Looking Back at Star Fox

starfox_iconThe Star Fox series is certainly eclectic. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to do with itself. Nintendo never seemed satisfied with letting it just be the arcade rail shooter that fans prefer, and it instead used it as an outlet for experimentation and innovation with admittedly varied results. But that’s also what makes the series, as a whole, interesting.

I’ve enjoyed the Star Fox games over the years, and with one of the latest entries, Star Fox Zero, creating its own waves (both positive and negative), I felt compelled to look back at my own experiences with the series.

Star Fox (1993)

More than any other entry in the series, the original Star Fox is very much a product of its time. However, being one of the first home console games to use polygonal 3D graphics, it was also the most revolutionary.

It might be hard to tell by looking at it now, but seeing it for the first time back when it came out was mind blowing. For a console that was already faking 3D pretty well with its “Mode 7” scaling and rotation effects, the fully polygonal scrolling landscape was on another level entirely. I remember thinking how cool it was when, during the Space Armada level, you would see giant battleships in the background, fly right up to them, then inside them to destroy their cores, and back out the other side. And it all happened seamlessly.

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It’s less impressive today with its choppy frame-rate and sluggish digital controls, but some parts of it do hold up. In particular, the soundtrack by Hajime Hirasawa, with its mix of heroic John Williams-esque orchestrations and gritty guitar rock, is still my favorite in the series.

It also had a very particular atmosphere to it that’s never quite been replicated since then. Part of it was probably just the abstract nature of the graphics, but the original Star Fox felt downright bizarre at times. Things like the random geometric shapes floating through space and low-polygon count for all the character models made everything feel alien. Even now, I still don’t know what Professor Hanger is supposed to be, but I love it just because it’s so weird and random.

While it may be difficult to go back to today (both from a gameplay standpoint and because it’s never been re-released on the Virtual Console), I will always have a soft spot for the original Star Fox.

Star Fox 64 (1997)

While Star Fox 64 is objectively a better game than the original, I have to admit I’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about it. A lot of that stems from the fact that Star Fox 2 on the SNES, which I was extremely hyped for, never came out, and instead I only got a remake of the original. Not only that, but despite being a superior game, I felt that it failed to recapture the charm of its predecessor. In particular, the soundtrack by Koji Kondo and Hajime Wakai lacked the driving energy of the first.

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That’s not to say I didn’t like the game. The controls were vastly improved due to not only the game being on hardware capable of running the game smoothly and responsively, but also the availability of an analog stick. I spent quite a lot of time playing this one back in the day.

Star Fox 64‘s main innovation was the inclusion of the N64 Rumble Pak, making it one of the first home console games to provide force feedback. It also boasted fully spoken dialog, which was not uncommon at the time, but impressive for a cartridge-based game.

As a reboot, Star Fox 64 set the standard for the series going forward, and was the game all future installments would be compared to.

Star Fox Adventures (2002)

Here we have the Star Fox game that was not originally intended to be a Star Fox game. First in development as an action-adventure simply titled Dinosaur Planet, the why and how of its conversion to the Star Fox series is muddled. But as a spin-off, it still left its mark on the franchise, influencing future installments.

Rather than being a rail shooter, Adventures is a Zelda-like game with Fox running around on foot fighting enemies with a staff. It’s quite a change of pace, and some fans still look down on it as a mediocre black sheep that had no right to be a Star Fox game in the first place.

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Personally, however, I loved it. Part of that might be because it was the very first game I got for my GameCube and it has some sentimental value. But as a fan of the Zelda series, I highly enjoyed the gameplay, and I never saw a problem with a spin-off doing its own thing. In its own right, I find it to be a solid romp.

Being the final game Rare developed for Nintendo, it’s also gorgeous, with some nice fur and water effects, real-time facial animation, and an amazing soundtrack by Dave Wise.

I never quite understood why it’s so looked down upon. I think it deserves more appreciation than it gets.

Star Fox: Assault (2005)

In a way, Assault is a return to form, going back to the arcade-shooter style the series is known for, but for me, it’s kind of a mixed bag. Of the 10 stages in the game, only three have the classic rail-shooter gameplay. The rest of it is free-roaming All Range Mode dogfights, on-foot shooter sections, and Panzer Dragoon-style 360 degree shooting segments. At its best, I found it to be a fun shooter that takes the series in new directions. At worst, it’s a little dull and aimless.

There are things I like, to be sure. I like that it’s a true sequel that moves things forward, with an original story and a new enemy to fight (the Aparoids). It also has a terrific soundtrack by Yoshie Arakawa and Yoshinori Kawamoto.

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Assault is not really a bad game. I have no problem with Star Fox trying new things, and I’ve always liked the idea of Fox being on foot in a run-and-gun-style shooter. It’s just that these other styles of gameplay don’t seem to be as well done as they should be, and they clash with the parts of the game that really shine.

In the past, the game has never really held my attention for very long, but I should revisit it at some point and give it a fresh chance.

Star Fox Command (2006)

I don’t have much to say about this one because, honestly, I’ve never played it. For some reason, I was never compelled to try it, either when it was originally released for the Nintendo DS, or after last year’s appearance on the Wii U Virtual Console. I’ve been curious about it, but not quite enough to jump into the cockpit. I should get around to it at some point, though.

Star Fox Zero and Star Fox Guard (2016)

Aside from the 2011 3DS port/remake of Star Fox 64, it took a decade for the series to return with not one, but two new games. Being that they’re so new, I shouldn’t say too much about them until they’ve had a chance to sit with me for a while, but my initial reaction is extremely positive.

Both games embrace the experimental nature of the series, with Zero putting a new spin on the arcade shooter gameplay, and Guard fitting an entirely new style of gameplay into the Star Fox universe. For now, all I’ll say about Zero is that it’s easily the most intense and hardcore game in the series. (Would you expect anything less from Platinum Games?) I haven’t spent much time with Guard yet, but it’s more fun than I expected it to be.

I’ll write up a proper post for both games in the near future.

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Confessions of a Nintendo Fan V

luigi_iconIt’s funny how things come full circle sometimes. One day, you’re wondering what life is like on the other side of the tracks, and the next thing you know, you’re there.

These days, Nintendo seems to be in the position of “alternative game console.” They make the consoles you might choose to own as a supplement to another. Even the original Wii, with how phenomenally successful it was, was treated like a second-class citizen for most of its generation. Owning a Nintendo console as a primary gaming platform certainly provides a unique experience.

It’s funny to remember that there was a time when Nintendo was the main gaming platform for most people. They held the position that Sony or Microsoft have usually been associated with for the past 20 years. In the late ’80s, the NES was the gamer’s game machine. Any other platforms tended to fade into the background.

I, of course, was a Nintendo kid. I probably don’t need to reiterate how much of my attention was monopolized by Nintendo’s consoles. But that’s not to say I had no interest in other game systems. I was aware of Sega’s Master System and NEC’s TurboGrafx-16, and while I didn’t know a whole lot about them, that’s also what made me more curious.

What was it like to grow up with one of those systems instead of an NES? I assumed it was somewhat similar, but just with different games. Master System owners were playing Alex Kidd and Phantasy Star instead of Mario and Zelda. TurboGrafx fans were reading issues of TurboPlay instead of Nintendo Power. I’m sure it was a matter of preference of which games were more appealing, but at the end of the day, fond childhood memories were being made nonetheless.

Over the different console generations, it seems there’s always at least one “runt” console that goes ignored by the general public, but yet goes on to be well regarded by those who owned it. The Sega Saturn, the Sega Dreamcast and the Nintendo GameCube are all systems that were looked down upon during their initial run, but are remembered in a much more positive light after the fact. That always fascinated me. A platform’s true value always seems to shine through over time.

That’s not to say that all unsuccessful consoles are unfairly ignored masterpieces. It’s difficult to find die hard fans of the Phillips CD-i or Atari Jaguar. I’m simply noting that a console’s popularity is not directly related to its actual quality.

Those that did own the “alternative” consoles had a distinctly different gaming experience than those who followed the mainstream. I think that’s part of what attracted me to the Dreamcast. At the time, I knew it was a bit off-center, and having been disillusioned by the gaming experiences I had been having, I was looking for something a little different. The Dreamcast provided exactly that. So much so, in fact, that it has since become the poster child for under-appreciated game consoles.

Shortly thereafter, Nintendo began finding itself in that exact same position with the GameCube, the Wii U, and in a certain way, the original Wii. I was along for the ride with all of them, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that Nintendo had gone from being a “mainstream” platform to the “alternative” game console, and I was having that unique, more niche experience that I was curious about so many years before.

At the risk of sounding a bit “hipster,” maybe that makes the experience a little more valuable. Many kids had an NES; not so many had a Master System. A lot of people now own a PlayStation 4; but far fewer a Wii U. It’s a rarer experience to live through. Not necessarily one that will result in any better or worse memories, but perhaps more personalized ones.

Not that it really matters one way or the other. We all pick whatever platforms have the games that appeal to us specifically (and some people just buy all of them). Whether or not a platform is mainstream is arbitrary. But if I wanted to know what it was like to be an alternative gamer, well, here I am.

Be careful what you wish for.

Site News – January 9, 2016

Just a quick note that updates for the blog will be sporadic for the time being.  It’s been difficult for me to work up the motivation to keep posting on a steady schedule, so I’ve decided I just don’t want to worry about it.

There will be new posts, hopefully not too far apart, but they will be on more of a “when I feel like it” basis.

Thanks for understanding.

Top Game Discoveries of 2015: #1 – Splatoon

inkling_iconDespite what many media outlets hastily declared upon the game’s release, Splatoon is not Nintendo’s first original IP since 2001’s Pikmin. It’s also not their first internally-developed original IP since then (unless you ignore two of the best-selling games of the last generation, Wii Sports and Nintendogs), nor is it their first character-based, internally-developed IP since then (is a generic Inkling really any more or less a character than a Mii avatar or the Wii Fit Trainer?). By the time we’re done adding modifiers to the original statement, we’re ignoring a significant number of original Nintendo IP.

Nonetheless, what is true is that Nintendo was being incredibly ambitious to shove Splatoon into the spotlight as a new major franchise that could stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Mario, Zelda and Pokémon. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime even boldly touted that Splatoon would be to online shooters what Mario Kart was to racing games. Those are some high expectations for a game in a genre that Nintendo had no previous experience in – online arena-shooters – and with no established brand recognition. Not to mention it was not created by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto or any of the other old guard, but by a newer, younger team of Nintendo designers. Could this new generation really continue the legacy of the classic Nintendo magic?

Oh, yes. Yes, they can.

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Not being a shooter fan myself, I was only moderately curious about the game before release. My biggest concern, in fact, was weather or not the game would make me motion-sick (one of the reasons I’m not big on shooters of this type). Fortunately, the two free “Global Testfires” Nintendo held in May before the game’s release eased my worries about that, as I surprisingly had no problems. Not only that, but I enjoyed the game more than I expected to, enough to convince me to pick up it up at launch. And that was the beginning of a summer full of near-daily turf wars.

Perhaps it says something that Splatoon appeals to players like me who don’t typically play shooters. Certainly Call of Duty, Halo and any number of other shooters have the genre covered for fans of that type of game. But Nintendo has brought something new, different, and dare I say, “fresh,” to the table. Splatoon doesn’t adhere to the typical tropes often seen in online shooters. It’s not militaristic, but a sport. It’s not serious, just kids having fun. It has its own style, play mechanics and strategies that keep it from being just another shooter with brighter colors. In true Nintendo fashion, its appeal stretches beyond the normal demographic. Splatoon is a shooter for the rest of us.

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Nintendo also did an amazing job of building a unique and compelling world around the Inklings and their Tokyo-inspired civilization. The Inklings, themselves, while not specific “characters” per se, are wonderfully designed, being a perfect combination of cute and cool, and they’re quite easy to get attached to. It’s no wonder players have been asking for more customization options (specifically a “pants/skirt” shop), and some even going so far as wanting to have their own homes to decorate or pets to raise. It’s like some players want the game to be Animal Crossing with a shooting minigame. But it’s perfectly understandable, as the world of Splatoon is bursting with potential, and we’re all eager to see how Nintendo will explore it in the future.

But beyond the design, the game constantly feels “alive.” Nintendo has frequently updated the game with new maps, weapons, gear, and game modes, always making it feel new and interesting. Periodic “Splatfest” events give the game a festive mood while increasing the competition. Even simply seeing other players’ Inklings wandering around Inkopolis Plaza and being able to read their Miiverse postings brings a strong illusion of MMO qualities to the game. It feels like there’s always something happening, and it keeps the game from ever really feeling old.

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Nintendo can be criticized for relying too much on 30-year-old franchises. While it does seem like many of their most recognizable games came from the 20th century, Splatoon proves that they still have the potential to not only come up with something completely fresh, but bat it clear out of the ballpark. If Splatoon is a glimpse at the future of Nintendo, then it’s a bright future indeed.

Top Game Discoveries of 2015: #2 – Ys Origin

yunica_iconAs a series, Falcom’s Ys chronicles the adventures of a red-haired youth named Adol Christin who travels around a European-inspired continent called Esteria. He traverses an overworld, explores dungeons, visits towns, helps people, slaughters hoards of monsters, and usually ends up exterminating some giant demon. In this context, Ys Origin is an anomaly, presenting a unique experience from any other Ys game.

While it’s still an action-RPG, Origin takes place entirely inside a tower. There’s no overworld, no towns, very little in the way of side quests, and most unusual of all, no Adol Christin (well, aside from an unlockable bonus). It’s a fairly straightforward climb up the tower, mainly consisting of combat and platforming. For this reason, many Ys fans consider it one of the weaker games in the series.

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Ys Origin was not my first Ys game (that was the TurboGrafx port of Ys Book I & II via the Wii Virtual Console), but it was my second, so maybe it’s easier for me to appreciate it more on its own terms. However, it does have some specific characteristics that appeal to me, personally.

The game’s general linearity and heavy emphasis on combat almost make it feel more like an arcade game. In lieu of Adol, the game provides three other playable characters: Yunica, Hugo and Toal, the latter of which is unlocked after finishing the game once. The variety of characters, the game’s relative brevity, and its replayability combine to create an enjoyable dungeon crawler that appeals to my affection for arcade-style games.

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The combat, itself, is extremely well done, with enough depth and technique that Ys Origin practically qualifies as a straight-up action game. Each character plays differently, with Yunica and Toal being melee fighters, and Hugo’s magic functioning like that of a run-and-gun shooter (another genre I’m quite fond of). The boss fights are clever and epic, and while they can occasionally seem cheap at first, rest assured, there’s always a technique to it.

But beyond the gameplay, I found the characters and story to be quite charming, and they really won me over. Yunica, in particular, struck a chord with me as an appealing character whose development over the adventure was really enjoyable to experience. Hugo, by contrast, is an enormous prick for most of the game, but if you can put up with him for long enough, he turns out to be pretty cool by the end. Toal’s game is considered the canonical version of the story, and it ties everything together, but even he has a few surprises in store. It all culminates in an ending that (as you can probably guess) sets up the events that unfold in the original Ys I & II.

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I enjoy action-RPGs in general, but it takes a lot to get me to play through one three times in a row. Ys Origin did just that, and while I really enjoyed the other Ys games I’ve played, the uniqueness of Origin makes it stand out for me. It’s not just one of my favorite game discoveries this year, but easily one of my favorite action-RPGs ever.