How many second chances can one fuzzy space hero get? Although Fox McCloud and the Star Fox franchise are fondly remembered for their triumphs on the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, the series has seen its star fall in recent years. Two lackluster GameCube entries shifted the emphasis away from aerial combat and included weak on-foot missions. Not to be deterred, Nintendo has dusted Fox and his friends off for a go-round on the DS. In Star Fox Command, the focus is back where it should be: the sky.
NO INNOVATION HERE, but salvaging the Star Fox brand counts for a lot.
A laborious introductory sequence details the break-up of the Star Fox squadron and the rise of a new galactic menace known as the Anglar race. Although Fox needs to get the band back together in order to save the day, there’s not a lot of drama here: everyone just agrees to come along. Then again, how much drama can you get out of cutscenes featuring adorable, cuddly critters who speak in jibber-jabber? And given that the last Star Fox game featured an anthropomorphic dog attempting suicide, maybe it’s just as well that Nintendo has scaled back the attempts at pathos.
Once the team assemble, including the tough-as-nails Falco Lombardi and the newly heterosexual Slippy Toad, gameplay proceeds with a few tweaks to the formula. Most levels take place in full 3-D, with only a few missions on rails. The mechanics ought to be familiar to anyone who’s played a Star Fox game; there are the same loop-the-loops, U-turns, and corkscrew maneuvers. The control scheme, however, has been adapted to take advantage of the DS’s touchscreen. Nintendo tried something similar with Metroid Prime Hunters, but the more streamlined controls of Star Fox Command are a better fit. The stylus controls the Arwing’s movements; double-tapping the screen changes speeds, and tapping particular spots activates special maneuvers and detonates bombs. The only snag I encountered was in the command to do a barrel roll: you need to run the stylus quickly from side to side, and the input wasn’t nearly sensitive enough. In a user-friendly feature, the left shoulder button and all four directional buttons fire the Arwing’s primary cannon. Even so, it’s hard to avoid serious hand cramping after extended play. As deftly as the control scheme is handled, it would be a lot better with a standard analog gamepad.
The other major new feature is a turn-based strategy component. Prior to starting each playable level, you position your units on a map in an attempt to engage enemy forces, intercept incoming missiles, and capture hostile territories. You have a limited number of turns to accomplish these objectives (though you can earn extra turns by completing combat objectives). It’s Strategy 101, to be sure — you don’t need to keep track of multiple unit types or allocate resources. Nevertheless, it adds a bit of sophistication without diluting the fun of the main event.
HOT TIP: Keep your units spread across the map to ensure enough time to intercept surprise missile launches.
And the main event is fun. Blowing apart massive bosses piece by piece, dodging through the gaps in a laser net, and chasing down a streaking missile are executed here about as well as any fan of the original could have hoped for. Branching paths ensure that multiple playthroughs offer different and not just tougher experiences. The game also includes wi-fi support for up to four players, though I had trouble getting and staying connected to games. (This wasn’t a problem with a local opponent.) Star Fox Command doesn’t demonstrate the innovation of the best Nintendo DS games, but it salvages the Star Fox brand — and that’s almost as good.