Why did it crash and burn in the first place?
“We’re going to break through that fleet!” Fox says as he and his wingmates assault a vastly overwhelming enemy armada. Maybe it’s one of the less memorable quotes from Star Fox 64, but it’s a moment that captures what helps make it the pinnacle of the rail-shooter genre: intense, non-stop action that takes you through a variety of carefully curated experiences. And yet, here we are, over two decades after it hit the scene, and we still haven’t seen a rail shooter capture the same wonder and excitement.
Even with the series’s seminal entry, there seemed to be an underlying resistance to its own sub-genre. One of Star Fox 64’s new features was the “all-range mode” that lets you navigate a small arena in full three dimensions, unconstrained by the invisible rail that guides you through the levels. It wasn’t overly prevalent, mainly showing up for boss battles, but it was also a whiff of the future as Star Fox would hesitate to return to the genre. With future titles preferring free flight over a locked course, a void has formed in the sub-genre. One that, despite all the potential that still lies within, has yet to be filled.
On paper, the rail-shooter formula is sound. For flight games especially, it’s essentially a transposition of the shmup, translating it from its 2D trappings to a 3D perspective. In the right hands, those invisible rails could guide you through a thrilling course. It all boils down to something akin to a roller coaster that bobs and weaves through thrilling, carefully curated situations. Tight corridors and mammoth beasts can be thrust into your face in ways that are more difficult to do when the player has direct control. The deft designer can present a sense of scale that is easy to miss when you’re permitted to keep your distance.
Space Harrier and After Burner helped popularize the formula in the ‘80s, though technological restraints greatly restrict how far they could take it. The sub-genre was already well established by the time the original Star Fox arrived on the scene with its flat-shaded polygons, but the addition of a third dimension allowed it to communicate a larger scale. Huge warships and enormous space creatures dominated some of the backgrounds. It hasn’t aged very well, with its hobbled frame rate and primitive graphics, but it was a delicious bite of what was to come before the close of the decade.
In the arcade sphere, first-person rail shooters began dominating by the mid-‘90s with games like House of the Dead and Time Crisis, both of which would preempt the seminal Star Fox game in the market. The first two Panzer Dragoon games would also pre-date Star Fox 64 by a few years. However, Fox and his friends would arguably reach the pinnacle in 1997.
Like many of Nintendo’s N64 titles, Star Fox 64 took the groundwork laid out by its predecessor and expanded upon it in every direction. Gone were the flat-shaded polygons and gibberish speech, and in its place were detailed worlds and full voice acting. The story remained the same, with the Star Fox team launching a counterattack against the Venom forces, but additional backstory that provided motivation for the team, as well as new antagonists (technically lifted from the unreleased Star Fox 2), were added to round out the narrative. Simply adding textures to the level geometry provided an extremely appreciable sense of depth perception.
The levels were incredibly diverse, providing the aforementioned armada attacks, ground-based assaults against supply trains, and even flights across the surface of a sun. The game itself was dizzyingly short, but alternate routes could be unlocked if the player performed well enough, giving the incentive to repeat visits.
Yet, for some reason, this was the last Star Fox game that was primarily rail shooting until 2016’s Star Fox Zero, and even that seemed to be trying as hard as possible to shrug off the vestiges of its original formula. It’s a trend that the series has been following as early as the follow-up to Star Fox 64, the action-adventure, Star Fox Adventures. Fox has returned to the cockpit many times since, but each time is its own divergence. Star Fox Command was repetitive in its use of all-range mode styled encounters. Star Fox Assault had a few stages on rails but largely focused on vehicle arenas.
Nintendo, for better or worse, is often committed to change, and Star Fox is very much a victim of this. It seems hesitant to return to the on-rails formula that the series was born on, instead seemingly resigning itself to the idea that the sub-genre is out of steam. However, that seems difficult to justify when it hasn’t been attempted.
The rail-shooter genre seemed to dry up overnight. Much of it since then has been relegated to the arcade market where it still sees the occasional release over in Japan. It’s been quieter on home consoles. The boom of motion control on consoles attracted a number of higher-profile releases that aped the light gun genre, such as House of the Dead: Overkill, Fable: The Journey, and Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles. There’s a lot of shovelware titles floating in the motion control stew, but some of the titles were decent. None really reached the heights of Star Fox 64, with the closest being titles like the Sin & Punishment games. Even Panzer Dragoon hasn’t been seen since 2003’s Panzer Dragoon Orta unless you count the spiritual successor, Crimson Dragon.
The combination of sporadic and low-quality releases in the last decade seems to indicate that the genre has died. Even the positively ancient shoot ‘em up genre gets more action than the rail shooter. It seems odd. A lot of modern game design doesn’t truly allow for much player agency. Games like Uncharted are largely just a bunch of gameplay nodes connected by corridors. They’re carefully curated in much the same way as a rail shooter, leading players through a number of pre-configured action set pieces. Really, they’re just one step away from a rail shooter.
It doesn’t so much feel like there’s still gas in the tank, so much as it seems like the car was hardly driven before being put away. New technology should be able to create more destruction, more fantastic set pieces, and bigger bosses. Older games had to limit what was on screen at any time, but with modern horsepower, things like giant space battles with massive starships should be a breeze. If anything, the rail shooter could be considered the best way to show off new and amazing effects, because you’re literally forced to see it in front of you. With free roaming design, you don’t even really have to be looking in the same direction of something interesting. You can miss certain details entirely.
It feels like wasted potential. With all the modern whizbang technology, why aren’t we still breaking through fleets while everything explodes around us?Why is it not considered exciting just because you’re not in direct control? Why is it so unmarketable to present a game that is a flight simulator but you follow an invisible line?
Flight games, in general, have become something of a rarity in today’s market, and FPS games are so loaded up with scripted sequences that there seems to be little point in further restricting movement. There are still smaller releases keeping the spirit alive, such as theGal*Gun series and a PC re-release of Killer 7, however, in the big budget market, there appears to be little interest in reviving the genre, and it would probably take a landmark title to prove its viability and kick start it again.
If anything, should rail shooters ever see a resurgence, I expect it will be in the indie sphere where forgotten styles of games are often resurrected by passionate fans. Seemingly forgotten sub-genres, like F-Zero’s ultra-fast futuristic style of racing, have seen successful imitators like Redout.Rogue has seen what isperhaps the biggest revival, as its randomly generated elements have found their way into a horde of new games. So why not a rail shooter revival?
I just can’t help but hope that we’ll one day see a game that captures the same excitement found in Star Fox 64, especially when it’s starting to look increasingly unlikely that we’ll see it matched within the same series. It seems unbelievable to me that a game from the early-3D era will forever sit as the most sterling example of the sub-genre. I can only hope that one day, someone will see the potential that still remains untapped within the rail shooter and bring it to new heights.