Pretend it’s 1994. You’re eagerly awaiting the coming age of 3D games, with Sony’s PlayStation and Sega’s Saturn set to christen it. They’re months away, and you’re stuck with your lowly Super Nintendo, which you’ve had for… good god, two years already. You read in an issue of Nintendo Power about a new game coming called Vortex that uses the Super FX chip. You know, that thing that made Star Fox all 3D and stuff. Except this is going to be cooler than Star Fox! Not only do you pilot a ship, but you pilot a MECH that turns into a ship! And hell, it turns into a car, and a box too! Fast laser shooting mobile constructs of destruction, and it doubles as a gigantic paper weight for easy storage! Where do you sign up?!
Vortex is British-made game by Argonaut Software, and your shape-shifting mech is called the Morphing Battle System, or MBS if you prefer the more marketable pseudonym. It’s the ultimate Transformer, but without all the pesky logos and official branding. And it runs at a blistering five frames per second most of the time.
Vortex is mostly notable for how ambitious it is. This is immediately apparent as soon you start playing, because it’s clear the SNES’s venerable control pad lacks sufficient finger nuggets to perform all the various functions the game tries to incorporate. Harkening far-off future games such as Assassin’s Creed, holding a bumper will change what the face buttons do. By default they will make your mechanical creature shoot and do acrobatic tricks, but by pressing down on one of the shoulders, they can change your weapons, or change your robot into one of its three other forms. As you can imagine, this is tricky to get a handle on.
But mech games are supposed to be clunky and convoluted, right? You’re driving a mech, not a golf cart. Unfortunately the game grants you absolutely no grace while you feebly attempt to mash out the requisite thumb choreography. Enemies will approach from all sides, and while you can perform an about-face, you’ll seldom see them before they’re shoving a light beam up your exhaust. The game is tough, and even training mode handed my ass to me a few times before I passed it. The first level? Ridiculous.
Not that some people can't make it look easy.
After several attempts to kill the boss at the end of the first mission (Argonaut, did you not want players to see more of your game?), I resorted to entering a password to check out the second level. Then I proceeded to get lost. Repeatedly. This game will not hold your hand with a blinky waypoint, oh no. You have to navigate the flat featureless terrain with a bold nerve for exploration, and should you wander too far, the game will neatly pluck you out of the naughty zone and set you back down in the designated playground where you belong. It’s not quite a spank on the rear, but then, I probably wouldn’t mind if it came from her…
Ahem. The game pipes out a rather kickass soundtrack, both upbeat and adventurous, and toe-tappingly electronic. Regardless, the sad origami shapes will inch around the screen at an abysmal pace, clearly weighing too heavily on the aching ill-equipped hardware. The slideshow greatly hampers the sense of motion, at times making it difficult to tell if I was walking forward or backward. This is almost manageable with the lugging anthropomorph, but in the fast-flying swept wing it’s pretty much laughable. The car mode seems superfluous, adding nothing in terms of functionality, and in fact less in some aspects. And then you have the shield mode, which is good if you want to be an immobile turtle that throws bombs.
Bending nearly to the point of breaking to achieve its overreaching goals, it’s hard to fault Vortex for trying earnestly to be ahead of its time. It just picked the wrong… er, time to do it in. Just around the corner, there would be machines built expressly to run circles around these childish 16-bit 3D half-measures. One can’t help but wonder how the picture would change if Star Fox 2 actually made it to shelves, itself trying to accomplish many of the same goals but on a much faster Super FX variant, and with steadier hands behind the wheel. Alas, we’ll never know the impact the spacefaring humanoid fox would have wrought in his second proposed outing, but we do have Vortex to look towards as a somewhat fascinating example of what a Super FX game could, but probably shouldn’t have tried to do.
Nathan Mayer is Associate Editor for 1985FM. Follow him on Twitter @nathan85fm