Star Fox Assault
Star Fox just hasn't been getting much love from Nintendo recently. I don't want to suggest that the company doesn't care about the quality of the games it's publishing, but it's hard to deny that the franchise has been getting a bit of a short shrift the past couple years.
I've been a Star Fox fan since the original game was released, and I think part of it was because while it had that familiar Nintendo feel, it struck out into territory that hadn't been fully explored by the company's other franchises. (Ironically, that has also been the cause of its degradation.)
I've always felt that the Star Fox games have shared some common elements from the Zelda games specifically. They're outwardly bright and colorful and sometimes humorous, but underneath lies a somewhat reluctant acknowledgement that all is not right with the world, and unless things are set straight, evil is sure to win. There's a sense of urgency that's only sometimes brought to the fore but always exists in the background. While not as dark and brooding as the Metroids, they're decidedly darker than the Marios.
Enter Star Fox 64, which more or less supplants the original game's story and events. The pacing and feel of the game is kept largely the same as the original's but on an obviously grander scale, complete with voice acting and more distinct personalities for Fox and his team. As Fox, we fly (or drive) largely on rails from the beginning of one stage to the next, encounter the boss of that stage, defeat him, and move on. It's a simple formula but one that ultimately works.
This, of course, is where the trouble starts. And I'm not even talking about Star Fox Adventures. We'll just skip over that.
Star Fox Assault had a lengthy, difficult, publicly messy time from its announcement to its release. It was first announced by Namco (who were chosen to develop the game) and Nintendo relatively early in the Gamecube's life span and went by the name Star Fox Armada. Later it would be known simply as Star Fox 2, before Star Fox Assault was finally decided upon. The game made the rounds at a couple E3s, and each time the reaction from the floor was almost uniformly lukewarm. The game was finally released February of this year to equally lukewarm sales. What went wrong? It's a hard formula to mess up.
Well, see, the thing is...Namco kinda tweaked the formula a bit. Just a bit. But it was a enough to result in a decidedly less compelling sequel, and the parts they did get right weren't enough to keep the whole project from being dragged down.
The first thing is the on-foot levels. Oh god, the on-foot levels. You will spend an equal amount of the game running around as you will flying in your Arwing, if not more. If you're not finding a bunch of arbitrarily placed enemy-spawning pods to destroy, you're finding a bunch of panels to blast to bring down a shield. The worst part is that usually you actually are given the choice of hopping in an Arwing or Landmaster tank on the fly, provided you can find one in the level, but neither vehicle is well suited to finding relatively small and out of the way targets in the crowded, dense levels. It's incredibly hard to maneuver the Arwing through any cramped area to even get to most targets let alone destroy them, and the Landmaster is a bulky, tedious affair. So while being able to switch between three play modes at any given time is conceivably a great idea, more often than not you're forced to haul ass on foot to get anything done. This isn't Star Fox material, nor is it much fun.
Something one learns to appreciate about the first two Star Fox games is how unobtrusive changing events and requirements are. You're flying along shooting enemies when a boss appears out of nowhere, maybe says his piece, and then you rumble. If goals change, you're more often than not informed as you continue to fight, and without being interrupted, you adjust your play. In Star Fox Assault, every boss, every scene change, every goal completion and change results in an abrupt cut to a cutscene which totally destroys the flow of the level. There are times you will spend five minutes playing a level, getting yourself into a groove, only to be sent to another cutscene that does no more than explain your next objective within the very same level. You're then thrust back into the level, your groove not so groovy anymore.
It's not all doom and gloom, however. The levels in which you pilot the Arwing, be they for on-rails shooting or dogfighting, are done competently - so much so that it makes one wonder why there isn't more of it. With some exceptions, the flight controls are every bit as intuitive as those of the previous games. The game spans about ten different levels (many with multiple parts), there are multiple difficulty settings, and there is a medal system similar to Star Fox 64's, so even veterans will spend a good amount of time with Fox and company.
While there is a concerted push by Nintendo to expand the horizons of its franchises into uncharted territory (Mario has always been the company's playground for new ideas, Metroid has reinvented itself in 3D, and Miyamoto recently stated that Twilight Princess would be the last Zelda game in its current style), it seems that Star Fox is less suited to being toyed around with from a gameplay perspective. Star Fox Assault shows all the signs of a game that tries desperately hard to do things it's simply not meant to.
Nintendo: Next time, stick to on-rails shooting and dogfighting and you just might have a winner on your hands.