There’s a chance—albeit a slim one, thanks to launch-week sellouts—that you’ve gotten your hands on Nintendo’s brand-new Super NES Classic Edition hardware. If you did get one, there’s a significant chance you made a beeline for its most interesting game: Star Fox 2, the company’s canceled 1996 space shooter. This game’s circumstances are incredibly rare for the game industry: a shelved, completely finished game resurfacing 21 years later as a surprise “from the vault” gem.
If you think you were surprised by Star Fox 2‘s appearance after all this time, though, you have nothing on the sequel’s lead programmer, Dylan Cuthbert.
The former Argonaut Software programmer and eventual founder of Q Games (makers of the delightful Pixeljunk series) says he learned about Star Fox 2‘s retail release the same way everyone else did: via Twitter. “It was one of the greatest days of my life,” he told Ars in an e-mail interview about that surprise discovery. He even slapped an ASCII smiley face onto that sentence to drive the point home. Better late than never!
Cuthbert’s history with 3D space shooters goes back to Argonaut’s first collaboration with Nintendo, an incredible, Japan-exclusive Game Boy tank-and-plane game called X. Argonaut had produced impressive 3D space sims such as Starglider in the past for 16-bit computers like the Amiga and Atari ST, but Cuthbert turned heads with his work on a similar project for much weaker hardware. Cuthbert went on to have major roles programming the first two Star Fox games (including the canceled one from 1996), and, in more recent years, he has returned to help Nintendo with titles like Star Fox Command.
After a chance encounter with Cuthbert in Seattle this summer, he agreed to chat with Ars Technica via e-mail about working on the Star Fox series and about this week’s insane “yes, it actually exists” release of Star Fox 2.
“The Game Boy wasn’t an experimental market”
Ars Technica: I’d love to start with your first official project with Nintendo, the Japan-only Game Boy game X. [This 1992 3D space-shooter, much like 1993’s Star Fox, was an incredible technical achievement at the time.] Just to clarify: What was your role in that game, in terms of designing the gameplay and/or getting the Game Boy to render 3D imagery?
Dylan Cuthbert: I began developing X, or Eclipse as it was originally named, as soon as I got my hands on the Game Boy and Argonaut’s makeshift homebrew development kit. Initially it was signed to Mindscape, but, six months later or so, Nintendo saw the 3D demo, flew us out to Japan a week later, and bought the rights from Mindscape; that’s when we renamed it to Lunar Chase. I was the single main developer on the title, and I did a chunk of the graphics, all the programming, and a majority of the game design.
AT: Why the heck aren’t we talking about Nintendo re-releasing that game? It was an astonishing Game Boy game, of course, and one that Americans missed out on.
DC: Well, I made a sequel called X-Scape for DSiWare (or 3D Space Tank in Europe due to naming issues), and that’s a title I’m really proud of. You can still buy it for your 3DS, and it looks great.
AT: Why is it that Nintendo chose not to release that game in the West during the ’90s, are you familiar?
DC: I think the problem was that the retailers in America didn’t really want to pick it up—it was an advanced 3D game, and they wanted simple puzzle-like games, which of course were selling like hot cakes. The Game Boy wasn’t really an experimental market, and the user base didn’t really need 3D to enjoy the machine. So our game was just a little too nerdy for the market climate at the time.
AT: How did rendering that kind of 3D imagery on the Game Boy differ from, say, Starglider [on 16-bit computers]? I imagine the specs on offer were a big part, but what additional challenges or quirks did the Game Boy hardware present to your team, and how were those overcome?
DC: The team was just me, so I had to work hard to get around all the limitations by myself. Starglider had the benefit of running on 16-bit machines with a bit-mapped screen, but the Game Boy was a character-mapped screen, so I had to assign an 8×8 character code to each location on the screen and then transfer the rendered output from memory into the on-chip character memory. There were many problems with this, one being that you couldn’t write to that memory while the screen was active, so I had to poll a register to see when the screen wasn’t active and then rush to transfer a few bytes. The screen was fairly lo-res, so this didn’t take too long, fortunately.
Enlarge / A more formal and dignified photo of one of the main programming minds behind the original SNES Star Fox games.