Nintendo's long-unreleased space sequel finally gets its moment - and it's wonderfully surprising and inventive.
The Mirage Dragon would have wowed me in 1996. It would have blown my mind. It would have fairly erupted from the screen, this twisting, sinuous metal spacecraft, mouth gaping and malevolent and firing laser beams in every direction. After it had blasted me to pieces, it would have made me call up a friend and say: man, I've seen it. I've seen the future of games. Graphics will never get any better than this.
They did, of course, and yet in a way they didn't. The future of games as embodied by the Mirage Dragon is now the past - the distant past. But the Mirage Dragon still does the job it was designed for, too. It's a boss, certainly, with a glowing weak spot in that awful mouth, but it's also a graphical showcase. Star Fox 2, the game that would have given us the Mirage Dragon in 1995 had it been released, was a graphical showcase. It still feels like one. Running on the SNES Mini, its ROM legally available for the first time ever, you sense how hard it would have pushed the technology of 1995. Those strangely papery polygons that make up the game's space jets and planetary installations flicker and warp and still have a strange power to dazzle. The frame-rate judders along, eloquent as to the stress the hardware was suddenly under. The briefing screen for a mission in which you take down a giant cruiser shows the cruiser itself rotating in three dimensions, and it's still rather special. 3D rotation! They could do that in 1996? Clearly they could.
Star Fox 2 is an unusual game, an astonishingly inventive sequel that built on the combat and visual thrills of the first Star Fox but wasn't afraid to experiment with the structure. Rather than starting you at one end of a space map and asking you to pick your route to the far side, choosing from missions that can eventually be all but committed to memory through sheer repetition, you're suddenly protecting Corneria, your home world, from an ongoing attack from big villain Andross and the attack pretty much plays out in real time. Andross builds bases on nearby planets, and he has cruisers headed for you and IPBMs launching every few minutes. Your job is still to get across the map to take out Andross directly, but you have to respond to other things as they happen. Those cruisers! Those missiles! These are all problems that compete for your time and there's a panicky thrill in knowing that if you head for a planet to take on an entrenched baddy, there will be missiles still snaking through space towards Corneria, launched from other points. Throughout this wonderfully breathless game, you are asked to think on the fly, and to dash headlong between danger zones, constantly prioritising threats.
Missions have more of an ad-hoc feel this time. You choose a pilot and a wing-man from a roster of faces, some familiar, some new, and how could you pick anybody but Slippy for first place anyway you monster? And then you strategically dash into danger. Taking on missiles or enemy pilots spawns a space dog-fighting sequence in which you have to blast the little blighters to pieces as quickly as you can. Taking on a battle cruiser sees you moving in on the giant thing and then doing the Star Fox equivalent of a trench run: your Arwing disappears inside and then you're moving through corridors, taking on those strange origami enemies that Star Fox's polygons are so good at conjuring and eventually shooting a core to pieces before you escape triumphantly.
These missions, and others like them that play out on planets, are enormously entertaining. I am not entirely sure, but in their shuffling of switches and battle arenas and lava pools and laser beams, they have that sense of antic shapelessness you sometimes get with procedural generation. Even if I'm wrong about that, there is a sense throughout that the technology is just able to keep up with the chaos that's unfolding. Your Arwing can transform to a walker as you see fit, wings folding down to create Baba-Yaga chicken legs as you totter around strafing left and right. It's almost like you're dungeon-crawling. Combined with the real-time map, all this is a nice way of bringing a bit of surprise to a limited number of enemies and situations. All the while, as you try to take down Andross's defences and move in on his base, poor Corneria continues to take a beating, inching closer towards the 100 per cent damage point that means game over. If Star Fox 2 had been made today - rather than merely released today - we would probably be likening it to a roguelite.
People have been playing this game for a while, of course, on illegal ROMs that have been doing the rounds. And even if you haven't, you may have seen some of its ideas in other Star Fox games that did get released: Star Fox 64, Star Fox Command - the secret best Star Fox game if you ask me - and Star Fox Zero. The final boss even has a touch of Zelda to it: there is a sense throughout that twenty years on a dusty shelf somewhere have allowed Star Fox 2 to become a sort of notebook of handy design ideas, and Nintendo has not been reticent in flicking through its pages.
I'm still not entirely sure I have the measure of Star Fox 2. It's so inventive and freewheeling, and so eager to throw in unexpected ideas and try new things. There's something so nice about playing it like this, though, a strange and compact universe stuck on a strange and compact device. It's so odd to pick up the SNES Mini and discover how light it is. Really. I mean, how can it weigh so little when it's got the Mirage Dragon in there?