The best Star Fox you’ve never played: a Starlink post-mortem

The best Star Fox you’ve never played: a Starlink post-mortem

Written by Sean Colleli on 2/6/2020 for SWI  
More On: Starlink: Battle For Atlas

Over the holidays Best Buy had a fire sale on the Starlink Battle for Atlas starter pack for Nintendo Switch; they marked it down to $10, then $8, and it ended up at a measly $6. This got me to finally sit down and play it. I bought the very same Starlink starter pack a year ago on clearance at Target, when it was already heavily discounted from its original MSRP of $75 down to around $20. Best Buy’s sale however reminded me that I still had this thing sitting around, and I really needed to pop the shrink wrap. After all, what card-carrying Nintendo fan lets a game with Star Fox in it molder away, untouched on a shelf for over a year? I’m kicking myself for not snagging a few more cheap starter packs while Best Buy still had some, because now I find myself evangelizing this poor misunderstood game and I wish I had a few copies to hand out to my friends and family.

The reason I was so reticent to finally dive in is probably the same reason this game didn’t sell all that well when it launched back in October of 2018: Starlink Battle for Atlas is complicated. Its confusing and expensive DLC pricing model, Switch-exclusive Star Fox cameo, and especially its emphasis on toys-to-life mechanics all add up to make Starlink kind of a mess. This is a shame, because there’s a compelling and surprisingly robust game underneath all of this flimflam, and specifically, a pretty great accidental Star Fox game at that.

Starlink is an open world, space combat and exploration game, and a new IP from Ubisoft. In the game you play as a team of intrepid pilots exploring the Atlas star system, led by the genius scientist Victor St. Grand. Dr. St. Grand invented the Starlink Initiative, a sort of quantum tether technology that lets pilots swap weapons and equipment in and out on their starfighters at will, no matter how far they are from the Starlink mothership, the Equinox. Almost as soon as our courageous pilots arrive in the Atlas system they are ambushed by Legion, an alien cult determined to conquer the system’s seven planets and then extend their influence to the rest of space. Legion severely damages the Equinox and captures St. Grand, and during the chaos the Starlink team crash land on a nearby planet. It’s up to the pilots of Starlink to repair their mothership, rally the populace of the local planets and strike back at Legion.

It’s an admittedly basic premise and a fairly generic one as well, but it sets up a novel gameplay concept. You have a massive solar system to explore in a Starfighter that you can customize at will with new parts and weapons, without having to drydock at your mothership. You have a variety of colorful characters to play as, recruit and fight against. It sounds like a scaled-back, more focused version of No Man’s Sky, or an evolution of Far Cry into space, and it pretty much plays like that too. Starlink’s gameplay, while fun and intuitive, is more or less a conceit for Ubisoft’s mandated toys-to-life mechanic. Here is where Starlink’s good ideas start to get dragged down by baggage, where its innovation and fun scream out for help as they’re smothered under an avalanche of corporate greed.

The way Starlink’s toys work is that you mount a small plastic spaceship to your controller. Then you add one of the game’s 14 unique pilots, augment your craft with wings, and bolt on some weapons. There are 9 core ship hulls, and these serve as your “lives.”  If you get destroyed in combat, just swap in another ship and the game calls it up automatically; the more toy ships you own, the longer you can stay in a fight. With a wide variety of wings and weapons, you can come up with some pretty unique builds for all kinds of mission profiles, from tanks to dogfighters to speedy exploration craft. Curiously, Starlink toys do not use RFID chips to communicate with each other and the game. Instead each piece—pilot, ship, wings, weapons—have tiny connector pins that snap into corresponding slots, like ROM cartridges. This way they’re almost guaranteed to work together, unless you really booger up one of those connectors.

 

The rub is that all of these toys were initially sold piecemeal. The Switch starter pack gives you Fox McCloud and Starlink’s leading man Mason Rana, Fox’s famous Arwing starfighter, and two weapons. You have to buy everything else individually as toys, as nickel-and-dime DLC packs, or in ridiculously expensive lumpsum digital deluxe bundles. And like many toys-to-life games before it, Starlink has element-coded “paywalls” inside of it to keep you from accessing certain areas and loot, unless you own the same-coded weapon. At launch that starter pack cost a whopping 75$. Individual pilots cost $8, weapon packs were around $10 and came with 2 additional guns, and ship packs, which bundled new ships with a pilot and a single weapon, were around $25. Collecting everything physically cost hundreds of dollars at launch, and the digital options weren’t much sweeter.

To add insult to injury, you have to re-register any toy ships, guns and pilots every 7 days. This is a sort of physical DRM, to prevent every kid on the block from just visiting their rich friend and permanently unlocking everything by borrowing his toys. Overall the design is a cool concept and it’s impressive how all the tech works and plays together, but its target market is wealthy 12-year-olds who are bored with their Beyblades. Once the novelty wears off, you realize that hot-swapping all these little ships and wings and guns is an enormous hassle. Every time you want to play Starlink you need to amass this pile of plastic crap around you, which aside from being intensely embarrassing for anyone over the age of 15, completely defeats the portable nature of the Nintendo Switch. It’s so much faster and neater to just buy everything digitally, and swap out whatever pilots, ships and guns you want on the inventory menu.

It doesn’t help that, as cool as Starlink’s basic hook and gameplay are, its main plot and setting aren’t all that engaging. The core characters are ethnically diverse but range from forgettable to incredibly obnoxious; the most interesting people in Atlas are the cool aliens you pick up along the way, which range from talking dinosaurs to cyborg animals to a diaspora of sentient plant people. The Legion bad guys appear to be a race of gnarly bird creatures shrouded in robes and wearing creepy masks. All of these colorful aliens inhabit some truly gorgeous planets, I mean real knock-outs, with forests of sparkling crystals, lush vibrant flora, and one world that has what look like gigantic bacteria floating though the atmosphere. The Atlas system is a pretty gripping place to explore with some fascinatingly imagined inhabitants, but I couldn’t tell you who the main human cast are without looking up their names. They honestly feel out of place in their own game. Starlink is a lot of fun to explore and experience, but its frontrunners make a pretty bland first impression, and this works against the IP’s already risky, expensive nature.

 

When it dropped in October 2018, a combination of poor marketing, confusing toys and a bad first impression killed any momentum Starlink had. Its multiplicity of digital, physical and DLC content was overwhelming, at times redundant, and overpriced. Some ships and pilots were retailer or even territory exclusive; I remember one of my friends desperately eBay bidding on a pilot pack that only released in Australia. The toys themselves actively made the game more cumbersome and less fun to play. By the time Starlink came out, most people were desperately trying to offload their worthless Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions figurines, burned by the cash they dropped on them only a few years previous. Consumers had finally cottoned on to how exploitative and needlessly expensive the whole toys-to-life business model was, and they weren’t about to spend more money on this new spaceship game, no matter how cool the idea was.

As designed and sold at its initial price, Starlink was an incredibly expensive niche product, an unknown IP with no brand recognition or nostalgia to prop it up. As a toys-to-life initiative it almost feels set up to fail, or at the very least poorly timed. It’s no surprise that only 6 months after launch, Ubisoft announced they were cancelling all plans for future Starlink toy releases. The game and its associated toys predictably sold terribly on PS4 and Xbox One, but the Nintendo Switch version was the sole exception, for one very important reason.

If you haven’t already gathered, Starlink on Switch came with the exclusive addition of the Star Fox team. Fox McCloud is included right out of the box, and with some optional DLC you can add the rest of his team as playable characters. Star Fox’s inclusion is ostensibly a glorified sidequest, but their addition feels surprisingly effortless and as a result they end up stealing the show; they stumble into the Atlas system while chasing after their longtime rivals, the mercenary Star Wolf team. From there Fox, Peppy, Falco and Slippy assist the Ubisoft-created Starlink characters, which are a gaggle of humans, goofy aliens and robots anyway, so Fox and friends fit in just fine. You can play the entire game as Fox and/or his team, and I can’t describe how refreshing it is to see these guys again and in a legitimately fun game. It just feels right, and it’s the reason why Starlink, while still underperforming overall, moved the most product on the Nintendo Switch. The Star Fox name gave this risky new IP the recognition it needed, while at the same time, Starlink brought some fresh air to the Star Fox IP’s chronically checkered reputation. Starlink and Star Fox are two misfits who are an unlikely match made in heaven, but to explain why they’re so perfect for each other, I’ll have to go on a tangent and expound a little on Star Fox history.

Star Fox was born on the Super Nintendo as a glorified tech demo for the SuperFX chip technology. It was a groundbreaking arcade rail shooter for its day, but it was mostly remarkable for its graphics, which wowed gamers in 1994 with 3D shaded polygons on the SNES. A sequel was given top priority, but as the N64 loomed, Star Fox 2 was eventually cancelled and repurposed for Nintendo’s new console, and this is where the series made its most lasting impression. As well remembered as Nintendo’s Star Fox IP is, that’s largely down to the waning nostalgia and goodwill for Star Fox 64, which released all the way back in 1997. The game’s mix of white-knuckle score-chasing action, 4-player competitive multilayer, and offbeat humor facilitated by full voice acting was revolutionary at the time, and particularly welcome to content-starved N64 early adopters. It was a smash hit and cemented the Star Fox pop culture image that endures today, but for some reason there was never a legitimate sequel or follow-up.

Fans waited five years until 2002’s Star Fox Adventures, and while perfectly fine in its own right, it was clearly an earlier, Rare-developed Zelda clone that had the Star Fox branding shoehorned in at the 11th hour. 2005’s Namco-developed Star Fox Assault was a more authentic sequel to 64; it had incredible production values for its time (seriously, look up the orchestral soundtrack on YouTube) and a fantastic multiplayer mode, but its battlefield-style gameplay was rough around the edges and its release late in the GameCube’s life meant Assault never got the recognition it deserved.

 

Star Fox Command was developed by Q-Games in 2006, a studio that had some people who worked on the original SNES games. Command was released on the Nintendo DS and had some creative RTS ideas and an ambitious cast of playable characters, but the limitations of the DS hardware stymied those big ideas, and the stylus flight controls were a carpal tunnel nightmare. Star Fox Zero, released by Platinum Games in early 2016 for Wii U when the failing console was on death’s door, is an attractive and functional reboot attempt at Star Fox 64. Unfortunately, Nintendo insisted that Platinum Games implement a God-awful asynchronous control scheme that mandated the use of the Wii U Gamepad, which makes the game agonizing to play. Nostalgia wasn’t enough to endear Star Fox Zero to skeptical fans, and it bombed.

The Star Fox IP, born on the SNES as a technologically groundbreaking on-rails shooter, has long tried to escape its restrictive, linear arcade roots, but it’s never entirely succeeded. It’s not exactly a high priority brand at Nintendo, and is relegated to experimental releases that typically come too late in a console’s life to really matter, or futz too much with the series’ core gamplay or controls. Nintendo never seems exactly sure what to do with this bizarre but strangely endearing property, and so the IP has bounced between developers and genres for the better part of 20 years, never finding a style that fits just right. That is, until Starlink. And here’s where my long-suffering designs on the Star Fox IP and its gameplay direction finally feel vindicated. Starlink’s core gameplay loops work so well and are so reminiscent of Star Fox that it’s uncanny. It's almost as if Starlink was some weird, experimental next-gen Star Fox game early in development, and incidentally, it’s almost everything I’ve wanted out of a new Star Fox title.

Starlink’s gameplay boils down to two interconnected core loops: territory control and space exploration. When planet-side, you skim across the surface like a Star Wars landspeeder. You spend most of your planet-bound time liberating (or establishing) friendly outposts, reviving ghost towns, knocking out nests of bad guys and scanning/collecting local fauna, flora and resources. At any point you can kick on your spaceflight engines and blast up through the atmosphere into space, which is an entirely seamless transition with no loading screens. Once in orbit you can freely explore the Atlas star system, firing up your hyperdrive to cross vast distances. Atlas is full of derelict wrecks to loot, asteroid belts to mine, enemy space stations to raid, bounties to hunt, and of course space pirates waiting to ambush you at every opportunity. The game’s first (and only) free DLC expansion, the Crimson Moon, also added a full racing circuit and gladiator arena; there’s no shortage of things to do in Atlas.

Both of the core loops involve lots and lots of combat with pirates and the robotic Legion forces. Planet-side you’ll do most of your fighting like a hover tank, while in space you get the traditional Star Fox dogfights we all know and love, and they’re both done really, really well. The controls for both combat styles are smooth and intuitive, and require you to swap weapons on the fly to make the most of your arsenal’s strengths. The fighting starts out easy but as you level up the game really pours on the heat and forces you to improve your tactics, allocate mod chips, spend perk points wisely and master weapons handling. Both the combat and the core gameplay loops are dictated by a clear enemy hierarchy that gets established after the first few story missions.

What typically happens is the Legion will dispatch a Dreadnaught, a massive capital ship, to blockade a planet. This Dreadnaught will periodically launch Primes, which are huge spider robots, that in turn roam the planet laying down extractors. These extractor drills strip-mine the planet, powering up the Prime’s shields and generating ground units to harass your outposts. The Primes in turn channel energy to the orbiting Dreadnaught. This creates a pretty clear priority list: you destroy the extractors to weaken the Prime spider’s shields, then kill the Prime to debuff the orbiting Dreadnaught. Then you blast off and have an epic space battle with the Dreadnaught and its fighters, which culminates in a very Star Fox-esque corridor sequence where you fly right down the Dreadnaught’s throat and destroy its reactor core.

 

Is it grindy? Sure, more than a little even. It’s definitely got that patented Ubisoft repetition. But God help me, I can’t stop playing it. Like Skyrim or No Man’s Sky or Bioshock or the old, good Assassin’s Creed games, it’s a loop that tastes good to my brain so I just keep eating. I’ve sunk over 30 hours into Starlink and I’ve barely touched the main story campaign; the majority of those hours was spent zipping around planets, scanning cool alien animals, cruising through space on my hyperdrive, exploring derelict cruisers, liberating outposts, and blasting hundreds of Legion fighters into slag. It’s not particularly high-minded or complex, but it is sheer aimless fun in an exciting and beautiful game world with characters I enjoy, and it’s exactly what I’ve wanted from a Star Fox game for decades. I’ve been saying for years that Star Fox would be perfect as an open-world sandbox game, a sort of “Far Cry in space” that takes the exploration and territory liberation mechanics from that series and scales it up to an entire solar system. That is Starlink, almost exactly.

With a little polish and some more variety in the side content, this would be hailed as the greatest Star Fox game in years, no joke. You have a diverse cast of characters and their accompanying spaceships built into the lore, which you can leverage against specialized targets, bases, objectives and even whole planets. Instead of Ajay Ghale retaking Kyrat from Pagan Min or The Rookie reclaiming Hope County from the Eden’s Gate cult, it could be the entire Star Fox team and their allies liberating the Lylat System from Andross, fighting him on land, in the sky and out in space. Star Fox creator Shigeru Miyamoto hoped that Star Fox Zero would evolve into a serialized TV show of sorts, with the main game as the big important episodes and the DLC as the B-stories, like the old super marionette dramas that inspired Star Fox in the first place. Star Fox Zero failed, but why not expand Starlink into what Zero aspired to be? The main campaign could be Star Fox team taking down Andross, and the DLC would be about Slippy’s wife or whoever cleaning up the oceans of Aquas. It sounds big, unwieldy, and expensive to develop such a project, but Starlink establishes essentially this very gameplay framework, and in a single game.

In a perfect world Starlink: Battle for Atlas would have sold modestly well, as gamers and critics alike experienced and appreciated its habit-forming gameplay and compelling, polished open-solar-system setting. Recognizing this success, Nintendo would have tapped Ubisoft and Virtuous Games to publish and develop a Switch-exclusive sequel called Star Fox: Battle for Lylat or something. Meanwhile Starlink sequels would continue to sell well on PS4 and Xbox One, and the Star Fox IP finally has the direction and identity it so desperately needs. Everyone makes money, consumers and publishers alike are happy.

But it’s not a perfect world. The toys-to-life baggage strangled the Starlink concept in its crib. This remarkable game went mostly unnoticed, except for a few diehards with the disposable income to invest into it, and latecomers like me who could only stomach the game when its price was slashed. Now the few remaining fans huddle together around the dying embers of their dedicated subReddit, sharing pictures of their toy collections and advising the occasional newbie on the best time to buy discounted DLC. An even smaller subset of diehard Star Fox fans appreciate that their favorite characters got to play, however briefly, in an exciting new universe of possibilities and engaging gameplay, and can only imagine what could have been. The Starlink dream is effectively dead.

The real tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. Sure, Starlink looks like a spendy microtransaction trap upfront, but with a little research, patience and judicious spending on the right DLC, this game is a must have for any Switch owner. Starlink has two big content bundles that unlock every pilot, ship and weapon in the game, and nowadays they go on sale relatively often. If you buy a cheap starter pack, the two DLC packs and the DLC that adds the rest of the Star Fox team, that adds up to about $60, or the price of a new game. But that’s only if you want absolutely everything; you can still mix and match pilots, guns and ships for a lot less money, and with the basic weapons you need to bypass those paywalls, you can easily get away under $30.

This prospect is a lot more attractive, and at this reasonable price the amount of content to explore in the game is an absolute steal. Even better, when you buy all that content digitally, you don’t have to worry about re-upping all those guns and ships every week, or fiddling with all those pesky toys. Ubisoft’s major crime with Starlink was chopping it into bits and doling it out in a confusing, piecemeal, often redundant and contradictory shell game. Taken together as whole experience, Starlink is a fantastic new IP with a lot to offer. But as a new Star Fox game, it’s a revelation. It’s just too bad that the microtransaction hustle scared off the vast majority of people who would love this game, and as a result Starlink will never get in front of the audience it deserves, and never continue as a franchise.

But are things really so bleak? Best Buy’s desperate bid to offload their massive overstock of Starlink: Battle for Atlas Nintendo Switch Starter Pack featuring Fox McCloudTM from the Star FoxTM Series apparently worked. There isn’t a Best Buy within a 100-mile radius of my zip code that has one…they just had to sell it for less than the price of a Chipotle burrito. Honestly that isn’t very encouraging, but at the very least there are a lot of new people discovering Starlink at the beginning of 2020. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s played the game, and even a few people who haven’t, repeat the word of mouth that this is the best Star Fox game in years. Starlink is developing an underground reputation as this accidental, really quite good Star Fox sequel…you just need to cut through all the toy nonsense and know what DLC is worth your money.

I wouldn’t award cult classic status to Starlink just yet, but slowly and surely, it’s developing some due appreciation. Whether someone at Nintendo realizes this is anyone’s guess—a game that moves a ton of units over a year after launch, and only at a steep discount, isn’t exactly what publishers look for in sequel material. Then again, stranger things have happened. Cadence of Hyrule is an actual thing that exists. If Nintendo will allow some unwashed indie developers—who made a rhythm-based RPG of all things—to play around with their hallowed, sacrosanct Zelda IP, then maybe Ubisoft will get another crack at poor old confused Star Fox.

Until then, I wholeheartedly recommend Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Snap up that Switch starter pack if you can; at $6 it’s an impulse buy and worth the price for the little Arwing toy alone, but $20-30 isn’t even too bad for the base game that comes with it. And if you want to sink some extra cash into a few DLC weapons and explore everything the Atlas system has to offer, I can’t in good conscience say you’ll be disappointed. You might end up where I did over the holidays, demoing the game to an astonished brother-in-law, who asked in disbelief, “this huge, beautiful game is on Switch? And it has Star Fox?”

It sure does. And come what may, it’s a hell of a good time. The best Star Fox game you’ve never played.

The best Star Fox you’ve never played: a Starlink post-mortem The best Star Fox you’ve never played: a Starlink post-mortem The best Star Fox you’ve never played: a Starlink post-mortem The best Star Fox you’ve never played: a Starlink post-mortem The best Star Fox you’ve never played: a Starlink post-mortem The best Star Fox you’ve never played: a Starlink post-mortem

About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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