Monday, July 23, 2012

How to Doom Your Sequel: Star Fox Adventures

Hey y'all.  So I've been watching let's plays of all the Star Fox games, because it's a great series.  Star Fox is  the story of anthropomorphic animals who save the universe from the evils of the great monkey robot genius Andross, who is constantly trying to take over everything.

Of course, it was a great series before things went horribly wrong.  Obligatory summary-ho!  Just a short one, though.  I get pretty sick of recapping something when I really want to be talking about something else.

Anyway, the glory of the first Star Fox game was in its simplicity.  It's basically where you play as Fox McCloud, a fighter pilot, and you have to fight your way through a path to the planet Venom where you must defeat the evil scientist/robot/monkey Andross.  This is a lot of fun, especially since the graphics on the SNES where so blocky and "retrofuture" -- what the past thought the future would be like.  It seriously reminds me of old sci-fi book covers.

In 2007, I once read an old book where kids from the fifties went into the year 2007.  So, um, why don't we have flying cars again?  Um, yeah.  Retrofuture.

So the basic gameplay of Star Fox entails being a fighter pilot, and trying to keep the rest of the Star Fox team (Slippy, Peppy, Falco) alive -- if you're nice, that is.  They can be really annoying so sometimes players just let them die.  In Star Fox 64, they actually do help you some, and the basic gameplay is escalated by changing what path you go on by how well you perform.   Not all that different, but still a lot of fun.

And then Star Fox Adventures came out.  It's pretty well known that this game was intended to be an original game, but then an executive at some point said, "hey, let's stick the Star Fox characters in it!"


It has been said that SFA is a perfectly decent game, and the main reason nobody likes it is because it has nothing to do with Star Fox.  This is not true.  I mean, yes, it's nothing like Star Fox, but it also isn't all that great on its own.

But first things first.  Star Fox Adventures is based on Dinosaur Planet, where a planet of Dinosaurs is being oppressed by General Scales, a T-Rex wearing armor.  A blue fox chick named Krystle arrives at this planet to help.  Apparently it also had something to do with finding her missing parents or whatever, but we aren't really told much about that so apparently it doesn't matter.

In any case, the player does not control an arwing, but after a short pterodactyl ride you play as Krystle, running around and...getting possessed by a spirit?  Haven't we all seen the exorcist here?  Er, well, I haven't, but I know what it's about.  And getting possessed by spirits is bad.

Besides the obvious problem of running around instead of piloting an arwing, there's the genre change.  Star Fox has always been sci-fi, and other than the anthropomorphic animals, it's always maintained a "realistic" tone, where certain things are possible and others aren't.  You feel like you're a fighter pilot as you play the game.  Star Fox was never supposed to be a fantasy.  Now, we all know that sci-fi and fantasy are related, but these things aren't the same.

To be fair, we do get to fly the arwing....a tiny bit as we transition from one place to another.  Maybe two minute bits, at most.  Through the same bit of asteroids and ruins every time.  Huh.  What makes the lack of spaceships really tragic is that the gamecube has really excellent graphics.  As much as I love the SNES Star Fox graphics, these are really good also, because the gamecube is capable of getting really detailed and beautiful.  If we could just fly through space, cruise around planets, and shoot up Venom (or wherever Andross' next hideout is) with these beautiful graphics, everyone would have just loved this game even if the gameplay was more or less the same.

But instead Fox is running around on a planet, going on forty bajillion fetch quests, doing stupid tasks for dinosaurs (lighting torches because dinos are scared of the dark?  What the crap?), and wacking "sharpclaws" with a spear.  That's right, a fighter pilot doesn't even get a gun.  Somehow that just doesn't seem really intelligent.

What's really horrible are the voices.  Fox's is fine, but Peppy and Slippy sound bizarre.  I mean, Slippy is very unpopular, so why would you give him a terrible voice and make it so much worse?  The dinosaurs' voices are even worse.  Most of them have a really atrocious Scot-like accent, and I really can't figure out what dinosaurs have to do with Scotland.

What makes this game very dull, even if you don't think of it as a cheap Star Fox mockery, is the fetch-questing.  There is so much dang crap to gather that it's really annoying.

Let's see:
1. Fuel cells -- for the tiny arwing segments
2. Magic -- for making  your spear do stuff
3. Scarabs -- currency
4. Moon seeds -- they make vines grow
5. Mushrooms -- to feed that really annoying triceratops that follows you
6. Fireflies -- to see in dark places
7. Various bags -- to hold bigger quantities of all that other stuff.
8. A weird root thingy with a stupid name that's supposed to help you if you die.
9. Other crap that you can use to bribe characters into helping you.

Ugh.  I suppose this is supposed to be like that Zelda: Ocarina of time game (apparently it's a similar engine) but in Zelda I imagine this style of gameplay would have been more fun.  First of all, the characters in Zelda are less cheesy and have accents that aren't stupid (most of the time).  Also, the masks you go find in Ocarina of time are fun to find, because they not only change Link's appearance, but his powers.  I don't like trying to find random crap with stupid names, especially since that means watching that cutscene with Fox grinning like a doofus as the item floats overhead.

I people like fetch quests?  I've been looking online, and apparently a lot of people like this game.  That's pretty sad.  Though my faith in the gaming community is restored in the fact that there are very few comments in the let's play of this game I'm watching online.   Honestly, I'm so bored watching this.  It's like watching lots of mini-games one after the other.  You do a little task, and move on to the next.  I think it says a lot that the let's player in question cuts out a lot.

Collection of further nitpicks:
- cheesy graphics too much for a serious series.
- fireflies are almost entirely useless.
- really dumb dinosaur language
- telling us twice what an item is -- once through story, and another through an "item get" sequence.
- being followed by an annoying dinosaur the whole game.
- game is too easy.
- ladder climbing is too dang slow.
- very stupid character names.
- where the crap is Falco?
- Slippy looks like a zombie when he talks.
- do you really have to play uber-sexy music when Fox finds an unconscious Krystal trapped in a crystal?
- Krystle trapped in a crystal is a really dumb pun.

Just to add a positive note, the graphics were pretty great and the music wasn't half bad.  But it's not enough.  Especially since (spoiler alert) the main villain throughout the game, General Scales, is not the final boss.  You don't even get to fight him at all.  Instead, for no reason, the final boss is Andross, doing a stupid spirit scheme, even though he's a mad scientist and not a witch doctor.  Ugh.  If you're going to make a game that's almost nothing like the others, please don't make a final boss that's reminiscent of the better final bosses.

So the lesson of this is to not betray your fanbase.  Adjusting gameplay is fine, like in the Star Fox 2 beta, but when you change the spirit and genre of the work so much that it might as well belong to another series, you're just making your audience buy a game simply because it has a familiar character in it.  That's manipulation, pure and simple.  If you're going to try and present a Star Fox game to us, then let it have some real element of Star Fox in it, and not just be a cheap, cheesy Zelda-engine rip off.  We have Zelda for that.

The thing I loved most about the original Star Fox and the 64 version was the sense of lonliness.  That sense of you facing off against armies and enemies on your quest to save the universe.  You're not playing around, doing silly tasks for people you don't like.  You're being free and independent, finding weird new planets and fighting bizarre retrofuture enemies.  It's about the vehicles, not magic staffs and a world coveniently adapted to magic staffs.  It's about the mysteries of space, not running and re-running through the same dumb caves.

What all writers need to know is who their audience is.  Betraying your audience is more forgivable in a game, because you play a game and not read it, but it's still a way to alienate your audience, no matter what format you use.  And nobody likes being alienated.

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