Ask any Nintendo fan which franchise of theirs goes most underutilized, and one of the first responses that you’ll get will probably be Star Fox. Nintendo’s fancy space shooter turned a lot of heads when it debuted in 1993, made as a showcase for Nintendo’s new Super FX chip, granting the Super NES the ability to render primitive 3D polygonal graphics. The original Star Fox was a revolutionary look into the future of gaming, likely being many people’s first fully 3D-rendered title. Star Fox EX, a brand new romhack by experienced romhacker Kandowontu, is a love letter to this legendary title, with secrets and mysteries galore.
Star Fox EX can be downloaded for free from Romhacking.net. I won’t go into the process of setting it up, but you can find those instructions if you look hard enough.
Story: We are Nintendo! You cannot beat us!
Upon first booting up Star Fox EX, you are taunted by a mysterious voice, their portrait picture nothing but garbled static. A few seconds later, the speaker zooms into the frame, revealing themselves to be… the Mario Brothers? The original Star Fox was not a game you played for the story, and Star Fox EX is no different. In lieu of a war against a giant space monkey, we instead get a bizarre, semi-meta narrative about Mario and Luigi, accompanied by other popular Nintendo characters, invading the Lylat System in an attempt to destroy the Star Fox universe, and Fox, Peppy, Falco, and Slippy are called into action to save the galaxy from destruction. It’s really dumb and I love it.
As with the original Star Fox, the story is basically nonexistent, though there are some surprising flourishes that caught me off guard. Your wingmen are a fair bit chattier than in the original game and have relevant things to say based on the different stages that you visit, which I thought was a nice touch. There are also some neat setpieces that I enjoyed. In the new Corneria stage, you play through the majority of it flying along the ground as in the original, but for the boss fight, you take to the skies and fly above the planet’s surface to do battle with Link, with the game playing a remix of the boss theme from Link’s Awakening.
To go along with the new premise, many of the stage bosses have been changed into other Nintendo characters. Link is the first boss, the Mario Brothers are the final boss, and you’ll face others along the way depending on which route you take. The Nintendo bosses were always a treat to see, I loved seeing them take such immediately recognizable characters and try to render them on such primitive hardware, it gave the game a really unique feel. Only a handful of the bosses are actually Nintendo related though, which surprised me a little. Would I have loved to fight monstrous Super FX versions of Pikachu, Bayonetta, or an Inkling? Yes, I absolutely would have. Many of the other bosses are imaginative and full of life, though there are definitely a few boring ones to go around.
Gameplay: Twin Blaster!
For all of the changes Star Fox EX makes, the core gameplay remains mostly identical to Star Fox. It’s still a rail shooter where Fox and his companions fly through linear stages, blowing up everything in sight before fighting a boss at the end. There are a handful of enhancements to the gameplay, like a turbo fire mode and the ability to have a crosshair in third-person mode, but the core moment-to-moment gameplay is left largely intact.
If Star Fox EX was just an overhaul mod made to improve the original game, just the bonus features alone would make it one of the best romhacks I’ve ever seen. However, Kandowontu has gone above and beyond and delivered 17 brand new stages to play through, complete with new bosses and musical tracks. Star Fox EX’s new stages are all well crafted and fit in with the originals nearly perfectly. If you had told me that these were lost Star Fox levels buried in a Japan-only Satellaview spinoff, I’d believe you. The original Star Fox’s campaign is here as well, and you can swap between the two sets of levels at any time
Some highlights of EX’s stages that stick out to me are the new version of Corneria, swapping out the iconic cityscape for a rural area where you have to navigate around rapidly growing plant life. There’s also Tarkus, a space level that manages to integrate the base game’s secret “Out of this Dimension” stage in a novel fashion, Pebble Beach, a beautiful ocean world where you get attacked by giant pelicans and sea monsters, and Star Fox EX’s secret stage, set as you fly over a sun with hellish flames searing in the background, and an exceptionally difficult secret boss that I’ll leave you to find for yourself.
The first real change comes in the form of difficulty balance. If you’re familiar with the original game, you’ll notice that you have a health bar that’s nearly triple the size of the original and a ton more bombs and lives. The difficulty balancing is now all over the place. EX’s stages seem slightly harder than the originals, but this doesn’t really matter much in the long run. You now have so much health that you can tank damage and fly through every stage with little risk of death, but many of the new bosses are insanely difficult. The example that stuck with me the most was the planet Kuraudo, a stage set above the clouds that I managed to complete with barely any damage, only to get walled against its boss which can shoot homing thunderbolts that drain a third of your life with each attack.
A change I’m more positive about, however, is the performance. The original game was… fine in this regard. The original Star Fox was released in a very different time, before most people cared about framerates. In addition, compromising a game’s performance for the sake of higher graphical fidelity was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. With an additional three decades worth of hindsight, Star Fox EX is able to squeeze considerably more mileage out of the Super FX chip, resulting in a somewhat higher framerate. I played both the original and EX back to back, and while it was far from the most scientific test, EX felt like it was the superior play experience, and it managed to hit its peak 20 FPS cap far more often. Performance is still far from amazing, however, especially if you get really deep into all the new settings that EX gives you.
It is here where I discuss the game’s set-up menu, probably the single most impressive thing in this package. You get multiple pages of options when starting the game, with the overarching theme seeming to be “Why not”? A bunch of new playable ship models, including enemies, ships from other Star Fox games, and a whale, Why not? Super Scope and Super NES mouse support, why not? Model size and color customization, why not? Boss rush mode, why not? Five-player multiplayer, why not? This is only scratching the surface of the options available. One could spend hours in the set-up menu alone and not run out of things to play around with.
Graphics and Audio: To new realism. To new dimensions.
Star Fox EX is a difficult game to judge based on graphics. The original Star Fox, in terms of visuals, has aged worse than nearly any other game on the Super NES. Early 3D games are difficult for most to go back to, and Star Fox is about as early as it gets. EX does little to improve the graphical fidelity of the game, and though I like that early 3D look, it’s an acquired taste. I think judging EX on these standards would be unfair though. It’s sticking with the technical limitations that the original worked with, and I can respect that. One thing I can say is that I do like most of the new backgrounds. Unlike the original game, almost every stage is set on a planet, and they put great work into making them look unique.
What I can respect it for even more is its soundtrack. Like every other aspect of EX, no expense was spared when it came to delivering an awesome original score. EX’s soundtrack is exceptional, and it in some ways excels over the original game. The original Star Fox reused several tracks multiple times, but for EX, every stage and boss has its own original theme song.
The only nitpick I have with the OST is that there are not a lot of atmospheric tracks. The original Star Fox had a subtle dichotomy with its OST, where the stages set on planets had themes that were more energetic, and the ones set in space had more atmospheric and orchestral scores (at least what counts for orchestral on the Super NES sound chip). I wish EX had more tracks like Star Fox’s Sector Y and Space Armada themes, but what’s here is amazing as is.
The music is also almost entirely original compositions, something I definitely appreciate. It’s common for romhacks to use songs from other games for their OST. It would have been easy to throw in a bunch of iconic Nintendo music for this game’s soundtrack and call it a day. While there are some songs that have been taken from elsewhere and remade in Star Fox’s sound engine (The final boss theme is a remix of Bowser’s theme from Super Mario World for instance), they’re used very sparingly, usually only in relation to the boss that said theme belongs to, which I feel is perfectly acceptable.
Star Fox EX was reviewed on the Super NES, emulated via Snes9x version 1.60