It still happens at least once a fortnight. I’ll be going about my day, working on an article, eating lunch, staring wistfully out the bus window, and the memory will pulse through me. It comes without any announcement, no signifier, just a sudden reminder that I got to meet and interview Shigeru Miyamoto during E3 2014.
Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Screw that. Shaking Miyamoto’s hand was the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
This significant hour of my life has been on my mind even more than usual lately, thanks to Star Fox Zero. I think it’s fair to say that the game hasn’t inspired much buzz, even among veteran fans of the series, but for one day nearly two years ago I was incredibly excited about it. Nintendo had chosen to reveal that Star Fox was coming to Wii U by showing Miyamoto playing the game in a Nintendo Direct released just before the show opened, but with the screen blurred (which I can say with some confidence was done to hide just how early in development the game was – not even a proper vertical slice existed at this point). Miyamoto told me that Star Fox had never come to the original Wii, because when they experimented with prototypes, they never felt ‘new’ enough. He told me that the 3DS re-release of the N64 version was intended to reintroduce audiences to the game, and to test out gyroscope controls. Eventually, he asked me if I’d like to see the then-untitled Wii U version in action.
When you’re a freelance games journalist or critic in Australia, and you don’t live in either Sydney or Melbourne, it’s very unlikely that you’ll get to play most major releases before the general public, or that you’ll be privy to exciting behind-closed-door events. E3, if you can make it over there, shifts that dynamic a bit. I live in Adelaide; seeing a new game early is still novel to me, even after eight years of writing about games. Seeing a version of the game that, reportedly, only about twenty people had been privy to up to that point, just about blew a vessel in my brain.
Peeking behind the curtains on Triple A development – seeing a game well before it’s actually ready to be shown to anyone – is fascinating, and pretty uncommon. Everything in the demo was a placeholder. The music, the voice acting and several of the textures were ripped directly from the N64 classic (I’m pretty sure Peppy demanded that Fox ‘do a barrel roll’ at some point). As Miyamoto flew his Arwing around the open space they had built to test out controls, he noted that the buildings in the level were pulled from real life: one was a crude facsimile of the Tokyo Skytree, a tourist-attracting observation tower (which I would, coincidentally, visit just over a year later), and another was a model of Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters. I asked if the giant monster wandering through the town was a new enemy they were working on; Miyamoto told me that it was just a model they had pulled from Twilight Princess and thrown into the game.
I’m used to seeing footage of early builds online – people are constantly digging into codes and finding discarded levels used for testing – but there was something different about watching a master messing around in the playground he’d help build. Miyamoto pointed out that the camera was zoomed out further than previous games to give a better impression of where enemies were, and that the ship was as maneuverable as it had been in previous games. I watched him loop and roll around the area, and thought back on my own Star Fox experiences. Sometimes a game sticks with you not just because of its quality, but because of when it entered your life, or who you played it with. Lylat Wars, Starfox 64, whatever you want to call it – it was the game I got with my Nintendo 64 on Christmas Day, 1997, and it’s close to my heart. It’s the game I used to watch my father play late into the night, a game I played myself so often that when the 3DS version came out I was annoyed that an ellipsis had been removed from the subtitles on one of the cutscenes. This was like visiting the factory where your childhood teddy bear was made (or, at least, what the idealised version of that trip looks like in my head).
While it was extremely janky, the Star Fox prototype showing many signs of what the game would eventually become. The controls were already extremely polished, albeit not so different, it seemed, from what Nintendo had already released back in 1997. The new Gyrowing vehicle, although unnamed, was more or less fully realised even at that early point in development. Miyamoto released a little robot from the twin rotor helicopter, controlling it on the second screen while checking his position in the game world on the TV, which seems to be a mechanic in the final version as well. I asked if there would be on-foot missions in this one, which made Miyamoto laugh. He wasn’t sure yet – the final game lets you transform your Arwing into some sort of weird chicken-like walker, which seems like a better option. He assured me, as well, that the wireframe on the Gamepad was just a placeholder, and that the final game would feature a detailed cockpit. It has amused me every time new footage of the game pops up that this never actually happened.
“If you play it for about thirty minutes you get pretty used to the controls and get a sense of how to use the two screens”, Miyamoto told me. “And then you realise that you can’t play it without the two screens.” Thirty minutes is, incidentally, the exact amount of time a lot of the previews I’ve seen have suggested it takes to adjust to the controls.
I’m currently waiting on my copy of Star Fox Zero, and honestly I’m quite nervous about it. I know that this particular game is always going to signify a certain point in my life, the way the 64 version has. It’s tied to the professional peak of my writing career thus far. It’s the game that I had this amazing experience with. It’s the combined work of Nintendo and Platinum, united to recreate something that was special for me back then, and I was one of the very few people allowed to see its first form.
But I’m nervous about the game because it hasn’t actually looked very good at any point in its development. Alongside Platinum, Star Fox Zero has been handled by Nintendo EPGD, whose credits are few and relatively unimpressive (Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, Animal Crossing Amiibo Festival). Reviews have hit, and the consensus seems to be that it’s not bad – not the trainwreck some were fearing, not the masterpiece long-time fans were quietly hoping for. But I’ll never be able to look at it without thinking about the quiet, tired genius who shared his prototype with me.