Never has playing one game made me want so many other games.
In the beginning of Star Fox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet, Rare's final title as a Nintendo-exclusive developer, we're treated to a scene of graphical virtuosity: a purple-furred fox-girl, riding a giant, fire-breathing pterodactyl, glowing magic spear in hand, chasing down a giant flying pirate ship in the midst of a terrible downpour of the greatest rain high-end computer graphics can render. The effect of the glowing skull on the back of the pirate ship casting fuzzy light on each individual raindrop may well knock the wind out of you. When you realize you're in control, you dip, and dive, and pull up, and breathe bursts of fire. You shoot the appointed targets, you barrel-roll. And, if you're like me, you hold down that big, green fire button, expecting a lock on or a charge. That'd really be something, you're thinking.
Yet it's not something. It's nothing. Holding down the fire button makes you fire repeatedly.
Suddenly, like a punch in the gut, it occurs to you: Dude, I *seriously* *need* Panzer Dragoon Orta.
You're jumping from platform to platform in the Volcano Force Point Temple, where you're to place the first Spirit Stone, which, with its four brothers, will eventually pull the planet back together. You're stumped at how to open the door. Do you need a key? Is there a switch? You're standing on a bridge, marveling at Fox's perfectly fuzzy head, scratching your own less-fuzzy head, when one of the flaming bats swoops down, screams like an old British hag (everything in this game, from the Warp Stone to the shopkeeper, speaks like either a Scottish giant or an old British hag, respectively), and sucks one-quarter of a heart out of you. You curse through your teeth, and initiate first-person mode with that horribly-placed Z-trigger.
There, above the door, is a "blast panel." You have to shoot it with your fire-staff, the first weapon upgrade you received, right at the start of the game, many, many hours ago. You grit your teeth at your own stupidity, aim, and fire; the door opens. On to the next puzzle.
You ask yourself: When's that new Zelda game coming out again?
Fighting is something of a joy. You tap the action button, and Fox swings his staff, and it crunches satisfyingly against the thick-hided enemies' thick hides. They scream, and bellow. You hit the enemy once, and Fox reels back. Then, you have a choice on how you're going to combo the poor reptile. You pull up on the stick and swing the staff again, and Fox goes barreling into the enemy with a kick. In the beginning of the game, you see this, and you think, "Kick-ASS."
Hours later, when you face the "Test of Combat" at the Krazoa Palace, you've mastered the combo that involves swinging down on the stick as you attack. Fox swings his staff like Kilik in Soul Calibur (When's Soul Calibur 2 coming out? Isn't Link in there?), scoring a dozen quick hits; he charges up a powerful shot, swings around, and sends the enemy flying. One of the enemy's nine teammates -- you have to defeat all ten in three minutes -- then steps up to the plate. As you fight, as the camera focuses on Fox's death dance with Sharpclaw, the background goes dramatically fuzzy. Each time Fox delivers a kick, the screen freezes for a second, all Yuen-Wo Ping like.
You've come to call this move, "Getting all Iron-Monkey on they asses." Now, though, you're no longer reveling in Fox's badassness with a staff. Instead, you're wondering: Why the hell aren't the other eight enemies ganging up on me? They could have turned me into soup by now.
And you think, They *are* making a new Shinobi game for PlayStation 2, aren't they? And Ninja Gaiden, for Xbox!
To be fair, Star Fox Adventures is a beautiful game. The lighting effects and textures have convinced me to stop pitying Nintendo's little cube for being non-DVD-capable.
When the sun rises, when you zoom into grass in the windy tunnel between Thorntail Hollow and Cape Claw and see the delicate, fuzzy edges waving gracefully, when the sun sets, staining Moon Mountain Pass and the meteorites that have landed there eerily purple, you just can't help it. When you look in first-person mode at a pool of water, and see the warping reflection of a nearby green hill, the part of you that almost started crying when you first saw Sonic the Hedgehog running at mach two is awakened. The part of you that couldn't believe your friend had just beaten Contra pops up to remember: this is what we play games for -- to see cool things.
Unfortunately, games have gotten more complicated. We now require things like "stories" and Dolby 5.1 digital surround sound to keep us intrigued. Well, Star Fox Adventures has both of those things. Whether or not either of them succeeds depends on your perspective.
The sound, for one thing, impresses me to a tingly level. When Fox gets on all fours -- like the animal he and his triceratops companion are (see: Mickey vs. Pluto) -- and crawls into a tight space, you are treated to what is perhaps the greatest-ever rustling-of-clothes sound effect. When Fox jumps, you are treated to a perfect boots-hitting-grass/mud/water sound. When Fox climbs a ladder, you get standard repetitive grunts. When you enter a new area, the repetitive music changes to a new, equally repetitive variant of tribal drums set against mellow island chants.
When you smack those bad guys -- oh yeah -- that's a sound you could get used to. Like someone breaking a wooden plank with a ball-peen hammer. It is the sound of satisfaction. When Fox talks, he sounds oddly like a British guy trying too hard to sound American. He's got an attitude, and that shows in the story. He gets impatient when the queens of the various dinosaur tribes are describing his mission. Oh yeah. We love Fox; he's so cool. Like Sonic the Hedgehog with real-time-flinching fur.
We do not love Peppy Hare. While Slippy remains as sexified as ever and drops you items from time to time -- and even jams to videogamey rock and roll in the intro sequence -- Peppy is reduced to repeating "According to scanners, this is your current position" every time you open the world map. Really, did Rare feel that guilty about not giving old PH anything else to do? And does he have to have a voice like a wheelchair-bound old man with a sucking chest wound? Where's my boy, my wingman from Star Fox 64, the one who clued me in on the whereabouts of hidden exits? For that matter, where's Falco?
Ahem. Where Falco is in this game, if anywhere, I will not disclose.
So yes. What I'm trying to say, in short: the Star Fox elements of Star Fox Adventures come across at times as forced. Star Fox's insertion into what started out as Dinosaur Planet, an ordinary little fetch-quest-laden adventure in the vein of Zelda, is not entirely welcome. Sure, the original hero may have looked enough like Fox; that doesn't mean the story fits.
That some evil dino-pirate named General Scales is imprisoning the queens of the dinosaur tribes and stealing magical artifacts called Spell Stones, which, combined with the missing Krazoa Spirits, can save the world, is far-fetched enough to be a videogame.
That some evil intergalactic villain (guess who?) is conspiring to make the planet explode, and that four chunks of the planet -- each one housing a Spell Stone shrine -- have been busted off and sent into orbit, requiring the on-the-surface detective skills and fast-flying, faster-shooting aerial wickedness of one Fox McCloud? Yeah -- we can buy that for fifty dollars, too.
Stuff both of them together?
Really, Rare, do you expect us to swallow that?
Let's look at Rare's storylines of the past:
Battletoads. The game: 9.8 out of 10. Hardcore goodness. Two Battletoads: Zitz and Rash, set out on a quest to rescue the local princess and their comrade-in-cartoon-arms Pimple from the evil intergalactic queen. They win.
Battletoads' Gameboy sequel (I can't be bothered to remember the name). Never really played it. All I know is this: Pimple and Zitz must venture forth to rescue Rash and the princess from the evil queen.
Battletoads in Battlemaniacs, for SNES: Pimple and Rash must adventure through a series of overly frustrating tasks such as deadly-wall-dodging-while-riding-ridiculously-fast-vehicles and floating-down-endless-pits-on-flying-discs, all so they can rescue the princess and their teammate Zitz from the evil queen.
Donkey Kong Country: Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong must retrieve Donkey Kong's stolen Bananas.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong and Dixie Kong must rescue Donkey Kong from this evil pirate-alligator-thing.
Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong and Kiddy Kong must venture through a thousand increasingly frustrating stages of thorns and ice and slippery vines to rescue Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong, who have been kidnapped.
Banjo-Kazooie: Primary-colored bear named Banjo sets out a long, item-collecting quest to rescue his little sister from an evil witch.
Donkey Kong 64: Seriously, don't get me started.
Should I stop now? Yes.
Should Rare stop, too? Most definitely.
Do you see a pattern? How couldn't you?
Did Rare see this same pattern? They must have. They must have seen this pattern, because they're trying to break out of it.
Look at Conker's Bad Fur Day, for example. Anyone who tells me that game was "Always secretly planned" to be full of profane toilet humor and gore is a big fat liar. I know Rare didn't always intend to make the game this way.
I know this, because Conker was a playable character in the "kiddy-oriented" hardcore racer Diddy Kong Racing. So was Banjo, from equally "kiddy-oriented" Banjo-Kazooie, in which Rare's typical self-referencing humor was actually more clever than Cranky Kong's ramblings in the Donkey Kong Country series.
Banjo proved to me that Rare does not need the familiarity of Donkey Kong to craft a wonderful game. Nor does it really need any story at all. (Perfect Dark rather painfully proved this, as well, for reasons I won't get into.) So when I heard Rare was making a "story-heavy adventure," I was a little wary.
Star Fox Adventures was originally planned as Dinosaur Planet, which was to see the Rare Platformer breaking free of cookie-cutter storylines and cheap-shot humor, and taking on something a little more dark, and serious, and even Zelda-worthy. Some reviews have gone out and said it: Dinosaur Planet would have been a better game; this is NOT meant to be a Star Fox title.
I say this: no. Dinosaur Planet would have been the same old game. It would have been as good -- or as bad -- as Star Fox Adventures. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- nor is it a good thing, either. It is what it is: a testament to the fact that, for better or for worse, every single bloke working at Rareware has an IQ somewhere in the middle genius-level. They know how to code, they know how to dress up a killer product, and they know how to make us feel at home.
I did not need an instruction manual for this game. I found myself wincing at the thankfully short tutorial, saying, "Yeah, I KNOW."
It's a similar familiarity that made Super Mario Bros. 2 a success -- add Mario characters to an obscure Japanese game, and you've got a hit in America. Add Donkey Kong -- and swanky 3D-rendering -- to a typical platformer, and you've got a few million units shipped and a mention on the NBC Nightly News. Make an intelligent first-person-shooter with James Bond as the starring character, and you've got my money where you wouldn't have had my money before. You'll even get my money on the pseudo-sequel, Perfect Dark, despite its nasty box art and the fact that Jimmy is nowhere to be seen.
Add Fox McCloud to what someone might call a Zelda-clone, and you've got my undivided attention during a seven-day rental period.
It's the accommodations for Fox's insertion into the game that leave me puzzled. And, in some cases, those accommodations make me cry genuine tears of sorrow.
[Next: a Rare spiritual experience]