Ex-Zodiac could almost pass for a lost Star Fox from the 90s

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ex-zodiac (opens in a new tab) mimics Nintendo’s 16-bit Star Fox so much that, at times, it’s literally unmistakable from Nintendo’s space shooter gallery.

Throwbacks have flourished in recent years: arcade brawlers like Fight N’Rage and Mother Russia Bleeds found twists on the genre, while Streets of Rage 4 and TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge brought back old series. Blazing Chrome emulated Contra and freed it from old hardware. Ex-Zodiac is distinct in that it harkens back to a precise, fleeting era of early 3D that all but died out as soon as the PlayStation arrived.

There were polygonal PC games long before Star Fox, but Nintendo’s surreal, untextured polygons introduced a generation to the idea that polygons were the future. It’s Ex-Zodiac, capturing the brief moment when “Virtua” was the coolest prefix around. Set (eventually) to low resolution and a stubborn 20fps (also optional), playing Ex-Zodiac is like turning your PC into a 10.5MHz beast to explore a lost Star Fox beta on PC before the characters find their voice.

Call it blasphemy, but deliberately setting Ex-Zodiac to its fastest frame rate and inconsistent resolution feels inherently correct. No, Ex-Zodiac doesn’t push modern graphics cards to crisis levels, but it happily emulates that exploratory period before developers really knew how to work in 3D.

On that note, Ex-Zodiac isn’t “inspired by Star Fox because Nintendo won’t give us a new Star Fox”, as much as it’s a barely copyrighted replica of every enemy type, every glimpse of fog lure, even the death sequences that see the hero’s ship sink as the camera dramatically pans around the crash.

play it hard

ex-zodiac

(Image credit: MNKY)

Many indie developers seeking nostalgic dopamine over the past few years have moved from pixels to the wilder, freer 3D era dominated by the PlayStation. No one lives under the lighthouse (opens in a new tab) uses the sloppy textures indicative of first-generation graphics cards for its aesthetics. 3D toree (opens in a new tab) mimics the first clunky 3D platformer (but not as awkwardly). Forza Polpo (opens in a new tab) replicates the great Jumping Flash, just with cleaner art.

Ex-Zodiac is an oddity, tapping into that overlooked middle ground between pixels and textured polygons. It is also remarkable that Ex-Zodiac takes few risks. Nothing about the pop of laser beams colliding with enemy ships feels distinct or different from how it did on the Super Nintendo. In Early Access, Ex-Zodiac doesn’t offer all of its eventual stages, but traveling through an asteroid belt with destructible and indestructible asteroids of different colors isn’t a subtle reference.

Sometimes flipping through an original Star Fox strategy guide would even help in Ex-Zodiac, that’s how close it is. Flying under a trio of arches in the opening level gains a power-up, like in Star Fox. Even the map that zooms in on planets before a text briefing is a raw copy, though Ex-Zodiac doesn’t currently feature branching paths, and only the default difficulty level.

The developers at Ex-Zodiac have clearly chosen hard limits on what to emulate. The number of enemies remains low, although slightly higher than Star Fox. With the settings at their lowest, there’s a real feeling it could work on the Super Nintendo or a first-gen Windows gaming PC. There’s even a choice for a 4:3 aspect ratio to preserve the bulky squareness of a CRT.

Yes, of course, Ex-Zodiac plays best at 60 frames per second. Of course, it looks better at maximum resolution. But, then he doesn’t feel or look right. It’s not a breakthrough of old technology – Ex-Zodiac is pure old technology. It’s almost a shame the team behind this at MNKY didn’t go further, adding slowdown as the screen gets busy during the action. It’s crucial to emulate this time, to make the chipset feel like it can’t take the pressure anymore, to really suggest it’s punishing the CPU.

It’s easy to put Ex-Zodiac down for being so familiar. It doesn’t do anything new with its on-rails shooting, and the character design fails to create a memorable crew, or even a world. Star Fox’s success was based on emulating puppet TV shows like Thunderbirds, allowing the simplistic scenery to make absolute sense in a low budget, designed for Saturday mornings. Ex-Zodiac doesn’t have that, at least in its current Early Access state.

But Ex-Zodiac has it all: It’s Star Fox’s only high-profile pantomime, and as a result, it has a lock on extremely specific warm feelings. When side-by-side with the source material, its authenticity is evident, and it’s so adamant about keeping things that way that it defaults to the lowest resolution. If you’re going for nostalgia, you might as well do it in 240p.

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