Star Fox – 1993 Developer Interview

Star Fox – 1993 Developer Interview

This 1993 interview with Shigeru Miyamoto covers the creation of Star Fox, focusing especially on its relation to the STG genre. Miyamoto also talks about the shift towards 3D graphics and the role of realism and imagination in graphics design. This interview was found at the GSLA, a Japanese website that, among other things, preserves game developer interviews from older, now-defunct print sources.

Star Fox and STG

If you had to put Star Fox into a genre, I suppose it would have to be STG. But no STG game until now has escaped from the same basic gameplay formula: you shoot at things in front of you on a flat, 2D plane, dodging bullets while you memorize patterns. So if that’s what is meant by “STG”, then I don’t want people to consider Star Fox to be part of that genre. If it’s meant broadly, as in merely shooting things, then I don’t mind. “Oh, it’s a STG game.” Many people who say that upon seeing Star Fox will already have a predefined image of the STG genre and what kind of game they think it is.

For our part at Nintendo, we made Star Fox without feeling particularly bound by any genre conventions, and there was something like a tacit understanding among the developers to not call Star Fox the “ultimate STG” or anything. Likewise, we never called The Legend of Zelda an RPG. It’s probably part of our competitive spirit, not wanting to be compared to and lumped in with others.

What we were most worried about was this line of thinking: “STG is a dying genre, so Star Fox won’t sell well.” Of course we wouldn’t have minded if someone wrote “STG is dying, but Star Fox is the game that will revive STG!” But our game is different from previous STGs, so I want people to have faith that we won’t suffer the same fate.

It’s definitely true that nothing new will come from simply porting old games. Developers are saying things like “we don’t need any new STGs.” Moreover, when you see how players seem to be fully satisfied with playing all the earlier STGs, it’s easy to feel that this existing strain of STG games is at its end. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I believe the style of game Star Fox represents is just getting started, and will continue for awhile.

Star Fox: Almost True 3D

There have been some good 3D STGs in the past, but I really don’t think most of them should be called 3D… if you don’t have a fixed position from which you can rotate the camera and have the screen move, then all you’ve really got is fake-3D with high resolution graphics. There’s no real sense of controlling something in three dimensions. It’s thanks to Space Invaders that the world of games has come so far today, but I think that since the dawn of video games, it’s been a dream to really feel like you’re controlling a ship in three dimensions, flying through the sky and shooting down enemies. Many developers have tried using a variety of hardware to make that a reality, but almost all of them have felt restrained in some way.

I’ve also personally been wanting to make a 3D STG for a long time, but it seemed that no hardware has been sufficient yet, so I’ve been waiting. Then polygon rendering technology became available, and it seemed like with this, I might be able to make the game I’ve always wanted. Originally I wanted to make a game that felt even more three-dimensional, where you could fly around in all directions in a 3D space.1 But if we had suddenly released a game with that much freedom, it would have resulted in a game that no one knew how to play.

“The sensation of real 3D.”

So for the time being we settled on something closer to traditional gameplay for Star Fox: flying forward into the screen, giving players a chance to experience the sensation of real 3D first instead of immediately releasing a full-3D game. That’s how Star Fox was created, and that’s why if someone plays it and says “Oh, it’s a STG game. You know, STGs have been pretty dead lately”, all I can reply is “No, it’s not really that kind of STG.” It would take a long time to explain everything.

The graphics in Star Fox look a lot better to the person playing the game than to someone who sees a still screenshot. The graphics looks better in motion. At first glance, the graphics might appear kind of clumsy and amateurish, but once it charms you, you’ll see it’s quite well done. In a way making Star Fox took us back to the early days of video game creation, because it was so fun. We aimed to create a game where, after you finished a play session, you’d feel like you’d just been flying around in some 3D space. That’s why, graphically, we didn’t want to add too many things that would interfere with that feeling.

Departing from Traditional STG Difficulty

I did want Star Fox to be easy to understand and play like STG games have been, so in that sense it’s very much part of the STG genre. But the players’ experience is very different in Star Fox than traditional STGs. In Star Fox, it’s very hard at first, but once you get used to it, it’s not so bad. Or to be more precise, Star Fox is different from traditional STG, where it’s very easy in the beginning, but becomes devilishly hard by the later stages. Star Fox is a new kind of game, one where if you grasp the basic techniques it’s a surprisingly easy.

I sometimes think I should have made it even a little easier. But we made the Level 1 course so that anyone could clear it. We set the difficulty so that a normal person should be able to beat it in a few days. And if I put in my normal level of effort, I can clear the Level 2 course. If a typical old man like me can clear Level 2, then Level 3 should be easy for those people who play at a skill level far above what we can imagine. For boys in 5th or 6th grade, it might even seem too easy instead.

Early concept art for the Star Fox characters.

Character Inspirations

The truth is we didn’t want to add any characters either, but the backstory had you flying with companion pilots, so we added them to the game with the same colored ship. Gradually we came to give them names, one by one. As for the world of Star Fox, I wanted something like Star Wars, but set in the puppet-show like setting of Thunderbirds. That is, I didn’t really want something realistic like Star Wars, nor a particularly deep story or human drama. Instead I wanted to make a world with ships on puppet strings, flying around going “pyun! pyun!” That was why I didn’t make human characters with genders and specific names. Instead, I thought that a more ambiguous, less defined world of animal characters would be more fitting.

The reason we added companion pilots is, to put it simply, that flying with other ships is fun. If you want to read deeply into it, you could say that seeing your double move about is itself enjoyable. In order to show how you yourself are flying on the screen, companions are needed. There’s been lots of STGs where the goal is just to beat the game, but as I thought about ways to add a little bit more drama to the action, I realized that companions were a big part of that. When you beat Star Fox and watch the ending, I hope some players stop and think, “my companions are gone, scattered to the corners of the cosmos…” It’s like you now have a memory of having accomplished something together.

This is a bit local, but the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine is actually near our office. From inari we got kitsune [[fox]], which in turn became Fox; the Inari Elementary School’s baseball team mascot is actually the “Inari fox.” In stage 1 of the Level 3 course, when you’re flying through all those arches, there’s a point where the path diverges in two. That was also taken from the Senbon Torii path at Fushimi Inari-Taisha.

The unholy union that inspired Star Fox’s setting and characters.

The Super FX Chip and the Future of Video Games

The Super Famicom is different from a computer in the way sprites are used. The SFC takes sprite graphics which are already in memory and displays them at high speed. As for the Super FX Chip, well, it may be a step backwards, but it’s a graphics chip that can draw and render graphics on the screen by itself. In short, the SFC is not very good at rendering; it’s specialty is moving pre-drawn sprites around the screen. Because of this limitation, I can’t deny that the games you can create on the SFC have a tendency to follow a certain pattern.

In order to make something truly new, it would be great to have new graphics hardware, but if everyone is releasing their own enhanced graphics chips it would soon get confusing, right? That’s why we developed the Super FX chip, as an in-cart graphics rendering solution. From the start we had wanted to use polygons, so we developed it as a specialized chip for that. The SFC hardware alone had insufficient processing speed to render polygons. Of course the Super FX chip has various uses besides polygons. As for the extent of its capabilities? I’d say it’s on par with the Amiga’s graphics speed.

When the Super Famicom was released, it was common to hear people saying that from here on out, the graphics and sounds in video games would get more and more beautiful and realistic. With sound, I think there is a definite value in having things become more realistic. In one regard, if sounds aren’t presented clearly and definitively, then the player’s imagination won’t be able to blossom.

But with visuals, I think it’s different. Just because something is highly detailed, it doesn’t mean the player will think of it as realistic. In Super Mario World, for instance, we didn’t use a lot of colors, but we used other means to convey realism. It’s similar to how a writer doesn’t use pictures, but is nonetheless able to create the image of a character in a reader’s mind; likewise, in computer games a player sees a symbolized or abstract representation of something, and their imagination does the rest. You could say that drawing out the richness of a person’s imagination is the very work of a graphics artist.

The Super Famicom has done a good job portraying two-dimensional worlds, but I think that to many people, their idea of realism is to have a clearly fixed position in an open, three-dimensional space. Now that video games have come of age, we shouldn’t try and imitate movies or novels. We should create something that can only be done with the medium of video games. It isn’t about graphics or about stories, but about the exploration of virtual spaces.

The Super FX chip never quite lived up to these promises, but it was still very impressive for its time.

It may be too early to say this, but I do think future games will be less about graphics and more about having fun in that virtual space. That was our original idea for the Super FX chip. What other games will be released for it? The sky’s the limit, and I’m excited to see myself.

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  1. Here Miyamoto is talking about a game like Descent, which allowed you to navigate a ship freely in 3D.

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