Star Fox 64 garnered praise in 1997 for its cinematic visual quality and for being the first N64 game to provide Rumble Pak support. Has this sheen rubbed off 20 years later? More importantly, is Star Fox 64 still fun to play?
Playing as Fox McCloud, leader of the Star Fox team, you must fly your Arwing, a specialised combat starfighter, across the Lylat System battling the evil Andross’ enemy forces. The game is primarily a rail shooter, so you spend most of your time travelling along a fixed path, shooting down as much as you can.
But Star Fox 64 isn’t a mindless shoot ‘em up where you endlessly mash the A button to fire. You can do this, but you’d be missing the point. By holding down A, your Arwing can fire a charged homing shot that has blast radius on impact, meaning you can take out multiple enemies in a single hit if they’re close enough together.
You’re rewarded extra bonus points for each additional enemy you hit, and so there’s a great incentive to use the homing shot. It adds surprising and welcome depth to the game, encouraging you to look for enemy patterns and be patient, rather than just gunning stuff down the moment it appears.
The Arwing has a number of other abilities that give you a few more manoeuvrability options. You can briefly boost and brake – useful in both combat and navigating the levels. The Somersault ability enables you to do a full 360-degree loop back on yourself, so you can get behind enemies that are pursuing you. The game will occasionally prompt you to try out abilities by lining up enemies or power-ups in a certain way, giving you a real sense of achievement when you pull it off successfully.
At times, you’re able to escape your fixed rail route and enter what is called All-Range mode – full 3D movement within an open, albeit small area. In this mode, the game becomes more about dogfighting, which can be a lot more challenging, and using the freedom available to you to attack enemies’ weak spots. The small area sizes are especially noticeable in today’s world of massive-scale gaming environments, but it doesn’t hinder the gameplay; if anything, it centralises all the action and augments the intensity of it. There’s also a tank and a submarine you’ll get to use, each with their own abilities.
There are 16 different levels in the game, although these are split across multiple paths. As a result, you’ll only typically do seven missions per playthrough. You can’t just choose your route though, and here’s where Star Fox 64 offers that bit of extra depth you don’t often find in arcade-style shooters. Instead, you must meet certain requirements or discover hidden routes within missions themselves to alter your path.
These multiple routes, combined with a score-based medal system, give Star Fox 64 a surprising amount of replay value. That said, you won’t get as much mileage out of it if you’re not a fan of score-attack experiences. If you earn a medal on every single stage, you’ll unlock a more challenging Expert mode, in which you can try for an even higher score.
Star Fox 64 has two noticeable limitations that may grate against your modern sensibilities. Firstly, you can’t save your progress at any point during a playthrough and come back to it later – you have to play from start to finish in one sitting. It doesn’t take very long to play through – around 30 to 40 minutes – but having the option to take a break would’ve been nice. It seems illogical that this feature wasn’t included considering that Star Fox 64’s cartridge uses an EEPROM chip anyway to save your high scores and unlocked medals.
The second limitation is that you can’t choose to play a specific mission - you have to play through the game from the beginning to get there. It makes sense why the game is set up in this way, as it’d defeat the purpose of having to find and unlock hidden routes. Still, it’d be nice to have the option to be able to choose a mission once you’ve completed it, because then you wouldn’t have to spend time replaying missions you don’t need to do. The fact that you may also need to unlock your route each time too (and some routes aren’t easy to unlock) can make this frustrating.
Ultimately, the game isn’t long enough for these things to be a massive problem, which is just as well as they’re the most noticeable drawbacks when playing Star Fox 64 today. In terms of technical performance, it suffers occasionally from minor frame rates dips, but rarely do these affect the gameplay in a negative way. It’s usually after detonating a smart bomb, which will wipe out virtually everything on the screen anyway, so you likely won’t be losing any points from it.
Star Fox 64’s visuals are understandably dated, but the cinematic way in which the game is presented makes up for this, resulting in a more immersive experience than most N64 games from the same time. The game’s draw distance is far enough to give you more than enough time to react to what’s coming up ahead. In fact, your standard laser weapon’s range is more or less the same as this distance in the on-rail levels, so you never need to shoot into the mist and hope for kills.
The game’s dialogue is fully voiced, which is a nice touch given that very few N64 games feature it due to the storage limitations of ROM cartridges. It’s fair to say that these aren’t oscar-winning performances, but they’re endearing. There’s a reason why so many lines from this game are still being recited today.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, shows it age. The synthesised orchestral tracks are well-suited to the game’s setting, and the way they change to reflect what’s happening on screen augments your feeling of immersion. The track compositions themselves are superb and memorable, but the overall sound quality may seem very basic if you’ve not played many early N64 games.
Lastly, we should note that Star Fox 64 includes a multiplayer mode, but it’s really not the main attraction of the game. Up to four players can engage in deathmatches using the game’s Arwing vehicle (you can unlock the Landmaster tank and an on-foot mode too) across three arenas, and you can only use the Arwing in one of them. It’s fun for a few rounds, but lacks the depth and customisation of other N64 multiplayer games.
Star Fox 64 may no longer be the audiovisual tour de force it was back in 1997, but it’s still an incredibly fun game. It offers a deeper gameplay experience than your typical arcade-style shooter, and the variety of its missions (and the ways in which you can unlock them) make this a joy to play.
If you’re only interested in experiencing the content and are not fussed about trying to get the highest score possible then Star Fox 64 may not hold your attention for very long, especially considering how basic the multiplayer mode is. Play Star Fox 64 as it was intended, however, and you’ll find this to be one of the most rewarding and surprisingly replayable titles on the N64.
- Multiple routes and secrets increase Star Fox 64’s replay value
- Charmingly presented with full voiceover and a cinematic feel
- Deep gameplay mechanics (for a rail shooter)
- Unable to save game progress
- Lack of mission select option
- Limited multiplayer mode seems like an afterthought
To learn more about how review N64 games see our review scoring system page. Because we focus on whether a game is still enjoyable to play today, we try to avoid discussing a game’s development history, impact or legacy in our reviews. For that information, you should visit our game pages.