The open-world Star Fox game we’ll never get to play

A decade ago, the studio behind Metroid Prime pitched Star Fox Armada: an open-world game billed as “Nintendo’s own Star Wars.” New details have emerged of the game that never was.

Star Fox Zero

In 1993, Star Fox made the aging Super Nintendo seem to do the impossible. On a system that often struggled when moving too many sprites around, Star Fox (or Starwing in Europe) used custom chips to create an epic-feeling 3D rail shooter full of space battles and dramatic fights against hulking mechs. Its sequel, Star Fox 64 (or Lylat Wars) was even better – taking advantage of the then-new N64’s hardware, it was a thrilling shoot-‘em-up that smoothed off the original game’s rougher technical edges.

Subsequent games tried to switch genres to middling success, with 2002’s Star Fox Adventures – a third-person action adventure developed by Rare – and 2005’s StarFox Assault suffering from mixed reviews and slowing sales.

In 2013, however, Texas-based firm Retro Studios pitched a Star Fox sequel billed as a return to its N64 glory days.

Called Star Fox Armada and targeted for release on the Wii U, it would have almost entirely avoided the on-foot sections of those 2000s sequels, focusing instead on mission-based combat in spacecraft and other futuristic vehicles. But where Star Fox 64 was a brief, arcade-style experience, Armada was pitched as an open-world multiplayer title: in local co-op mode, one player would control their ship with the Wii-Remote and Nunchuck, while a second player would serve as gunner, using the GamePad to look around the world and take out enemies. Player two could also perform emergency repairs, or divert shields to the front or back of their craft to protect it from enemy fire.

According to YouTube channel DidYouKnowGaming, which revealed the existence of the Armada project, game modes would have included network co-op and network battle, the latter allowing for drop-in, drop-out battles between friends.

Armada was originally pitched to Retro Studios’ higher-ups by artist Eric Kozlowsky, who reasoned that after the success of the company’s revivals of Metroid and Donkey Kong, it made sense to move onto another neglected Nintendo property. Armada’s pitch document argued that it “could be Nintendo’s own Star Wars” – a reflection of the ambitious nature of the proposed project.

Star Fox Zero

This is a shot from Star Fox Zero rather than Armada, but it gives an idea of how the latter’s missions might have looked on the Wii U. Credit: Nintendo

A Mass Effect-style hub would have given players the opportunity to carry out upgrades and repairs, as well as select their next mission; cash gained from missions could be spent on the player’s own craft, or donated to the game’s wider goal of restoring the Lylat system, still war-torn following the events of Star Fox 64.

Armada was also pitched as an “evergreen title”, with regular content drops adding new missions and additional craft. Other innovative ideas included Miiverse integration, allowing players to create their own custom characters, and a system where players could place bounties on each other, adding an extra frisson of unpredictability to missions.

Kozlowsky recalls that, despite the promising ideas behind Armada, it failed to get a greenlight from Retro Studios’ bosses. He also adds that “A lot of those decisions came from Japan,” which implies that the pitch may have been rejected by Nintendo. The Japanese giant did eventually release a sequel, co-developed with PlatinumGames – 2016’s Star Fox Zero – which focused on the rail-shooting of its 1990s predecessors, but it notably lacked Armada’s ambition. Zero was also far from a success, and to date, no further Star Fox games have emerged.

Would Armada have fared better, or would the Wii U’s poor sales have seen it suffer a similar fate to Star Fox Zero? Alas, we’ll never know; Kozlowsky left Retro Studios 18 months after his pitch was turned down, and the company hasn’t released a new game in almost a decade (Metroid Prime 4 was announced in 2017, but a launch date hasn’t yet emerged).

Thanks to DidYouKnowGaming, we at least get a glimpse of a project that, until now, was left languishing in obscurity.

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