When Nintendo’s Star Fox arrived in 1993 it heralded in a new age for Nintendo’s 16-bit console, the age of 3D. Powered by the Super FX chip, it delivered cutting edge graphics that made it stand proudly apart from other console games of the time. Here Jez San reveals how it all happened.

In these days of ultra-realistic graphical plenty it’s all too easy to forget that for console gamers, 3D visuals didn’t really become par for the course until the advent of the 32-bit technology in the mid-Nineties. However, developers had been successfully dabbling with the third dimension for some years previously, mainly on the powerful Western 16-bit home computers like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. One such company was UK-based Argonaut Software, brainchild of teenage programming genius Jez San. Founded in 1982, Argonaut impressed with early 3D hits such as the groundbreaking StarGlider titles and the ambitious air combat simulator Birds Of Prey, but it’s the company’s association with Nintendo’s popular StarFox brand that granted them worldwide fame.

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You’ll get little snippets of text from your mates, making you
feel like part of a team.

As the Eighties came to a close Argonaut turned its attention to the rapidly emerging console market, and more specifically, what kind of 3D games could be successfully achieved on the current crop of Japanese systems. The most obvious options were the then-unstoppable Nintendo Entertainment System and the newly released portable Game Boy. After his team had familiarized themselves with the hardware (going as far as to reverse engineer a Game Boy, as you do), San approached Nintendo of Japan with the proposal of exploring the possibility of producing 3D titles for its machines. To say Nintendo was receptive to the idea would be something of an understatement, as San himself recalls: “They immediately flew me to Japan to meet with them. They hired us to do a few 3D games, starting with the Japan exclusive Eclipse on the Game Boy, which became Lunar Chase. Then we started doing StarGlider on the NES, which was codenamed NesGlider.” Argonaut’s craftsmanship in the third dimension immediately impressed Nintendo – it was rumoured that the Japanese giant had been trying to produce 3D visuals on the NES for a while (with largely unsatisfactory results) and was keen to ensure that it, and not emerging rivals Sega, was the first to fully exploit the possibilities of console-based 3D titles. Having distinguished themselves with flying colours, San and his team were then introduced to what would prove to be the next generation of Nintendo greatness: “During our work, Nintendo showed us its new console. We immediately started moving over to the Super NES and StarFox was born”.

The first challenge Argonaut faced was power, or rather the lack of it. Although it was the cutting edge of console technology, at its core the SNES (like its 16-bit rival the Sega Mega Drive) was primarily designed with 2D games in mind. Sensing this, San proposed a revolutionary concept:  “I suggested the idea that while developing 3D games for Nintendo we might be able to design a 3D chip that would make its game console the first one capable of doing proper 3D graphics”. This would ultimately lead to the birth of the Super FX chip. Nintendo was enthused by the notion of granting the SNES a little 3D muscle and wasted no time in putting the wheels in motion, as San remembers: “It jumped at the chance and financed the creation of the MARIO chip (Mathematical Argonaut Rotation I/O chip), which was designed by Rob Macaulay and Ben Cheese (who sadly succumbed to cancer in 2001), and was later renamed Super FX”. With the assistance of this chip the SNES was able to produce and manipulate complex (for the time at least) real-time 3D visuals and effects. Super FX was to be integrated into the cartridge itself. This meant that SNES owners would not be required to purchase an additional peripheral (as was the case with the ill-fated Sega Mega CD and 32X devices) in order to experience the game, but it did result in a slightly higher price point than other SNES releases. It was a smart move that meant every SNES owner had the opportunity to experience this technical marvel, even if it did mean having to extort a few extra quid out of long-suffering parents to do so.

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Starfox still holds up today. It remains an exceptionally polished blaster.

Developing StarFox was a learning experience for San and his team and they quickly had to acclimatize themselves to the rather unusual working practices of their new mentor – the legendary creator of the bestselling Mario and Zelda franchises, Shigeru Miyamoto. “Working with Miyamoto presents a large learning curve, but can also be a very different proposition compared to others,” remarks San. “He doesn’t like to design games in advance. He subscribes to the ‘try something, then keep tuning, then try something else’ approach to game design. It means that he’s completely in the loop at all stages, which can become a bottleneck. He doesn’t like to do planning. He’s very much a ‘seat of the pants’ kind of guy.” Despite the unorthodox methods of game design witnessed by the Argonaut team whilst coding alongside Nintendo’s golden boy, the encounter was, as San is swift to point out, an extremely positive one: “I have enormous respect for his talents. He’s an amazing guy, and very humble. But the way he likes to work is very different than most people and it takes a lot of getting used to”.

Links between the two companies were forged and Argonaut was forced to ‘go native’ to ensure work with their new partner progressed as smoothly as possible. “We had a small office inside Nintendo,” says San.  “We put several of our London staff – Dylan Cuthbert, Krister Wombell, Giles Goddard and later Colin Reed – permanently into Nintendo’s offices in Kyoto, working directly for Miyamoto. I would regularly fly over to Japan to spend time with him. We did most of the technology back in England with a relatively large engineering/tech team, which comprised of Carl Graham and Pete Warnes on the software-based 3D technology and Ben Cheese, Rob Macaulay and James Hakewill working on the hardware side of things.  All the direct gameplay work was done inside Miyamoto’s offices in Kyoto. Therefore we had two teams working closely with each other in two different countries”.

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Hit the yellow blocks to destroy this enemy.

Whilst Argonaut primarily handled the technical duties, Miyamoto and his team, led by director Katsuya Eguchi, performed the artistic magic Nintendo was famed for. “We did most of the programming and all of the technology, and Nintendo did most of the design. They also did all of the characters,” reveals San. Nintendo was responsible for level concepts, but Argonaut was on hand to provide valuable support thanks to its considerable experience in the field of 3D – an area in which Nintendo was still finding its feet, as San recalls: “It was largely Nintendo’s staff that designed the stages and levels, but with help from our programmers, who created the scripting system and showed them lots of examples as to what could be done”. With Argonaut’s talented programmers at their beck and call, Miyamoto and Eguchi were able to break boundaries and create an underpants-soiling experience the likes of which had never been witnessed before on a home console.

StarFox repaid all of Nintendo and Argonaut’s hard work by shifting over four million copies worldwide (although initially the SNES-owning public, raised on a diet of cute 2D titles, were slow to warm to the unusual visuals). Reviews at the time were unanimously positive. The game was marketed as a true next-generation title and was eventually granted ‘pack-in’ status in the UK – a sure sign that Nintendo regarded it as a ‘killer app’ that would shift hardware on its own.

Nintendo’s 8-bit console birthed a staggering amount of popular franchises and remains one of the company’s best selling consoles. With so many games released it’s a hard task to put aside ten favourites, but we’ve managed it and feel these to be the first port of call for any new NES owner.

NES

Duck Hunt
Released: 1984
Billed as the quintessential game for the clunky NES Zapper, Nintendo’s repetitive duck-murdering simulator allowed gamers to test their aim with the aid of canine-cohort, Mr Peepers. It was his job to startle a ball of petrified feathers into the air and yours to sight them in your pistol’s crosshair. You had three shots per target and the later levels, which included infinitesimal clay pigeons, called for either a swift dead-aim or the cowardly act of pressing the gun barrel against the television. The game had a neat feature, which allowed duck-welfare enthusiasts to control the direction of the fleeing birds with a second pad and save them from a good buckshot stuffing.

DuckHuntSuper Mario Bros
Released: 1985
It was the block punching, pipe-travelling exploits of two Italian plumbers that finally administered the medicine to the videogame crash’ of the Eighties, ridding it of the noxious Martian antibodies of Atari’s ET. Shigeru Miyamoto knew how to conjure up golden game icons and the Mario Bros are two of his most prolific. Placing the plumbers into a daring princess/mushroom rescue mission, inside a vivid, smooth-scrolling fantasy world, the game pioneered concepts such as level warping and head stomping. Super Mario Bros encapsulates everything that makes a game timeless: catchy theme, fluid gameplay, iconic characters and a hot princess.

SuperMarioBrosRiver City Ransom
Released: 1985
Punch-bags meet sick-bags when Alex and Ryan receive a note from evil crime-lord Slick informing them their city is being held to ransom and Ryan’s girlfriend has been abducted. Welcome to River City, a place of tongue-in-cheek humour, cartoon violence and hard-up vomiting freshmen. Using anything they can lay their fists on, our protagonists set about the streets fighting through Slick’s army of students. Their strategy: force them to ‘barf’ and pocket their loose change. River City’s unique fusion of a scrolling beat-’em-up and a subtle RPG make it a superlative NES classic.

RiverCityRansomMegaman 2
Released: 1988
Don’t let Megaman’s mountainous energy bar fool you, trying to finish Megaman 2 is like trying to stay alive without any kidneys. This is an unforgiving platform blaster where each level demands pinpoint precision and patience. The order in which you blast through Dr Wily’s levels is up to you, but don’t think you can use the easier stages to stockpile lives. Each level houses a bionic-boss whose special power can be acquired. These abilities give Megaman an advantage over another boss, so choosing your route through the game was how you maintained a healthy blood pressure.

MegaMan2Punch-Out!!
Released: 1986
Nintendo’s port of its popular Eighties arcade puncher was somewhat lost in translation when it appeared in its 8-bit glory. The arcade’s transparent fighter was omitted and in his corner stood a pale, pint-sized pugilist on a mission to topple heavyweight hard-man, Mike Tyson. It quickly collected acclaim for its accessibility and colourful roster of cartoon boxers who were forced to sop up each blow of the games trademark playability. The NES homes the finest version of Punch-Out!!, still managing to pack more punch than its technically enhanced SNES sequel and arcade counterpart.

Punchout!!Super Mario Bros 3
Released: 1990
Mario’s goodbye gift to the NES is a marvel. It encapsulated all the qualities of the first game while introducing new elements now seen as essential to the series as Mario’s flat cap and black moustache. Super Mario Bros 3 incorporated sub-bosses, multiple routes and mini-games, while embracing the notions of secrets and level warping. In fact, the game’s so great, millions of Americans stood in unity to create a large image of his head using colourful T-shirts. Visible from space, it was a warning to ET to never release another game on our planet.

SuperMario3Metroid
Released: 1986
Long before Ms Croft raided her first tomb there was another tough female playing a central role in an iconic franchise. Donning unflattering yellow armour and forced to wear a red spaceship on her head, you really couldn’t tell whether Samus Aran was man, woman or beast. But one bash of the B button, sparking her elegant flip, gave us all the proof we needed. Metroid is a landmark NES title, the space shooter introduced password saves, non-linear levels and multiple endings. Its dark, menacing setting housed some truly freaky inhabitants, and the Giger-style levels really helped emanates a bleak, lonely atmosphere from inside the grey box.

MetroidContra
Released: 1988
It must be written into our genes that when visited by an alien it’s customary to either destroy them or try to adopt them. Mario Bros on steroids, the homeport of Konami’s arcade hit Contra is considered to be the finest run-and-gun on the NES. It tells the story of two marines who are assigned the mission of welcoming an alien species by unloading an ungodly amount of ammunition into their deformed domes. The game presents some inspired character and level designs, the most memorable being the breach of an alien base, which switched the perspective from a side-scrolling blaster to a Cabal-style shooting gallery.

probotectorDouble Dragon 2 – The Revenge
Released: 1989
Taking on a darker tone than its predecessor, Double Dragon 2 still follows the theme of the Lee brothers’ ill luck with the opposite sex. After their abducted girlfriend, Marian, is callously killed by Shadow Warrior, the brothers are forced into action. It’s widely considered to be the finest of the three Double Dragon games released on the NES, due to its intuitive controls. It also introduced a much requested two-player co-op option and iconic moves like the Whirlwind Kick and the Hyper Uppercut – which looked a lot cooler than Billy and Jimmy’s usual technique of pushing an enemy’s head into their groin.

DoubleDragon2The Legend Of Zelda
Released: 1987
Sheathed inside a majestic gold cartridge, The Legend Of Zelda’s tale of a nefarious powermonger, an ensnared princess and an elfin boy, bound together by unlikely heroism, was a chameleon of game genres that pioneered open-ended gameplay. Link’s first quest not only popularised adventure games, it established pivotal precedents that spoke out to all platforms. It outmoded high-score tables by exposing a greater desire in gamers for exploration and completion, and encapsulated perhaps the most respected and well-loved games ever created. It was fathered by Nintendo with a proud tenderness and the NES was there to videotape the birth.

legend of zelda

Jump Into The Forum For A Chat About Donkey Kong

This week’s Retro Spotlight on the forum is Nintendo’s arcade classic Donkey Kong, which is a fascinating game for all kinds of reasons. In the Eighties it was subject to all sorts of battles, as Universal unsuccessfully sued Nintendo over copyright infringement, while Atari and Coleco clashed over conversion rights. In the arcades the game has been the battlefield for vicious high score competitions, featuring stunning victories and astonishing allegations of cheating, and even inspired the documentary The King Of Kong. Donkey Kong himself went on to become a huge gaming star in his own right, appearing across a variety of platform games and a series of bongo-based music games for the GameCube. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of the little bloke you play as, some guy named Mario. We don’t quite know what happened to him later on. If you fancy chatting about the game, just click here to go straight to the thread.

Incidentally, one of our favourite versions of Donkey Kong is the excellent Game Boy game, which starts off like the arcade game before becoming an astonishing original puzzle platformer. And issue 196 of Retro Gamer is out today, with Nintendo’s green-screened masterpiece on the front cover. Pick that up in all good newsagents, or order it directly via My Favourite Magazines here.