If you're too young to have properly experienced the SNES or N64 eras, you might wonder why anyone would have any sort of fond memories of the Star Fox series. And that's understandable. If all anyone had to go on was Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox: Assault, it'd be pretty easy to dismiss this franchise altogether. However, now that Star Fox 64 is available for download on the Wii Virtual Console, you can now discover precisely why this series imbues people with such loving nostalgia. As tends to be the case with Virtual Console games, Star Fox 64 can't avoid feeling archaic, but as old as it is, it still provides a surprisingly good, albeit simplistic, aerial shoot-'em-up experience.
Star Fox 64 sees the titular hero and his band of animals--Falco, Peppy, and Slippy--in space fighters, taking on the vile armies of Andross, an evil ape harboring galactic takeover plans. Fighting on the side of the Cornerian military, your job is to hit a number of planets, asteroid fields, and defense grids, and take down Andross' fleet. The game itself is a simple on-rails shooter. You can fly anywhere you want around the screen, but the game is always carrying you forward in one direction or another in all the primary stages. Periodically the game breaks up this formula by putting you into arenalike stages against the enemy fighters of "Star Wolf" in something of a dogfighting scenario. In either situation, you'll find yourself flying around like a crazy person, doing barrel rolls and loop-de-loops while blasting bad guys into oblivion. The game isn't terribly difficult (save for a couple of tricky fights here and there), but the gameplay holds up surprisingly well.
The game moves at a quick pace, constantly tossing enemies at you to blast away. However, it's not all bang-bang. There are some secrets to be found here and there, if you give each stage a more careful look. The structure of the game is such that there are multiple paths to be taken through the story, so by fulfilling certain conditions within a stage, you'll get to move on to a different (and sometimes more challenging) next stage. For example, saving Falco from getting gunned down in the opening stage takes you to a different boss fight at the end of that stage, as well as a new planetary level on the next stage, as opposed to the asteroid field you'd travel through by default. This is what gave Star Fox 64 much of its replay value, as half the fun was going through and figuring out how to get to each stage. Of course, it's a pretty short game, so it won't take you more than a couple of hours on each try to beat it.
Even the presentational elements of Star Fox 64 still hold up. The game was always one of the nicer-looking titles on the N64, and while some of the game's early 3D visuals do look a bit crusty now, the game is shockingly pleasant to look at. The frame rate holds up nicely, and the character art and level designs are still great. The game also sports quite a bit of spoken dialogue (for that era), both from your cohorts and various enemies. Apart from the high-pitched shrieking that constitutes Slippy's dialogue, all the voice acting is quite good, and the voice samples don't sound compressed to death. As far as controls go, you don't want to play this game with the Classic Controller. All the evasive maneuvers in the game were mapped to the N64 controller's C buttons, and the right control stick on the Classic Controller just doesn't feel right for these moves. A GameCube controller is a much better substitute, though it also doesn't feel 100 percent right. However, more alarming than these slight control issues is the total lack of rumble. Star Fox 64 was the first game on the system to support the N64 rumble pak, and even with the Cube controller, the rumble is absent in this downloadable version. Considering what a big part rumble played in the feel of the game, it's a real bummer that it isn't available.
Still, if you can get over the distinct lack of rumble and occasional control quirks, any fans of Star Fox 64 who don't have a cartridge and an N64 hooked up and ready to go at all times should drop the 1,000 Wii Points ($10) and get their space fighting on. It's certainly a simplistic game by today's standards, but the fun inherent to the game's design has withstood the test of time and still offers up some thrills.