This week, Nintendo announced what we all knew was coming: a Super Nintendo version of the now-exceedingly rare and precious NES Classic Edition console. The Super NES Classic Mini is a bit smaller than its 1991 forebear, but it comes preloaded with 21 games, HDMI support, and, thankfully, longer controller cables than its NES counterpart. It all adds up to a great deal for a sub-$100 microconsole, but those features aren't showstoppers. Star Fox 2, however, is.
You're probably not aware there was a Star Fox 2, and that's okay – it was never released.
RIght before its scheduled release in 1995, Nintendo abruptly canceled the project – bizarre because the game was "mastered" and awaiting international release, according to Dylan Cuthbert, who worked on the game at developer Argonaut studios for two years as lead programmer. He even suggested it might be a Guinness World Record for time between a game's completion and release – a full 22 years.
Nintendo never gave an official answer as to why they canned Star Fox 2, but Cuthbert told Glixel that it was because the company was gearing up for the launch of its next system,the Nintendo 64, the following year. Ostensibly, Nintendo was afraid that Star Fox 2 – created using comparatively crude 3D tech – would be unfairly compared to what players were seeing on consoles, Sega Saturn and the brand-new PlayStation. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creative genius behind Mario, Zelda and probably a good one-half of Nintendo's oeuvre, broke the news to Cuthbert and the team himself.
"It was disappointing, of course," Cuthbert told Glixel. "But I had had a blast making it and understood the reasoning behind Miyamoto's decision."
Star Fox has always been something of an awkward outsider among the Mario-led cadre of colorful heroes at Nintendo. The vulpine headliner for the franchise, Fox McCloud, has the cutesy look you've come to expect from Nintendo. Each of its main characters is an anthropomorphized critter, for example, but that's largely where the similarities end.
Miyamoto has always considered the series a playground for experimenting with game design in 3D (a very cutting edge endeavor when the first Star Fox hit in 1993). That approach has led to a lot of misfires, though, and the sense that the series lacks a distinct identity beyond it being the weird Nintendo franchise about animal mercenaries in space. (One particularly infamous divergence was the Zelda-inspired Star Fox Adventures for Gamecube, set on a dinosaur planet onto which the Star Fox cast felt a bit artlessly grafted, because they were – it began life as a completely unrelated game.) Star Fox 64, the original's eventual N64 successor, is widely considered to the high point of a series that tends to dip into obscurity from time to time. The announcement that the once-canceled Star Fox 2 would be finally seeing release caught everyone by surprise – even Cuthbert.
"Nintendo is very fussy about security," Cuthbert says. "So without creating [a non-disclosure agreement] just to give me a heads up, there really wasn't a way for them to let me know. But not knowing was brilliant as I got an amazing surprise along with everyone else. It was unbelievable – I was over the moon once I checked it wasn't a hoax! I had totally given up on it ever seeing the light of day!"
Star Fox 2 is fascinating and bizarre by today's standards, and even moreso back in 1995. Like the other games in the series, you're a fighter pilot equipped with a state-of-the-art ship. Your goal is to shoot down enemies and protect the Earth-like planet Corneria from cosmic invasion. But to make that happen, you'll have to plan out each of your moves very carefully.
As you play, time passes, so enemy aircraft carriers, specialized fighters, bosses, and interplanetary ballistic missiles will come hurtling towards Corneria. You are in charge of planning out where you want your team to go next, and which threats are worth intercepting. You probably won't be able to stop them all, so you've got to think strategically. All this takes place more-or-less in real-time. As your crew flies out to intercept threats, they'll make their own moves.
That's particularly astonishing when considered in context. Star Fox 2's development started in 1993 – just one year after Dune II, the game often credited with inventing the idea of a real-time strategy game. It feels like an understatement to call it merely "innovative," especially because that's not the only thing Star Fox 2 has going on.
Each type of threat takes a different set of strategies to beat. IPBMs, for example, are constantly speeding away from you, so you have to keep the pressure on and press the engines to keep up as you shoot them down. Dogfights put your aim and maneuvering to the test, and will often have special characters with miniature narrative arcs. At other times, you'll have to enter a planet's atmosphere and take out a major base to prevent more weapon and fighter launches.
Those familiar with Star Fox 64 might think all those sound familiar, for good reason: a good chunk of the design ideas in Star Fox 2 were later recycled, according to Cuthbert. But it had layers even beyond this. There are puzzle-filled arena battles, Mario-style running and jumping, and a randomized system that ensures you're never facing the same challenges twice.
There are incomplete prototype versions of Star Fox 2 floating out there in the wild, and they're rough. "I played it briefly, but it was missing a lot that fills out the final game," Cuthbert says. "I wouldn't suggest anyone try that version and instead get the SNES Mini and play the fully finalized version."
That is, of course, if you can find one. The SNES Classic will be out September 29 for $80. If history is any indication, you should preorder lest they became scarce.
When that day does come, Cuthbert says he'll be honored to play it alongside everyone else."I look forward to playing it again! It's such a long time ago that I can play it like a game I didn't spend two years making, so it will feel very new."