Star Fox

Episode 144: Do a Meme-O-Roll! [Star Fox 64]

Words cannot describe the feeling of shooting a giant floating brain's eye out of the air while taking advice from your ghost father through an interstellar comms system.  Mostly because that's really bizarre.  Take revengeance on all those guys who stole your trademarked company name, and help all the Star citizens return to the rightful place of peace and... exiling scientists?  To other planets?

Use to boost to get download!

Show Notes

(01:00) This marks Alex's 5th episode (6 including Sonic), meaning she's appeared on over 3% of them!

(03:30) Thanks, Ryan!

(04:00) Splash!

(05:50) Both Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing are getting phone games.  The Layton excursion was pretty decent, though not very Layton.

(06:30) 20XX! It's so good.  If you like Mega Man X, play this game.  Despite what's said here, boss powers are pretty useful, and there are weaknesses to exploit.  Tyler beat the game for the first time because of this since recording.

(07:30) Anime?!

(09:00) In case you forgot about other Rogue-likes, Rogue Legacy is still great.  And so is the music.

(11:00) Never heard a Mega Man X boss intro?

(14:00) Some of us watch CGP Grey.

(18:30) Coffee and Cthulhu.

(21:00) Know how to farm friendship.

(24:00) In case you're wondering what Geremy's opinion about Star Fox Zero is.

(26:00) Sweet gift bags?

(28:00) Ryan got one of these.

(30:30) That's not a thing.

(33:00) Always be chargin'.

(35:00) Terrible pilots, or alter-verse nomenclature?  You decide!


(55:00) For the curious, it turns out Golden Axe came out 4 years after the first Gauntlet.  Also, rankings!

(58:00) Watch us shoot cars?

Next time on Last Time, something awesome this way comes!

Yeah!  We're excited, too!,,,
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Chatter Propelling Character and Narrative: Star Fox 64 vs Star Fox Zero

New episodes are coming!  Next week, our episode on Star Fox 64 will finally drop; we are in fact recording right now!  To hold you over in the mean time, here's an essay comparing Star Fox 64 with the recently released sequel/remake, Star Fox Zero.  At the time of writing this, I'd finished Star Fox Zero's Story Mode, and explored a few alternate paths, but not all of them.  However, that's more than enough to talk about the core experience of each game.

There's been a move lately, and by lately, I mean over the last 20 years, to make video games more and more "cinematic".  Michael Bay movies are critical flops, and yet the visuals still draw people in.  No matter how many nerds scream on the internet about boring stories, people will pay to see interesting things explode.  The same thing can apply to video games right?  Video games can tell stories no other mediums can, so why do so many try to emulate cinema?  It's not a new complaint. One of Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri's first published articles was a review of Mother, saying it was well written but a bad game, and thus would have been better as a book or movie.  But fancy graphics, higher costs and voice acting have all pushed games to strive to be more and more movie like - when they don't have to.  They can be more like Star Fox 64.

Star Fox 64 wasn't the first game to use voice acting.  Arcade games had it as a way to attract players in the early 90s.  Night Trap brought full motion video, including actual "acting", to home consoles in 1992.  Resident Evil and Jill sandwiches were around a year prior, and PC games had been able to use it for a long time.  But the Nintendo 64's stubborn use of cartridges made programming in voice acting a technical challenge, and Star Fox 64 was the first game to include it on the console.  As a Nintendo kid growing up, it was the first game I saw with it, and I was hardly alone in that.  And like any new feature you can put on the back of a box, Nintendo wanted to show it off at every opportunity.  The characters in Star Fox 64 are constantly chattering.  Your wingmen, your foes, even Fox himself has a lot to say - for a Nintendo protagonist, anyway.  But unlike some modern games, Star Fox 64 never lets its dialogue get in the way of game play.  The game has cutscenes, but only between levels, and none of them last longer than a minute.  The game begins with a Star Wars style text crawl, but after that, the story is told entirely though dialogue that occurs during game play.  Its easy to keep on shooting down enemy planes by the hundreds while listening to someone talk, and that's really what you're there for, trying to shoot as many people down as possible and chase that high score.

Even Bioware games have to stop the action in order to tell their story.  When you're making story line decisions in Mass Effect, you're not shooting people, and when you're shooting people, you're not making any choices that effect the plot or characters.  I'm one of those people who wishes that Mass Effect had a button to skip the combat.  I'm there for the story and to make moral decisions, and all the pew pew shooting gets in the way.  But I'm sure things are just as frustrating for those who come to the game looking for a Gears of War clone and have to slow down to talk to Miranda about their feelings.  How many great action movies have the heroes admitting they love each other while hiding behind cover, waiting to pop up and shoot?  How many dramatic kisses have taken place right before a character charges down a hallway screaming and shooting?  Why doesn't Bioware try to be more cinematic in that way?  The action movies that Bioware is trying to emulate use action scenes to add stakes to character development all the time.  Why can't I tell Garrus that this is just like Virmire before I pop out from cover and start shooting back?  Why can't I remind Tali I love her right before leaving cover to do something reckless?  Star Fox's characters aren't nearly as complex as Mass Effect's and it would be tricky to give Shepard dialogue choices in the middle of combat, but Star Fox did this perfectly in 1997.

The constant chatter of Star Fox 64 instantly teaches us about the characters.  Slippy is young and reckless, and prone to getting himself into trouble.  Peppy is wise and learned, but getting to old for this.  Falco is cool but rude, a capable pilot, but not quite as capable as he thinks he is.  No one has to tell us this; every line the characters spout reinforce the characters'  personalities.  Peppy gives you the tutorials because he's the one who's done all this before.  Fox speaks very little, but when he does it's to give commands, or to deliver cool one liners.  Sure, Slippy is always getting in trouble, but it's because he's the new guy.  Falco usually gets into a jam trying to show off and help you.  Most games have dialogue in combat, but it's usually barks, things you'll have heard a thousand times by the time the game is over.  In Star Fox 64 lines are almost never repeated.  Yes, Falco always responds to friendly fire the same way, and Slippy's "Fox, get this guy off me!" is infamous, and there's more than one level where Peppy advises you do a barrel roll, but most of the dialogue is custom written for the situation.  Star Fox is on rails, making this easy to do, but if Bioware can come up with a few detailed conversations for party members to have while you wait for the elevator, conversations many players don't see the first time through, why can't they come up with a few for combat?

Once Star Fox's characters are established, they're used for more than just chatting at you or telling you to press B for your bombs.  They're used to enhance the levels, making them more unique and memorable.  Sector X is a horror themed level, an homage to movies like Alien.  But it's pretty hard to scare a player in a rail shooter; there's no chance of you going the wrong way and every enemy that appears on screen can be killed, most with a single shot.  The creepy music is an excellent start and enemies appear sporadically, leaving quiet moments for you to just contemplate what's happening.  But the level really gets going when a giant robotic arm flies at you, and as it passes the normally too cool for school Falco asks "What the Heck is that?".  His next line, a few moments later after you have time to consider it, is "Something's not right here.".  Sure, it' s not going to keep you up at night, or make a Youtuber comically throw their controller in fright, but it establishes a tone of mystery and dread, giving Sector X a very distinct feel.  There are five different space levels in Star Fox 64, but little things like this make Sector X feel different from every one, even though you're guaranteed to have already played through one before it.

By contrast, the use of voice in Star Fox Zero is completely flat.  At first, I was willing to attribute this to simply preferring the older voice actors, but the longer I played, the less interesting the chatter seemed to get. When trying to decide if I was going to purchase Star Fox Zero, the first review I read said the story was disappointing.  The story was the last thing I cared about in Star Fox 64 - or so I thought.  Star Fox Zero feels flat and uninspired in a lot of ways, but what I really noticed was the difference in how the characters are presented to you.  Star Fox Zero's level design is pretty boring, but perhaps it could have been spiced up if the characters had more to say about it!  Unfortunately, when the characters in Star Fox Zero decide to talk, it seems to be either to remind you that you're there, or remind you about your mission objective.  For the fifth time.  With the same line of dialogue.  There isn't a creepy level, in fact the various space levels do almost nothing to distinguish themselves from one another.  Just a day after playing through the game, they've pretty much mixed in my memory in a way where I can't tell one apart from the others.  But if Peppy and Slippy had spoken up about anything in particular, perhaps they'd have felt a bit more different.

In fact, the one level of Star Fox Zero that manages any effect with its voice acting is Zoness, a stealth level that Fox enters alone.  The complete lack of chatter manages to give that level a rather distinct feel, making it feel a lot more like a caper, a sneaky infiltration.  It does, however, mean that tutorials are given to you with on screen advice, instead of being piped right into your ear.  For some reason this game decided Slippy should be the one to teach you things though, so maybe that's for the best.  Of course, that quiet time ends when Fox runs into Team Star Fox's sometimes ally Katt.  Zoness is Katt's debut in Star Fox 64 as well, where her personality asserts itself right away.  Her first line for there is a confident "Make way for Katt!" as she flies in and takes out a few enemies for you.  Falco responds with an annoyed "Katt, can't you go bother some one else!?" and right away, we know there's a prior relationship with her, and sort of what her deal is.  There's no background on her, she's never been mentioned before, and you can count all her possible lines on your hands.  But when she leaves, you're asking questions.  Who is she, why was she here, how does she know Falco?  And you hope to see her again, to perhaps get a few answers.  By contrast, in Star Fox Zero, Katt is stuck, and needs you to save her.  Right away she's been reduced to a damsel in distress, and while her intro does sort of hit on her flirty personality, the only thing you're likely to remember is her telling you what you need to do to free her about 10 times while you fumble around trying to figure out how to do it.  I'll take Slippy distracting the bad guys for me while I shoot them off him over that any day.

Both games begin with the same level: Corneria, the peaceful Earth-like planet the good guys call home, under attack by the evil forces of Andross.  I examined both scripts, expecting to find that Star Fox 64 would have a lot more chatter than Star Fox Zero.  I was wrong.  Star Fox Zero has 48 lines of dialogue on its first level, while Star Fox 64 has a mere 27.  Even when you account for the fact that Star Fox Zero's version of Corneria lasts almost twice as long, Zero has more lines per minute than its predecessor.  So why does it feel like Star Fox 64 has so much more to say?  The very first line from 64 is delivered by Peppy, an emphatic "Slippy get back here!".  Right away it establishes Slippy as reckless, and Peppy as wise and fatherly.  It also dovetails right into the first of the game's segments that require you to help one of your wingmen in trouble, teaching you about it through play.  Once you've dealt with that, Fox has a simple expository line.  "We're entering Corneria City now" to which Falco replies "This is horrible.".   Again, it sets a tone.  It makes you look at the destruction Andross's forces are causing, makes you notice the buildings that are toppling over, and perhaps makes you even more excited to shoot down these invaders.  It also establishes that while Falco is a bit of a jerk, he's a good person - he's fighting Andross because at the end of the day, he's at least decent enough to not want to see anyone get hurt.  Last but not least, all four of our main characters have spoken, and we've learned a lot about three of them.

By contrast, the first line in Star Fox Zero's version of Corneria is "I've never seen anything like that!  Everybody stay alert!" Again, the line is from Peppy.  Again, it establishes him as fatherly, but it doesn't contrast him against any of the other characters, and if you don't know he's the veteran on the team, you might mistake him for a new guy.  "That" is a pretty impressively sized ship, a new foe not present in Star Fox 64, so it's clearly supposed to establish that as a new threat, but it's easy to misinterpret.  The next line is the same line from Fox in the N64 version, "We're entering Corneria City now.".  But instead of characterizing Falco next, we get a line from Slippy, where he eagerly tells Fox to "Follow me.".  This establishes him as brash, and we get Peppy's "Slippy get back here!" but it now feels like a hollow echo of the scene in the N64 version, because nothing bad happens to Slippy.  In fact, he starts giving you tutorials!  Slippy is the one who explains rings to you, as well as how to use your boost, making him seem like the veteran.  This would be one thing if Peppy already had a lot of lines and they needed to balance it out, but Slippy dominates the conversation.  In fact, Falco doesn't get a line at all until about 3 minutes into the level.  And when Slippy once again gets chased to show off how that works in the new game, it's with a simple "Help, Fox, I'm being chased."  Very bland, and no one else comments on the situation.  These are lines we've heard before, but instead of "Remember this?", a feeling the designers no doubt intended you to have, the only thing you can think is, "I've seen this all before.".

But that, ultimately, is a good summation of Star Fox Zero.  Pretty bland.  There are a lot of reasons for Star Fox Zero's mostly tepid response.  The controls are new and different, and by the time you're starting to get used to them and see what they can do that wouldn't be possible with the more common twin stick controls you might expect, the game is over.  The level design is uninspired.  There are fewer levels, fewer branching paths, and fewer alternate ways to beat levels to unlock them.  Shooting down enemies and getting a high score feels as good as it did in 1997 but Platinum Games, revered for the depth of their combat systems, hasn't added anything new or interesting to Nintendo's long dormant franchise.  Given how no one working on the game seemed to be inspired, I doubt better dialogue could have saved the game.  However, with all the reviews bitching about the controls and how short the game is, or how it's just a retread of a game that's 20 years old - all valid complaints - I didn't want the dialogue to get lost in the shuffle.  "Do a barrel roll" is so ingrained in nerd culture it has a Google Easter egg.  It's not a line that's said in a particularly comical way, it's not clever, and it doesn't have any impact on the plot, and there are far better lines in the game.  But hearing it instantly brings me back to that feeling of enemies covering the screen, to the sound effect of laser fire bouncing off my Arwing as I spin and destroy my foes.  I can hear the rewarding sound of a ring popping up for destroying them all right now.  I just played through Star Fox Zero, and there's not a line in the entire game that will make me feel anything at all.