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The question of a favourite game is harder than it first seems. I, like many of my fellow D-toiders have a space in our hearts for the classics, the cult favourites and the unique gems, and we will (and happily do) argue about where they belong in the great ranking and why people should play them. But to pick one and raise it about all others has to be a personal thing. There is a inherit danger of picking a “safe choice”, a Silent Hill 2 or a Bioshock, because these are widely loved, we can be blind to their failings.
Therefore I think to pick a game to be your favourite game of all time; you have to love it for its failings. You have to love it no matter what, and to para-phrase Twilight, you have to love it unconditionally. And that is why, for me, Starfox 64 is the greatest video game ever made.
Picture if you will, a young boy of twelve on a cold Scottish Christmas morning, he rips at the festive wrapping paper of a suspiciously big box, he knows what it is. It’s the game he’s wanted for months and months. Its Lylat Wars (Starfox 64 in the rest of world) for the Nintendo 64, and with that gift came hundreds of hours of fun and adventure.
Buuuuut, there’s far more to this story that sheer nostalgia. I could tell you about my obsessive playing of its predecessor on the SNES- Starwing, I could tell you about stealing my father’s phone headset so I felt more like I was barking orders at my fellow pilots, even though it was plugged into NOTHING. I could tell you how it played in black and white because I couldn’t afford a colour television. But they’re not the reasons why Starfox 64 is my all time favourite. It’s my favourite because of a few simple reasons that are seldom matched, never bettered.
Simple, elegant precision.
Hammering the fire button will kill the bad guys, waggling the stick moves the plane, pretty simple right? Yes its very simple, but building from this simplicity Nintendo were able to put each and everyone of us behind the controls of an arwing and be able to pilot it quickly. But with time and practise, particularly in the games “all range” free combat sections, you could duck and weave, somersault and lock on, barrel roll and bomb like the Luke Skywalker/Top gun hybrid you’ve always known you were.
“Simple to pick up, difficult to master” might as well be the mantra to making a good video game. Grasping the subtly of the Arwing, the Landmaster and the Submarine took hours and hours of the players life. To score the highest points, to unlock all the secrets and to explore the Lylat system completely required this level of graft. But it wasn’t a requirement. If you wanted to blast through the baddies and save the universe, you could- In a couple of hours, if you were pretty good to start with. At no point does Starfox 64 force you to come back, but you will… to see the next set piece, meet the next boss or visit the next planet. And that will take dedication.
Admit it... you wanted the medals
More than a new world…a new universe.
Too much is explained these days, not enough is left to the imagination. And a young pre-teen with a fascination for talking animals in space has A LOT of imagination. Starfox 64 tapped into this perfectly, and represents one of several “loveable flaws” I spoke of earlier. A new Starfox game will undoubtedly have a fifteen minute intro explaining the Lylat system, Falco’s favourite type of hand cream, what a G-defuser is and what exactly a Slippy is. Not so in the nineties! “Here come the baddies, fill in the rest yourself” might as well have been the blurb on the back of the box. This “choose your own adventure” style of video game writing works perfectly, as you are thrown into a higgledy-piggledy world which makes no sense. So you begin to piece it together your self, making up back stories and ill fated love affairs between the characters.
The desolation of Zoneless, the evil of the Star wolf team, what Andross even IS… these all were left to the player. And boy did it make the game better. Stories were traded in school yards, lore was hinted at but never delivered as characterisation was expanded by brief snippets of dialogue:
And so a legend is born.
All building to lend the game a film like quality, but a at the same time being so much more than a film as you were controlling it. It was Star Wars, Independence Day and the Labyrinth all at once. Perhaps I have my rose tinted hindsight goggles on, but this was the first post Metal Gear Solid game to improve on the “gaming movie” template. It improved on it because it wasn’t trying to be a thriller, it was trying to be what it was- a frankly ridiculous space opera about animals with lasers.
Feels… its got them.
So it’s a good game. So it takes ages to master. So its fun to shoot things. So its got crappy but enduring bits. Loads of games have that. What pushes Starfox 64 into “best game ever” territory? It story changes depending on how good you are. And if your really, really good you get to see one of the most magical moments in all gaming. But ONLY if you’re a bad ass. Like megaman’s haddoken, the secret ending to Starfox 64 represents a sorely missed era of gaming, where graft and persistence were awarded.
Picture the scene.
You’ve basted through the hard path scoring staggeringly high point values on every level, none of your co-pilots have crashed out, you’ve taken on the thrills and spills of that persistent Starwolf team… when you greeted by a SECOND version of Andross. The grotesque floating brain provides a truly memorable dog fight as you duck and weave to avoid its clutches. The final laser shot seals the deal, and the screen whites out…. until….
It’s your father. Your long dead father, reaching from the grave to guide you to the safety he so heroically missed. Is it a dream? Is he really there? There’s no time to wonder about life and death as the complex is collapsing around you. Franticly you follow your fathers’ ship’s trail to the surface, elated to know your re-untied with you father once more. Fox McCloud looks across the emptiness of space for his fathers Arwing which has faded from view, as his colleagues ask if he’s okay he replies with stoic courage:
Nothing... nothing's wrong.
Not a dry eye in the mutha fukin house.
Its part star wars, part matrix, part daddy complex and part fairy tale. But it comes together at that moment to make such a lasting impression that even now 15 odd years later, Starfox 64 is still my favourite game. Like I said at the start, an all time favourite has to be personal, and it has to be flawed, and what’s more flawed and personal than a Space fox with iron shoes on missing his dad?