Lylat Wars 64, aka Star Fox 64, is one of the defining N64 games in my mind, which is saying something given I never owned it as a kid. I returned as a late teen to plumb the depths of Lylat Wars, but before then my strongest memories of the game involved multiplayer and a short weekend trip to Cornwall with three of my school mates at age 10. To my young mind that weekend trip may as well have lasted two whole weeks, it was so enjoyable and I have so many lasting memories from it. Most lasting is the rivalry that an N64, four controllers and Lylat Wars brought out in us that weekend when we weren’t out sightseeing. A four player multiplayer mode was such a novelty at the time – all my gaming experiences until then had been limited to just two people. The competition that weekend was intense: one day on the trip a friend and I got up at 5am to play two-player while everyone else slept, just so we could get in the extra practice for that day’s upcoming matches. Cocky little freaks!
In hindsight it’s surprising to me that we got so much joy out of Lylat Wars’ multiplayer mode. There are some definite quirks to the multiplayer that hold this game back. One is that when playing with two players, the screen is still divided into four: the bottom half of the screen becomes dedicated to the kind of cool replay angles you get in racing games. It’s this game’s way of telling you that you really shouldn’t be playing two-player – and to be fair, it is a bit samey with only two Arwings duking it out.
In the many years since – I picked up the game for myself eventually – the singleplayer mode has always been the highlight and the multiplayer a curiosity at best. At heart, Lylat Wars is simply an excellent rail shooter, easily ranking up there with Panzer Dragoon II Zwei on the Saturn in the race for the best rail shooter of that generation and beyond. The characters, setting and story are as charming as they are daft; the environments are cool and varied; the controls are tight; the aiming is excellent (even though the controls to somersault and U-turn are somewhat obscure); and the game as a whole is paced remarkably well, with exciting level design and bosses throughout.
The game has a branching system, so every playthrough is different depending on which levels you opt to/are able to access. Some levels have a simple good or bad result, where a positive outcome (Mission Accomplished) causes you to move up a difficulty level and a, shall we say, less positive outcome (Mission Complete) will move you to an easier story branch. A few missions have three results, a best, a good and a standard one. While there are three main branches to take through the main game, Lylat Wars doesn’t overly reward you for taking the hard route as opposed to the others. Instead you’re encouraged to explore and move between the various tiers, while consistently performing well and (with any luck) earning medals on all of the levels, regardless of tier.
And those medals…wow. As a child with my friends, I doubt any of us were able to get the Mission Accomplisheds, so we’d be going through the easy route, and possibly a bit of normal, every time. When I returned to the game, a little older and videogame-wiser, I was determined to reach the other levels, and there was an enormous sense of achievement to getting those first few Mission Accomplisheds and finally reaching the fabled hard tier. Despite improving with the game, I still wasn’t even aware that medals existed. It was, again, only later that I read online about medals, and how they unlocked new settings and difficulty modes. I was floored that in my many playthroughs I’d never even come across them in the game. Until, that is, I tried actually getting them.
The medals are a big, big test, many of them hideously trying. My first hard-won medal happened on Fortuna (aka Fichina for some reason), the icy level in which you first encounter Star Wolf. It’s one of the few levels that takes place entirely in all-range mode. Unlike the on-rails levels, Fortuna is essentially a massive dogfight (fox-hare-frog-wolf-pig-fight?) in a freeroaming area, replicating the gameplay of the multiplayer mode. It’s a free-for-all, and anyone who’s played any of the Rogue Squadron games will feel immediately at home shooting down the TIE-Fighter lookalikes. Things get really fun when your arch-nemeses appear, shooting you and your buds while mocking and jeering you over the intercom. They even react just like human players, since they take multiple hits to kill and use techniques like somersaulting and U-turning to escape your fire. Medals are achieved by reaching a set number of enemies destroyed, so in this level the game rewards you with multiple kills for taking out each rival quickly: +10 kills if you’re quick, +5 kills if you’re sluggish, +2 kills if it takes you ages, etc. Nab a total of 50 kills while keeping all your teammates alive and the medal is yours.
That first medal was a genuine thrill, and I dedicated myself to getting all the medals. I eventually managed with some help from a walkthrough, and my jaw hit the floor when I unlocked an EVEN HARDER difficulty. As if the main game wasn’t tough enough?! In Expert mode, you take damage to your ship much more easily, and you’re liable to lose parts of your ship much more easily. Losing parts (as opposed to simply losing health) affects your ship’s movement, making you drift in any given direction. Getting all the medals again in Expert mode unlocks one or two extra bits and bobs, but getting medals the first time on Normal was more than enough of a challenge for me.
That’s about as far as my experience with Lylat Wars goes, but I think it’s clear that I’ve had two completely different and yet utterly brilliant phases with this game. The first experience of this game was built around childhood rivalries and the joys of late-night, early-morning multiplayer at an age where that constituted an utter novelty. More recently, I was hugely involved in the singleplayer, spending hours chasing alternate paths and discovering medals, eventually. Taken individually, each experience made a big impression on me. Together, I can only conclude that Lylat Wars 64 is a rare high watermark in gaming, a towering achievement and one of the best rail shooters ever made.