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The Memory Card .25: A McCloud family reunion

2:36 PM on 02.07.2008 // Chad Concelmo

Last week I mentioned I would dedicate the next two installments of The Memory Card to cool, surprising videogame moments in two genres not known for their strong stories or deep characters. The original post centered on RTS games, specifically the exceptional StarCraft. This week, the focus shifts to shooters.

Shooters are great games, one of my favorite genres in fact, but they more often than not offer the player only basic narratives ([insert generic commander name] requests your help! Pew pew pew!). Of course there are exceptions to the rule (don’t yell at me, Topher), but most great shooters are all about flying around and destroying huge, screen-filling enemies. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Although not considered a shooter in the shmup sense of the word, Star Fox 64 for the Nintendo 64 displays most of the same attributes from the genre: Your character flies around in a laser-spewing space craft, collects power-ups, and battles enormous robotic bosses. One thing that separates the game from other classic shooters, however (besides the new fangled 3D graphics), is its emphasis on a pretty decent story with very memorable characters.

Hit the jump to revisit an unforgettable encounter between two of these classic characters.

The Set-Up

Star Fox 64 does a great job of expanding on the outstanding gameplay of the original Super Nintendo classic Star Fox. The game is bigger, prettier, and more importantly, features almost non-stop shooting action from start to finish. It is because of this that most critics (myself included) call it the best Star Fox game in the series.

The story of Star Fox 64 is very similar to the events of the first Star Fox. The evil Andross, banished to the polluted planet Venom, begins to cause trouble in the Lylat System. General Pepper, the leader of the Cornerian Defense Force, sends a team to investigate Venom and ultimately destroy Andross. Just like in the first game, the team consists of Fox McCloud, Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad.

In this sequel, however, there is more emphasis on the character’s backstories.

Years before the events of Star Fox 64, General Pepper had ordered another team to head to Venom to destroy Andross. That team consisted of Fox’s father, James McCloud, a younger Peppy Hare, and Pigma Dengar. During the mission to Venom, Pigma betrays the group (Judas!), resulting in the capture of James and Peppy.

Although Peppy manages to eventually escape, James is left behind, presumably dead. Peppy eventually makes it back to Corneria, barely alive, to tell James’s son Fox about the horrible fate of his father.

As an older Fox begins the mission at the beginning of the game, he is more than determined to confront Andross, hoping for sweet revenge for the death of his father.

After fighting through many levels consisting of barren planets, lethal asteroid fields, and massive space stations, Fox and company finally make it to Venom. It is worth mentioning that, along the way, the game smartly implements creative little ways of furthering the story without the need for dramatic cutscenes that break up all the action.

For instance, in one stage Fox and friends encounter Star Wolf, a rogue pilot, and his team of misfits. One of Wolf’s team members is none other than Pigma Dengar, the same traitor that betrayed James and Peppy years ago.

During this intense battle, spoken dialogue between the characters helps flesh out the relationships and offers some pretty meaningful backstory to all involved. The entire game is littered with clever story moments like this.

As Star Fox fights his way through hazard-filled Venom, he finally arrives at Andross’s lair. His companions fall back, knowing that the upcoming confrontation is something Fox needs to handle on his own.

After flying through a maze of long corridors (straight down towards the center of the planet, mind you), Fox finally arrives in a huge open room, ready to battle his nemesis, Andross.

The battle with Andross is nothing short of epic, involving not one, but two forms. The first is Andross himself, a giant head and fists, both of which are vulnerable to attack. Andross’s second (and true) form is a massive flying brain, fought in “free-range” mode around the giant room (free-range mode is just how it sounds – one of a few sequences in the game that is not “on rails” and let’s you fly almost anywhere you want).

After a tough battle, Fox finally destroys Andross, saving the universe in the process.

But there is no time to celebrate! As Andross perishes, he vows to take Fox with him and self-destructs. Suddenly there is a massive explosion. As Fox screams, the screen goes white and there is nothing. No music. No sound. No visuals.

It is during this stark white silence when the next Memory Card moment occurs: a McCloud family reunion.

The Moment

After pausing for an uncomfortable few seconds, the silence is immediately broken. An image appears on the bottom left corner of the screen of a character not yet seen up to this point.

He immediately begins to speak: “Don’t ever give up, my son.”

It is at this moment when the player realizes this mysterious character is none other than Fox’s long lost father, James McCloud.

The white screen then fades away, revealing Fox’s Arwing, badly damaged but still intact. Although confused by what is going on, Fox is determined to find a way to escape.

After a comforting “Follow me, Fox” from James McCloud, the player takes full control of Fox’s ship once again. James flies into the scene, leading the player out of the exploding structure.

Flying back through all the corridors is tough, as Fox’s ship controls different due to the damage. It also doesn’t help that visibility drops to a minimum due to all the smoke and flames covering the screen.

Using the audio and visual cues, Fox manages to make his way through the destruction by following the exact path paved by his heroic father. With only seconds to go, the two emerge successfully from Andross’s destroyed lair.

After some quick congratulations from Slippy, Peppy, and Falco, Fox immediately looks around for his father. Sadly, there is nobody to be found. Besides his friends, the sky is empty.

Happy to be alive, but more confused than ever, Fox flies away into the distance, wondering if it really was his father that saved his life or merely a figment of his imagination.

You can watch the final battle and Fox and James’s brave escape right here:

The Impact

The return of James McCloud is a pretty significant videogame moment for many different reasons.

Most obviously, it is a genuine surprise, made even more shocking due to the fact that it is featured in a Star Fox game, a series known for its action, not its abundance of dramatic plot twists.

Not mentioned before, this moment is also only obtained by playing the game through the “hard” path. At different points in the game -- by completing certain tasks or earning a set amount of points -- the player can change course and take on new, harder levels on the way to Venom. There are many combinations, but only one path that is considered the hardest option. It is only by beating this “hard” path that Fox will fight Andross’s second form and witness his father’s emotional return.

Most videogames only reward players with sometimes meaningless unlockables for beating the game on “hard.” This alternate ending is one of the best gaming rewards I have ever seen. If only all games could offer something this satisfying and surprising for taking on a more challenging mode.

I mention this point a lot in the Memory Card, but I am going to say it again: I am not the biggest fan of pre-rendered cutscenes. For me, there are two different ways a cutscene should work. If a designer wants to include a non-interactive story sequence, have it at least be rendered in real-time graphics. This is so important for not taking the player out of the action. But even better, figure out a way to incorporate all of the exposition and plot points directly into the gameplay.

While Star Fox 64 accomplishes this on a very basic level (although interesting, the story is not very complex), the fact that is still does it is highly commendable. All of the story sequences are told completely through direct conversations with Fox or visually through the in-game action on-screen. Although I love my Final Fantasy games more than words, I think they could benefit from this seemingly simple creative choice.

The moment when James McCloud returns is admittedly short and may not rank as one of the most profound and jaw dropping moments in the history of videogames, but its inclusion in such an action heavy game is very significant. Regardless of genre, it is still a sweet, surprisingly moving moment that I will never forget.

The Memory Card Save Files

.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21: Crono's final act (Chrono Trigger)
.22: Ganon's tower (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
.23: It was all a dream? (Super Mario Bros. 2)
.24: The assimilation of Kerrigan (StarCraft)

Chad Concelmo,
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