Liam’s Game Room #4 (Star Fox 2, SNES)

Introduction

Star Fox 2 is a Shooter game for the SNES, developed by Argonaut Games, however the game was cancelled prior to it’s scheduled release date of Mid 1995. The game was intended to be a direct sequel to Nintendo’s hugely successful 1993 rail-shooter Star Fox. There were many aspects of Star Fox 2, which are still quite interesting to analyse and dissect before I can talk about the gameplay.

Why Was Star Fox 2 Cancelled?

So why was Star Fox 2 cancelled only 6 months before it’s scheduled release date? Well, initially Nintendo was aiming for a mid 1995 released date for the game, however the game then got delayed and pushed back to an early 1996 release date. In 1995, Nintendo’s CEO at the time Hiroshi Yamauch,i announced that the Nintendo 64 would be available for the home video game market for late 1995. This date was earlier than the delayed date for the release date for Star Fox 2, therefore in mid 1995 the game was shelved entirely.

Another reason for the cancellation of Star Fox 2 was that for the Nintendo 64 launch, Nintendo wanted there to be a game from one of their flagship franchises, which Star Fox at the time was considered to be one of the leading Nintendo franchises, alongside the Super Mario franchise. So resources that were being used on Star Fox 2 after it’s cancellation was shifted onto making a Star Fox game for the Nintendo 64 release window in late 1995. However, the Nintendo 64 itself was delayed and wasn’t released until mid 1996 for Japan, late 1996 for the American market and the European market didn’t get the console until Spring 1997. This leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth of fans of the franchise and the game could have still been released because of the programmers of Star Fox 2 Dylan Cuthbert, recently announced that he has a completed version of the game.

The reason why I bring up a “finished” version of the game is because the game is unlicensed, no one but Dylan Cuthbert knows what the final game was meant to look like or behave. The only knowledge that is out there is a finished version of a prototype rom. A Japanese prototype rom of the game was leaked to the internet in the early 2000’s, where the only aspects of the game that were functional were a couple of maps and a debug menu. The game in this state was neither playable and only basic planets surfaces were actually included because of the stage that the prototype was found in. However, throughout the 2000’s and into the 2010’s, people known as ROM hackers worked tirelessly analysing the code of the game and the assets within to decipher what is believed to be the developers’ intention.

The Stages of ROM Hacking The Prototype

The first stage of the ROM hacking phase was to make all the planets at least partially playable because Star Fox 2 took more of an overworld approach to the game, where the player was given a certain amount of players and ships to defeat, whereas, in Star Fox 1 there were 3 routes, which corresponded to the difficulty. However, during this first phase, the overworld map wasn’t yet available and the planets were moderately playable. The other thing that wasn’t removed at this stage of the ROM hacking was the debug menu. However, if the debug menu was removed at this point, then the game wouldn’t have been stable for testing new elements and sprites for the corresponding planets. The most important thing that was added during this stage was the walker mechanics, that wouldn’t be seen again until the 2015 release of Star Fox Zero. For the record, the reason why I know so much about these prototype versions and the development phase is because I have played all of the prototypes in questions and I have watched the game develop into the final stage that is available.

The second stage of the ROM hacking was to make all the planets playable because previously the game would recognise the planet and load it, but there would no assets for the game to load. So this phase was to develop the worlds as close as possible to what they believed to be the level layout. As well as level layouts, this phase included stabilisation of the game to make the game run closer to what the final ROM played like. The debug menu from the previous phase was still on the ROM at this point as the main overworld map wasn’t designed until the final stage of ROM Hacking. Without the debug menu at this point, the testers wouldn’t have been able to test the individual levels for functionality.

The final stage of the ROM hacking process was to add the cutscenes into the game, as previously, the cutscenes weren’t programmed or implemented. There was also the introduction of the overworld map and the removal of the debug menu, which gave the game more of a finished feel to it. The level layouts were finalised and stabilised in such a way that the player could progress through the game, as well as boss battles and enemies added to the levels. But perhaps the most important thing that was added in this last phase was the final boss stage and battle with Andross, which compared to Star Fox 1 Andross is completely different and more random.

There was one final problem that needed to be addressed and that was the prototype ROM that was used for the ROM hacking was in Japanese. In 2004, someone by the game of Aeon Genesis, who had and still does unofficial translation patches for Japanese games did a full translation of the game into English. What this allowed was for the game to be played in English, without any translation errors or language barriers. Although the game could easily be played in Japanese, the English patch was very welcomed.

Overall, these 3 stages to make Star Fox 2 as playable as possible took almost a decade to complete. But personally, I am so glad that so much effort was put into making this game as playable as it is today because it is my favourite game to speedrun. Also, without the effort Star Fox 2 would have potentially ended up as another game, which would have never meant to be. There is still an air of mystery about whether the state the game is now in is anywhere near the “finished” version that Dylan Cuthbert owns.

Gameplay and Difficulty

Star Fox 2 is a space shooter where you control 2 members of Star Fox in an attempt to save the Lylat System from Andross. Andross’s intention is to wipe out Star Fox’s base planet Corneria, so that nothing would stand in his way in controlling the Lylat System. The gameplay is very different from Star Fox 1 because this game takes more of a free roam overworld map where the player can decide in which order they take back the planets and destroy the battleships.This overworld approach creates a sense of freedom for the player and doesn’t restrict them to set paths. Some could say that the genre of the game is in fact Open World Shooter, compared to the rail shooter tag that Star Fox 1 garners. This overworld approach is also very similar to Star Fox 64 as 20% of Star Fox 2’s assets were reused in Star Fox 64.

There are sadly a couple of problems with the gameplay, which can make the game a little bit annoying to play. The first of these problems is a problem that Star Fox 1 had and it is due to the technological limitations of the time, which is the framerate. The game aims to run at 25FPS like the previous game, but due to the fact the game was built on a prototype, there are issues with the framerate dipping when there is a lot on screen. Sometimes the framerate can dip as low as 10FPS, which is 40% of the framerate it should be running at. What this can cause is player inputs to be eaten, which means that the game doesn’t recognise the fact that the player is pressing buttons.

The other problem is a problem with the controls when in space combat. The space combat controls are different to the controls on planets because there is a mini map in the top right corner of the screen, which on planets corresponds to where enemies and items are. On planets, there are limitations on how high up you can go, which means the mini map is quite accurate and easy to understand. However, when in space combat, the mini map is very difficult to read because there is no visual feedback to the vertical height of the enemy ships, which can make defeating all the enemies hard. The worst thing about this is that if any of the enemy ships get far enough away from the player controlled ship, then the game will say that they escaped, which means the player will have to intercept them again.

The ship variety is similar to how an arcade game would distribute the pluses and minuses of characters. The fastest ships can take low levels of damage, but it takes very little time to charge up a charge shot, then there are the mid range ships, which is middle for everything. However, the slowest ships can take a lot of damage, but it takes a long time to charge up a charge shot. Alongside the stats there are also different powerups for each class of ship. The fast ships have shields, which protects the players from all damage for about 30 seconds, the midrange ships get a heart powerup, which fully heals the ships damage, whilst the slower ships has bombs, which are very powerful and can defeat enemies and ship cores in 1 attack. The player only starts out with 3 of the powerup associated with their ship, but some enemies and bosses drop powerups, which when the player picks it up it adds one to the counter of powerups and is pretty much a swap out. Although, once a powerup is picked up the player can’t change their mind as the other powerup isn’t dropped.

The game has 3 difficulty modes, which are normal, hard and expert. It definitely is quite unusual that there isn’t an easy difficulty as most games at the time had this difficulty mode, which helped the barrier to entry, but then again, normal mode isn’t that difficult and can be considered the easy difficulty. The difficulties are drastically different both in terms of how hard the enemies, how many planets you have to liberate as well as how many battleships you need to beat. There is also differences in how long the levels are and how much damage Corneria takes from enemy attacks.

The most important thing is that difficulties where you don’t visit all the planets, every time you start the game up, you will get different planets, which makes the game feel different enough to garner multiple playthroughs so that the player can experience what every planet has to offer. Also, multiple playthroughs on each difficulty is highly recommended because the difficulty curve between normal and hard, and between hard and expert is sharp. The first time the player plays the higher difficulty, they will find it difficult to adapt to the increased damage and the amount of enemies they will be facing.

Overall, I feel that the gameplay and difficulty of this game is pretty much spot on, considering how difficult level 3 on Star Fox 1 is. Also, the fact that the game is quite different to it’s predecessor makes the game very interesting to play as it feels closer to an early version of Star Fox 64.

Music and Sound Design

The music of Star Fox 2 was composed by Kozue Ishikawa and Yumiko Kanki. Kozue Ishikawa contributed music to multiple Game Boy titles, such as Link’s Awakening DX and Wario World 3, whilst Yumiko Kanki contributed music to the SNES version of F-Zero. So, both composers had composed music for drastically different games and for different systems. However, the 2 composers ended up creating what in my opinion is one of the finest and most well-rounded soundtracks on the SNES. I will now analyse each planets’ music and say what I think about them.

Venom’s outside music is quite upbeat and is a great introduction to the soundtrack. There is a underlying drum beat, which mainly consists of kick and hi hat, with the snare hitting on every second beat. The main synth line is very easy on the ear and really sets a precedent for the percussion to come in during the bridge. My favourite thing about the outside theme is how well the MIDI guitar sets the bassline and also the slide on the guitar after a short section.

Venom’s inside music is a remix of the original outside theme and I think so much better than the outside. The synth line has moved up in pitch and leads the track very well, whilst the other instruments aid the line sublimely. The bassline feels busier which really emphasises the increased tempo. The tempo of the inside is about 10% quicker in comparison, which I think works quite well as it takes a lot of elements from the outside theme and gives it a new coat of paint. I feel a different theme entirely for the inside wouldn’t have worked, as the player is still on the same planet, so a sense of familiarity in the music works very well.

Titania’s outside music has a slow tempo and the chord progression tends to be much more moodier and darker than Venom. The bassline in this piece is the main lead of the music with the higher melody coming in and out of the piece intermittently. The stereo panning on this track is astounding, as it makes the track sound very wide and allows the bassline to drive down the middle. The interesting thing is at the end of the track, it shifts to some more positive chords before a bassline and drum bridge to the track eventually looping. The amount of layers and the amount that is happening in this track makes it interesting to listen to as there is a lot to hear and concentrate on and there is always something new that the listener wouldn’t have heard the first time listening.

Titania’s inside music is a much higher tempo and in this track there is much less emphasis on the bassline and more on the synth sounding wide instruments. The beat which aids the high pitched instruments sounds very crisp and there are multiple variations on the drum beat, which keeps the listener interested and makes the piece not sound stale at all. I do prefer the outside theme of Titania compared to the inside theme, as I feel that the outside theme gives the instruments just a little bit more space to breathe.

Fortuna’s outside music is one of my favourite themes in the entire soundtrack. The planet is a water planet and the music represents the aquatic and soothing nature of the planet beautifully. The tempo of the piece is quite slow, which really allows the melodies to develop and expand nicely. The drum beat in this theme is has a military marching beat sound to it and the bassline plays every note, which fills in on the drums offbeats. The emphasis instrumentation wise is very much on the synth wind and brass instruments. The wind instrument lead very well with the brass coming in at the end of sections and in the final 8 bars before the track loops. This theme I feel is one of the most well-developed themes even if it is somewhat repetitive. The inside theme is a bit of a letdown as it is just a 10 second loop of the outside theme.

Meteor’s theme in comparison to the other themes is very different in terms of musical style. The other themes have had a variety of sounds, but have sounded orchestral and or synth in style, but Meteor’s theme is extremely funky. The bassline sounds like something that would have been on a James Brown hit, it is just that amazing. The high pitched instruments most likely would have represented vocals because of their range. There is some delay on the synth instruments in the intro, which creates an almost otherworldly feeling, borderline mysterious. I feel that this theme really stands out well from the rest of the soundtrack and is a welcome break in terms of musical style. Meteor’s inside theme is very similar to the outside theme apart from there is some chord progression changes and the tempo is faster. Thankfully, the length of this piece is better than Fortuna’s inside theme.

Macbeth’s outside theme is quite an interesting piece, because it jumps from style to style quite a bit. The chord progression is quite simple and somewhat repetitive, which makes the theme feel slightly underwhelming. The style shift happens about a third of the way into the piece where the intensity goes up a few notches with what sounds like a muted MIDI guitar and a big drum beat. It then changes to a relaxing section before looping, which then makes the middle third feel slightly out of place. I do like this theme but I feel considering the fiery environment of the planet, maybe more could have been done to represent the planet better.

However, Macbeth’s inside theme is absolutely fantastic and really shows what the outside theme should have been. The tempo is much quicker and the instrumentation feels much more at home with the tempo, especially the muted guitar which is used much more in this remix. The inside theme has all the elements of the outside theme, but switched up to 11 and with a much thicker texture in terms of instrument layers. The theme really still has the style switches but the tempo really aids the switches much better and makes them sound more natural rather than out of place like the outside theme.

Eladard’s outside theme is my personal favourite theme and really uses the sound chip to the maximum. The initial tempo is very fast and has a pounding bassline alongside a very busy drum beat line. The track’s stereo elements are using to amazing effect, as when a note is fading down, it oscillates from left to right and makes the piece very interesting to listen to. The middle section the tempo slows very slightly and strips back some of the instruments, almost offering a breather on the ears after the intensity of the first section. The final section is musical heaven, but there is a fast paced synth melody, which goes from right to left and alongside the core instruments is a treat to listen to. The inside theme has a higher tempo and reuses the elements from the outside theme and just adds more meat to the already beefy sounding theme.

The flotilla theme, which is used for space battle but not for Star Wolf members (the enemy) really uses panning in the speakers to the next level. The drum beat even pans from side to side, which isn’t heard in any of the other theme. However, the panning is just random and there for the sake of it as there is a synth line and a brass line which swaps side as the composition continues. The theme really depicts the feeling of being at war extremely well and the lack of bass drum and the main emphasis mainly been hi hat works well, as it is doesn’t detract from the other instruments panning.

The theme for Star Wolf enemies which are protecting the planets before you can liberate them is truly amazing. The drum beat is frantic alongside the high tempo and the theme has a full orchestral sound, which for these battles works wonderfully in terms of raising the tension of the situation. What is most impressive about this theme is how much clarity the instruments considering the fact that the system is 16-bit. The theme sounds like a theme that a console a generation beyond the SNES would have been able to generate. The theme feels big, it creates atmosphere wonderfully and is just a marvel to listen to.

Conclusion

Overall, Star Fox 2 is one of the most underrated games for the SNES and everyone owes it to themselves to try this game out. The mechanics of the game are unique for the time and the gameplay is ahead of it’s time. The music in the game is a marvel to listen to and really started to show the way for the orchestral styled soundtrack that would soon follow. Yes the graphics may have not aged well, but the game still plays fantastically well apart from a couple of minor issues. I am so glad I had the honour to find this game, play the game and also now speedrun the game as I am the current World Record holder in 2 categories for this game. It is my favourite speedgame hands down. I highly recommend this game to fans of the Star Fox franchise and fans of just good games in general. An absolute masterpiece in my opinion.

10/10

Liam Piper

Copyright ©2016 Liam Piper. All Images Used Under Fair Use

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s