Yesterday, Nintendo surprised fans with the SNES Classic, a mini console that bundles together 21 of the best classic games from the company’s 16-bit console in one tiny package. But perhaps no one was more surprised than veteran game creator Dylan Cuthbert, who learned the gadget would include one additional surprise: his long-canceled game, Star Fox 2. Yesterday evening, Cuthbert and several members of the original Star Fox 2 team went out to have a much-belated launch party for a game they’d made two decades earlier.
Star Fox 2 was a sequel the 1993 original, which saw Nintendo branch out in a new direction with a sci-fi-themed rail shooter on the SNES. In the game, Fox McCloud and a team of anthropomorphic animals / pilots defend their home planet from powerful alien invaders. The game let players pilot an angular craft called the Arwing, as they battled robots, alien creatures, and spaceships through expansive levels.
Star Fox was also one of the most technically impressive SNES games. By utilizing a new graphics processor called the Super FX, the team behind the original Star Fox were able to squeeze 3D graphics onto a console built for 2D games. Star Fox was the first Nintendo game to use polygonal graphics, setting in motion the company’s trend from 2D to 3D gaming. A big reason for that accomplishment was the technical wizardry of Cuthbert and his team at British developer Argonaut Software, who worked with Nintendo on the game.
When it came time to create a sequel, the team similarly wanted to make something that would wow players on a technical level. They set to work on not only designing a new game, but also developing a new version of the Super FX chip that would offer twice the memory and significantly faster processing. They experimented with all kinds of ideas, including the ability to pilot your ship using a full 360-degree range of motion. Cuthbert says that he rebuilt the original Star Fox engine “considerably” to fit all of these new ideas and gameplay features.
The game wasn’t merely a prototype; it was completed. The press was even shown demos at CES in 1995. But Star Fox 2 took a long time to develop — so long that the final product showed its age as new, more powerful platforms like the original Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were released.
“The release [of Star Fox 2] got set back about a year or so, and half a year later, the Nintendo 64 system was due to come out, so we thought, ‘Is it too late to ask people to shell out for this?’” Nintendo design luminary Shigeru Miyamoto explained in an interview with the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. “And other companies’ game consoles were using polygons all over the place, so we didn’t think we could catch up even if we stuck this expensive chip in the cartridge, so we rethought it.”
The decision was made to cancel Star Fox 2, though many of its ideas — like 360-degree flying and the introduction of a tank vehicle — made their way into Star Fox 64, which was released in 1997. “We wanted to use that structure from Star Fox 2 to make scenes with a stronger sci-fi bent, and we wanted to make the Arwing feel more comfortable to fly,” Miyamoto explained. When former Nintendo programmer Kazuaki Morita started experimenting with the N64, Miyamoto realized it was the right platform for these ideas. “When I saw those, I thought, ‘Ah, now we can make it like a science fiction film!’” he explained.
Cuthbert, meanwhile, went on to found Kyoto-based studio Q-Games, best known for the “Pixeljunk” series of experimental games. Years later, Cuthbert would return to Star Fox when Q partnered with Nintendo to create a remake of Star Fox 64 on the Nintendo 3DS. “The idea was to faithfully recreate the contents of Star Fox 64,” Cuthbert, who served as director on the project, explained during the same interview with Iwata. He described the 3DS version as “a rebirth.”
Having moved on to new companies and projects, Cuthbert and the original Star Fox 2 development team aren’t directly involved with the release on the SNES Classic — which explains his surprise at yesterday’s announcement. “I wonder if this is a first?” Cuthbert wrote on Twitter. “We mastered Star Fox 2  years ago and it's finally getting a release. Guinness World record?”