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.

Do you remember the Mad Max game that came out in 2015? It sold quite well and seemed to find an appreciative audience, despite the fact that critics at the time felt it to be fairly average. The divide came down to one thing – reviewers had played plenty of those Ubisoft-style open world games in quick succession, and had become a bit bored of them. But even if you’re not reviewing games, if you play enough of them you may find that boredom with staple genres is a real threat. That’s why I find myself attracted to oddities and unusual genre fusions. If you can sell me a combination of “Genre A meets Genre B” that I haven’t encountered before, I’ll probably give it a try.

That’s why I love games like Nitro Ball. I like to imagine the pitch meeting at Data East, where the higher-ups sit dumbfounded as a developer presents pinball as the one thing that would have improved a game like Mercs. That’s what Nitro Ball is – a vertically scrolling run-and-gun, with the game show presentation of Smash TV and plenty of stage furniture inspired by pinball. Enemies can be knocked back into holes for bonuses, spinners dispense prizes – and what do prizes make? (“Points!” – you, presumably.) There are bonus sections where you have to knock down all the targets in a certain time limit, and you can even turn into a giant ball and rampage around the screen, crushing everything in your path. It’s great fun, until the first boss starts rolling into you for some payback. There are some excellent presentational touches too, as each stage is themed like a pinball table, with the end of level scoreboard featuring cool artwork representing the stage.

Nitro Ball is a very good game which is a little bit unconventional and chaotic, and sometimes that can work against it – it can feel pretty overwhelming at times. But it doesn’t feel quite like anything else out there, and when you’ve played hundreds of games, sometimes that’s just better than another competent take on something you’ve played to death.

Do you ever find that one small, singular thing can make the biggest difference to how much you enjoy a game? It’s a surprisingly common occurrence. I have friends who can’t tolerate the original Sonic The Hedgehog unless it’s one of the versions where the spin-dash has been added. For others, English voice acting – or the lack of it – can be a deal breaker. Until recently, I thought that my biggest example was the preference I have for Tetris games featuring a “hard drop” function when you press up on the d-pad, but digging out my NES during the production of our last issue actually highlighted something much more deeply felt.

I’d not played Darkwing Duck in a while, but it’s the kind of game where you know what you’re getting. It’s one of Capcom’s licensed Disney games, in the same sort of fashion as DuckTales and Chip ’N Dale, and they were always good value. What’s more, it was a game produced by Tokuro Fujiwara, a prolific game designer who served as the main producer for the Mega Man series for a good while, and you can definitely see the influences. Darkwing Duck really feels a lot like the Blue Bomber in many ways, from the rhythm in which he fires his weapon to the small forward nudge he makes when you tap the d-pad. Alternate weapons are incredibly useful in navigating the game area, although they’re regular pick-ups rather than rewards for beating bosses. The game even has a non-linear structure that allows you to pick your stages.

I couldn’t work out why I was enjoying it more than I usually do the Mega Man games, until it hit me – or rather, something didn’t hit me. As an enemy attack came in, I instinctively pressed down and took advantage of the fact that Darkwing Duck can, well, duck. I’m so used to crouching being part of platform-shooters that I resent its absence when it’s not there. I know Mega Man doesn’t traditionally let you do it, but it still feels like a “knock 10% off the review score” bugbear. Does that seem extreme?

Recently, I was watching some old episodes of GamesMaster on Twitch, and one of the celebrity challenges involved Armadillo Racing. If you’ve not heard of it, it’s an odd Namco arcade game with trackball controls. It generated a bit of discussion, with the observation that the days of “being able to make a game of anything” didn’t end in the Eighties. Of course they didn’t – the game Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015 exists, as I pointed out to the horror of fellow viewers. At that point the original commenter brought up Sensible Train-Spotting, the final Amiga game by Sensible Software.

Sensible Train-Spotting is a game about the highly regarded pastime of recording trains that travel through a station. If you feel like adding extra authenticity, you could imitate the game’s main character – just sit on a bench while wearing an anorak, and occasionally take a sip from your flask of weak lemon drink. Conceptually, it perhaps lacks the wide appeal of Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder or even Sensible Golf, but it does go to show that you really can make a game out of anything. Because you receive time penalties if a train isn’t on screen at the time you try to record its appearance, filling your cards becomes quite a tricky task when the numbers get longer and the trains become more frequent and start to obscure one another. It’s compelling, right up to the point that you remember that you are engaging in simulated anorak usage.

Unsurprisingly, Sensible Software didn’t try to turn this into a commercial product, instead releasing it on an Amiga Power cover disk – and that’s where these sorts of concepts tend to be realised. You’re never going to see a Call Of Duty or Assassin’s Creed budget allocated to a game about mowing the lawn, but there are plenty of oddities to be found whether you’re looking at cover disk jokes, bizarre budget PS2 games or today’s quirky indie favourites. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to play An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs. Yes, of course it actually exists.