Of all Nintendo’s long standing franchises, Star Fox is the black sheep. Oh, it’s been around since the glory days of the SNES, and it impressed the hell out of gamers and critics alike with 3D shaded polygons on a home console. Star Fox has earned its place in the Nintendo hall of fame, but for some reason Fox McCloud isn’t as well known as Link or Samus or, of course, that guy in the blue coveralls and red cap. My theory is that there hasn’t been much direction in the franchise since the property started changing hands in the late 90’s.
Star Fox 64 was a runaway hit, and one of the must-have games for the N64 shortly after it launched. But the series remained dormant for many years, much like Metroid, until Nintendo talked Rare into refitting their Dinosaur Planet adventure into a title starring the interplanetary vulpine. That game was a mixed bag—it worked well as a decent Zelda clone, but where was the space combat that I loved so much? The Capcom-developed follow up, Star Fox Assault, was a hybrid of Adventures and SF64. The flying and shooting was solid, but the on-foot missions lacked the polish and coherence of Rare’s adventure.
Nintendo has returned to the source for the first true Star Fox sequel in a long, long time. Dylan Cuthbert, the developer of the first SNES Star Fox, and his team at Q Games have stepped up to recreate a game they were forced to abandon years ago. In the waning years of the SNES there was a little known project called Star Fox 2, lost to the annals of gaming time, which was slated to follow the original hit. When the N64 took full center, the Star Fox 2 project was scrapped, and some of the cancelled game’s ideas were transplanted to Star Fox 64. The main gameplay concept was an RTS map system, but it has never appeared in a Star Fox game since. With Star Fox Command on the DS, Cuthbert and Q have the chance to finish what they started. Command is a departure from what most fans have come to know, but for those who were lucky enough to play the canned Star Fox 2, it will seem eerily familiar.
The radical design changes will be a good or bad influence, depending on what kind of gamer you are. If you like turn based strategy or even a little RTS, the opening map of each level will make you right at home. If you’re a Star Fox purist they’re going to take some getting used to.
Basically, each planet in the Lylat system is now represented by a dynamic battlefield map, displayed on the DS’s bottom screen. Your command ship, the Great Fox, warps into the area and launches its complement of fighters. From here you trace the path of each Star Fox member across the screen, making sure they engage any enemies along the way. Protecting Great Fox is crucial, as its destruction ends the game. You are given a set number of turns in which to move your craft, and the enemy formations also make their moves during these turns. Once the Star Fox members engage the enemy, a selection screen appears that lets you choose who to fight first. Krystal could be chasing down a cruise missile, Falco might be cleaning up an occupied base, or perhaps Fox is taking out the local mother ship.
Destroying enemy bases nets you more turns, but the whole system will feel alien to veterans of Fox’s series. Most of the previous games have been about jumping into the fray and mixing it up, with little or no planning involved ahead of time. In Command you must choose your paths carefully, use each pilot and their fighter according to their attributes and weaknesses, and make sure you have enough turns left to destroy all enemies in a level. It takes some adjustment but the strategizing is actually satisfying after a time. It’s the levels themselves that might draw some ire from the hardcore.
Instead of unique battles or on-rails shootouts, each encounter with enemy forces is presented as a small skirmish over open terrain. These dogfights can be compared to the “all range” boss fights from SF64, except there is little variation in scenery within a single map. For example, each battle on Corneria will take place over the same rolling green hills and craggy mountains, and maybe the occasional building. The battles against the mother ships feature a generic stronghold setting, like a small military base, but this rarely changes.
When you take the time limit into account, however, the lack of terrain variety makes sense—you won’t be taking very long in each battle, by design. Each level has a timer that starts with a set number of seconds. If you run out of time during a level, your ship has burned out its fuel and you lose a life. The only problem is that the amount of time doesn’t reset for each battle. If you ran out 140 of your 150 seconds as Fox battling a mother ship, you’ll have 10 left to take out those extraneous fighters as Slippy.
Granted, you can gain more time by grabbing certain pickups or deflecting enemy fire with the barrel roll, but the whole system encourages you to rush through the battles. Seeing as the skirmishes are the real meat of the game, I didn’t enjoy a constantly ticking timer that told me to hurry up and get them over with. Command is one of the prettier DS games and I wanted to enjoy the scenery, really experience the combat. It also made it hard to wax every baddy and get that perfect score, and frankly it just didn’t feel very “Star Fox.” The whole system felt out of place and was just one more unwelcome restriction in the whole “strategy” aspect.
If you can get past the new, very unfamiliar gameplay elements, you’ll find that Command is just as thrilling and twitch-reflex dependent as its predecessors. Battles aren’t impossible, but difficult enough to keep you on your toes. There are plenty of stock polygonal fighters, tanks and turrets in each level for you to trash, and trying out each and every fighter’s unique weapons is a real treat. For the first time in the series each member of team Star Fox is playable, and many others as well, including Fox’s rival team Star Wolf. Q Games did a very nice job differentiated the various ships—each one is modeled after its pilot. Fox has the typical Arwing fighter, Falco flies the distinctly raptor-esque Sky Crow, and Krystal pilots the Cloudrunner, a ship modeled after her dino partner from Adventures.
Using the weapons systems of each craft is often the key to victory—Falco’s multi-lock is great for hitting multiple targets in quick succession, while Slippy’s rapid-fire is good for wearing down ponderous bosses. Once you get the hang of each ship, you’ll know who to send after what before committing to that next turn. It’s in this cooperative dynamic that Command makes Star Fox feel more like a team than ever before. Instead of constantly saving Slippy’s whimpering hide from enemy fire, you can get behind the frog’s guns and finally take it to the hostile masses. Everybody has a part to play, and in turn you get to play every part. You can even have the lowliest team member shatter the final, Andross-like boss, if you’re good enough. Appropriately, some of the story focuses on Fox’s stubbornness and excessive self-sacrifice; after all, why should he keep getting the spotlight?
Speaking of story, I have to hand it to Q—they really gave the fans a gift here. Star Fox is notorious for its rabid fan base, and you’ll find endless debates over story canon on forums. Well, now the outcome is partially up to you. Command has no less than nine different endings. The first play-through will always yield one, rather unsatisfying conclusion, but Command almost cries out to be replayed. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the finale is really a matter of preference, depending on the paths you take and the decisions you make for each character. The endings run from optimistic to apocalyptic, with degrees of severity in between. And while there are the more likely ways the next sequel will follow (and a few references to other games, just for fun), for now it’s largely left open.
Even if the story were Shakespearean in its complexity, it wouldn’t save the game if it played terribly. And so we come to the most important factor in any game—interface. If you’ve played Metroid Prime Hunters, you’ll remember the hand cramps the unorthodox control scheme inflicted. Q Games has learned from NST’s small mistakes, and implemented controls that are comfortable and highly functional. Basically, the stylus is the answer to almost every problem. You steer with it, scribble with it to barrel roll, and tap on-screen icons to perform loops and u-turns. Double-tapping the top half of the touch screen performs a speed boost, while the bottom half brakes.
Every other button, save start and select, shoots. The D pad, face buttons and shoulder triggers all fire the weapons of your current craft, so you won’t be clutching the corners of your DS in a ligament-straining death grip. The whole design is foreign to the Star Fox series, but becomes second nature after a few minute of practice. Aiming the targeting reticle is far more precise now, whereas it had an elastic, sluggish feeling in previous games. Turning is somewhat intensive, and stabbing the very edge of the screen performs the tightest turns, but the special moves make up for this. All in all it isn’t a perfect setup, but it’s the best comprehensive stylus control on the DS to date.
With the controls so responsive and ergonomic, the story deep and involving, and the gameplay slick, perhaps Q’s talent would slacken somewhere else, but the presentation of Command is just as good as the rest of the game. Command’s visuals are stronger than SFSNES or SF64, and even if the overall level design is lacking, its construction is not. Textures are crisp, framerate is a consistent 30 fps, and particle effects are second only to Metroid Hunters. The craft are high in polygons and very distinctive, which helps reflect the personality of their pilots. Enemies aren’t as detailed, but Q makes up for this by throwing a lot of them on-screen at once. The boss battles are especially pretty, taking graphical cues from both SNES and N64 Star Fox titles.
Command’s audio aspect is strong, but not quite as varied and rich as the visuals. There is familiar music but not enough of it—each character has their own theme, but the classic music from SF64 isn’t recreated with enough power. Most of it is relegated to muted remixes on the map screens, but there are a few in-level tunes that stir up the nostalgia. Voice acting is unfortunately non-existent, as Q has chosen to use the “Lylatian” gibberish from the old SNES game. As a bonus, you can record your own speech and have it garbled and pitched, then used as the various character samples. Overall sound effects are similar to the ones from past titles, but don’t sound as crisp or powerful.
For all the effort put into the single player campaign, you would think Q Games would do an equally impressive job with the multiplayer. Sadly, this is not so. Command supports both download play for six players and the Nintendo Wifi Connection for up to four, but the glut of options in Star Fox Assault is missing. Battles have a set time limit and a few adjustable features, but are otherwise pretty bare bones. The same dynamics from the solo game apply so the flight mechanics are still good, and I have to say that battling human opponents is more satisfying the computer-controlled bots. The matchmaking system is similar to Mario Kart DS, with a friends roster and online paring setup. Some player statistics are stored, such as wins and dropouts, but nothing as extensive as Metroid’s Hunter License.
The levels themselves are limited and the gameplay shallow, with players collecting stars from their kills. This allows another player to swoop in and take a kill point they didn’t earn, which is more annoying than anything else. However, the biggest disappointment comes in the lack of ship variety. Only the Arwing is available, and while it is a well-rounded fighter, it doesn’t make up for the absence of all of the other vehicles.
The solo game had so many distinct ships and pilots, and oftentimes I didn’t have much of an opportunity to explore the more exotic ships because they were only around for one or two levels. I wanted to try out every fighter in multiplayer and design my own play style, but the opportunity is missing. To fill one half of a game with variety and leave the other half lacking doesn’t make sense, and leaves Command’s multiplayer as a passing distraction that can’t compare to the depth of Metroid Hunters. For Star Fox’s first foray into online play, it doesn’t live up to the high-quality reputation of the franchise. Hopefully we’ll get something far more substantial in the inevitable Star Fox sequel for Wii.
Fox McCloud’s first portable debut is really a bang up job, considering it’s a revived project that is nearly a decade old. Cuthbert and his team had some very good ideas back during the twilight of the SNES, and I’m glad they finally got the chance to realize their designs. It may be a bit disconcerting for fans accustomed to arcade-style action, but the strategy element could become a major part of Star Fox in the future. The only real let-down is the multiplayer, which is surprisingly light on content. I hate to say it, but any DS Wifi title is going to be compared to Metroid Hunters, and if that title happens to be one of Nintendo’s key franchises, it better deliver. Otherwise, Star Fox Command is a refreshing new take on a classic series and an intelligent new direction for a franchise lacking in definition. After years of identity crisis, Star Fox has been saved by the people who created it in the first place.