Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Just Like Old Times: Starfox 64 review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional. 

Format: 3DS, Wii, N64 (version reviewed)
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 1-4

Two disclaimers before the review begins. The first is that you'll notice that I'm cheating for this review, much as I did for the rerelease of Ocarina Of Time a few months ago, because while I don't own a 3DS, I do still have my N64. Barring improvements to sound and visuals (plus a new motion-sensing control scheme this time around), the original game is effectively identical to the handheld version which was released last Friday. Consider this a review of the gameplay, then, rather than the full 3DS experience. I will, however, mention any relevant areas where the 3DS version adds a new feature that I have been unable to experience.

The second point is that I know that I promised a review of Xenoblade Chronicles last month (it was released in the UK on August 19th), but various circumstances have kept me from being able to put any significant hours into it as of yet. Given how it is an eighty-plus hour game, I'm afraid it could yet be a while until the review appears, but it will eventually. Hopefully in the coming weeks, I will be able to give it a good blitzing.

For now, though, we're back to Starfox 64. Does it live up to all those fond memories? Read on to find out.
The first thing to note is that this is a rare occasion when a visual upgrade may well improve more than the aesthetics of a game. The original graphics are not ugly, insofar as I generally find the colourful chunkiness of first-party N64 games to have a certain abstract appeal, but the excessive fogging and blurry resolution can make it difficult to tell what is going on when the action heats up. It's not a major issue, but after having watched several videos of the 3DS version in action, it looks as though the situation has been much improved: the fogging has been pushed back and the greater clarity allows enemies and objects to be distinguished more clearly even in the midst of an aggressive dogfight. It's even quite possible that the 3D will improve certain areas of the game, as judging depth when dodging flying objects (meteorites especially) can be challenging in the original. Given my usual views on 3D, you'll understand that this is a big admission.

Even though the N64 version is blighted with these visual shortcomings, the core gameplay is rock-solid. Each level is designed to test your flying and shooting skills in ever more elaborate ways, mixing up the design with linear assaults, open battle areas, strategic boss fights and occasional excursion in alternate modes of transport. Although the Blue Marine submarine level (Aquas) is a bit of a drag, the restrictions of the Landmaster tank make an exciting change of pace, forcing you to time your hovering in order to avoid oncoming objects rather than just flying to another side of the screen, adapting your play to being unable to leave the ground for more than a few seconds.

It's the branching path level design which is really the star of the show, though. Newcomers to the game may be a little baffled to face off against the final boss after barely an hour of play, but the key to Starfox has always been returning to previously beaten worlds and discovering all the secrets and hidden routes. There are fifteen levels in all, the majority of which won't be seen in a single, or even two, playthroughs. By that same measure, the difficulty level is set pretty low (especially by the standards of other games of the time), with the real challenge being collecting the medals for finding everything in a given level. Helpfully, the 3DS version will allow you to revisit worlds without having to initiate a whole new game.

Even with the cornucopia of secrets to be found or won, I am not sure that I would be entirely content paying full price for it these days. The game really is very short and fifteen worlds isn't nearly a big enough number to compensate. Finding the branching paths required to open up those worlds can also be irritatingly obscure: you're never given a choice or a prompt, but required to complete secret challenges at certain points (flying through all the arches, protect an ally, etc) which are not the sorts of things you would imagine might naturally encourage a pilot to plan a course change. The game guides you a bit, in the way that it knows you won't be able to resist trying to fly through all those booster points, but not having a better idea of where each alternate path is can get frustrating when going back to look for them.

The multiplayer mode is also limited, offering only straight dogfights for four players on fairly unexciting arenas. The Landmaster is unlockable, but too sluggish to be worthwhile. There are a couple of different modes - I suspect that these are all translated to the 3DS version - but only offering small variations on the same theme of shooting down your friends. Given the limited number of fighters (there are no options for computer-controlled bots in either version), battles tend to feel slow and clunky, especially compared to the barrages of attacking enemies which you have to work your way through in the single player modes. The 3DS version adds camera functionality so that you can see your friends' faces whilst playing, but this sounds redundant to me, since the game is local multiplayer only. The absence of online play, which could have resolved all the problems listed above, represents a terrible wasted opportunity.

Nevertheless, even though it is lacking in content and substantial multiplayer options, Starfox 64's gameplay is a wonderful example of Nintendo's talent for judging pacing and variety in their designs. Even the much-derided support characters turn out to be good fun, from Falco's sneering sarcasm to Slippy's squeaky idiocy and Peppy's immortal 'Do a barrel roll!' catchphrase. Even the villains are charming, designed with a light wit (interactions with the Star Wolf team are great fun) and a great deal of ingenuity when it comes to the bosses. There are some wonderful examples of bad videogame voice acting, although I gather that certain voices have been recast for the 3DS version. A shame. Starfox 64 is an exciting and engaging game, as full of invention in its characters as its gameplay. If only there were more of it. [ 7 ]


No comments: