Star Fox Series Retrospective Part 3: A Rare Adventure

In part 2 of this look back at the history Star Fox we examined the series most successful installment, Star Fox 64. As we saw last time, after Star Fox 64 the series made no more appearances on the N64, with Fox McCloud’s inclusion in Super Smash Bros. being the series’ only other presence on the system. Both shipped games in the series to this point had been developed internally at Nintendo, with Argonaut Games providing assistance on the original and Star Fox 64 being handled entirely by Nintendo EAD. However, Star Fox 64 would be the last game in the series actually developed by Nintendo, with third party studios working on every Star Fox game since. This trend began with the series’ first entry on the Nintendo Gamecube, which would be developed by Rare.

Before we get into the game, let’s first look at Rare and how they came to develop a Star Fox game. Rare Ltd. is a UK based game developer that has been around since the early ’80s. Though they would rise to much greater acclaim in the 1990s, some of their earliest games were still quite successful. Some of their most popular games on the 1980s were Jetpac and R.C. Pro-Am, but the game that really launched the studio to the next level was Battletoads, released in 1991 for the popular consoles and handhelds of the time. After more than a decade of success releasing their games on various handhelds, consoles, and computers, Rare entered an exclusive publishing deal with Nintendo in 1994.

From this point forward all of Rare’s games would be made exclusively for Nintendo consoles, and as part of the deal they gained access to Nintendo’s catalog of properties. The first game Rare made after they signed this deal was Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo, which became one of the system’s flagship games towards the end of that generation. Rare has probably come to be most remembered for their Donkey Kong games, but they did much more than that. After the partnership Rare became Nintendo’s flagship second party studio. Rare was responsible for many of the most successful and well regarded games on the Nintendo 64, and in fact according to metacritic data Rare developed four of the top ten highest rated Nintendo 64 games of all time. Towards the end of the Nintendo 64 era Rare was working on one final game for the system, titled Dinosaur Planet.

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Having conquered the Nintendo 64 primarily with 3D platformers and shooters, Rare was aiming to tread new ground by developing a Zelda style action adventure game as their final N64 title. Dinosaur Planet was to star two main playable characters, Krystal and Sabre, as they were trying to save the planet from an evil race of dinosaurs that were waging war against the planet’s benevolent guardians called the Krazoa. Some decent progress was made on the game, enough that video of it in action exists, but it would never be finished. The story goes that Shigeru Miyamoto, seeing similarities between this game of anthropomorphic animals in a science fiction setting and Star Fox, persuaded Rare to retool Dinosaur Planet as a Star Fox game. So, with Krystal’s role in the game drastically diminished, Sabre morphed into Fox McCloud, the story changed to accommodate Star Fox fiction, and development shifted to the upcoming Nintendo Gamecube, Dinosaur Planet became Star Fox Adventures and was released in 2002.

Star Fox Adventures

Star Fox Adventures is without question the most controversial and divisive game in the Star Fox series, and it’s easy to see why. The game may bear the Star Fox name, but at it’s heart almost everyone can see it’s not really a Star Fox game. Other than some token nods to the legacy of the series, there is really almost nothing about Star Fox Adventures that at all resembles what most identify as Star Fox. The game consists almost entirely of on-foot gameplay on a planet never previously mentioned as part of the Lylat System, which is inhabited by dinosaurs, a species that shares little in common with the anthropomorphic animals that have comprised the previous two games. With that said, the main reason so many are divided on Star Fox Adventures is because of how different individuals choose to judge it, be that as Star Fox game or on its own merits as an action adventure game for the Gamecube. Since this is a Star Fox series retrospective, let’s first look at the game as the follow up to Star Fox 64.

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When viewed as the next Star Fox game, a sequel to Star Fox 64, it’s hard to view Star Fox Adventures as anything other than a disappointment. There is really no question that space combat is the core element of the series, but what little space combat there is in Star Fox Adventures is beyond basic. There are only a handful of space levels, each of which is bland and uninteresting, and the objectives for these are nothing more than collecting gold rings. The actual gameplay is somewhat like what you’d expect of a Gamecube Star Fox game, but the lack of lock on and any kind of interesting enemies or boss fights makes the space gameplay feel completely tacked on. In fact, the majority of the more Star Fox like elements of Star Fox Adventures feel completely out of place, and the game as a whole would likely be better without them.

The Star Fox characters feel like very pointless additions and the lack of weapons or items appropriate to the fiction is puzzling. The most egregious example of the game’s design seeming at odds with its status as a Star Fox game is the final boss fight. For some context, the entire 15 hours of the game to that point had revolved around internal dinosaur planet politics and mythology. The game has made practically zero references to Star Fox fiction or the greater Lylat system goings on to this point other than the radio contact you make with Slippy, Peppy, and General Pepper. Just as you’re about to face off against the game’s primary villain, a dinosaur dictator by the name of General Scales, a mysterious voice appears and implies it has been pulling the strings the whole time, and then Scales basically drops dead. Fox makes his way outside to the Krazoa shrine, where Krystal has been held captive the entire game, and the statue launches into space.

As Fox follows in his arwing, the statue reveals itself to be Andross, who has somehow survived the end of Star Fox 64 and been manipulating General Scales into granting him the power of the Krazoa. Obviously you must then fight Andross, in what turns out to be yet another variation of the same final boss fight used in both previous games, and Falco even shows up after being absent for the entire game. Needless to say this feels like a haphazardly added ending that comes out of left field. Not only does it feel completely out of place in the context of the game you’ve been playing for the past 15 hours, but it also comes across as a tacked on piece of fan service meant to bring greater canonical relevance to a game that was never intended to be a Star Fox game in the first place.

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So, it’s clear that from a gameplay, setting, and narrative perspective Star Fox Adventures comes up short when viewed as a proper entry in the series. However, if you can look beyond the expectations that come with the Star Fox name and view as what it is, the game fare much better. At its core, Star Fox Adventures is action adventure game that shares more in common with the Legend of Zelda than it does Star Fox. As an action adventure game, Star Fox Adventures isn’t at the top of the class, even for 2002, but it is a well made game with a plenty of Rare’s signature style and solid game design.

In fact, the biggest strength of Star Fox Adventures lies in its incredibly thoughtful and clever design in its levels, environments, and puzzles. Every aspect of the world feels like it was put in place for a reason, and making your way to the various locales of dinosaur planet is always enjoyable. The one complaint that could be directed towards the level design is the amount of backtracking required, but it’s usually manageable. The puzzles and obstacles you’ll be overcoming sit pretty squarely in that sweet spot between being too easy and becoming frustrating. You’re certainly not going to be stumped very often, but even the solutions that are easy to come by use the game’s mechanics and items in ways that make solving them rewarding regardless.

We’ve already gone over how the game’s world and setting feel like they’re straddling the line between being something new and adhering to the series’ legacy, but there are certainly times when it can be appreciated for it is. The game bears that Rare charm the company had become known for with games like Banjo Kazooie and the Donkey Kong games, though it’s not quite as endearing as those games. The various dinosaur species evoke The Land Before Time a bit with their tribal distinctions and simplistic names like “Earthwalker,” “Cloudrunner,” and “Sharpclaw.”

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This charm is able to shine through largely thanks to the impressive visuals, with the Gamecube hardware allowing Rare to bring their unique art design sensibilities to life in a way they hadn’t been able to before. Even though it was released within the first year of the console’s lifespan, Star Fox Adventures holds the distinction of being one of the best looking games on the Gamecube, thanks in large part to the focus on a strong art direction as opposed to pure realism. The setting may be intriguing, but the game wastes it on a generic story that features no memorable characters. Fox is basically tasked with collecting various mcguffins, like many action adventure games, but it’s not tied together in remotely interesting way.

Despite its solid game design and fairly charming setting, Star Fox Adventures falters a bit when it comes to combat. The game’s combat is painfully simple, presenting no challenge, little enemy variety, and a very small array of available moves. One of the most puzzling elements of Star Fox Adventures for me when I first played it as a kid was that Fox used a staff instead of a blaster. Not only did it make no sense given the Star Fox fiction, but we also saw him using a laser pistol in both Super Smash Bros. games. It was expected that Fox would have brought an appropriate weapon on this mission, and despite the early handwave explanation it was something that never sat right with me over a decade ago when I first played the game.

Of course it wouldn’t have been an issue if the melee based combat the game went with was any good, but it isn’t. The very first enemies you face are the same ones you’ll be facing 90% of the time throughout the entirety of the game, and the strategy for these enemies is nothing more than hammering the A button. The occasional variation in the enemies rarely presents anything more complex, and even though you’ll unlock some additional abilities later in the game, right up to the end combat consists of nothing more than hammering the attack button with occasional need to block. The only thing that really keeps the combat from bringing the whole game down is the fact that the game’s focus leans far more towards puzzle solving, with combat never becoming too prevalent to ever really outstay its welcome over the course of the 15 hour game.

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On the whole, Star Fox Adventures is a second tier generation six action adventure game. It’s not among the elite, but its certainly an enjoyable game when viewed as what is it. However, the more Star Fox oriented aspects of the game are among the biggest things holding it back. The space combat feels out of place, the Andross related twist ending comes right out of nowhere, the most interesting character in the game, originally intended as a lead, is relegated to a plot device, and what mentions there are of Star Fox fiction only clash with the world and story the game has established. The fact of the matter of is that Star Fox Adventures would likely have been a more interesting and flat out better game if it had remained Dinosaur Planet. Nevertheless, Star Fox Adventures is still a good game, it’s just a poor Star Fox game.

Check out Part 4 as yet more developers are handed the reigns to the series.