Star Fox 64 and Cinematic-ness

David R. Howard
5 min readFeb 19, 2024

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Japanese box art for Star Fox 64

In 2014 Chris Priestman asked “What does it mean when we call games cinematic?” A decade later I’m not sure we’re much closer to any definitive answer. Take for example the “cinematic platformer” subgenre typified by Prince of Persia, a term which appears to originate somewhere on the Internet of the late 20-aughts. Drill down into any given component of what makes these games supposedly cinematic (like the use of rotoscoped character sprites) and you will soon realize that cinematic here is merely a synonym for realistic, and that the word could be swapped out without any substantial change in meaning.

In the 1990’s cinematic also became a synonym for cutscene, which is problematic because cutscene can encompass at least two distinct concepts: Full Motion Video (FMV) and in-engine cutscenes. Because the ability to use FMV was technologically dependent, disc-based PlayStation games like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil became synonymous with cinematic-ness in this era. But simply having FMV cutscenes is not what I mean by cinematic-ness. In a chapter profiling the prolific PlayStation developer Naughty Dog from her book Videogames and Agency, Bettina Bódi says that “‘cinematic’-ness[…]suggests that gameplay experience might trigger an emotional reaction akin to those triggered by film viewing.” (76) This is by no means a novel argument in game studies, nor in game development.

In the ominously titled “Message From God” developer interview from a 1993 Japanese Star Fox guidebook, game director Shigeru Miyamoto says that:

“The visuals in past games have resembled stage plays. And by that, I mean players view the game as though they were an audience seated in a theatre, watching the stage. And then there are films, with a more advanced perspective. The audience’s point of view in a movie can be changed via the perspective of the camera, which has the power of free movement. The perspective in Star Fox sits halfway between that of a play and that of a movie. If you consider the fact that you can control the camera yourself, you can experience the world of the game in a less detached manner than you would if you were watching a movie.”

While I think that Miyamoto undersells the complexity of prior 2D game cameras here, as well as making a classic sort of immersion via interactivity argument that I would take issue with (watching a film does not make one passive or “detached”), something about his characterization of Star Fox as being between a play and a movie speaks to why I find Star Fox’s sequel and remake Star Fox 64 so compelling. Because while Star Fox 64 is marginally movie-like, it is extremely cinematic.

Obviously in Star Fox 64 there are filmic references to Star Wars, Independence Day and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I think the true cinematic-ness of the game comes from some of the non-visual and ludic elements. Most of the storytelling is done through the combination of audio and user interface–the interjections of the various allies and foes Fox encounters on his journey to defeat Andross. While the individual cockpit views are reminiscent of shots in Star Wars (as well as Thunderbirds, which Miyamoto cites as an influence), the transient picture-in-picture effect has a more mixed media feel to it; to Miyamoto’s play-movie hybrid we might add the radio drama. I would also be remiss not to mention Koji Kondo and Hajime Wakai’s brilliant soundtrack, which sometimes feels underrated as compared to other Nintendo 64 or Star Fox games if random forum sentiment is anything to go by.

The other star of Star Fox 64 besides Fox is the level design. While the sheer variety of different planetary ecosystems is impressive, I think the real strength is in the designers’ ability to make wide-open space feel like a place, populating the screen with areas of interest at nearly all times. Then there’s the game’s clever branching level system. If Fox fulfills certain criteria within a level, the player will have a choice of which mission they wish to pursue next. Are these choices meaningful? Not really–all roads lead to Venom at the end of the day. But the way choices are dynamically narrativized makes for a sense of intrigue and strengthens the attachment to certain characters. Falco and Slippy are more to the player than keys to a series of locked doors or options on a conversation tree. This is also why my favourite level has always been Macbeth, which puts the rail in rail-shooter as Fox tracks down a train whose tracks can be switched through player intervention, making the level a sort of meta-commentary on the structure of the entire game.

Returning to the question of cinematic-ness, how much does Star Fox 64’s gameplay actually resemble a movie? While not many movies are nothing but a series of long takes following a single subject, the long take is still a powerful technique in the filmmaker’s toolkit (somewhat circularly I would say the opening shot of Revenge of the Sith strongly resembles Star Fox 64). Among cinematic games of the era Star Fox 64 stands apart for its constant sense of momentum and its seamless transitions between gameplay and cutscenes, as opposed to what Grace Benfell lovingly calls a “fractured cinematography”. This is not to say that unbroken takes are any more or less cinematic than cuts. In fact, the discourse of 10 years ago was dominated by discussion of Thirty Flights of Loving and how it leveraged cinematic-ness through “jump cuts”. While I think Thirty Flights makes for a really interesting indie game-as-short film, I don’t really care about its characters as much as I care about a one-off Star Fox 64 NPC like Bill Grey. Arguably both are underdeveloped, and yet Star Fox 64 believably sells the idea of reuniting with an old friend. And like my own relationship to Star Fox 64, while there is obviously some nostalgia involved, I’ve always felt a strong emotional resonance with the game that goes beyond mere set dressing or the thrill of blasting crap with lasers.