After a strong start on the Super NES way back when, the Star Fox shooter series has seen more than its share of twists and turns. With an aborted first sequel; a middling, platform-hopping third-person action adventure; and an ostensible return to form on the GameCube that just slightly missed the mark, Fox McCloud and friends haven't had the best of times since their revolutionary debut. So we were cautiously excited to get our hands on Star Fox Command for the Nintendo DS--the series' first installment on a handheld platform--to see what direction Nintendo and new developer Q-Games have taken Star Fox in this time.
The short answer is that they took it in a direction we didn't expect. The characters are the same: Fox is again joined by his longtime compatriots, such as Falco and Slippy Toad, and the Star Wolf team is again on the scene to cause trouble. We're sure that diabolical ape Andross is out there causing trouble, too. Given all those familiar faces, we were honestly expecting (and even hoping for) a traditional Star Fox game, with linear third-person shooting levels featuring waves of enemies and enormous, multipart bosses.
When you fire up a new game in Command, you'll see Fox and crew gabbing in that weird animalspeak they've had since the first game, and you'll even glimpse familiar interstellar locations like their home planet of Corneria. But once the gameplay starts, you'll find quite a different experience from past Star Fox games, indeed. Command is more like a strategy game, since each mission consists of you moving around your arwing fighters on an overhead map to intercept enemies and pick up strategic power-ups. The ultimate objective in each mission is to protect your mother ship. If one of the incoming enemy ships bypasses your defenses and reaches it, kaboom--it's game over.
These strategy sections proceed in turns, with you using the stylus to draw a flight path in front of each of your own units. Whenever you see an enemy coming in, you'll want to intercept it immediately, which will initiate an action stage. If you're successful, the enemy unit is eliminated, but if you fail, it'll get to push that much closer to your ship. Sometimes you'll find power-ups on this overhead map that add more time to the clock, and if you find a missile power-up, you'll be able to tap the mother ship on subsequent turns to have it automatically take out one of the approaching enemy squadrons. These strategy sections are a little unwieldy, especially since some of the missions hide enemies behind clouds and the whole proceeding is rife with Japanese text, but you can figure out what you're doing after a couple of attempts.
The actual flight missions feel like Star Fox, however brief they may be. Once you get into a mission, you'll be tasked with taking out a preset number of a particular enemy, and then you can fly around picking up health and time-extend power-ups as you try to kill the right baddies and move on to the next strategy turn. While you fire with the L button or D pad, the controls use the stylus exclusively for movement; you move it over the touch screen like a mouse, which affords responsive analog flight controls. You can do a barrel roll by drawing a circle on the screen, as well as accelerate with a double-tap, and traditional Star Fox moves like the loop-the-loop and quick direction reverse are accomplished by hitting icons on the touch screen.
You'll start out playing only as Fox, but as you progress through the missions, you'll run into more familiar characters. For instance, Slippy appears out of the blue during the second mission to help save your mother ship from apparent doom, and so you'll have both Slippy and Fox to move around during the strategy portion of this mission. Slippy's arwing has a different cannon and handling than Fox's, and we imagine any other playable characters you gain throughout the game will sport similarly unique abilities. We haven't gotten too far in the game yet, since the Japanese text is quite thick, but we're interested to see if the objectives in the action stages will get more involved as the game wears on.
There is multiplayer in Star Fox Command, though maybe not as much as you'd expect. Oddly enough, there's no cart-to-cart play that we could find; you can, however, use download play to engage in a very simple dogfight multiplayer game with other local DS players. Most of the game's multiplayer can be found on the Internet, where you can engage in a four-player battle royale to improve your online ranking or simply do a free battle against friends on your list. There's not much difference between this multiplayer and the single-player combat--you can pick up health boosts and basic weapon upgrades, as well as an item that makes you temporarily invisible on your opponents' radar screens. You can hold down the fire button to lock onto another player and then fire a homing shot at them, although we found it more effective to just shoot at them as fast as possible with our regular guns. (Admittedly, it's not too hard to maintain precise aiming, given the relatively exacting nature of the analog stylus control.)
We'll admit it: We really wanted to see an old-school Star Fox game on the DS in the fashion of the original Super NES game and its excellent Nintendo 64 follow-up, though you can't blame Nintendo for trying out new ideas. We're not completely sold on Command's radical tactical departure from the series' roots; we wanted to see a greater variety of environments and enemies, since the levels and combat in the action sequences have been quite simplistic so far. But as mentioned, the game isn't overly import-friendly (since it's entirely in Japanese), and we're hopeful that we're just missing something and the gameplay will get more satisfying later in the game. Command is due out in the States at the end of this month, so we won't have long to wait for the final answer on that.