Review by Tanto
"Armed with a Mystical Stick and really bad controls, Fox saves the world. Right."
Every once in a while, a game comes along that grabs a console by the balls and announces itself as the premiere game for that system. The game becomes synonymous with the system, one of its classics. Goldeneye stole the N64 from Mario and maintained its dominance over the system through two Zelda games and the almost strictly superior Perfect Dark. Resident Evil owned the Playstation, as did its sequel. Grand Theft Auto III and Halo are the reasons to own a PS2 and an Xbox, respectively, and it's generally conceded that the Game Boy Advance and Circle of the Moon are a packaged deal. When I first heard that Star Fox was making the move to GameCube with the Zelda engine, I was expecting just such an experience.
And when I sat down to tear the crinkly wrapper from my brand spankin' new copy of the game, I almost got it.
Be warned: This was the game for which I bought a GCN. Not Super Smash Brothers: Melee, not Mario, not Metroid, not even Zelda. Star Fox Adventures. So it's fair to say that I was expecting something great from this small disc with the pretty packaging.
You may be getting the impression from this lengthy preamble that the game is a disappointment. And, well, yeah, it is. But not a huge disappointment as with other Rare ''classics'' like Donkey Kong 64 or Banjo-Tooie. The game manages to be enjoyable, but not so much that you can lightly overlook its many design flaws and minor annoyances. And while the game is nowhere near as good as anyone expected (was that even possible?) it's still a worthy game.
Let's start with those graphics. If there's one thing Rareware knows how to do, it is presentation. Banjo-Tooie was incredibly annoying due to its overly complex interface and nearly-impossible objectives, but, damn, it was almost worth it due to what were most likely the most incredible graphics ever seen on the system. Star Fox Adventures is much the same. Like Eternal Darkness, SFA had its roots on the N64, but unlike that game there are absolutely no traces of SFA's humble origins in this game. Fur-rendering? Check. Realistic facial expressions? Check. Lighting? It's beautiful, and it's never looked better. Animation? Seamless. The graphics are consistently amazing from Krystal's first attack on the galleon to Fox's final battle with [spoiler deleted]. Massive, varied environments make up the game world, and they're all quite breathtaking. The game is chock-full of beautiful special effects, and the game environment shifts from daylight to sunset to nighttime smoothly and with nary a hitch (although a little more quickly than I would have liked. This game's clock flies). There are no loading times whatsoever (all data is streamed in-game). The characters are flawlessly rendered, and they move realistically. I could go on and on and on, but my thesaurus is beginning to run out of synonyms for ''beautiful'', so I'll stop now.
Unfortunately, as Rare knows better than anyone (with the possible exceptions of Acclaim, Capcom, Konami, Microsoft, Sony, and Square), pretty pictures do not a great game make (although they certainly do make for entertaining commercials). Now I have to talk about the gameplay.
This is pretty standard adventure gaming stuff. The game teases you early on in the introduction with a flying mission in which the scantily-clad Krystal, Fox's eventual damsel in distress and the ultimate fantasy of furry fetishists everywhere, attacks the main bad guy General Scales's flying galleon on the back of a fire-breathing pteradactyl. And since the player already knows from the pictures on the back of the case that the game also contains Zelda-style adventuring and space-shooter levels in the proud Star Fox tradition, s/he might be fooled into thinking that they are playing a lengthy, varied adventure full of interesting new innovations. And they would be half right. There's no denying that the game is long and that there are innovations, but whether or not these innovations are beneficial is debatable at best and downright laughable at worst.
The biggest complaint I have with the game is its arrogant attempt to redesign the adventure genre. Everywhere you look, SFA has taken a mechanic from the 3D Zelda games and changed it. It seems the designers didn't really think very long about whether or not these changes would be for the best or not, just that there was an innovation somewhere. Nowhere is this more evident than in the controls.
Ah, the controls...indeed, this is a Rare game. SFA's controls have that special Rare touch that makes them just unwieldly enough to be annoying without being so difficult to use that you completely give up on them. It's like Rare is playing games with our minds...''Yeah, we know the controls suck...but we also know that they don't suck hard enough that you'll quit playing.'' I'm glad I don't have to see the monstrosity of a control scheme that will undoubtably be spawned when Rare's natural unintuitiveness is combined with the clunky obtuseness that is the Xbox controller. The C-button assignment system from Zelda has been yanked and replaced by a new system involving the C-stick. This is beyond annoying, let me warn you. You can assign one spell, item, or command to the Y-button at a time. This is woefully inadequate. You'll basically always want to have the Fire Blaster spell on the hotkey because there are so many puzzles and fights in which it is necessary, but in most areas there is also a secondary spell or ability that you'll be using all the time and it would be convenient to have those available as well without having to cycle through that irritating spindel of stuff. Yeah, I know there are only so many buttons on the GCN controller, but really, the L-, R-, and Z-buttons aren't really doing anything useful, can't they help out?
Speaking of which, your item-navigation system has been altered as well, and it's just one more thing that makes you want to throw your controller at the cat whenever you mess up because of it. No longer can you placidly search through your items at a menu on the pause screen, oh no. Instead, items must be managed on the fly, in real-time, using the C-stick. If that sentence doesn't scare the life out of you, it should. It's not too noticeable in the early parts of the game, when you don't have many items...but later on, when you have more stuff to lug around (and, since this is a Rare game, in a relatively short amount of time you will have amassed a lot of stuff), it's a nightmare trying to cycle through your items trying to find what you need at the right time. Add that to the fact that the C-stick isn't the most precise instrument in the world and you begin to understand why putting it in charge of the items was a big mistake. Enemies respawn way too quickly in this game, so there's no guarantee that killing them all will keep them off your back while you're trying to solve a random puzzle. I have bad memories of trying to find the right seed to plant in the Moon Mountain Pass while having flying enemies attack from the air mere seconds after I've shot them down and earthen monsters shooting at me because I don't have enough magic to use the only spell that hurts them. Argh.
And don't even get me started on the battle system. It's fast, flashy and furious, but basically it's button-mashing with an occasional block thrown in there for good measure. You can string together different moves and make combos, but all the moves are functionally identical so these variations are basically for looks only. It starts off fun, but quickly gets tedious as all the enemies are basically the same--the challenge is upped in the later levels by having them block more. I can't help thinking that Rare could have made the combat more skill-based and deep by having the various attacks work differently. To make things worse, if you have your weapon out you automatically lock on to the nearest enemy--Z-targeting without the ''Z''. This sucks, hard, because fighting enemies offers no real benefits (they occasionally drop health or magic, but those are so plentiful that you usually don't have to worry about it), so basically you want to ignore non-essential battles. None of the bosses are fought directly in this fashion either. Whereas the challenge in fighting Zelda bosses is finding the way to beat them, not in the execution, in SFA things are just the opposite. It's usually fairly obvious what you have to do to kill the boss, but the challenge lies in working out the correct timing, positioning, etc, to do the job. Some people may like this approach better, but I find myself preferring the Zelda method almost every time.
To be blunt, SFA doesn't add anything to the adventure genre that hasn't been done before. Almost every innovation it makes is for the worse, and the stuff it carries over is neither as fun nor as polished as the Zelda games.
However, it still, somehow. . . God, help me, it manages to be fun.
It shouldn't be fun. Reading back through this review, I've made it seem absolutely horrible and unplayable. But it's not. Maybe it's the Zelda system, despite Rare's attempts to maim it, coming through by making an otherwise mediocre game quite enjoyable. As a fan of adventure games, I still enjoy myself when I'm trekking through a vast, beautiful world solving (admittedly clever) puzzles. Unlike Conker's Bad Fur Day, the puzzles in SFA are probably its best gameplay-oriented feature. Where CBFD liked to annoy you by making the solutions to its puzzles stuff you didn't even know you could do, SFA offers an enjoyable variety of timing puzzles, searching puzzles, and context-based puzzles that make the dungeons a joy to behold. And the quest is really quite long, which should please those like me who have been finding video games to be really freaking lacking in that department as of late.
The final judgment: It's a good game. If ''good'' isn't descriptive enough for you, too bad, because they're aren't really any other words to describe it. You can't really call it anything better than that because its design flaws keep it annoying enough that it doesn't really rise above the pack, and you can't call it anything worse than that because it's a better game than that. It's worth a buy (or an intentionally-overdue rental), but expect to enjoy it only slightly more than you're annoyed by it.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 12/03/02, Updated 12/03/02
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