Rail shooters feel like a relic from a bygone era. As games become more focused on open exploration, the idea of a genre built around giving the player minimal control seems archaic at best. I believe part of the genre’s failure stems from Nintendo’s inability to truly follow up on Star Fox 64. Where most major Nintendo franchises laid the foundation for classic genres headed into a new technological era, the company seems to have given up on attempts at giving this genre the same treatment. Perhaps this perception is partially true; even this highlight of the genre was incredibly short for its era, though maybe some indie dev out there will stumble across the formula and make a phenomenal throwback.
Star Fox 64’s short, simple nature is what made it work. From an era when arcades still had their influence, part of the charm was to jump back in and try to outdo yourself. The game offered a variety of paths, all revolving around completing certain tasks during the levels. While reaching the end could be easy, actually managing to go down the hardest path required some serious skills. All of this works to make each new playthrough both unique and rewarding as you work toward the top path.
While being admittedly cheesy, there’s something about Star Fox 64’s presentation which holds up more than most games from its era. The on-rails presentation allowing complex scripted events and noninvasive dialogue gave the game a surprisingly cinematic feel. Despite the short length, every level feels like an epic space battle.
This feels like a point I’m hitting over and over, but purposeful simplicity is just as valid as complex game design, and it’s a shame major studios seem convinced they have to add in dozens of features to every game they make. Sometimes, it’s nice to start up a game and be done with it in the same sitting. The level design in Star Fox 64 is tight and to the point; it’s not that it lacks content as much as it is stripped down and focused on making every second count.
Blazing through space, shooting down enemies and avoiding their attacks, all of this adds up to a fun experience. Even if the genre had nowhere to go from here, Star Fox 64 set a new standard for narrative presentation. In a way, the game marks a turning point between two eras. While being the peak of a dying genre, it stands as a predecessor to the non-interruptive narratives that FPS games would soon specialize in.