Star Fox was a breakthrough on the Super Nintendo because it was a true 3D spaceship shooter. Every object was made of a few polygons, but it didn't matter: in just over a decade we had gone from Space Invaders to this!
The breakthrough that allowed 3D on a video-game console was the Super FX chip, advertised prominently on the Star Fox box. The chip wasn't made by Nintendo but by Argonaut Games (now defunct). Some people say the game hasn't held up well because the 3D is so primitive. The enemy are flying patterns of polygons more than anything resembling a proper ship, and the frame rate is very low. It doesn't bother me, but it does look primitive compared even to Star Fox 64, which came out four years later.
Star Fox is a space-shooting game in which you control an anthropomorphic fox named . . . Fox. He and his three wingmen fly Arwings (an obvious ripoff of the X-wings from Star Wars). The wingmen are Falco Lombardi (a blue bird), Slippy Toad, and Peppy Hare. They often speak to Fox over the comm system. Their words appear as text at the bottom of the screen next to a cartoon profile picture, but they are also accompanied by nonsensical audio meant to imitate animal speech (or something). The game cartridge lacked sufficient storage capacity to include full audio samples. The comms chatter gets old after a while because the pilots repeat the same messages. For some reason, whenever you rescue Falco from a pursuer, instead of being grateful, he says, "Mind your own business!" The game also boasts a few real voice samples, such as a robotic-sounding "Good luck!" at the beginning of each mission. Or, when you pick up the Twin Blaster upgrade, it says "Twin Blaster."
The goal of Star Fox is to defeat the evil Andross on the planet Venom. Fox and his team begin on Corneria (not to be confused with the town of Cornelia from Final Fantasy!). On each playthrough you choose one of three paths (called "levels"), representing three difficulty levels. Of thirteen stages, you play five (six on the hardest) each time, always beginning with Corneria and ending with Venom. The first "level" is easy and, in my opinion, a little "blah." The environments and obstacles are more interesting in the second level. Titania is a snowy environment, recalling Hoth from the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. The end of the stage has a cool-looking sunset. The following stage, Sector Y, is full of space jellyfish and whales. The jellies can attach to the hull. You have to roll the ship to shake them off. In addition to being more exciting, the medium path is also harder. I've yet to clear Sector Y. On the hardest level, I've yet to clear the second stage.
The gameplay is basic 3D dog-fighting. It's an "on-rails" shooter, meaning you always move forward at a constant rate. You can slow down briefly by holding B or boost by holding X, though such maneuvers aren't often required. You can switch between first- and third-person perspectives by pressing SELECT. A reticle in the middle of the screen moves as you move Fox's Arwing with the d-pad. There is no way to lock onto targets; aiming is manual, so you just spam the Y button. Pressing either shoulder button rolls the ship on its longitudinal axis. If you do this at the moment a laser hits the ship, it bounces off harmlessly (this does not work on missiles, however). Rolling is my least favorite aspect of the game, as it means you should almost constantly spam L or R, while also spamming the fire button. It begins to wear on my hands and causes the controller to make a lot of noise. After about half an hour, I'm ready to quit.
Gameplay mostly consists of shooting enemies and avoiding the occasional asteroid, spinning pillar, or wall. There is some variety in the enemies, though most are generic. Destroyed enemies sometimes leave rings, which, if you fly through them, partially regenerate some of your ship's shields. Each stage ends with a boss fight. If you die during the fight, you respawn right before it, so you can probably prevail on your second try. You get three bombs per stage (shot by pressing A), which can help end boss fights quickly.
The game's difficulty comes from the fact that you get just three lives. You can earn a continue by scoring 10,000 points. When you finish a stage, you earn points equal to the percentage of possible targets you destroyed multiplied by 100. That means that, if you don't miss any (very hard), you score exactly 10,000 at the end of a stage. A second continue is gained at 30,000 points. Your score resets when you use a continue, so if you're good enough to get to 30,000 points without continuing, you may not need an extra continue anyway! The game records your high score for each level. Given there's no battery to save scores, I can't imagine many players paid attention to high scores! The goal was to beat Andross on each level.
The music is good. It reminds me a bit of F-Zero, though not as jazzy. The voice samples were a great touch back in the day, even if the comms "speech" is silly. It's hard to evaluate the graphics of Star Fox. On the one hand, the 3D is phenomenal by the standards of the SNES. On the other hand, it doesn't hold up well today. I'm going to give it a high score because of how impressive the 3D was for the time. It seems only fair, even if the game does look somewhat primitive now. As I mentioned, I also like some of the backgrounds.
All in all, Star Fox is a great game. I didn't play it much as a kid just because I sucked at it, but I've enjoyed replaying it. It does pale in comparison to Star Fox 64, but when judged by the merits of the SNES era, it's a top-quality release that was also a technical breakthrough.
"Aurally, visually and in its character design and presentation it was phenomenal in 1993 and will be rightly remembered as a classic."
— Jamie O'Neill, Nintendo Life, 9/10
"While there is some slowdown and choppy framerate issues when it gets busier, experiencing the thrills of this unique universe is a treat."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library, 4.5/5
"In addition to fast-paced, frenetic gameplay, this action-packed flight simulation game was also distinguished as being the first Nintendo title to feature three-dimensional graphics, back when this was still incredibly rare."
— IGN, #9 of Top 100