I suppose I should begin by saying I am not exactly the most ardent fan of the Star Fox series. Flight games in general just don’t appeal to me, and while I thought Star Fox 64 was fun, it didn’t compel me enough to play it beyond its first three stages. I know this may sound blasphemous, especially as I am about to defend what is arguably the most reviled entry in the franchise, but I felt it necessary to contextualize my standing with the series and dispel any potential biases I may hold toward it. Unlike most gamers, it seems, I knew from the outset that Star Fox Adventures would be nothing like a traditional Star Fox experience, but rather than let this fact influence my opinion, I took the game for what it was worth– a Zelda-styled journey that just so happened to feature Fox McCloud as its protagonist– and based my judgments accordingly.
The point that I am trying to make is that Adventures is a Star Fox game in name only. The most prevalent contention with it is that it bears no resemblance to the rest of the series, but this, I think, is an unfair criticism to level against it, especially as its development history is well-documented across the internet. You see, Star Fox Adventures began life as a late Nintendo 64 epic called Dinosaur Planet. As the new generation loomed ever closer, the project was shifted over to GameCube and the Star Fox license was eventually applied (given original protagonist Sabre’s uncanny resemblance to Fox McCloud, not to mention the increased monetary returns sure to come with utilizing an established property). Despite this controversial change (and Rare’s best attempts to smooth over any narrative wrinkles that may have resulted from it) the vestiges of Dinosaur Planet are clearly visible in the final product. Aside from Fox himself, each member of the Star Fox crew is relegated to an expository role (certainly a far cry from their active participation in Star Fox 64) and the entire plot of the game centers not around the fate of the Lylat System (though it is casually mentioned as an interrelated concern) but the prehistoric world of Sauria. Other references to the series are scattered throughout the adventure, but by and large they are inconsequential to the proceedings: every event of import, narrative or otherwise, takes place in a self-contained world with a history and cast all its own. The Star Fox trappings can be excised completely and no one would be any the wiser.
With this in mind, it is much easier (and more productive) to appreciate the game on its own merits than to scrutinize its failings as a Star Fox title. Most striking about it are its beautiful visuals, which hold up remarkably well even to this day. Rare was renowned for its ability to push hardware to its fullest potential, and this is especially evident in Star Fox Adventures. Each area of Sauria is meticulously designed, sporting a level of detail that continues to impress even when judged by contemporary standards. The art direction in particular is really quite stunning, and there are a myriad of little flourishes interspersed throughout the various locales that help bring each of them to life. Sparse as the story may be, the whole planet still resonates with a mystic history thanks to its careful construction. There is just something utterly mesmerizing about the juxtaposition of the primitive dinosaur tribes and the otherworldly Krazoa sanctuaries, and it is when these two conflicting worlds intermingle, like at the entrance of the Ocean Force Point Temple, that we can truly appreciate just how breathtaking and imaginative the title really is.
Couple this with a fantastic soundtrack and Sauria becomes one of the most entrancing virtual worlds ever created. Music has also been another of Rare’s strong suits, and Star Fox Adventures contains some of composer David Wise’s greatest pieces. The soundtrack displays a range of stylistic influences, from Native American and African music to more traditional symphonic scores. Each piece perfectly embodies the area it represents, and you will often find yourself reminiscing of their melodies even long after you have stopped playing.
Gameplay is where the title falters slightly, but its missteps are only really evident when upheld to the standards set by the Zelda series. Adventures may indeed be guilty of padding its tale with nonsensical objectives on more than one occasion but by and large the title is an engaging and well-crafted experience throughout. The plot, while not particularly original, is at the very least serviceable and extra measures were even taken to tie it into the grander Star Fox mythos (though whether or not these nods, like the– nine-year-old spoiler!– inclusion of Andross, were successful depends largely on with whom you speak). Regardless, the game wastes no effort in masquerading as a true Star Fox title, displaying its Zelda influence immediately from the outset. The better part of the adventure is spent exploring the beautiful locales of Sauria on foot, collecting various McGuffins and solving block puzzles in almost equal measure. The combat system admittedly offers little in the way of depth (even when compared to the Nintendo 64 Zeldas), but it is flashy enough to be enjoyable in spite of its simplicity. There is a palpable satisfaction in besting an armed foe with a series of nimble jumps and strikes, and the game even plays to its own strengths in this regard by offering up an abundance of bipedal adversaries to defeat. Rare has always displayed a marked proficiency when working within established conventions, and this certainly holds true for Star Fox Adventures. The game succeeds because nearly every facet of it is cut from the Zelda cloth and embroidered with the company’s own idiosyncratic touches. Grounded as it is in such a solid foundation, the title is immediately captivating to anyone who enjoys a good third-person adventure, and the beautiful scenery and gorgeous soundtrack help elevate it into an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And then there’s Prince Tricky. Not content to be outdone by Nintendo’s fairy sidekick, Rare created a companion for Fox that, hard as it may be to believe, actually surpasses Navi on the scale of annoyance. But despite whatever you may think about his personality, his inclusion affords the designers some very creative gameplay opportunities. Tricky is integral to successfully navigating your surroundings, and players must often control him in tandem with Fox to solve the game’s many environmental puzzles. His list of commands is flexible enough to facilitate a variety of different uses, and the sheer ease with which orders are issued (thanks to the C-Stick inventory menu) makes clearing these scenarios feel very rewarding. He may be something of a nuisance, but he quickly proves himself to be far more useful than Navi, whose primary purpose was to point the player toward their next objective.
I admit my positive opinion of Star Fox Adventures may indeed stem from my casual relationship with the Star Fox series, but I still cannot fathom the vitriol so frequently directed toward the title. Whether viewed as the death of the series or the harbinger of its future decline, Rare’s final game to grace a Nintendo (home) console is far more enjoyable than its reputation would lead one to believe. At the very least the title stands as an audio and visual achievement that is still impressive almost a decade removed from its release, and its adventure-by-way-of-Zelda structure helps root the entire experience in a sound framework. I can even argue that certain aspects of the game surpass some of the more questionable design choices found in Wind Waker, but I think I have already tainted my own reputation enough for one day.