Star Fox (or Starwing as it was here) is one of my favourite SNES games of all time. I distinctly remember sitting up until around 3am trying to duck, weave, barrel-roll and blast my way through all its myriad space-hoops, caught up in the rapture of dashing as many textureless polygons apart as possible because it was just so well made. It harnessed the balletic thumb-work of a 2D shoot-'em-up in a 3D cast; its "Super FX"-powered polygon visuals pretty much forcing the designers to focus on what you were doing rather than whether you found the half-arsed storyline about fuzzy animals in spaceships interesting or not. I'd play those levels over and over just to do better. It was like strumming your way through the same song for hours and hours; even though you know every word and can twang the strings to every chord, it's managing to do it all in concert that really gets you off.
Star Fox: Assault has almost totally lost sight of that. There are only a couple of missions that even remind me of Starwing. A couple! I'll happily play those again - weaving through gorgeous meteor showers, trying to blast my way through erratic armadas of jagged alien spacecraft, racing into the bowels of a spaceship and dodging through corridors, past thrashing mechanical arms, trying to avoid the solid laser beams that cut like cheese-wire through vacuum as their asteroid roots roll over and over through space. And then sussing out multi-faceted boss ships, firing lasers through their complicated attack patterns to pummel weak spots, before relaxing hardening thumbs as the energy bar finally empties and explosions start to pepper the exterior.
But most of the game abandons the heated vacuum of arcade space war for the cold vacuous grind of pointing and hammering the A button until you've shot enough of the big things it's asking you to shoot. Robbed of their directness and linear approach, the other off-the-rails space missions generally boil down to circling and firing at anything that strays into your path, occasionally having to do a loop to shake an enemy off your tail, or having to focus your attention on enemies pursuing one of your hapless wingmen, or bringing down a cluster of mission-critical enemy ships.
And the rest of the game, which involves running around on arena-like sections of various planet surfaces, blasting Starship Troopers reject bug-like aliens that wallpaper the core gameplay and looking out for those mission-critical targets, making use of the Landmaster tank to ensure survival at the expense of manoeuvrability, and occasionally racing back to your Arwing so you can climb back to the skies above and take out ships pursuing your wingmen... It's just point and shoot. Whilst trying to avoid getting bored of snagging your Landmaster on a tree, the incessant babbling of your wingmen, and the mundane grind of pointing and shooting. Oh, and there are some levels where you ride around on the wing of an Arwing, completely on-rails, pointing and... When you die, you're not frustrated by the manner of your death; you're just pissed off that you're going to have to play the same bloody level again. Point. Shoot. Cry. Then you discover the next one's on-foot as well.
The danger in getting me to review Star Fox: Assault is that I'll get angry with it for not carrying on the legacy of the originals and give it some horrendously unpleasant mark at the end. Fortunately (for Namco and Nintendo) I'm prepared to accept that it's not actually that bad. It's just so bland and unexciting for the most part. Take the story, for example. There's a proper storyline now, which sees the Star Fox team - Fox, Falco, Slippy and Krystal - fighting to bring down a new bug-like alien threat that's gradually infesting the galaxy, but it's strung along by incredibly clichéd narrative ticks that try to obscure the obviousness of the whole tale by throwing in "defend the X" or "retake the Y" scenarios around the fringes, then "surprising" you by giving a not-quite-bad-guy a face-saving cameo, and throwing in a bit of Saturday morning cartoon rivalry and romance. Obviously this is all Rare's fault for turning Star Fox into a kind of narrative-driven affair with Adventures back in 2002. I warned you about that bloody game. But... Okay, calm down Tom. Star Fox Adventures wasn't that bad. Star Fox: Assault isn't that bad. It's just not good enough.
Why else isn't it? Well, let's consider a typical on-foot mission which, it isn't overly harsh to say, are the mainstay of the game. Okay here's one: you take control of a squirrelly Fox (how appropriate) in a sort of space-pirate hangar ship. You run around, up and down grey ramps, riding up and down elevators, trying to destroy a handful of mission-critical generators. All the while you're being swarmed by identikit enemies and struggling to get your bearings thanks to map and camera systems that aren't terribly useful. Some enemies require you to switch to another weapon or charge it up. Sometimes you'll have to use Fox's sideways roll to dodge out of the way. But mostly you'll just run around, pointing and hammering the A button until the number next to "targets" is zero and the Mission Complete message rolls in front of your rolling eyes.
Sometimes you get to play with the Landmaster. The Landmaster is a tank that can sideways roll like Fox and hover and boost a bit, but which can't enter temples, caves and the like. It doesn't seem to steer logically when you're reversing, and you take plenty of shots just trying to get the pointing half of the oh-so-simple equation that underpins all of these sections balanced out. When it's being clever, it gives you the slight worry of having to boss the skies occasionally as well, leaping into an Arwing and taking off to clear things up before landing and continuing on foot. It certainly creates the impression of a massive battle very well, and graphically it's quite spectacular here and there - particularly when you're actually in space and the incidental detail is ramped up to George Lucas levels. Racing over the hull of a massive floating base hidden deep in an asteroid field is pretty close to exhilarating. It's just a shame that not much else is. Most of it just made me yawn.
The multiplayer aspect isn't much better. In fact, it isn't better at all come to think of it. The idea of letting you and up to three friends use Arwings and Landmasters to try and take control of an arena is a clever one, but inevitably this just boils down to a race for the nearest Arwing or Landmaster followed by lots of trying to point and shoot. Preceded, I might add, by a race not to be the person who has to play as Slippy the increasingly childish frog. You know that kid in Family Guy with the upside-down facial features and that horrible, whiny voice? I think they might be related.
There will be people who like Star Fox: Assault, and I say fair enough. It looks pretty, it sounds... Well actually in musical terms most of the time it sounds like the sort of overly excited procession of "dun-dun-DAH!" type riffs that are played out alongside a silent cowboy movie. But as well as looking pretty it does have moments of genuine quality. At least two. And although the actual story mode will take you less than an evening to blast your way through, it's not offensively bad, it's not overly frustrating, and it's just entertaining enough that you'll keep it turned on long enough to see it out.
But it has made me cross. I just can't help it. Star Fox: Assault could have been great. It just needed to understand what it was building upon and stop all this third-person shooter nonsense. Things like a Survival mode that tasks you with finishing the game without saving, multiple difficulty levels, and unlockables like Namco arcade title Xevious, are good ideas, but they just aren't for this game. If it was ten solid levels of proper Star Fox space combat delivered with the same degree of glorious detail and a challenge that rose from the promising double boss-fight climax of the second section to the kind of crescendo Star Fox reached at its peak then they would fit like silk gloves. But whereas reaching the latter stages of Star Fox with diminishing life reserves really did feel like flying into the jaws of death, reaching the latter stages of Star Fox: Assault feels like getting to the end of a Saturday morning cartoon. Maybe it's made you smile a few times, but you've not been pushed, and it's not been pushing itself either. Play Starwing again instead.