Polygons are funny things. Basic, elementary math defines them as “flat, two-dimensional objects,” and though they are by definition 2D shapes, in gaming history polygons are representational of the leap AWAY from 2D gaming and INTO 3D gaming.
It makes little sense. But as the processors of home gaming consoles grew in power, designers found that one of the easiest ways to give gamers the sensation of watching physical objects moving through a 3D world was to take polygonal shapes and fold them together like digital origami, a simile that is far more literal than one might imagine. More on that in a bit.
I’m not much qualified to either lecture or opine on the mechanics of game design or the creation of digital images; odds are someone will tell me that modern 3D games are STILL polygonal, but the polygons themselves are microscopic. I don’t know; call me a Luddite. What I DO know is that the 3D revolution came in a box, or (more accurately) in many boxes stacked into cubes and other feasible simulations of length, width, and depth.
The polygonal look has not aged well. Classics done up in the low-poly art-style, games particularly from the N64 and PS1 era, are painful and even a little embarrassing to look at now. “I was wowed by THAT?!” we exclaim while looking at screenshots of Super Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VII. Yes, we were. The joy of guiding our favorite characters through fully (well, partially) realized three-dimensional spaces was enough to make us forget that the avatars we controlled looked less like our favorite characters and more like something Picasso might have dreamed up in his Cubist phase.
Star Fox, though, was a gaming franchise that was born at a time when it was way hip to be square. The second 3D game developed by Nintendo (the first was a game called X, a little-known FPS for, of all things, the original Game Boy), Star Fox was an on-rails shooter that placed you in the cockpit, or just behind the ship depending on your viewing preference, of an Arwing space fighter piloted by Fox McCloud, the leader of a anthropomorphic quartet of fighter pilots battling against evil space monkeys.
(Never change, Nintendo.)
Star Fox was the first game developed with what Nintendo branded the Super FX chip, a processor that could be inserted into the cartridge of a Super Nintendo game which would allow the game’s engine to generate and display 3D polygonal graphics. A full console generation before the launch of the polygon machine known as N64, the boxy design of Fox’s fighter and world was as basic a 3D polygonal rendering as could be commercially produced and packaged and sold to consumers… and it was stunning. We knew it was stunning because official propaganda literature, aka Nintendo Power, told us as such, even going so far as to include an actual origami (there it is!) Arwing in one of its many issues devoted to Star Fox.
Razzle-dazzle aside, the truth was that in a sense gamers were suddenly free, no longer confined to digital worlds, controlling characters composed of a series of sprites that in many ways were glorified 2D flip-book art. Even though Star Fox’s spaceships and mechs and buildings were barely recognizable as such, the world sped towards us and past us at such a clip that we, the gaming public, scarcely took notice, lest we be distracted from the perpetual thrust of adventure that’s characteristic of the on-rail shooter genre. In hindsight, of course, the never-stop on-rails design of Star Fox was likely chosen to distract gamers from the plainness of the world. The second Super FX title, Stunt Race FX, allowed its players to stop and examine the bland emptiness of its 3D world, which could be at least part of the reason why Stunt Race FX was barely a blip on the radar screen while Star Fox launched a respectable (and still running) Nintendo franchise.
Being birthed in polygons, though, has arguably held Star Fox back. The visuals of the latest Star Fox game, Star Fox Zero, hearken back to designs once thought revolutionary but now less attractive to many than old-school 8-bit pixel art. No, the Wii U is not a visual powerhouse, but there was clearly a choice made by Nintendo to maintain the boxy Super FX feel of the Arwings and entire Star Fox universe. True, the biggest criticisms of Zero may be the controversial “aim with the Gamepad” control scheme (full disclosure: I like the controls, though I’m not in a large company in that), but visuals that originated in a twenty-three year old game are a close second.
The irony, of course, is that Star Fox’s simple, boxy polygons have arguably aged better than the pretending-to-be-the-future Cubist paintings of the following generation’s Ocarina and Mario 64. The difference is, that A.) Star Fox simply is not the game those two masterpieces are, and B.) the visuals in the Mario and Zelda franchises evolve with every iteration. Then why can’t Star Fox? Why is Star Fox the franchise that must hold fast to its old look? So throw the one-and-done Star Fox Zero controls aside. The real question facing Nintendo as they move forward with the franchise, I think, goes something like this: must Star Fox remain Star Box to remain Star Fox?