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

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Ex-Zodiac mimics Nintendo’s 16-bit Star Fox so much that, at times, it’s literally unmistakable from Nintendo’s space-faring shooting gallery.

Retro throwbacks have been flourishing 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 imitated Contra and freed it from ancient hardware. Ex-Zodiac is distinct in that it recalls a precise, short-lived era of early 3D that became as good as extinct as soon as the PlayStation arrived.

There were polygonal PC games well before Star Fox, but Nintendo’s surrealist, untextured polygons introduced a generation to the idea that polygons were the future. That’s Ex-Zodiac, capturing the brief moment when “Virtua” was the coolest prefix in the world. Set (optionally) to low resolution and a stubborn 20fps (also optionally), playing Ex-Zodiac is like turning your PC into a 10.5 MHz beast to explore a lost PC beta of Star Fox made before the characters found their voices.

Call it blasphemy, but deliberately setting Ex-Zodiac to its chuggiest frame rate and jagged resolution feels inherently right. No, Ex-Zodiac isn’t pushing modern graphics cards to crisis levels, but it joyously emulates that exploratory time period before developers truly 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,” so much as it’s a barely-skirting-copyright replica of every enemy type, every glimpse of fog-based draw-in, even the death sequences that see the hero’s ship going down as the camera dramatically spins around the crash.

Playing it on the down low

Ex-Zodiac

(Image credit: MNKY)

Many indie developers seeking nostalgia dopamine in the last few years have skipped from pixels to the wilder, freer 3D era dominated by the PlayStation. No One Lives Under the Lighthouse uses the sloppy textures indicative of first-generation graphics cards for its aesthetic. Toree 3D mimics the awkward, early 3D platformer (albeit not as awkwardly). Forza Polpo replicates the great Jumping Flash, just with sharper art.

Ex-Zodiac is an oddity, tapping into this ignored middle ground between pixels and textured polygons. It’s also notable how few risks Ex-Zodiac takes. Nothing about the pop of laser beams colliding with enemy ships feels distinct or different to the way 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 differently colored destructible and indestructible asteroids isn’t a subtle reference.

At times, paging 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 earns a power-up, same as in Star Fox. Even the map that zooms in on planets before a text-based briefing is a raw copy, although Ex-Zodiac does not currently offer branching paths, and only the default difficulty level.   

Ex-Zodiac’s developers clearly chose precise boundaries on what to emulate. Enemy counts remain low, if slightly higher than in Star Fox. With settings at their lowest, there’s a genuine sense this might run 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 square of a CRT.

Yes, of course Ex-Zodiac plays better at a crisp 60fps. Of course it looks better at maximum resolution. But, then it doesn’t feel or look right. This isn’t an advancement of old tech—Ex-Zodiac is old tech at its purest. It’s almost a shame the team behind this at MNKY didn’t go further, adding in slowdown as the screen becomes busy during the action. That’s crucial in emulating this time, to give a sense the chipset can no longer handle the strain, to truly suggest this is punishing the processor.

It’s easy to demean Ex-Zodiac for being so familiar. It does nothing new with its on-rails shooting and the character design fails to create a memorable crew, or even a world. Star Fox’s success hinged on mimicking puppet TV shows like Thunderbirds, allowing the simplistic scenery to make absolute sense in a low-budget, made-for-Saturday-mornings way. Ex-Zodiac doesn’t have that, at least in its current Early Access state.

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

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