Rare will likely never make another GameCube game. It's a sad fact, but Starfox Adventures, completed just prior to the Microsoft buy-out, will stand as the final serious collaboration between Nintendo and Rare (save for some GBA titles waiting to have their fates determined). And with 15 hours of Ocarina of Time-like stick swinging and a liberal sprinkling of classic Arwing action ahead of you, you'd think it would make a delicious swansong. However, the truth couldn't be further from the myth.
A bright start
It all begins brightly enough. A mysterious blue fox called Krystal finds herself swooping through the atmosphere of Dinosaur Planet, trying to find the source of a distress call. Instead, she finds the source of the planet's distress, and after an aerial tussle, during which she loses her magic staff, she boards the nefarious General Scales' beautifully rendered airship and has a look around. Unfortunately, her benevolence gets the better of her, and before long she's incarcerated in Krozoa Palace, the would-be resting place of the six Krozoa Spirits. Without someone's help, she'll be stuck there for good, and the planet and all its peace-loving reptilian inhabitants will die.
And it's here, after half an hour of toiling with Krystal and learning the basics of aerial combat, then ground-based movement (left stick), camera use (C-stick), auto-jumping, using items/explosive barrels and dodge-rolling, that we're finally reintroduced to Fox McCloud and his team. Fox is a mercenary now, but he still kicks around with the same crew, and when Starfox team is chartered to return Dinosaur Planet to peace by retrieving the six Krozoa Spirits and the four Spellstones, Fox hops in an Arwing and lands on the surface, beginning a journey which will take him across the six orbital chunks of the planet and into the damaged core of General Scales' empire.
Along the way he'll receive help from Slippy, Peppy and co. via his communicator. The gang provide tips and tools, and at times it does feel like a team effort.
Beautiful, accessible, mammoth - but it's Link in a fur coat!
It should be magnificent. Rare has borrowed from past work like Jet Force Gemini and injected plenty of things learnt from Ocarina of Time, and the result is a beautiful, accessible adventure of mammoth proportions, with Lylat Wars-style space combat missions thrown in for good measure.
But ultimately Starfox is a poor imitation of greater games. Most notably Zelda. Anybody who has even looked at Ocarina of Time will feel quite at home here - so much of it is borrowed. From the health system (with its quartered hearts, sorry shields, which grow in number as you progress) and puzzle-filled dungeons which yield sacred stones, to life force doors (which require multiple enemy dispatch to open) and the entire combat system, the whole game is eminently Zelda. Put Link in a fur coat and it's not too hard to imagine him roaming Dinosaur Planet as you travel around.
Play and eat at the same time
Unoriginality is not the foundation of a bad game though. If that were true then 90 per cent of the games we write about would be decidedly awful. What's upsetting is that despite three years of development, despite one of Nintendo's most endearing franchises and despite delivering beautiful visuals, SFA falls down on account of stupid little things - like flaws in the combat system. Zelda had you measuring the distance, blocking as much as you swung and thinking about it; Starfox can quite simply be played one-handed. Enemies - even in great numbers - will queue up and take you on one-by-one, and fighting them is simply a case of hitting the A button quickly. Thanks to a nice, artful stop-starty effect the sight of Fox twisting and turning and wielding Krystal's staff like a lightsaber is enjoyable... for about five minutes. Five hours later though, and you might change your mind. However, as a professional games reviewer I welcomed this - thanks to WaveBird I could play Starfox whilst stirring the pasta, which made my life a lot easier.
The more you play, the more you realise that each borrowed idea seems poorly implemented, like the symbols you have to shoot to open doors. Another remnant of Ocarina, these have either been hidden (to frustrate, probably) or stand out like an elephant at a hamsters-only basketball tournament, and you have to shoot them with your newly acquired fire attack, losing you ammo rather pointlessly. On that subject though, it's easy to expend ammunition like confetti at a wedding, especially with another Zelda relic, the swarms of irritating bats. It's another example of a bad move by Rare - fire on them and you're wasting ammo (especially since they're so tediously hard to target), don't fire on them and you're wasting health, but they'll respawn in a few seconds anyway so it's all very academic.
We didn't die once!
In fact, one could argue that the entire good/evil thing is pointless - you collect different types of fruit to replenish your shields and harass plants for weapon-augmenting buds, but these are in such abundant supply that we made it almost the whole way through the game without dying. That's 15 hours.
Other issues range from the in-game store (which is located beyond a rather pointless virtual obstacle course, and full of items you have to buy to progress) and the over-reliance on the map (in the absence of any real feeling of where to go) to a rather pointless and contradictive story (why, if the planet is actually going to die, do the locals want payment for their help?!) and the most awful dialogue in a game since... well, since ever [Are you sure it's worse than Die Hard Vendetta - Ed?]. I can understand the need to flesh out the story with lots of talk of Palace this and Legend that, but why do all the locals (including Krystal) speak total gobbledygook with the names of important people and places in English? At one point early on, Krystal says in a 'not so fast' sort of voice: "Acky wah blah di blah gah GENERAL SCALES!" We felt physical pain.
Not without its charms
All that said though, Starfox Adventures is not a game without redeeming features, as you must have guessed from the score. Fans of Starfox will enjoy seeing their favourite characters on a new adventure, and graphically there's little on the Cube which can compete. The 3D environments are sprawling and laden with incidental detail, and the characters are decked out in a new fur effect which looks stunning. The depth of field effects are a bit awkward at times, but along with the many, many dinosaurs and assorted enemies in the game, Fox and his companions are all magnificently detailed and their animation is extensive and very smooth. Thanks to the variety of locations you rarely get bored of looking at SFA either - it's the constant running around badly made dungeons in search of a switch and the exhaustingly repetitive combat which sees to that. If I did have to make a criticism about the graphics though, I'd simply say that there's no 'wow' factor. You rarely cast your eyes over anything and think 'cripes, that's a first'. In a way, it all comes back to the lack of innovation - such a disappointment from the team that brought us Lylat Wars.
Speaking of which! Arguably the most enjoyable aspect of Starfox Adventures is the actual space combat! Unfortunately, the game is so heavily weighted in favour of the third person adventure sections that you often forget that it exists at all, and the game is structured such that these flying sections are merely brief rewards for your having beaten off the latest chunk of planet and recovered another Krozoa Spirit. However, they're great fun, however momentary - with an emphasis on flying through hoops and dispatching enemy ships whilst avoiding debris and asteroids great and small.
Something for the weekend?
Sadly though, nice visuals and an hour or so of Arwing action isn't enough to rescue Starfox. It lacks tension (combat is totally one-sided), set pieces (there are two whole bosses in the entire game), a gripping story (Krystal's kidnapped, you rescue Spirits, you fight General Scales), and any of the myriad different things that the game it principally tries to emulate (Zelda) was so famous for. What's worse though is that much of the game is filler - of the fifteen hours, several are spent simply wandering in search of your next destination. So on reflection, it's not a bad game, but it's too short, it's too samey and it's just not good enough. Unless you're a huge fan of Starfox, have a soft spot for simple, pretty adventures or you're simply a glutton for punishment, Starfox Adventures really isn't worth the bother. Rent it for a weekend - that's all the time you'll need and all the entertainment you'll glean.