Starfox Adventures


Call me Mr.Cranky or Mr. Picky but here are my impressions of Starfox Adventures for the Nintendo Gamecube.

Star Fox Adventures (SFA) is in short, a very high production value game plagued by bad design and direction choices. The result is a better than average game that is unfortunately disappointing most of the time. I think that disappointment comes from seeing something with this much effort put into it come so close to being great only to have relatively easy to fix problems mess it up.

Playing SFA I realized that this is my dream game. Since I was in junior high school and started designing games for fun I wanted to make a game where you could fly from planet to planet in a spaceship, land on that planet, get out of your ship and interact with the locals. My characters might have been different but SFA is that idea finally realized.

As many reviews have pointed out SFA's closest relative is the Zelda series and in particular the N64 versions. There are many things in Zelda with direct analogies in SFA. I won't use the term rip−off because most games share some features. The problem is where they copied they failed to realize what Zelda really accomplished and what really sets Zelda apart from the rest. Maybe I shouldn't compare it so closely to Zelda but it's clearly inspired by Zelda. It's published by the same company so copying anything is not a licensing problem. So, I'm going to compare them in detail

For example: In Zelda there are the eye marks. When you see one you shoot an arrow into it and it triggers something. A door opening, a flame going out, water lowering. In SFA the analog is the flame symbol and the flame power up for your staff. When you see a flame symbol you shoot it and something is triggered. There are two main differences between Zelda and SFA. In Zelda, rarely if ever was the symbol hidden. In fact it was often pointed out to you as soon as you entered the room. In SFA they are well hidden so that often you will run around a level several times until you figure out that you needed to look up at a particular point to notice the symbol. This is one thing I harp on all the time but the lesson is, Miyamoto's apparent motto is "make the game fun". Rare does not seem to have had that in mind when implementing their shootable symbol analog and therefore about 1/2 the time it's just frustrating.

The second issue is one of consistency / suspension of disbelief / believability. I'm not sure what label to put on it but in Zelda, I don't recall once seeing an eye symbol that seemed out of place. In SFA though it happens all the time. First, the graphic looks like an icon, not like something that's actually part of the game world. Second, it's stuck any old place. On trees, on stones, on pretty much random stuff. This is often a problem where designers don't have the discipline to realize that some limits "you can't put it anywhere because it doesn't make sense" actually add to the game instead of limit it's creativity

Another analog is the store. Of course nearly all adventure games and RPGs have stores. In Zelda they are all over the place and to some degree they make sense. If you are in a town you expect to find stores. In SFA there is a store, it's sole purpose seems to be for the game completely separate from the game world. It does not fit into the world at all. Where are the people that would buy from this store? It's got a ridiculous entrance. In order to enter the store you've got to climb down a tedious wall, jump over another and run 20 yards down a hallway and then you run around an area the size of an entire dungeon in some games. It doesn't feel like a store, it feels like a contrived game thing.

On top of that it's filled with story stuff. In other words, for some unknown reason, several of the items needed to progress the story are sitting in the store. In Zelda, except for specialty stores the stores are for supplies and replacements only. It works. SFA doesn't. Think about it. You're watching James Bond, he needs a new laser cutting, radio communicating, acid squirting, wristwatch. Does he drive down to the local 7/11 and buy one off the shelf? Put story based items in the story.

Which brings up the story. The basic plot is pretty standard fair but the details leave a lot to be desired. Why is it that even though the planet is getting torn apart and an evil general is trying to take it over that 1/2 the characters you meet won't help you unless you pay them off? "Hello? You know if you don't help me the world is going to be destroyed and you'll be dead?" That *should* be what Fox says or rather the story should fit the situation. This is not just a problem with SFA. FF7 had a similar problem, the world ends in 2 days,I know, lets go to an amusement park. MGS, a nuclear bomb is set togo off in 18 hours, I know, lets flirt over the walkie talkies while the clock is ticking and I'm in the middle of a covert mission.

The dialog is just gawd awful. This seems to be becoming one of Nintendo's trademarks which is really pretty sad. It starts off bad right from the beginning. Speaking in some alien language it just doesn't work. It sounds completely stilled and un−natural and to make matters worse they complicate it more by adding in English "bla blor bla blee bla bla blu bla ble General Scales blue bla bla bee blue". Who at Rare thought that actually worked?

Many reviews have also brought up how the Star Fox license was added to the game after the fact. Originally this game was called Dinosaur Planet and did not have the Star Fox characters. It shows. I was personally able to live with it. For example Fox carrying a staff and having no gun didn't bother me. But, the integration of the other characters, Slippy, Pepe and Colonel Pepper, was just awful and annoying. Their dialog was stale, lame, boring, I wanted to skip all of it. The only character that worked at all was Falco. Maybe this was an issue of not having enough time to integrate them. More likely it was that Rare didn't have their heart in the integration. It's sad because it detracts from the game. Pepe and Colonel Pepper were so annoying that I loathed ever having to access the map or status screens since they say the most inane things there.

The voice acting is mostly awful too. Fox works, Tricky mostly works, most of the other characters sound like they are rejects from Barney the Dinosaur and in fact that's exactly the issue. Half the dialog sounds like it's from a bad cartoon designed solely to teach kids something. A bad edutainment title. The trick is, write for adults and kids will get it. Bugs Bunny, Powerpuff Girls, Sponge Bob Square Pants are written to entertain the creator and is friends, not some imaginary Barney watching child. As such they actually end up being funny for the rest of us.

Want me to get really picky? What's with the Foxgasum every time Fox gets teleported? Is there an explanation why he's in rapture? Remember, he's a fighter pilot not some new age meditation convert.

What about the fighting system? Well, actually there is none. The fighting comes down to just pressing the attack button as fast as you can. Once in a while in order to hit the enemy once you have to hold up your staff as a shield, wait for the enemy to hit it then swing back. Once you've hit once you just keep pressing attack and Fox with automatically kill the enemy after about 10 to 15 consecutive automatic and tedious hits. This removes any feeling of skill, accomplishment or fun from fighting in SFA. How is Zelda different? Well, for one, there are many more types of characters, with various styles of movement, each requiring a different approach. But, even the ones that are similar to the main enemies in SFA are more fun in Zelda. Probably because the timing used in Zelda makes it more fun and probably because even after one hit they require you to time each hit, not just the first one, and they require you to keep your distance correctly. Probably because you actually feel like you are controlling Link in Zelda were as in SFA Fox mak es various random moves in response to the same button press. Yes, you can press left or right as your are attacking for more variety, no you don't need to except to try to make the fighting less boring. Clearly the SFA team didn't spend nearly the amount of time tuning SFA's fighting.

There are a few other enemies in SFA. The floating jellyfish enemies are very beautiful. They don't really feel much like enemines in terms of how quickly they are dispatched. The worst enemies in the game are the bat like creatures. So far I have not discovered any good way to kill them. Yes, you can *target* them with your flame powerup but {a} they are hard to hit {b} you have limited ammo {c} it's tedious {d} they respawn generally without going too far. I have basically not found a way of not just taking a hit by them.

Zelda's most annoying enemies were probably also the bats, at least in the N64 version. The things that make Zelda's bats work where SFA's don't: {*} Zelda's bats always glide in and have a certain timed music to go with them so that after a while you can kill them just by swinging at the correct time {*} Zelda has the boomerang and bow & arrow, if you lock on to a bat you can kill it instantly and harmlessly {*} locking on to a bat is often easy even from a relative distance so that upon entering a room you can stand in the doorway and take them out safely {*} Zelda's bats are often asleep on the wall so can take your time and take them out before they become annoying.

This brings up another 2 enemies, the two types of dino snake head creatures that pop out of the ground. Where did these come from? Are they part of General Scales group? Why don't they attack other characters standing within a few feet of them? They are annoying, un−fun, and they don't seem to fit. It's almost as though they didn't used to be in the levels, the levels were deemed to empty and so someone came up with a random enemy and just stuck them all over the place willy nilly.

The world design is also lacking any kind of ..... I never felt like I knew were I was going or how to get there. Zelda appears to be designed with wienies. I say appears because I don't have access to the Zelda designers to ask them. I know that Jak and Daxter was. What are wienies? Basically it's designing structures and views that draw the player toward them so that without having to consult a map the player automatically knows some interesting places to go. Wienies were used to design the original Disneyland (Read here for more details) Unfortunately designers of Tokyo Disneyland and especially Tokyo Disney Sea did not consider wienies when building their parks and neither did SFA when designing the world. There is never a time in the entire game where it's clear where to go. Where there is any distinctive feature sticking out in the distance saying "come to me" to the player. As such SFA feels like a bunch of disjointed mazes glued together.

A few reviews brought up the animation as something that SFA does well. I couldn't disagree more. Except for maybe Fox and Tricky and the main enemies all the other characters' animation is stiff, jerky and very unconvincing. They clearly have a good animation system. They just need to hire some real animators to use it.

There are some good parts to SFA. The graphics are simply amazing. This is the first game I've seen using the fur technique which has been shown previously only in a few tech demos around the net. I suspect, like toon shading it will quickly become ubiquitous but it's very cool to see it used well. Fox is furry, Krystal has some fur, the mammoths are furry and ground in the main hub is entirely fur used as grass. Some of the connecting areas on the way to Lightfoot Village are double or triple length and just look great. You want to reach out and touch it.

The indoor levels are generally pretty good. In design they are not as inspired as Zelda but they are better than most games. Some of them are also simply gorgeous. I really liked the Ocean Force Temple. Technically the engine appears very good. Very few large poly looking areas. Most areas are very detailed and the environments have an organic feel, unlike say Quake where everything always seems obviously made from polys. I also liked to moon level. Maybe because it was just a little different then your normal setting.

So, was it good? Well, I finished the game. Some of my friends would say that's proof that it couldn't be that bad. If you like Zelda style action adventures then yes, I can recommend this game.. Despite all the complaints above it's not a bad game. It's just disappointing. They clearly had the time, they clearly had the budget, they clearly had the opportunity to make a game that would be remembered for a long time as one of the best of it's kind. And that's the disappointment because they didn't get there.

It will be interesting to see what Rare brings to XBox. I would guess they will pursue something more along the lines of Perfect Dark / Golden Eye thinking that that's what the XBox crowd wants. They might be right. XBox already has Halo though and XBox does not have its Zelda yet so I for one hope to see another game in this genre from Rare. With just a little more attention to details they could steal the crown from their former partners.

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