most enemies are quite clear, the action is fast enough that the pop-up doesn’t become objectionable, you don’t get lost in the depth and the action flows well. The frame-rate is choppy in the Aquas stage and can take a small dive when there are several explosions present, but performance is strong on the whole. A simple graphical look works here, although you probably won’t ever be amazed by them.
The quality itself can be a bit of a mishmash. An example is the Area 6 stage, a space battle which is quite a spectacle. Even if most of the surrounding area is just empty black space, the stage is full of enemies and explosions, and it’s quite a spectacle. On the other hand, the Planet Titania’s enemies and in particular its boss look blocky and very unsightly. Star Fox 64 3D features a remarkable graphical update, good enough to warrant a purchase from those left desiring more from the look of the Nintendo 64 game, but I personally don’t think the graphical update would warrant a full price purchase of the 3DS edition alone.
Spoilers! The game’s final boss is Andross, who must have messed up an experiment somewhere along the line and ended up turning himself into a giant head with two hands. And he don’t look best pleased about it.
MUSIC AND SOUND
The music is catchy, MIDI rendered stuff which makes use of signature Nintendo 64 instruments, like cymbals and strings. Most stages have their own distinct themes, although there are a few repeats. Among the strongest of the themes, in my personal opinion, are Sector X, Sector Y/Solar, Aquas, Zoness, Area 6 and the Last Point theme in the multiplayer mode. Incidentally, many of the tracks in this game were later orchestrated for Star Fox Assault‘s excellent soundtrack.
The sounds of the vehicles are great, with each of the three having unique little sound effects as they fire their weapons. The sound of the Arwing’s wings as it barrel rolls is particularly alluring. The voice acting is one of the strongest parts of the game’s sound, with the banter between the team always being interesting and oftentimes funny. In order to compress the voice samples to a small enough size to fit the game cartridge, their quality has been severely reduced, making some of the samples a bit raspy. This is corrected in the 3DS re-release, of course, but if you’d be the type uppity enough to get bent out of shape over slightly inferior voice sampling quality, then just be aware of this.
PLUS AND MINUS
+ The variety afforded by the levels means that two or three playthroughs can be entirely different. This is thanks to the presence of the Blue-Marine and Landmaster vehicles, some levels which are entirely Corridor oriented, All-Range Mode oriented or a bit of both, and levels which contain different characters (sometimes boss characters, and also Bill Grey and Katt Monroe, two characters who will help you in certain stages).
+ Many people no longer care much about the score they receive in a game, particularly if the relevant Achievement/Trophy has already been unlocked. Lylat Wars may not give everyone the incentive to keep trying to beat their previous records, but if you enjoy the gameplay you’ll find yourself giving it your best shot each time you play, setting better and better records. Before long, record breaking becomes the name of the game. Even when you’ve earned savant knowledge of 95% of the game, there’s still things you can do better on – and want to do better on.
+ The voice acting is tremendous value, in spite of the Nintendo 64’s limitations on anything but MIDI music and tiny sound effects. Of course, it’s not of the highest quality, either aurally or in terms of the actual dialogue, but it’s funny and often varied. The diverse range of voices, particularly in regards to the small voice cast, really bring all of the characters to life, especially the Star Fox and Star Wolf team themselves. There are some repeated lines, usually regarding the all-too-frequent occurrence of your teammates coming under fire and you rescuing them (if you decide to) but nothing ever grates… except maybe Slippy.
+ Apart from the high scores, replayability comes from earning the medals on each stage, with the requisite scores not always a walk in the park to reach. To add to this longevity is an unlockable Expert difficulty mode, which increases the amount of enemies, doubles the damage you take and, most annoyingly, snaps off your wings after only one blow. Even for gamers who know the game like the back of their hand, Expert mode can be a bit of an unnecessary ordeal. But for hardcore gamers, those who want higher scores still, it’s there – and the heightened difficulty is considerable. Better still, you’ll need to get all 15 medals again on Expert mode to fully beat the game.
– The battery could easily have been used to make things more convenient for the player, by allowing them to save and quit so that they can replay their game at a later date. I stress that it’s no major problem playing through seven stages in a row, and you’ll quickly be skilful enough to do this without breaking a sweat. But, as wussy as it sounds, more convenience given to the player would have been nice. An unlockable stage select function would have been the icing.
Will this game ever get old? It’s had 15 years now, and also a remade version, and I can still play it any day, and likely get through to the end. I have seen absolutely everything the game has to offer and still I play to get the highest scores, or at least feature in my Top 10, and the gameplay is fun enough to carry itself all the way. A slight lack of flexibility and no way of saving progress harms the game slightly, but these are only requests that reflect the complaints of one who has felt compelled to beat the game dozens of times already.
To give a final note on the 3DS version, it features a rich graphical update, which looks excellent in motion, and also new voice-acting, which is less of a boon. Thrillingly, the voice-acting is at least done by all of the old actors, and their voices have perhaps changed a little in 15 long years, but it’s an unwelcome change to those who revel in nostalgia. Having listened to the voices, they are decent but the originals are better (aren’t they always?). The lines of the original are a lot more convincing, although the 3DS version’s sound quality is a few furlongs better, if you’re interested. The 3DS version does make a great game portable, shows off a nice graphical overhaul, redoes the music and has new features sorely missing from the Nintendo 64 version, but it comes at a price. Stick to the Wii or Wii U Virtual Console version of the game for now, available for 1,000 Points. If you fall in love with it, as many do, then maybe consider the 3DS instalment if you have the means. It is, after all, not only a high point of the Star Fox franchise but one of the rail-shooter genre as a whole as well.