There’s a lot of love out there for Star Fox, despite the series having lost its way after just two games (three if you want to count Star Fox 2 which only saw release on the SNES Mini). Star Fox Adventure was another game entirely, Command fell flat when Fox was on foot, and Zero was overly complicated by the Wii U’s Gamepad integration.
It’s high time that we had another great, essential Star Fox game, and almost out of nowhere it’s Ubisoft that are making one. That’s right, if you decide to pick up Starlink: Battle for Atlas on Nintendo Switch instead of PS4 or Xbox One, it’s a Star Fox game in all but name, thanks to the bundled Arwing ship and Fox McLoud pilot in the starter set.
Admittedly, it is a bit weird. The main story follows the cast of original characters that Ubisoft have created, as they travel to the Atlas system and find themselves facing off against NAME, but just as disaster strikes, the Star Fox team appear out of nowhere and offer to lend a hand. You can play as Fox all the way through the game, as you can with any other character, and Star Fox appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes as well, but the first few chapters cast them as the helpful outsiders, always making way for the main story to progress. In that regard it’s not a Star Fox game, but a wonderfully deep cameo that encompasses the entire game.
But then we get to the actual action, and that’s where we have modern day game design meeting Star Fox. There’s full 3D space combat right out of the gate, and while that’s obviously a far fry from the semi-linear 3D scrolling shooting that was long Star Fox’s bread and butter, it does fit with All-Range Mode. You’ve got independent firing of left and right weapons, whether sticking with the Arwing’s default, built-in laser cannons or attaching some of Starlink’s more exotic wings and attachments. Oh, and of course you can do a barrel roll.
Just because you’re in the Arwing doesn’t mean you’re left out of Starlink’s Toys to Life modularity. You’ve got a custom Joy-Con grip that features a mount onto which your pilot slots, then the ship on top of them, and you can then attach whatever wings and guns you like onto that. You can keep the Arwing’s form and simply attach different elemental weapons, you can flip the Arwing’s wings so they face (and fire!) backwards, you can bolt together wings from other ships, creating weird and wonderful asymmetrical monstrosities that somehow still manage to fly. There’s a lot of fun to be had in creating the widest ship possible, or ditching the wings and flying around in what amounts to just a rocket.
Caught up in the same EMP-like blast as everyone else, Fox comes crashing down to the planet below, coming to with his ship lacking the ability to fly or use its hyperdrive. While Star Fox games might stick you in the Landmaster tank at this point, here it’s your ship that simply hovers over the ground with dual-stick third person shooter controls. You soon have to start taking elemental damage and resistances into account, as you meet the Cyclops enemies and find things in the environment that block your progress unless you attach an ice cannon.
Peppy, Falco and Slippy are there to chit chat over the radio, but there’s also a number of other NPCs and factions around to give structure to the adventure. The Prospectors and Expedition can be found to give you main and side-missions, while the Outlaws are always waiting to spring a trap for you when travelling between plants.
There’s more than a few shades of No Man’s Sky as you explore the planet, occasionally finding indiginous creatures that you can scan and gain information on, before then taking to the sky and eventually being able to tilt your ship’s nose up and aim for the atmosphere. There’s none of the procedural generation here, but it’s still an incredibly cool effect and one that’s all the more impressive when playing on Switch.
In fact, this game in general is just very impressive on Nintendo’s hybrid. Sure, it’s nowhere near as pretty as Xbox One or PS4, but it’s really surprising how well the console can pull its weight in this open world, nay, open solar system adventure, using the same Snowdrop engine that powers The Division and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle.
I think perhaps the most striking this is that Starlink can show Nintendo the way forward for Star Fox. As beloved as the original games are, a sweeping open adventure with Fox and his pals battling across several planets in a star system might just be the kind of game the series needs to meet modern expectations once more. While it’s obviously not really Fox McCloud’s adventure to star in, his cameo in Starlink is something that I think many Star Fox fans should be looking forward to.